F2FA: Please tell us a little bit about your background.
Leilani: My mother is from Keta, Ghana, and my father is from Aneho, Togo. I spent many years in Cameroon before going off to boarding school in the UK. From there, I went to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore where I earned a bachelor’s degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. I enjoyed my time there and met some amazing people. I also learned a lot about myself. I was extremely lucky to have the strong personality that I have because college years can make or break you if you are naïve. I think boarding school prepared me to be independent and extremely mature. I knew that failure was not an option for me, and I never wanted to repeat classes or not graduate on time (because I saw a lot of that around me).
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I played on the tennis team, which was a great outlet for me. I enjoyed all the trips with teammates to various universities and that in itself was a wonderful experience. I was also part of the African Student Association and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. I then pursued a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management from University of Maryland University College while working full-time as an Event Coordinator at TCMA in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington DC.
I married my best friend in 2005, and then we moved to several cities: Palo Alto, Los, Angeles, Manhattan and then London, before settling in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2011, where my husband is from. During that time we had two lovely kids.
It was while in London that I thought about starting a cupcake business called Ayele’s Cakes. Over the past few years, I worked at Eko Hotel at the Convention Centre, which was an incredible experience, but as a mother of two young kids I had to find a job where I was able to spend quality time with my family.
At that point, Ayele’s Cakes became more of a full-time job. Then early in 2015, I found the courage to start Koélé. I have always enjoyed fashion; I would see bags in stores and think about how I would change them to suit my quirky style.
F2FA: What was the inspiration for the name Koélé?
Leilani: My middle name is Ayikoele. I thought Ayikoele would be a mouthful for people, so I took off the Ayi. It’s pronounced KOO-A-LAY. I wanted a name that was unique. The brand is all about bold colors, unique prints mixed with leather and the creation of fun designs.