African Dress Up Game – will you play with me?

I loved paper dolls when I was a child and I know most girls did. When I found this online, I thought it was the beginning of an idea I was working on so, I decided to add it to my blog for others to play with dolls – except – digitally. Enjoy! Click below:


How to Land New Clients: the Basics to the Complex

by Atim Annette Oton

The secrets to landing new clients is not really a secret; it is really what you should be doing to stand out from other businesses. Clients are everywhere but most times, they do not know what you do or you are barking up the wrong tree or in the wrong place looking. To help guide you, I thought I post these three articles that say a lot about the process and act you to try some of these things.

I have run a business for 10 years and I am entering my 11th, so every year, my goals are simple, build my clients and grow my business. So, every new and old way I use to do this grows the business.

Technology as a Business Paradigm Shift

by Atim Annette Oton

As Calabar Imports became 10 years old, I sat back and imagined what it would be 5 years later and made a strategic decision to embrace technology in more ways that I could imagined. To do this, I look at what areas we were using technology and what areas we could use more technology. This due diligence analysis would become part of the mode of building the brand for the future. What I was able to see was that we were using technology in some of our key areas:

  • Website: A Mobilized Website –
  • Social Media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Instagram
  • In-store transactions – we chose Square for sales processing.
  • Product Orders

What we were not using technology for and have begun to add to our stores:

  • Mailing List
  • Clothing Customization
  • Research and Development (R & D)
  • Feedback Looping


Mailing Lists: How to make them work for you

To change and incorporate Technology in your business with your customers, you must actually listen and watch your customers when it comes to their adaptability. As we opened Calabar Imports in Harlem, we optimized our processes in the store to look at what we were not doing and begun to implement some of these items. We went backwards by testing the handwritten mailing list as a system and found that in this store, more people were willing to give us their information so readily as opposed to some of the other stores – why? We simply created an area on a podium for it. Lesson learned. Next, it will have an Ipad so that it is all digital.

Clothing Customization

As a business, when our customers ask for something – we listen carefully and in Harlem, it’s been about customization but if we have to do it – we really need to look at how to do it as we already know its a capacity issue and not just a satisfaction issue. Capacity means that the tailor or system we use must be able to supply the customization process and item with ease. This is a big issue and managing that system is why we see most tailors hiding from customers or not being able to deliver products in a timely manner. I have spent the last three months in research on this – from our store experience to what we have seen in business to what’s available in technology and have devised a solution but will be implementing it next Spring if it is affordable. The real issue is cost upfront to justify each individual customer’s wants and desires. Measuring that is tricky.

Research and Development (R & D)

As a business person, this is where I really spend a good bit of my time. From reading to observing what’s happening in each of our stores. I am looking to understand what needs to be done better and next for the company. It’s a task but if it is not done, my company and brand does not grow effectively or efficiently. Research bleeds into Development of the business in directions that you need to grow.

Technology as a Business Paradigm Shift is an imperative for small businesses in this ever-changing time. Each business needs to assess what it needs to do and find solutions that work for it and its customers. It’s time to change. Your business demands it.

The Silence Factory: It is a fun place.

by Atim Annette Oton

First published in Calabar Magazine.

Every other day, I have the same discussion with someone: an African, a Caribbean or an African-American person. It goes like this: When will we get it together? They complain about how little progress has been made and how we as black people are not ready and why? I listen, nod and wait until they are done talking. This last month, I have been listening, and listening, more carefully. And quite frankly, the noise has been just too much to bear. I call it noise because we need to stop and really hear ourselves speak. And my one lesson from it is: say something if you have a solution to the problem.

I can begin by looking at black people in Nigeria where I was born; yes, we missed the boat for 20 years (about 1983-2004), but in the last 8 years, we have begun to move forward. Not as fast as we want, expect or are able to drastically see…but we are moving. Sometimes, we forget as a nation and as a people, we are not just young but we have been isolated for about 20 years. With 150 million people, we are more educated than most of Africa, and yes, we need to use this educated populous, and sadly, we have not done so. But, when a people have been isolated, how do they know what they need to change and grow? How do they change when their leadership is not changing too?

