BY Fredrick Ngugi, 6:48am September 07, 2016,

Meet the Entrepreneur Whose Venture Celebrates African Gentlemen

In an effort to celebrate African gentlemen, home and abroad, Nigerian-American entrepreneur Ismoila Alli-Balogun (pictured below) embarked on a mission to create an online luxury retail destination called “Heritage Circle.”

The 31-year-old former U.S. Army soldier began Heritage Circle with the aim of enriching the lives of modern African men with the best rewards for their hard work.

Ismoila Alli-Balogun

Face2Face Africa recently spoke with Alli-Balogun about Heritage Circle. Here is the conversation:

Face2Face Africa: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ismoila Alli-Balogun: I was born August 20, 1985, in Prince Georges County, Maryland. My parents moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where I began my education at Maryland Convent Private School and later attended Command Day Secondary School, a military institution led by the Nigerian Armed Forces. I returned to the United States in 2001 and enlisted in the U.S. Army after 9/11.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, I worked on security coalition convoys with the 10th Mountain Division. After my service, I completed my Bachelor’s degree at the City University of New York and began my career in investment banking at Renaissance Capital’s first Africa office in Lagos, Nigeria.

I later joined African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa to help develop the Entrepreneurial Leadership curriculum. I completed my MBA at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania and thereafter founded Heritage Circle.

F2FA: What motivated you to venture in to business and how old were you when you started?

IAB: I was 23 when I started my career in investment banking. In my first two years I worked on equity and debt financing deals, raising over $1.5 billion for Nigerian banks. I was still in my first year when we almost created sub-Saharan Africa’s largest bank.

We wanted to marry Nigeria’s biggest bank at the time with another bank that had a powerful, 26-country footprint across Africa. It was an incredible learning opportunity. It helped me put into perspective the opportunities and challenges of scaling a brand in Africa — the frustrations, false starts, and success stories.

I must’ve worked on 100 pitches for some very successful businessmen in Nigeria during that time. Many of them were CEOs of companies they had built entirely from nothing. All of it inspired me to want to build something.

F2FA: What was your first venture and what experience did you get?

IAB: I first became fascinated with the military in secondary school. My lecturers were Nigerian soldiers, and they loved to share war stories about their time as soldiers and peacekeepers.

Their stories inspired both my U.S. military service and my first venture, African Youth Unite for Change (AFYUCh), a non-profit organization that mobilizes former child soldiers to rebuild war-affected communities.

In 2009, I was responsible for our East Africa outreach to Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. It was our most-substantial outreach and my first real exercise in giving back to my community.

We had our first project in Gulu, a former battleground of the Ugandan rebel militia, where we worked with former child soldiers and war-affected youths to help them launch development projects in farming, sanitation, and clean water wells.

That same year, we reached out to over 100 victims of the genocide in Rwanda and the civil war in Burundi. The experience taught me to never be too busy to make a difference in my community.

F2FA: Tell us about Heritage Circle and why you started it.

IAB: At its core, Heritage Circle is designed to embody African expressions of achievement and success. We want to enrich the lives of African men in a significant way and provide them with the best rewards for hard work.

You think of prestigious high-end retailers like Harrods in London, Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, etc. There’s a major part of personal elegance missing from the luxury retail landscape in places like Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Zimbabwe, and several other countries.

We are building Heritage Circle to ensure African men have a one-stop, premium destination that projects their tastes and preferences, aspirations and values. There’s a certain level of transparency, convenience, competitive pricing, and discretion that digital innovation brings. We see an incredible opportunity to build Heritage Circle on a truly pan-African and global scale.

F2FA: What makes Heritage Circle different from other online retailers on the market?

Our mission at Heritage Circle is celebrating the African Gentleman. We are a one-of-a-kind lifestyle brand with a one-of-a-kind mission. What unites us today is the understanding that our members are drawn to Heritage Circle for more than products.

Heritage Circle

They are drawn to our community first, they’re drawn to a dream, they’re drawn to a philosophy, they’re drawn to a way of life, and that is exactly the point.

They have the means to buy anything from anywhere today. What they come to Heritage Circle for is the sophisticated mix of brands and experiences that only we can offer. Choice, it seems, is a very powerful thing.

Our site’s unique combination of eye-catching visuals and insightful storytelling creates an immersive experience that motivates African men to think beyond traditional boundaries, live elegantly, and most importantly, embrace personal achievement.

Very few online retailers are built today with this kind of loyalty and longevity in mind. Our business today is defined in terms of customer lifetime value, period. We want to remain the one-stop loyalty channel for African men. We want to grow one man at a time. We want to remain very special.

Otherwise we risk losing the community, the aura of exclusivity, the prestige, everything. We risk losing the modern African gentleman.

F2FA: How successful is your business currently?

IAB: We have a strong brand offline and a robust platform online. We are growing our membership and our client base every day. We don’t have huge fixed costs for rents and warehouses. We’re never overexposed.

We have thought long and hard about where we want to be — which city, which investors, which markets. We always want to stay ahead of the curve. We learned the hard way that finding talent is not easy. There’s a certain level of polish that is required to sell high-end luxury in Africa and not many people have this skill.

Currently, we are recruiting managers and salespeople for Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Addis Ababa as well as key international cities, including New York, London, and Paris, where African men live and play or travel to for work.

We want people who love the luxury industry in Africa because of its challenges, and those who have the confidence to develop innovative ideas that maintain Heritage Circle at the forefront of this domain.

F2FA: What would you tell young African entrepreneurs who are having second thoughts about their businesses and feel like giving up?

IAB: Everything you are going through now is preparing you for what you asked for.

F2FA: What are your plans for the future in growing your brand?

We update our website frequently with branded collaborations that continually drive traffic to the site. To coincide with this, we are launching our social media platforms on Instagram and Facebook to help attract and keep people interested in what we are doing. We are still in the early phase of luxury e-commerce experimentation in Africa.

In many African countries today, consumers are skipping fixed broadband connections altogether and opting straight for mobile connectedness. This requires that we provide them with high-quality offerings wherever and however they want.

One of the most exciting things at Heritage Circle is the dialogue that exists today with our members and the feedback they give us. Luxury today is all about experiences that brands provide to consumers.

In the future, we see a significant opportunity using innovative digital technologies to provide enhanced shopping and lifestyle experiences for African consumers in search of affordable luxury fashion and daily lifestyle essentials.

We also have plans, beginning next year, to introduce limited, curated offerings of women’s wear, targeting men who want to buy unique gifts for their spouses or significant other.

heritage circle africa

In addition, we are also moving toward product launches that mimic our marketing. It is important for us to communicate a consistent, one-of-a-kind experience. Seasonal lines are great for high-end fashion, but we want men to be excited about our brands constantly. By adding new brands periodically, we can better achieve interaction and strong sales.

F2FA: Is there anything else you would like us to know about Heritage Circle?

IAB: We are introducing the Tailoring Shop, which will feature leading men’s wear collections, African designers, and bespoke tailors from around the world. The service will be launched for men’s wear fashion, appealing to customers who covet bespoke suits, trousers, and shirts.

We will also be flying in master tailors from Italy and London to do fittings and consult on-the-ground. The benefit is we will be able to spur brick-and-mortar visits by linking our members to top masons and couturiers in New York City and ateliers on London’s Saville Row or Paris’ Avenue Montaigne.

It’s a healthy balance between physical and digital representation that will give African men the best of both worlds.

Last Edited by:Abena Agyeman-Fisher Updated: September 15, 2018


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