"Give people the tools that they need to succeed."  

~Ngozi Okaro

Ngozi Okaro

Ngozi is the Founder and Executive Director of Custom Collaborative, a Harlem, New York City-based entrepreneurship and workforce development program that trains and supports women from low-income and immigrant communities to launch fashion careers and businesses. By learning the standard techniques and ethical business practices of the fashion industry, our participants professionalize their sewing and design skills, overcome barriers to employment, and ultimately, change the economics of the industry.

As the founder of Custom Collaborative, I developed the organization because I wanted to create opportunities for women who are frequently overlooked: women from low income and immigrant communities. They do most of the work that makes the fashion industry go, but earn a disproportionately small portion of the pay.

What does Style mean to you?

Style is a way of being, or representing oneself. My work style is very straightforward: I want to get as much work done as well as possible in a way that moves things forward. My personal style is more whimsical.

Can you share how fashion and jewelry play an integral part in your life? 

I love bright colors and a wide range of embellishments. I prefer to express myself in my clothes and sometimes veer away from practicality. For example, if a dress that I design for myself has pockets, the pockets are likely as style choice rather than utilitarian. I love decorative accessories and belts that aren't holding anything up or in bold necklaces, bracelets, and semi-useless handbags [that are style statements].

Favorite artist, writer, exhibition, or show? 

In September 2016, I experienced a beautiful exhibition of African print fashions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was accessible to people of all ages: my then-5-year-old goddaughters loved it as much as I did. I'm headed to Musee d'Orsay soon to see black models from Géricault to Matisse because I missed out when the exhibition was in Harlem where I live. Maybe it will be my new favorite exhibition.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)Etude d'après un modèle féminin pour "A vendre, esclaves au Caire"Vers 1872Huile sur toileH. 48 ; L. 38 cmCollection particulière© Photo courtoisie Galerie Jean-François Heim - Bâle

Who do you admire most and why? 

Wow, that is so tough because I admire and am inspired by many people. Bryan Stevensen and Serena Williams. Stevenson because he has clear intentions, and stands with, and for people who society discards and discounts. Williams because she never gives up. She believes in herself, has the best work ethic that I've ever seen, and speaks her truth. Serena also makes wise business decisions and invests in her community. Sh has worked so hard to overcome so many challenges and is really a living legend as an athlete, as an American, and as a Black woman.

Is there a difficult moment you could share with us from your past and how you found your strength to get through it?

My first year of law school. Like many people, I entered law school having been the fastest reader and best writer or top something in my prior educational experience. At Georgetown University I was none of those things anymore. So I had to think harder than I ever had, read faster than I thought was possible, and generally elevate my game. That was really daunting because I hadn't had to try hard in the past. I remember how proud my grandmother was that I was going to be lawyer that she thought I was was "apt" so I could use my brain as a pathway to success and make her proud fo me. There was no way I could not be successful and disappoint her. I knew that I could succeed if I tried, so I worked really hard and graduated in the middle of the pack.

What gives you daily strength and inspiration?

I get inspiration from a few places. I know that there are people who came before me who did bigger things against bigger odds so that helps me dream and execute. I also get inspiration from people around me. I'm fortunate to have a husband, family, friends, and colleagues who believe in me and share my values of justice and equity. When I begin to think things are hard I remember that others can and will help me. Also I am strengthened and motivated by my faith in God. 

What value or mission do you consider to be most integral to your business?

We want to ensure that the people who make our clothes are paid an equitable wage that people who want good quality clothes can find them, no matter their body shape. And that people have equitable opportunities to improve their skills, networks, and lives.