For the last 6 years, I have traveled back and forth to Nigeria. I can say as a witness, Nigeria has changed, gotten better and is finally growing its other industries besides oil. That small shift is significant, for a country that only spoke oil, it is the start of a shift in thinking. And it is not too late. We just have to build on this slowing. Just look at China. Another shift is the return of its diaspora. This is not to say that Nigeria cannot be changed without them,  but it is a return of some of the brain drain. Nigeria is experiencing what India experienced finally – a brain gain. Simply, Nigerians stopped complaining and went home…and more importantly, the west got too hard to live in.

Now, a return to the Americas, with the US and New York, in focus.  We have to stop lamenting the losses of Harlem and Bed Stuy. If you did not buy in either places, it’s time to stop. You were and are also part of the problem and could have been part of the solution, if you bought in these neighborhoods. And more importantly, stop crying over spilled milk put your money where you mouth is.

My first response is to look beyond New York, and look at Maryland, Washington DC, and Atlanta, blacks own property and they bought there. If we all remember our history, a good number of blacks came north for work with every intention to return to the south…and they did. The only issue here is their kids did not leave, and have no property where they live. My accountant and lawyer would say, some of us have no estate planning skills.

The other places I hear the noise is about our businesses. I love how many people talk about black businesses but spend their money at Macy’s. And I don’t know how many black owners will tear my ear on this. I hear both sides. Black businesses would do 10 times better if just 25% of our community shopped with us more. But, some of us in business make it difficult. Hey, I am saying it. How many times do we get bad service? But here is the irony, we get treated badly elsewhere and still go back…but when we get it with black businesses, we stop going back. I am just saying.

Yes, black businesses are in a bad state, but so are those who go it alone in business and our community is one that goes it alone. Other communities build businesses as groups of people. We build it alone with very little money and support. I am tired of the reasons we claim are the issues: we do not trust each other, can’t get along and are selfish. Actually, none of that is really true. I mean, how many of us are doing “Susu’s” together? The simple reasons are not having the capital, not having great credit; most of us do not build relationships with banks, and we do not make the effort to do business with one another. Yet, we work harder for others for a pay check.

Today, I was on Lewis Avenue: Bread Stuy, Brownstone Books and Lewis Gallery are all gone. It is not my place to judge or to point fingers, but these were striving businesses in an up-and-coming community in a “rennaisance”. And something happened here. There are lessons to learn and share but we do not do that in our community. One business had tax and health department issues; the other two, I am told via neighborhood gossip (which we are good at doing instead of helping grow the businesses) did not do the marketing needed. I remember a time when local people used to do the marketing by circulating flyers for businesses they loved carry. And word-of-mouth was the way businesses survived. This was the New York I loved. This New York, I am worried about.

This month, I begin a small experiment called “The Silence Factory: It is a fun place.” It is a place where I retreat to see and look at things. But it is a place I will come out of often to voice my thoughts and observations. So, I declared on Facebook:

“This is the week of SILENCE…time to be quiet and just LISTEN, time to be REFLECTIVE and GROW new ideas. Time to work on existing projects and FINISH. Join me in the SILENCE FACTORY. IT IS A FUN PLACE.”

I think black people across the world need to go into the SILENCE FACTORY. It’s time to stop talking and do the work that is needed. I spent sometime with my brother who said to me – if you want this thing, you must do the work for it. It is not easy work, it is not quick, it will take time. I hear you loud and clear. I am listening.

Today, I look at China, and remember the days when we all used to laugh at them. Now, who is laughing at us? The lesson here is simple…Work your hardest, do the work well, ask for help, pay for the help, collaborate, partner and stop the noise, you are wasting time. But most importantly, come to the table ready. We need our best and brightest. And bring down the NOISE.

