Sylvia Owori is Founder of African Magazine, Ziper Models, Sylvia Owori Designs & Boutique; Kampala, Uganda

Words of Wisdom: “You feed your mind, the way you feed your body. Surround yourself with positive images, people and things.” – Sylvia Owori

Interview with Sylvia Owori is Founder of African Magazine, Ziper Models, Sylvia Owori Designs & Boutique; Kampala, Uganda

Sylvia Owori is Founder of African Magazine, Ziper Models, Sylvia Owori Designs & Boutique; Kampala, Uganda

Sylvia Owori is one of today’s leading figures in East Africa’s Fashion, media, and modeling industries, famous for both her entrepreneurial skills as well as for her creative talent.

Today, her designs are appreciated by a very large public in Uganda and her participation in a variety of prestigious events all over Africa have worked to make her a respected designer throughout the continent. Sylvia’s contribution towards Uganda’s development was recently recognized by President Museveni himself, when in June 2006 she received the Presidential Transformers Award.

Having studied with some of the most skilled professionals in London, her design ethos is the result of the excellent training she received, added to her unique imagination and natural talent. Drawing her inspiration from her Ugandan roots and the African life style as well as from her extensive travels to the USA and Europe.

Sylvia is also the Founder & Publisher of African Women, a magazine with circulation throughout Africa.

Sylvia Owori YouTube promo video (approx. 2 min.)

Sylvia Owori is Founder of African Magazine, Ziper Models, Sylvia Owori Designs & Boutique; Kampala, Uganda

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: What gave you the confidence to go from school to entrepreneurship?

[ Sylvia Owori ]:

  • I don’t know, I just knew I didn’t want to work for someone.
  • It was difficult coming back from London, but I wanted to work in Uganda. This was in 1998.
  • I was the only fashion designer at the time. People in Uganda really didn’t understand fashion.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: What compelled you to continue to pursue fashion if it was so difficult?

[ Sylvia Owori ]:

  • My fear of failure was a motivator.  Fashion is all I knew how to do.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: Would you recommend going from school to start your own business?

[ Sylvia Owori ]:

No, I think I was mad.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: What advice would you give a woman who wants to go from school into the creative field?

[ Sylvia Owori ]:

  1. Be extremely focused. You make the chose and stick to it.
  2. You need to be determined. You have to put it in your mind that you cannot fail at it.
  3. You need to know what you want and then become the best in your line of businesses.

[ Suzanne ]: What were the biggest challenges in your industry in Uganda?

[ Sylvia ]:

  1. Being accepted as a fashion designer.
  2. Many Africans to prefer to buy their cloths from London or United States, as it is trendier.
  3. In West Africa they only wear their brands, but in the Eastern Africa we tend to dress more Western. I believe this is due to the British influence.
  4. Raising funds. Most people want to see results before giving you money. Because I came from school I didn’t have any results to demonstrate. This forced me to go to friends and family for funding. Although they assisted, they too were reluctant.
  5. I was the first to try everything.

Your business expanded with complimentary initiatives, what was the catalyst for each new business initiative?

I started getting demand for the products for what I had in the boutique.

  • I started getting a lot of media attention
  • I was doing everything. I was marketing my own product. I was in people’s face.

Eventually people started to take notice, and that is when I decided to start my own clothing line.

  • From there, I started going to international fashion shows under the banner of ‘Uganda’
  • Uganda’s started to take notice that I was representing them

Then I started the first modeling agency.

  • This became a challenge because girls who were interested where thought as prostitutes. Parents wouldn’t allow their girls to be models.

So I started Ms. Ugandaand did it for four years. The winner went to Ms. World.

  • Although successful, there was only one winner. I found this limiting.

Then I started Africa Women Magazine, which would benefit many women. As it turned out the name was not registered anywhere.

  • The reason that I started the magazine is to empower and educate women. I speak from the perspective of African women, although I have an international perspective living in London for few years.

Do you feel you use the same talents for publishing as you do for design?

  • I think publishing a magazine requires a lot of creativity. The magazine complements the fashion. It is a place I can showcase all my cloths, which was one of the catalyst for starting the magazine.
    • Also I started the magazine to showcase African art and culture
    • Most importantly, how could I share the international stage with African women?
    • I felt I would be a good example for African women. I don’t come from a rich background I am a typical Ugandan/ African women.

When should women expand their business?

  1. Stretch your business in the limits of what you do. Do something that compliments what you do? Look at directions of how you can grow your business.
  2. One business helped raise funds for the next business because you have a track record.

How do you continually come up with creative ideas?

  1. I go away for a couple days by myself, with no phone or distractions and I come up with ideas.
  2. There is only so much you can create, so you need a team that can compliment your creatively.
    1. Now I give my team a brief and they come up with all sorts to perspectives
    2. From that, your business grows with the input of other creative minds and directions.
    3. The whole direction is around your vision.
  3. I often get young students from university, and give them a brief and see what they come up with. Sometimes I hire them after the process.

