Life & Business

Creativity, Storytelling, and Rolling With The Punches with Bessie Akuba

by Sabrina Smelko


Growing and changing is a part of life, but for Bessie Akuba Winn-Afeku, it quickly became evident that evolving was not only a natural progression in business, but a vital and helpful one. As a photographer, creative consultant, creative director and lifestyle blogger, every experience she’s had — from traveling to dealing with clients — has taught her things about both herself and business, and things she has learned in one area of business have informed others in ways she never expected.

Stepping outside of her comfort zone still scares her, but she always does so willingly knowing that a valuable lesson lies on the other side of fear, and today, she’s sharing more about her past, the stumbles she’s made along her path, where she gets her love for storytelling, and rolling with life’s punches. –Sabrina

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

After the birth of my daughter, I realized that I was the parent that needed to be more flexible in terms of who would be more available for our daughter. I wanted to not have to deal with the stress of having to call in sick when my daughter was ill, not being able to be in attendance for school plays or even parent teacher conferences. I also knew that my talents would be better off being celebrated by my dream and ideal clients than with a major corporation.

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? 

I was about 10 when I entered my grandparents study room and actually paid attention to the walls there. I mean, I’d always noticed them but this one time something struck me. Every wall in that room was covered with beautiful images of women. You see, my grandfather was a street and portraiture photographer, so all of his work covered those wall. The more I paid attention to the images, the more intrigued I became with the women and the stories those images were telling. That is when I fist became exposed to the power of photography and telling ones story through imagery.


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

I got a lot of advice. But there was some advice that kept being repeated by several different people and, in essence, they were: Stay focused on your mission; Write your vision down; Become very knowledgeable about the field you want to get into or the niche you want to create; And, not everyone will get the passion you have for your business.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business? 

Confidence. In the begging I struggled a lot with thoughts of, “Am I REALLY good enough?” “What if all the naysayers are right?”... and “What if I faaaiiiiillll!!?”. I lacked so much confidence in the beginning and building it confidence was a work in progress. The more I worked on my business, the more I honed my skills as a photographer, the more clients I interacted with, the more confident I became. It took getting into and developing a creative habit. That is what helped me get through the most difficult part of starting.

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

Sometimes the vision you have for your business can and will change — and that is absolutely OK. I realized that the more I grew as a person, the more I traveled, and the more I worked with my clients, the more the vision I had for my business changed. Our businesses should be a direct reflection of us–living, evolving, and thriving.

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? 

Wow, that’s a really good question. While I was living in Germany, I had a client whose English was not the best, and my German was pretty much non existent, but he still wanted work with me based on seeing my work and a recommendation he got from a friend. Needless to say, there were several things that were lost in translation and, as a result, both the client and myself were not pleased with a finished product, one which I learned later did not meet his expectations. I felt like a complete failure. He was actually the first client I worked with after being in Germany for only about two months at that time, and that experience taught me a valuable lesson: It showed me how important market research and communication are, why it is imperative to know who your customer is, and it also taught me to not jump right into a situation without being properly prepared.


If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I would spend more time with and taking care of myself. I would meditate longer, exercise longer, and read more for pleasure. Sometimes, as creative people and entrepreneurs, we tend to put self-care and soul-work on the back burner, and it cost too much in the long run to do that for too long.

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

A real, in-person social life, ha! And what I mean by that is, I am always on social media and have made some great connections, have developed wonderful relationships with people, and it’s been great for business. But my “in real life” social life is almost non existent, but I’m working on making that better. I’ve been  making more time to see friends and associates in person and actually talking on the phone.


Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences? 

Being able to conduct my business overseas. In the beginning, it was very challenging for me to run my business: Because of all the challenges I was experiencing with communicating with clients, understanding certain cultural norms, and just simply operating outside my comfort zone, there were several times that I just felt like holding off on running my business and pursuing my passions until I returned back to the states, but I am so happy that I kept moving forward. I consider that to be a huge personal success for me.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own? 

Ooooh, I’ve got several, but here are a few of my favorites: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, and You are a Bad Ass by Jen Sinsoro. I’d also recommend taking advantage of the many online courses that are available for creative entrepreneurs. But because there are so many that are available, be sure to take your time to research those courses and webinars to ensure it is a good fit for the vision you have for your business.


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

Oh, definitely, to the “failing” part at least (I don’t quit — I just take short breaks). I think failure and success both go hand-in-hand. With failure comes growth and personal development. During my three years living in Germany, I faced so many challenges and and many failed projects and opportunities, but, I also experienced the most growth personally and professionally because I was operating WAY outside my comfort zone. I leaped. And fell. And felt like a failure. But when I look back and reflect on some of those moments, I can see that I am a better person, better artist, and a better entrepreneur because of them.

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

The first thing would  to be prepared to invest a lot of time into your business. Whether it’s time on taking courses, honing your craft, or building professional relationships, be ready to invest your time. Second, be mentally prepared for negative feed back from some of the people closest to you. And the third, people should also keep in consideration that starting and running a business is a process, and nothing will happen over night.

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

Ha! The first app that I open in the morning? That would be Facebook :). JUST in case I missed out on anything while I was asleep…I tap on the Facebook app. My Facebook page is like my virtual living room, and all other social media platforms are my stoop. All my close friends and colleagues hang out there-my virtual living room.

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

For me, it is making sure that I am attracting the right clients. I use to have this belief that “as long as they are paying, I am playin.” It can be enticing at times –(especially when you have had a not so good month financially) to take whatever work comes your way and to sign on any and every client that wants to hire you, but say no! Everyone is not for you, and you are not for everyone and that’s cool. It is okay. It really is. Catering to everyone not only hurts your brand, it’s creatively draining, and it keeps you from delivering a clear message to your target audience. It was very difficult for me in the beginning to turn down money. But now, it’s just not as difficult as it once was was. I could really go on and on about this because this is definitely a work in progress for me, especially as a multi passionate creative/artistpreneur.

Suggested For You


  • “I don’t quit — I just take short breaks” <– Love that! It is so easy to fall into the trap of beating yourself up when things don't turn out the way you wanted as a solo entrepreneur. I've also found it helps when something's not working to move on to a different aspect of your business, or start fleshing out a new idea, and then come back to the problem with fresh eyes and a stronger spirit.

  • What a wonderful interview, I love the par about the walls.
    You are doing a fantastic job

  • This is really great advice! For a long time I was afraid of saying no to the type of jobs I didn’t really want. I was afraid I’d never find anything better, so I kept myself stuck for years thinking small. But I’m starting to get a clearer picture of how it works now. The universe is huuuuge, and we are more connected than ever. There are so many people and opportunities out there. Send out your signal, and you will connect with the people on your wavelength.

  • I love how honest and humble she is. As an entrepreneur you sometimes feel like you have to reflect this fearless, strong and positive image at all times. It is very refreshing to hear someone speaking out about how you can sometimes feel when you have to step out your comfort zone or before you take the leap to full time entrepreneurship. Bessie is an inspiring woman! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Chloe! That means a lot. I think at the end of the day, it’s all about sharing the good and not so good stories about our journeys-the whole picture.

  • Thank you, Chloe! That means a lot. I think at the end of the day, it’s all about sharing the good and not so good stories about our journeys-the whole picture.

  • This felt like a fireside chat with a good friend whose company always makes you happy. Thanks for sharing your light, Bessie. I loved your perspectives on confidence and “taking short breaks” instead of giving up. You’re such a gem!