Re-building a Brand: Moving Beyond Disasters and seeing Opportunities

by Atim Annette Oton

This article was written for Calabar Magazine, see here.

Some people experience a disaster and it ends their businesses; I see it as an opportunity. So, in June of this year, when a fire destroyed our store, Calabar Imports on Washington Avenue. My business partner and I took time off – she traveled and I spent the summer in New York at the beach. I did a lot of reading and caught up with friends – lots of lunches and dinners. Simply, I took time to cleanse, re-imagine and build a return in the fall.

Our Business 101 required that we had fire insurance, so, in some ways, we were lucky. Some businesses I talked to after mentioned they did not have any. Business is about taking a leap of faith and risk, but not taking chances like having no insurance. The fire happened on our seventh year.

Our return is our re-birth and it is in stages. If it took us 7 years to build a brand, and to re-build it will take time, not the same seven years. We know it and are patient enough to understand.  The first stage is to re-open in a second location – a new neighborhood and a new place. And this new place is Dumbo, an opportunity and a place to cast a story, to try new things and to change some old things. The second stage is to re-open to the old space in Prospect Heights by December (now in May 2012) with a new vibe. The third stage is to expand and create another location – and this will involve the search for space in Harlem and Williamsburg. I am an entrepreneur, it is in my DNA.

A disaster should challenge you to work even harder. It is that simple. It will make you build better. I have five rules of business smarts for recovering from a disaster:

  • Tenacity
  • Re-invent your dream
  • Challenge yourself not to Fail
  • Imagine the Results
  • Re-build the Brand


Tenacity simply is guts – the ability to work through thick and thin. Do you have it? As an entrepreneur, it takes guts to create and maintain a business. Guts requires that you understand that there will be hills and valleys. They would be fast and slow days.

Re-invent your dream:

This is the place to dream big again. It is to imagine your idea in a new place or state. It is an opportunity to see new things and create a new place. An entrepreneur has a box of tricks – not just one trick.

Challenge yourself not to Fail:

It is hard when you fall to get up, I was raised to pick myself up and begin again on the walk I started. So, the challenge was easy. I saw opportunity and not failure when I began to re-dream again.

Imagine the Results:

This requires you look ahead and beyond the re-creation and see the completion. It is the end of the story of creation.

Re-build the Brand:

As a child, I loved Lego and later I studied architecture, so I am by nature a builder. I can build and re-build. I get the notion of time and making changes. My lesson here is to re-examine the old, change the bad and create new goof things. The brand is back. Calabar Imports is on the rise again.

Small Business Tuesday Tidbits: the September Series

Some days, posting what I think is hard but I know it is important. Three Lessons today to read:

Time, Lists and Numbers

Time waits for no man/woman. That sure is the statement of the century. I have been at Calabar imports for 10-1/2 years, December will make it 11, and one thing I have observed is that time flies fast, so I have been working with speed to do all the things that I have on my list – yes, that master list. I keep one. This year, the list included adding more locations – the result is 2 more. I keep that list around so I can see what I plan – and the list is a 6 year plan not a 5 year one, as it is in-tuned with my rhythm and life. 2018 is the next big shift but 2016 – as it will be 12 years at Calabar Imports. I take note that the number 6 is key to my life – my birthday is on the 6th, my home number has a 6, I watch it as a sign to note. ‪#‎powerfulstuff‬

Stop Talking, Plan and take Action

I am a talker so when I tell anyone to stop talking – folks look back at me. But, when it comes to business, I stop talking and listen, then, I plan and take action. In order to stop talking, you have to have a Sustainable PLAN. Most people tell me that they have a plan but most plans I hear about are not innovative or realistic. The typical ones I hear are repeating the same actions – for example – selling at events as a vendor – nothing wrong with that option but after a year – what’s next? Why do I say that? It’s a maximum income of $25,000 a year – or at best $30,000. That’s a part-time job and not all that work it takes to vend. So I ask, what’s your next plan. When I suggest selling wholesale or doing a store, most vendors look at me like I am crazy, which makes me wonder – I am just suggesting options to grow your business. What it actually reveals to me is something most people do not realize – they have no plan beyond the vending process. It’s a choice to stay with the familiar and not take risk. So if there is no plan, there is no action.

