That three week gap…too busy to write

02-25-2015It dawned on me today that I had not written about anything the last three weeks. And it made me a smile because this is how the life of a entrepreneur sometimes plays out. I am not sad or unhappy about it – I just know this was at the bottom of the “must do” pile.

What happened the last three weeks? Well, a funny thing called Calabar Imports busy season business happened – between events, criss-crossing across the four stores, updating Facebook and Instagram and events.

Today has been the almost first day that I can honestly say I have caught up with 85% of things I have to get done by Thursday – my beginning of the week day. How? It comes down to Priorities. The 15 % are important but they do not make or break the weeks. What I learnt this week is that doing events are vital and there are most about relationship building.

This week went by so fast, it’s almost Thursday – a few highlights – besides getting stuff done – taking time away from Facebook, making time to talk and call friends – these simple things are why I have two days off.

The week’s trials. It’s almost Christmas – not sure I am ready for any of it. Just got over Thanksgiving and still on the mission of building the Harlem location into it’s full scope, a community space and a store. Two projects this week almost complete – expanding our mailing list and working on 2016 events up until April 30. It’s always nice to plan early but sometimes surprised that when I ask this early, a good number of people are not quite prepared. What to do? Move on to the next person. Time is vital and being prepared is essential.


Beginning to think about time off for a week in January – closing all stores so we all can rest. Because my one question today: Where did the day go?


Ownership as a Concept – Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports

Week Three – The Holiday Season is fast approaching:

This week was a mixed one.

The first lesson was having a staff take ownership of a store that needed ownership. Sometimes it takes a person a while to get there – I typically see it in less than three months, and it happened this week in just that time frame. I am delighted by this and what it does for me as an owner of Calabar Imports – is simple, it lightens my load so I can work on other things and pay attention to the holiday season that seems to be speeding up, quicker than I hoped.


The second lesson was to actually re-listen to myself as I took time to build a new project concept that is related to the growth and capacity needed for Calabar Imports. This is in part to continue to reinvent the brand and build our capacity as market forces are changing; and we have to be more dynamic as a company. This was the week to do that reading in full detail about 2016, forecasts, changes and also what opportunities they would be. I looked at fashion forecast again, imports and labor issues, currency fluctuations and war across the globe. In my business, all these things affect the price of manufacturing – thus, the cost of clothes and goods. This is the time when I decide if I should change the countries where I order from, who I buy from as prices go up and down, whether it makes sense to make in one country versus another. All high risk decisions, but all carefully analyzed.


The third lesson is so simple: everything happens in its time. I conceptually know this and have been saying so to myself often. This week, several realities lined up as they should. I cannot reveal all the details but time will make it apparent at Calabar Imports. In preparation for January and February, I access what will happen with the weather again, another look at the Farmer’s Almanac to see if it makes sense to bring in spring clothing earlier or latter. Oh, that winter blues reminds me that we might have that snow again and it is time to get salt to all the stores again; and yes, I need two shovels this year.


The fourth lesson this week is about mentoring. I talk about it and actually do it regularly and this week – it was about reinforcing and building two young people. A young designer who had become wary and disappointed with the fashion industry. All it took was showing him a path to beginning a process of transition from school to the real world. So, often when I was at Parsons, this was the role I played – listener and strategist. The second was a young person who made a decision that now has delayed a lot of possibilities. Sometimes, we take these stances and stick with them and hurt ourselves more. It makes sense then but it puts us on a real rot. Both young people were in the world of fear and were not risk takers. If I could bottle a risk-taking juice that keeps me raging to do more or to jump, I would be a millionaire today.

October and early November in retail follows patterns, it slows down for a bit and for me at Calabar Imports, this is the time to catch up with building an event calendar for 2016, looking at staffing and setting up a system to train new staff as I will be adding more staff for more flexibility yet again. It’s an ongoing process, I remind myself. All in a week.


Sunday and Monday came too fast but finalized a collaboration with International Coalition of African Fashion. It’s been on my mind to collaborate with them but also to help them grow. Each year, I do about 3-4 collaborations – they are specifically targeted in fashion and retail. This is where Calabar Imports is situated. I often have to state that to people who ask me to go outside that realm. After almost 11 years, I know what I am focused on. And as I say it, this reminds me that I have yet to plan our anniversary for December. Another to do item for next week. Check back to read more here next week. And please share this blog.