As a leader how do you demonstrate you are listening to their ideas?

  • I always work with my team. I never try to impose on them. If I don’t like the idea, I will let them know but focus on that next time you may want to consider doing ..I provide suggestions.
  • We do have some brainstorming sessions of ideas

Is there any time you feel uncomfortable being in the public eye

Yes, when something is written about me, sometimes I just want to stay home. I never retaliate. I never ask them why they have written ‘this’ about me?

How do you deal with the attacks?

  • I tell myself ‘I must be relevant in some way that is why someone is saying something.’ If I weren’t relevant than it would not make the papers.
  • If someone really want me to fail then they should not criticize me, it just motivates me to be better.
  • The only way to hit back is be more successful

What have you learnt about yourself when attacked?

  • I have grown thick skin. I am soft hearted, but I learn to hide it when I need to.
  • I have learnt to accept I am a public figure and not everyone is going to like me that is not the point – I cannot hide good work. People buy my products all over the world. You may not like me personally, but a long as you still buy my products J

What is your most significant achievement in your career?

  • Transforming the fashion industry in East Africa.
  • Twelve years ago no one recognized any designers. There were no magazine, no model.
  • Personally, my sons have made me successful.
  • I want to change the perspective of how women are looked at in Uganda. I want to give something to those women through fashion.  Many uneducated women are adding design to our cloths. These products are going to international market. My contribution is creating employment for these women and getting business all over the world. They are creating something that is used every day i.e. Headbands, laptop bags, sandals, t-shirts. If you buy something, the money goes directly to the women. I want to bring this concept to every district in Uganda. Hopefully other people can copy the model in other countries.

If you were to attribute your success to one thing, what would it be?


What is the most challenging element of your career now?

  • Is being recognized on the international stage in fashion
  • It is important to me because that was part of what I set out to achieve. It was my dream. I wanted to be the best I could be as Sylvia. I feel I have taken steps towards that. There is a lot more to do to achieve it.

What is the most significant decision you made in your career?

  • Starting business straight from school. Starting business about something that I didn’t have a clue about. Likely it took me the right direction. I wouldn’t do it now.

Have you ever done an initiative that didn’t work & what did you learn from that experience?

  • I had investors support me in setting a high-end club. Construction started, half way down they didn’t fulfill their end of the deal.  I lost a lot of money. It is one area I failed out. But I realized that I should not go in that direction.
  • As a business owner you should not go into what you don’t understand.
  • It was my reputation that was at stake.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone).

If I am uncomfortable at something, I stop doing it.

When started your business, did you perceive any obstacles?

There is always a financial challenge when starting a business. When you start your business you need finances, as you grow you need more finances. I always felt when I get to an obstacle you find a way of dealing with the pressure at that point in time. I am not going to stop because I am afraid to get there.

Do you look far ahead in your career?

I look 20 / 30 years ahead. I don’t know why that far ahead. I let my team know that I am a train; people will come on and off the train. I will reach my destination one day. When hiring I want to know are they going to be on the train when I get there? Seeing that far ahead excites me. I don’t stress myself about when I am going to get there.

What does success mean to you?

  • I have done everything I set out to do as an individual. I don’t value it has monetary. Success is how much I have pushed myself. I don’t feel very successful because there is so much more I can do.

Leadership Lessons – Sylvia Owori

  1. Credibility is a foundation for everything; if you have it, you are set life.
  2. Take the challenges that come to you. Find a way to deal with challenges; this will make you great.
  3. You have to lead by example or you don’t lead at all.

Have you ever had to compromise your values to get to where you are?

No. If I had to, I would be in the wrong job.

One thing you would do differently in your career?

I would be more careful in business and how I manage finances.

What is next for you?

Take on the world. I want to go into television. I can do a television show from Africa that would be better then Oprah.  There is so much happening in Africa that the rest of the world doesn’t know about. I want to be the voice that affects women in Africa. I want to tell the real life stories from Africa.

Reflective Realizations from Sylvia Owori

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old Daughter?

She could be anything she wants to be.

Q What do you wish you were told at 10yrs?

  • I wish I was told the world was so hard
  • I wish I were taught self-love. Everything I know today, I have taught myself. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else.

Words of Wisdom by Sylvia Owori

You feed your mind, the way you feed your body. Surround yourself with positive images, people and things.


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    2 replies to "Sylvia Owori"

    • Frhiwot Tadesse

      Wisdom exchange is very interesting program we learn more from your effort.Tank you.

    • kate

      Silvia’s designs make me so much proud of African culture,they splendid,gorgeous,and cross cut all ages generations,i love your the work of your hands Silvia,am also wondering how one gets to model for you your stuff!

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