Patience, Perseverance and Strategy

I am not a patient person, but running a business teaches you patience. So many folks around me are in a rush to make lots of money and be famous, I am the opposite – I take the slow road of consistency, grit and hard work. Some say it builds character but it really builds a strong foundation. I know this road well – in 2006 when the economy began to shift, I took note and shifted things – so I survived 2008. Then, a fire in 2011 not 2012 reinforced opportunity to grow and expand and I took the growth road. So 2015 will end with 2016 plans intact – a goal to increase the business by 2 times our size, fine tune it and increase revenue in particular areas and dominate in others. It take Perseverance to do this but not without a clear strategy. While others focused on the spotlight, I take the background and steer my business along – it is the way of the risk taker – and my strategies are not to do the expected – but to do what I know best – build a solid business. So many when I started our no longer here even with all the press and the bright lights. I learnt that lesson when I was at Parsons – the C students ran the companies while the A students worked for the companies. The C Strategy was to have fun, party and network. The A student followed the rules. Risk and Strategy beats the rules sometimes.

Each week on my facebook page, I post these tidbits. Join me there.

African Food: Afang Soup, an Ibibio Dish from Nigeria

by Atim Annette Oton

I was born in Calabar, the capital of the once called, South Eastern State, the child and only daughter of an Ibibio man from Eket which is now in Akwa Ibom State in Southeastern Nigeria. I grew up knowing my village and my culture, my father, who helped create the state knew the importance of family and went home to Ikot Ebe Ekpo almost every two weeks

Where did I learn about food? From my parents I recall, it was first from my American mother, Heloise, who came to Nigeria and immersed herself into its culture and raised five children and gave us an undying love of Nigerian food till today that we are all self declared goodies.

Nigerian food is one of the most distinctive culinary arts of Africa, we are such a diversity of options but the best cooks and chefs come from my people, the Ibibios, ad our cousins, the Efiks, just ask any Nigerian they will say, “those Calabar people can cook”, yes, we are lumped together as one group from one town.

As an Ibibio person, I can recommend several dishes but, hands down, my favorite is Afang Soup. It is what Americans would call a vegetable stew but we Africans don’t like that adaptation or renaming of our foods. Afang is a hard tough and slightly better leaf which gives this soup its name and flavor. Igbos, our neighbors call it Okazi and they make it with a slight variation but I will remain neutral.

Afang soup is best with garri or pounded yam and not fufu. it is the vegetable combination with loads of proteins: goat, beef, fish, both dry and fresh plus snails and periwinkles. Each family cooks it slightly different but between the palm oil, water leaf, afang and proteins, the dish tends to remain intact with its unique taste and flavor; and it is best eaten with your hands, no silverware necessary. I am Ibibio child and food is always part of our family time and rituals, and I recommend Afang soup anytime too.

Here’s a recipe to follow.




As an African whose father first came to the US in the 1950’s to go to school and returned in 1962 with my American mother whose Caribbean heritage is from Trinidad and Jamaica, I spent most of my summers in the US as a child and came to live like my father in the 1980’s to also go to school and unlike my parents stayed on to work professionally and grow a career in architecture, academia and a business. My base in New York City was Brooklyn like most Africans but and 60 years later, I see Africans have consolidating in the Bronx and they are a dynamic group of people with a rich culture.

So, as I begin with curator LeRonn P. Brooks to craft an exhibition, public programming and community events for the Bronx Council on the Arts with Deirdre Scott, its Executive Director, it’s important to take the time to document the process and do what we Africans say often, tell our stories in our own words. It’s been 15 years since the three of us worked together – the last time was on the Underground Railroad Project with City University.

