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?


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.

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.

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

Inspiration: The Spice of Life’s Work

by Atim Annette Oton

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” – Mark Twain

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein

“In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard.” ― John Grisham

Since 2008, life has changed for everybody, most especially. There is no normal. There is no stability. Things have shifted, but I believe and see that there is re-invention. This re-invention involves acceptance of the past and changing the now for the future. To do this, one place I start is Inspiration.


What inspires you? What makes you buzz? What brings you sheer bliss, passion and joy? My candid response is life. I am a designer and entrepreneur in the mid stage of my life and career so I often look backwards to understand what and where I have been, then take the present to organize so I can look ahead to gain perspective for the future. And that is why I can succinct say life gives me buzz. It is my inspiration. Life is about people, places and things. They fill and nurture me with passion, laughter and joy. Each inspires me.

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. – J. K Rowling

“Maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around it, let it slide like coins through you fingers. So much time you can waste it. But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.”  – Lauren Oliver


I am fascinated by people in all their eccentricities, this is why when I observe people I am looking for love, passion, joy and happiness, firstly, then I look to understand its parts in all its simplicities and complexities.


“Anyone can hide. Facing up to things, working through them, that’s what makes you strong.” ― Sarah Dessen 

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” ― E. E. Cummings


I am fascinated about places. They thrill me unconditionally. Cairo makes me miss the dry desert heat of Africa. Dakar keeps me cosmopolitan and French-African, Budapest and Prague humble me with eclectic beauty in its architecture. And now, I must say, I miss the London of the 1990’s, the Lagos pre-1980’s and the Kano and Jos that were my adopted northern cities in Nigeria.

Places I have been to, lived in, visited for a time and dreamed about make Life my inspiration. They make me smile, laugh and cry sometimes. They define the notion of being alive and living.  Life is fantastic.

Places and cities inspire me poetically. I remember Barcelona just post-Olympics and bask in the Florence sun before I head to Fez. From the city to the African Savannah of my youth, I am inspired by places of travels and dreams. From Vietnam to India, I celebrate similarities and subtle differences. Places speak a language of nature and architecture. They tell stories in the quiet and loud corners.  Places are my spaces of inspiration.


“Without music, life would be a mistake.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Life is about poetry. Life is about music. Life is about food. Each thing inspires me. It feeds my soul. I love objects that are handmade, there are some of things that make me sing. Books are things that inspire me. I am biased to poetry than prose sometimes. I see it in the words of T. S. Eliot or Wole Soyinka. Music is another inspiration point. Whether it is Sade, Fela, Coltrane and Miles. Each is an inspiration and make life bliss.


I am fascinated by food. So I have eaten snails, frog legs and octopus. Life is about risk, taking chances and in food, I relish the experience. For every city I have visited, I have eaten the food with gusto, and for every immigrant I have met, I have joined them for their local food. Food inspires my curiousity, it invites me to taste and savor a new flavor whether hot, spicy or creamy, I take a bite.

Inspiring Designers Across the Globe: Making Sense of the Art of Doing

The Last Week: 7 days of Inspiring Designers

by Atim Annette Oton

This July, I decided to write a short series of inspiring notes for designers on my Facebook page called Lesson of the Day. It was simple, a daily motivational paragraph to inspire designers and others to rise early and do what they need to do: I will write four parts to this post of the 31 days of lessons. The last week ended today, so I am posting the lessons of the day for the last week with images and will post more next week.

morocco blue

July 31, 2013:

Love your work. Love your dreams. Love yourself. Life is about passion. Do what you love and enjoy life. Work your dreams. Work your passion. Work your life missions. Be your work. Be your passion. Be you. Life is a dream. Make it worth it. Make it happen. There is bliss in life. Life is joy. Life is amazing. Life is yours. 




July 30, 2013: 

Life is a journey that comes with bends and twists. It is not straight or simple. It is complex and complicated. Expect no peace or solitude. It comes with hills and valleys. Learn to ride life as it is a moving ocean wave. Set a course or path but expect diversions. The journey is the experience. Celebrate and enjoy it in all is joys and challenges.


July 29, 2013:

Life has many options. You have to be willing to see them and make a choice. Each one is a risk and each one can take you ahead or back. You have to analyze each option you select. Each has a beginning, middle and an end. Work it out. Then engage. Life is a risk.

Masks at Calabar Imports

July 28, 2013:

It takes courage to change things. Gather your strength and build your courage but banish fear. Step outside and step ahead. Life is calling you to act. Be smart and do your best.


July 27, 2013:

It takes courage to change things. Gather your strength and build your courage but banish fear. Step outside and step ahead. Life is calling you to act. Be smart and do your best.


July 26, 2013:

Shine brightly. Yes, shine even more. Life is yours to bask in. Shine. The moon and sun are shinning on you. Step up to the plate and take the glory. It is time. Be bold, be smart. Live it. Live fully. Live with powerful spirit.


July 25, 2013:

Focus. Focus. Focus. Invest your energy to make your dream come through. Spend time and resources to make it, through trial and error, experimentation and risk. Pass through the tunnel of fear into the light of reality. Focus is the one ingredient.

The last week of Lesson of the Day focused on 7 ideas and themes: Passion, Journey, Choices. Courage, Change, Embrace and Focus. Each theme was to move a designer forward. Come back next week to read about the third week.