Tolani Aremu: Finding Fulfillment As A Returnee

Nigeria, a country where most of its citizens will jump on the opportunity to leave the country all because they feel there are more opportunities abroad. Everyone is looking for a way out but Tolani did the reverse.

Tolani Aremu is a 33–year-old celebrity makeup artist who studied Business in Georgia State University in the United States of America but returned to Nigeria to pursue what she called her passion for makeup artistry.

She chose to study Business in school because she came from a business-oriented family. Her parents owned their own businesses and she felt it was what she was going to do. However, she fell in love with makeup artistry and had to leave corporate America to pursue her dreams.

It all started during her Master’s program, when a friend used her as a muse. She became interested in makeup and started watching videos online, looking into magazines and recreating what she saw.  “I was terrible at first but I decided I was going to develop that path and see where it takes me.”

Tolani was working in the corporate world while developing her makeup skills, practicing with the faces of people brave enough to allow her. Eventually, she got better in the art.

“I started practicing makeup in 2012 in the United States. I worked for MAC Cosmetics because I felt if I was going to take this seriously, then I need to get the proper experience”, Tolani said.

“On the job, I got to work with so many people and I learnt from them. What you thought you know, you really don’t know. I got to work with different people from different ethnicities, different skin tones and skin colours. You get to learn a bit of everything on the job.”

When asked how she got the job with MAC Cosmetics, she explained “I went to inquire if they were hiring. Fortunately, they said they were looking for freelancer makeup artists at the time. They called me in for an interview. I had to bring a model, so I took my sister”.

Prior to the interview, Tolani had intensely practiced with her sister’s face, thinking she would have to do a repeat. “I thought I could cheat the system by practicing on my sister and do exactly what I’d practiced not knowing I was going to be given something out of a magazine to recreate by the manager. That was when I knew there were so many types of makeup artistry. I was only given 20 minutes but somehow I did it and I got the job!”

The passion for makeup kept pushing Tolani on, she worked with MAC for some time, got better, went for different master classes by other brands like Makeup Forever, and did a lot of free makeup for different people because she wanted to be the best.

“I believe you have to master your craft- whatever it is that you are doing, you have to be the best or try to push for the best”.

Tolani continued to develop her skill. She realized she could actually do it full time. Though at that time, the makeup industry in the United States was already saturated – everyone was into makeup artistry and YouTube was flooded with makeup tutorial videos. Tolani held on to her passion however. She knew makeup was what she was going to do, so she found a way to make it a business. She decided to leave the United States for Nigeria and go into makeup artistry full time.

“The makeup business was saturated abroad but was still an emerging market in Nigeria. I felt if I don’t go now I’ll never go”. “My parents were based in Nigeria, though I come home doing Christmas holidays and summer”.

Back in Nigeria, Tolani had only the support of her parents but had no one else. Since she had earlier moved out of Nigeria at the age of 11, initially, she didn’t have the network that her contemporaries had. She said, “I had to start from the ground up. I got referrals from the very few people I knew.”

In the bid to stay in business and earn money, she started a premium hairline. Some of her customers became her makeup client and vice versa. “It was tough at the early stage, I was charging crap. I did free work just to build the clientele I needed to sustain my business. I did 3-week production work for close to nothing.”

Free work is something most upcoming entrepreneurs hate to do. Most people expect to get profit quickly and they aren’t ready to pay the price that comes with entrepreneurship, especially in systems like Nigeria where there are no rules and no structure. “I had to pay my dues for quite some time. If I didn’t, how do I get people to even trust that I know what I’m doing? When you are a makeup artist everything is visual, so you need to be able to showcase what you can do and I needed the people, so I had to do a lot of that”

This means Tolani wasn’t earning much from makeup at the time. Luckily for her, she had saved up during her stay in the United States not to starve in Nigeria. She also made money from her hairline business. “I started by charging 6,000 Naira in 2013. It’s just one of the things you have to do when you have a vision of the future.”

Makeup artistry in Nigeria at that time was majorly fixated on Bridal Makeup – most makeup artists where competing in the same space. Tolani, on the other hand, had a different vision. “At some point, I realized that everybody seemed to be going into the line of bridal makeup, but I wanted to go into production artistry. I was more of a production makeup artist and I realized quickly that it was the path I wanted to take. Though, I had done some bridal makeup jobs”.