As a child of an African journalist and also the only sister of the publisher of The African, I am aware of the enormous richness in the stories of Africans in the US. Our history in this continent came before slavery with ocean voyages and during slavery as our descendants were traded like cattle. We have always been here and my father’s generation came to be educated and to return to Africa to build our countries, I came with the same mission but the 1980’s saw most of us remain in the US, as opposed to returning home.

Today, the 2000’s have changed Africa and we are immigrants again – from Europe to the US, and mostly to the New York area in the borough of the Bronx. I remind people often, the word immigrant is a word for all Americans as we are all strangers in this land – no matter when your parents came and how. We are not the original people of this land – it is our cousins, the indigenous American Indians.

BRONX / AFRICA: Fashion, Food, Film, Performance and Language will explore Africans in the Bronx through ethnographic lenses focused on Fashion (Fabrics, Textiles, Hair, and Dress); Food (Ingredients, Markets, Tours, and Tastings); Film (Media, Webseries, Comedy and Video); Performance (Comedy, Music, Worship; Poetry, and Plays); Language (Spoken, Written and Symbolic) in an inter-generational series of public and community programs that deal with the concepts of Homeland and Identity.

Interested in BRONX: AFRICA, please email me at and please read this article on the influx of African immigrants and join our Facebook group: Bronx / Africa.

Bronx Africa at the Bronx Council on the Arts

Last month, I returned to my role as a curator – exploring Africans in the Bronx. This blog will explore my process from inception to the role of programming and community engagement. I will join LeRonn Brooks as we explore Africa in the Bronx. Here is my first draft of my curatorial concept:

BRONX / AFRICA: Fashion, Food, Film, Performance and Language will explore Africans in the Bronx through ethnographic lenses focused on Fashion (Fabrics, Textiles, Hair, and Dress); Food (Ingredients, Markets, Tours, and Tastings); Film (Media, Webseries, Comedy and Video); Performance (Comedy, Music, Worship; Poetry, and Plays); Language (Spoken, Written and Symbolic) in an inter-generational series of public and community programs that deal with the concepts of Homeland and Identity.

Interested: email me at

Global Lives and Old Brooklyn Neighborhoods

by Atim Annette Oton

My friend Imari DuSuazay calls herself a Brooklyn Girl. I know how that feels, except I am more a Global African Woman living in Brooklyn. Last week, in talking to a reporter, I spoke of how I listen to or read the news, it sounded simple enough. I said that I start with the world and then end up in Brooklyn. It comes from living outside America where news across the world is set up that way. It’s a macro to micro approach. The US is the reverse.

Sunset Park:

I live in what is now called South Slope, it’s still Sunset Park to me. Always will be. I am on a street where we actually have a mayor of the block. He is a 60 year old Italian retired government worker who organizes all of us in one way or another. He signs and keeps my UPS packages and did it without me asking. He organized all the tree guards and planting for the entire street and if I am home and forget to move my car, he knocks or buzzes my bell to remind me. We have short chats and acknowledge each other. This is the old Brooklyn I know. We are an interesting street of Mexican restaurant workers, African American young and old workers, White Professionals and hipsters, Latino grandmothers looking after their grand children and just a few Chinese like my food business neighbor across from me. Each day, we live on this one block and have without fights. We are the global living people in Old Brooklyn.

Prospect Heights:

I first lived in Prospect Heights in 1994 after graduate school. I came to it because I had lived across the British Museum in London for 2 years while doing graduate school, so alas, I came to live near culture – the Brooklyn Museum. I soon left the area after I saw I had spent $15,000 in rent over two years. Yes, at that time, it was manageable, but that one bedroom apartment today is $2200 a month. Nothing like the shock of “giving” away that amount of money will make one cringe…it took me to buy outside the neighborhood. So, 10 years later, I came back to set up Calabar Imports on Washington Avenue. And after a fire next door in 2011, left it and headed first to Dumbo then east to Franklin Avenue, Crown Heights. Prospect Heights was special then, it’s now Park Slope to me. Yes, I really mean it.


