Life & Business

Life & Business: Nasozi Kakembo

by Garrett Fleming

Life & Business: Nasozi Kakembo, Design*Sponge
Earlier this month, creative director Nasozi Kakembo gave us a peek inside her Brooklyn home. Draped in indigo, mudcloth and pattern, the globally-influenced space is one of my favorite features we’ve ever run. “An inspiring individual must live here,” I thought to myself as I clicked through picture after picture. Sure enough, I was right. As it turns out, over the past five years, Nasozi has been tirelessly building xnasozi, a home textile company that all started with six pillows.

For years, Nasozi spent her workweek promoting international rights and social justice. But even after a successful and long day’s work, she left her office feeling unfulfilled. Her nighttime hobby, on the other hand, invigorated her. Into the wee hours of the morning she’d work with various textiles picked up on trips to her second home in Kampala, Uganda. After one particularly inspiring trip, Nasozi opened an Etsy shop with the hopes of selling the first six pillows she created. It was a decision that would lead to creative fulfillment.

Night after night for two years, she worked to help the shop grow. And in 2013, she achieved enough financial success that she could focus on xnasozi full time. From that point on, she continued to push her brand by offering a more robust collection in order to keep customers interested in her products.

Her trips to Uganda have changed a bit now that she’s at the helm of a thriving brand. Now when she travels, she eagerly looks forward to not only seeing familiar faces, but spending more time than ever alongside locals, crafting new designs for pillows, baskets, throws and even furniture. It’s the time spent creating a network for these African artisans that Nasozi finds the most rewarding about her new job. Read on below to hear more. Enjoy! —Garrett

Portrait by Miisha Ayana Nash. Photography throughout by Nasozi Kakembo

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

I had been working for an international human rights and social justice philanthropy for four years and started there when my son was four-and-a-half months old. I had tried for many of those years to make the job more fulfilling and challenging, but it wasn’t happening fast enough for me. My son was also preparing to start elementary school by that time, and apart from the subway logistics of having a kid in school in Brooklyn, and a nine to five in midtown, I knew I wanted to be able to participate in his school activities. In order to do that, I needed to be able to set my own schedule, even if that meant working during unconventional hours and in unconventional places. The third and final impetus was the growth of the business. I started my company in 2011, on a whim after a work trip to Senegal. I came back with amazing fabrics and launched an Etsy shop with six pillows (and horrible pictures) a couple of months later. From 2011 to 2013, business had picked up to the point where I knew I wanted to give it 100% and see if I could actually be my own boss. I quit my job with modest savings in the bank in case the business suddenly came to a halt after my leap of faith.

Life & Business: Nasozi Kakembo, Design*Sponge














Image above: xnasozi’s African mudcloth butterfly chair is available here.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do? 

My acceptance into Renegade Craft Fair really was transformative and eye-opening. I participated in my first of many just two months after quitting my day job, and it single-handedly introduced me to not only the world of home decor and lifestyle, but creative-based entrepreneurship. I met so many talented and intrepid business people, and it was reassuring knowing that I wasn’t the only one who sacrificed life as I knew it in pursuit of something unknown.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Something to the effect of “If it’s coming from your heart, you can’t fail,” and “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Haha.

Life & Business: Nasozi Kakembo, Design*Sponge














Image above: Nasozi on a recent trip to Uganda, where she met with local tailors to craft bags for her brand.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Managing expenses and deciding on which products or designs to focus on. I had so many ideas I wanted to try out, but it’s important to pace yourself because sample production can be costly.

Life & Business: Nasozi Kakembo, Design*Sponge














Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Never undersell your work. It can be tempting, especially if the request is coming from a buyer or client you’ve been courting for a while, but if they appreciate your work and quality, they will pay. It’s a hard cycle to break once started, so it’s best to set your prices right at the very beginning, and stick to them.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work? 

Early on, I spent a lot of money on market events that ended up not being so great for me. [While] a costly mistake financially, it helped me to appreciate the classic economical definition of “market” and to analyze who and what my market is.

Life & Business: Nasozi Kakembo, Design*Sponge














Image above: xnasozi’s pillows. 

If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Get a mani-pedi and go for a swim in a quiet, blue cenote. I’m not sure if those can happen near each other or even within that timespan. Haha.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

I definitely had to sacrifice time I spent with my friends and some other social activities at home. That was the hardest part.

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

The first time I saw my work in a magazine, I pretty much stalked the newsstands until the issue came out and then bought way more than I would ever need. That was such a proud moment though! A close second was seeing my home on Design*Sponge! I’ve been a loyal follower for so many years, so it was an honor to share my home with other members of the D*S audience.

Life & Business: Nasozi Kakembo, Design*Sponge














Image above: Mudcloth in Nasozi’s home office.

What resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Etsy’s former “Quit Your Day Job” series was definitely on my daily digest when I was still at my day job. Today I’ll occasionally read an article form Entrepreneur Magazine or WSJ. I was terrified of economics until I had to take a class in grad school. Thank goodness for that because I actually ended up enjoying it, and much of what I learned has guided my understanding of business principles and how to engage customers.

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

The most challenging position I’ve been in was when I had a pre-order sale for a product that ended up being stranded in Uganda for several months. I have the most amazing customers on earth, because they were all so patient and understanding of the situation. But I had some serious damage control to do despite that, and I made sure to communicate with them directly. Then I sent them all an extra gift when I finally shipped them their orders. Now I know which means of transport to rely on for work that I bring in from Uganda.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Why are you doing this? What are your motivations? Are you passionate about it? Are you doing it for the money? Do you have something original to contribute to the field?

2. Can you devote 100% of your attention to this or have a plan to be able to?

3. Where do you want to see your business in two, five and then ten years?

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

Instagram, then NY Daily News for kicks, and then I listen to NPR radio at work all day.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

The hardest thing about being my own boss is shutting off, especially since I’m a mom. I used to work every weekday and then events on weekends. After about a year of working like that, I decided to stop doing weekend events so that I could do things again like having a lazy Sunday with friends or taking my son to swim class. I’m so happy I made that decision because it has had a huge impact on my quality of life and my finances haven’t take a hit.

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  • What an interesting and inspiring read. Loved every aspect of it. Especially the part: Never undersell your work. Thank you.

  • Yay! Nasozi is my favorite!! I have two of her wax pillows. One is at my work desk and the print brings me happiness every time I see it:)