As a production makeup artist, Tolani has done celebrity makeups. She worked on production scenes of TV Series, Films, Music Videos, Commercials, Bill Boards and Ad Campaigns. This decision to delve into production makeup artistry turned out to be a great one. She started getting more production works, partnering with agencies, and getting better pay. Finally she had an opportunity and she seized it. One might say the exposure Tolani got from living in the United States helped her to see the opportunity but in actual sense she only did what a smart and fresh entrepreneur would do – spot an opportunity and make something out of it.

Tolani has carved a niche as a production makeup artist, although she is open to other forms of the art, except special effects. “If I’m not doing my production work, I have my celebrity clients or my private clients. My versatility helps me balance things to keep me busy and stay in business.” When asked if she has ever faced any challenges in her line of business, she said, “Well, yes. That happens in any business. You might have some down times and the very high times.”

Tolani wasn’t ready to just stop at making people look beautiful. She started a makeup product line, selling different makeup products. Her focus is predominately on the tools used in makeup, like the makeup brushes, beauty blenders; makeup accessories. “I never limit myself; I never say never. I’ll probably delve into it but I feel I will need to do the most research I can because it is really important that if I’m developing anything that has to do with humans I want to be sure it’s the safest”, she said.

One of Tolani’s major celebrity clients is Nigerian music artist Waje. She said working with Waje is her best project. Working with the singer has opened a lot of doors for her makeup business. “Waje is a client who became a friend, sister and confidant. We just have a really great relationship and it’s not just with her but with her family. It has been like that since 2015.” She said. Tolani met Waje on the set of Airtel Reality Show, The Voice. “They were doing a promotional commercial for The Voice and we’ve always kind of seen each other in passing. We would say ‘Oh Hi’ or ‘Hello’ and just kind of move about. However, this particular day, I walked into where they were shooting a TV scene and I had to do makeup for her, 2Baba, Patoranking and Timi Dakolo.”

“It was my first time doing Waje’s makeup. She was like ‘wow! I have never had my make up this bask before’. She was really sweet, really nice and approachable, and she collected my number. I felt maybe she will call me somewhere down the line, but a couple of days later she called me and ask how I felt about going to South Africa with her. I was like, ‘uh, yeah, of course.’”

Currently, Tolani is adding more products to her portfolio and has delved into other ventures like fashion. More than just being Waje’s makeup artist she also started styling Waje. Tolani has a staff size of 3 – 2 assistants and an intern. “I am incredibly particular about my style of leadership. My staffs have been with me for 4 years and I allow them to do other things too.” Tolani describes herself as “not the typical Nigerian boss” – one who leads by example. “I feel like I’m hiring an adult to provide a service. You should know what to do and should be efficient, so I give you the tools to be able to do that and I lead by example.”

For Tolani, customer service is everything and referral is her number one tool of marketing. “I just believe that is so essential for the survival of your business, you have to be personable, people have to want to work with you, people have to enjoy working with you. I’m very passionate about that. I just believe to treat everybody with the same level of respect irrespective of where you are from, your background. It’s just how I’ve been raised”.

Tolani is one of the young entrepreneurs excelling in the Nigerian Fashion industry. She has worked her way up in an industry where the competition is intense. One of the key elements of her success is her passion-driven approach to the business. “It’s beyond money, it’s about fulfillment. Believe me, I like money ooo but fulfilment is everything for me. I’m sure there are so many other things I could probably do that would generate ten times the amount of money that I’m making but the fulfillment and the passion I have for what I do is incredible. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”  She said.

“Of course, growth comes with pushing and thriving for better. When I was in the corporate life I wasn’t happy, I was living a very routine life. I was bored and I started to realize how it was making me become a shadow of myself. I wasn’t this bubbly, positive person. I was just going through life. I get up the same time, shower at the same time. I knew it was a problem when I would get on the highway and see some of the same people every day. It was like we just knew each other. I felt like ’life has to be way more than this.’ I wanted more.”

This article was written by Ibironke Oluwatobi. He tweets via: @ibironketweets

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