The adventure of rebuilding Calabar Imports took me to Dumbo and the neighborhood hoping to be the next Soho but it was away from the center of Brooklyn, thus it’s paradox. What still fascinates me about Dumbo is all the “buzz” about it. It’s expensive yet not much is really there but it has its moments. There are characters that legends could be made of. It’s the hold-out artists that really make it interesting. They struggle to survive in the midst of wealth. This is where the divide happens – in the midst of the expansion of Silicon Alley into Brooklyn. Before there was Dumbo, no one remembers the area’s name except maybe the Navy Yard. Dumbo was supposed to be a neighborhood but it is still forming – and then it became marketed to tourists as Soho; yikes, indeed. Art is missing, diversity is missing, you just can’t erase those things that shaped a neighborhood. It is indeed boring at times.

Crown Heights:

I take risk often in Brooklyn and across the globe and coming to Crown Heights was not one of them, it was business smart move to redefine and grow Calabar Imports. I entered it feeling success and possibilities and knew it intrinsically. It would be from this place that I would expand the company and take one day to get to know its diverging people. It is as one real estate salesperson told me: the vortex of Brooklyn real estate. Yes, that’s the word she used. My vortex is my business, it is my day to day of which after 10 years, I vowed to expand and grow smartly. There are moments when a place catches and holds you. Crown Heights does that, but it is rapidly shifting, the third wave is arriving. It is both good and bad. There are moments when you pause and reflect on this place. It will make you think. Thus, the beginning of an additional location that gave birth to Boerum Hill and Bed Stuy. And to think, I was looking deeper into Crown Heights. This place makes me smile as I talk to my young Jewish friend about African hip hop and my Yemeni neighbor about travelling in Morocco then politics of Brazil with an Argentinian or talk to a Japanese designer about making African print bags. Ah, this is the Brooklyn I enjoy. After all, I can still eat steak, jerk pork, and become vegetarian when I need to.

Boerum Hill:

I used to call it Cobble Hill when I went through it – after all, I hung out occasionally on Atlantic Avenue window shopping at all the antique furniture shops that are no longer there, a time before Barclays and the Nets. That was the real Brooklyn, before the landlords on Atlantic became barons and drove the shops that made the street interesting out. My Boerum Hill was serendipity – a morning on Craigslist and a chance posting of an owner looking for a new tenant after the construction company finished the luxury rental apartments next door. Such a Brooklyn dichotomy – one side luxury, the other, the projects – and in between, tourists and renters trying to live in the city of change. I have been doing the third avenue shuffle for 16 years – I have biked it, walked it and driven it to see it evolve from that ignored back-end of Brooklyn between Park Slope and Gowanus to the arrival of Wholefood and 30 new businesses in less than 2 years. That Brooklyn change is here – neighborhood by neighborhood.

Bed Stuy:

I should really call it by its real name – Bedford Stuyvesant, but I am still old school. I have a range of friends who live here – and most have for decades but the new place I see is still in transition, one block at a time. I remember when Monique Greenwood began Akwaaba and owned a restaurant where Peaches is located, I even ate there – how times has changed. Then, there was the African Festival at Boys and Girls High School. And when it left Bed Stuy to the Navy Yard area, Bed Stuy turned its back on it. That’s how folks rolled then. Today, as Calabar Imports begins its first three months in a PopUp space, I am reminded of how we started at street festivals – the adventure was new – but this time, the adventure is about shifting dynamics and building larger. Just this week Lisa Price sold Carol’s daughter, I was not stunned or shocked – I thought and still do – BRILLIANT BUSINESS MOVE – you either close a business, pass it on to the next generation or sell it to someone. It’s a business exit plan executed smartly. It reminded me of my future – and it sounds familiar. So, I go off to build Calabar Imports bigger and better. This week, I plan on expanding the business based a need that customers keep asking us about. All will be revealed soon, the Global Brooklyn way.

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