The week ended mixed, sales up; one less staff on one day, and one more staff to add to the brand. It is the daily grind as a retailer at Calabar Imports, I spent time figuring out the next move and what bit I have to change or secure after I thought I was ahead.

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.

Design Wednesdays: Vision Map

by Atim Annette Oton

Have you sketched an idea down before for a client? Have you been keeping your dreams in your head. Well, it’s time to put it down on paper. And I call this process life mapping and my tool is a Vision map. A number of designers wonder and ask me why I am focused and productive, my vision map is one of my secret tools.  I begin one every year instead of resolutions. I  keep one in front of me daily, its what i look at in the morning, it is part of my daily routine ;  i update and add to it periodically as I download my thoughts, change and connect the dots.

bubbleBubble-Diagram-2 Samples of Bubble Diagrams

My first vision map was a bubble diagram that I learned about in my first year in architecture school. I used it to design a project on my room and after that I used it to plan my education and career. It is how I came to lead a small student organization from 40 members to 375 members. My vision map was how I strategize, plan and execute my ideas. It is what I use now except it is now a more elaborate diagram. action-diagram

The first vision map, 2013.

I stopped in my second year of college keeping my plans in my head, as my first job lesson for life taught me to put my dreams and visions down in paper, simply, if you write it down, it becomes real and it actually makes you see it. Keeping it inside does not give the dreams life. Words and diagrams with arrows connecting the dots is a strategic moment of planning and crafting dreams. It is a bold step in owning an idea of your future. It is most importantly a place to reveal the truth about what you want and desire to accomplish in your design life.

Group brainstorm

Sample of Brainstorming

The real first step of my vision begins with brainstorming. It’s putting down on paper everything. When I see it all, I might be overwhelmed but after years of doing this, I know the second step is to choose 3-5 things to focus on. This step is crucial as it defines my intention and capacity to implement. I am a designer and a design implementation, I use tools to develop ideas, structure and implements results. I take my process seriously and I share it with other designers in my loop when they ask me. I have been know to look at and advice designers about their vision map. Let’s talk about your visions and dreams. My next blog will talk about building your dream with 3 projects.

The Head Game: 6 Ways to Break the What Ifs to do Life’s Work

by Atim Annette Oton

Most people wonder why I seem to move ahead and succeed in what I plan or intend. My simple response is that my head game is extremely focused and inline with my life, goals and objectives, and I am on a mission to fulfill my dream. Additionally, I think positively and actually think less about the problems and issues. So when I meet designers and artists who tell me they don’t know where they are going, I often ask about their head game. Head game is about change and I have come up with 6 ways to break the what ifs and actually accomplish doing your life’s work as an artist and a designer.


SolutionWordPuzzleBreaking What If’s and doing work as a designer comes with insight. How did I get here? For me, channeling a positive head game all starts with assessing and analyzing any problem or issues for a solution. Simply, in most things I do, I let solutions be my focus. In order to do so, I have always planned and usually executed alone or with a team of people. It comes from my upbringing living with a journalist and an educator but I was also educated in this way. In this vain, I ask for help and have built a team of advisers who I can consult with when I need feedback.


The-Moment-You-Take-Responsibility1-300x176The hardest part of the process of art and design is how I enter any idea. I begin by taking responsibility for an idea that I conceive, the process and the end result. Most importantly, I see the beginning, middle and end of all ideas. I find that some artists and designers see or look at the beginning or middle.

Risk versus Fear:


In all things, I take risk and fight fear. As a designer and entrepreneur, my goals are to get things done and spend less time on the issues. In order to do so, I make sure that I never get stuck, and just keep moving with purpose. And like designer Dyson who created the vacuum who made over 2000 changes, I look for another option when I hit a roadblock.

Invisible Luggage (Burden):


My head game is very much aware of the invisible luggage I carry with me when I start a project or work on a project in unfamiliar territory. So, I throw away my invisible luggage/baggage every time I work on a project as it will hold me down. Each of us has one, and for some of us, it’s the fear of failure, not having money and not trusting your instincts or ideas. This luggage holds you for doing anything or moving ahead.

