Melissa Kiguwa is the CEO of Obanj.
Tell us about your company. What inspired you to start it?
I began my career at 19 as a freelance journalist traveling the world. I traveled to China, Guatemala and Kenya. I lived in Uganda for four years and London for two. I then went on to try my hand in Hollywood where I was fortunate enough to work alongside some of the most prolific talent of our time. Through my experience, regardless of city, locale, or organization, what remained true was this insidious, unspoken rule that women should dress and look far above our pay-grade. I realized this meant fashion and beauty became another “pink tax” we paid to stay in the game. Beauty is glorious, but it shouldn’t be a yoke. I co-founded my company, Obánj, because of this need I saw in my industry. I want conscientious, ambitious women to walk through the world with their heads held high. How we look in the world impacts how we move in the world impacts how we’re perceived in the world impacts what we demand of the world. It’s all connected.
Who are your cofounders and what makes you a great team?
My Co-Founder is Niya Panamdanam. She is a self-taught engineer and bad-ass technologist who has worked with multiple tech startups in Atlanta in both design and engineering. Niya left her full-time job as a lead engineer to embark on this wild entrepreneurial journey with me. Our commitment to women living full, big, empowered lives permeates our brand.
How is your company making a difference?
Fashion is the second highest pollutant after the oil industry. Jewelry in particular accounts for a host of problems with miners and conflict gems. By borrowing luxury jewelry instead of purchasing fast fashion, members practice responsible consumption. In fact, we consider the Earth a shareholder. How many businesses can say that?
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
COVID has been a challenge for most fashion rental companies. We’ve stayed hyper-focused and found unconventional ways to connect with our members. When Niya and I launched the business, we knew this would take up the next 10 years of our life, come hell or high water. A pandemic doesn’t change that. We understand what we’re working towards and provide each other the support necessary to stay the course.
What is your biggest win?
Our members are prominent figures in media and Hollywood. Station 19 lead actress, Jaina Ortiz, gave us a shout out on her Instagram and Kimmi Chex, the NFL’s youngest host, regularly wears our earrings on her television show.
Who is your role model?
I have many, but probably Patti Smith. If only we could all be that free.
What do you wish you had known before starting your company?
Vulnerability is an asset. You don’t have to carry the armor of being the smartest or the best as most minority or women founders carry– people respond to realness and depth and when you show up as yourself, you will be surprised how many people want to help you.
What is your CEO superpower?
Spinning gold from straw. I am incredibly resourceful and can find opportunity under a rock. I am a big believer that you can’t wait for luck to find you, you have to make your luck.
What has been your experience with FFA?
FFA is the largest female founder group in the United States and was founded by an alumni of my alma mater, Leslie Feinzaig. I am forever appreciative of the ways women support each other.
Anything else you want people to know?
We have opened up influencer closets where members can borrow jewelry from some of their favorite influencers! Check out obanj.com/influencers to see both the influencers and pieces available!