Playstage versus Work stage:

dreamIn order to place myself in the right head game in a design process, I begin by writing my ideas down so I can “remove” them from my head. I really believe the notion that if it stays inside my head, it means I am not working on it. Putting it on paper makes it real and I can draw it out, write about it and question it. In my head, it’s not really real as I change it and not really deal with it. I call it being in my head – my play stage and when it’s out of my head, it has become my  work stage And this shift means I own it and take responsibility for it.


feedbackOne of the most important processes in design is Feedback. I often see many designers and artists avoid this stage. They try to do it by asking novices and not the peers or mentors. I am a feedback loop, as I share my work with others for feedback all the time. It gives me insight and allows me to work more realistically. My feedback comes from a team of people who I assemble before, during and after a project.

word-cloud-giving-feedbackMost people who are successful have a good head game. They can develop ideas, work on them, complete and analyze them. Artists and designers who are unable to keep a good head game are in crisis and you can see it in their work. Life is short, live it with passion and purpose and keep your head game conquering your fears.

Need to get your head game together, and if you are interested in making a shift to enjoying the creative process, I will be hosting a series of webinars in October, please email me at

Change and Reinvention: The Art of Navigating your Art or Design Career

by Atim Annette Oton


Change is one of the hardest places to get to or to do as an artist or designer, I know. Since graduating from architecture school in 1991, I have been strategic about making change and reinventing myself and career. The 1991 recession made me realize that it would be 10 times harder to get a job and after reading an article in the New York Times about an architect driving a cab because he could not find a job. I sat back and really took stock of reality and decided to go to graduate school.

An ornate clock with the words Time for Change on its face
As I went through the process, I decided not just to focus on architecture but to go into what was going to be vital 10 years down the line: energy and environmental studies. I also decided to re-brand myself by going to one of the best schools in the world – The Architectural Association in London. The re-branding worked, as 2 years later, I returned to New York which was still in a recession and got a ton of interviews. But, I was looking to work in a firm that was a solid brand too, so I did the “relationship connection” thing and reached out to my former undergraduate dean to work in his firm.

I stayed in architecture for 5 years and started realizing it was changing, not for the good but for the worst. Knowing this, I begun talking with others and took on 2 outside projects that would eventually re-brand me. The first was Blacklines Magazine, my first foray into publishing. The other was the African Burial Ground Interpretive center which my team won and lost after our construction firm partner IDI Construction folded while waiting for the government to move ahead with the project. These two projects were about taking risk in my 20’s and defined my second stage of change and more so, reinvention. Since I knew there was something amiss in architecture, I also began looking to teach and ended getting an adjunct position in New Jersey teaching interior design. I also quit working my full to job and became a full-time instructor. This was the point when I realized that I had enough of traditional architecture practice and had no plans to return to it. My teaching led me to Parsons School of Design and through a contact (who I did not know at all), I sent my resume and in less than a week was hired to be the Associate Chair of Product Design.


Some might say Wow but I say as repeated to me by my former boss, “I was hired because of the magazine and the African Burial Ground project”. He said it showed risk, tenacity and the ability to implement things which is what he needed. I did so at Parsons for 6 years and in the process changed my career track and re-invented me.


The Parsons brand and the title gave me a tool to work on several projects; more importantly, it also gave me time to work on my third shift…the invention of Calabar Imports, my foray into retail and product design, plus Calabar Magazine, my foray into publishing.  My retail reinvention came through travels across the world at Parsons and personally. It was a shift from architecture and academia but it was about a desire to design things, to curate, to share and educate. It was also about becoming independent, a self employed person, whose choices and decisions were not determined by others. That shift in thinking was the point of reinvention. It is the place of radical change, one that creates a road map forward and takes determination to keep, nurture and hold steadfastly to.
After 7 years since leaving Parsons and full self employment, I am at fourth place of change: this time, I would call it global expansion. In this place, it is about working across continents, developing products, teaching design, developing curriculum and expanding my small retail empire. It is also a place of collaboration and partnerships, one that is Brooklyn-centric and Africa focused. In short, I have become my father and mother who went to Nigeria in the 60’s to build it. The pan-African Brooklynite in me sings loudly.


Change is about risk and fortune, it is about doing the work and doing it well. To achieve it, you have to be beyond mediocre and set an exceptional trail. It involves assessment, renewal and more reinvention but it is built on a solid foundation. Change is about recognizing that you have to be ahead of your self and have the right timing, be in the right mindset and space. My real lesson from change is about being open and being prepare to share how to re-invent yourself.