BUQA Times

Florence Raja wears the Buqa Couture Rose Tweed Jacket Florence Raja wears the Buqa Couture Valentina Gown

Superwoman: An Honourable Example of the 21st Century
Mother, Wife, and Entrepreneur By: Atona Damachi

"I think big about anything that I do, because I do not believe anything is impossible," says Florence Raja, mother, wife, and CEO and founder of Buqa Life, a recently launched, London based lifestyle brand divided into a women’s network and sustainable fashion couture boasting classic power suits, elegant evening wear and beautiful saris. Together, we shared a wonderful conversation about Raja’s past, present, and future; and, needless to say, we have officially pledged ourselves to the Buqa movement. It’s a movement developed for the body and mind that places sustainability, empowering communities, inspiration and conversation at the forefront.

Formerly, Raja balanced studying politics at University College London with her career as a professional ballet dancer. She was one of the original dancers for Ballet Black, a company recognised for promoting ethnic dancers that was recently listed by the Huffington Post as one of the world’s 20 dance companies to watch out for worldwide. "Ballet was my passion," Raja tells us. However, at age 22, she chose to follow a different path.

"I am not scared by difficulty, but [the ballet world] is a difficult place to be," she explains. "You don’t really get any black or mixed race dancers in mainstream companies, so I did not think I could survive." So, she hung up her tutu and suited up to enter the corporate world.

The Buqa CEO has an impressive resume, to say the least; her accolades range from roles in asset management to business development, not to mention working for well- respected investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. Yet she gave it all up, once again changing her path, to pursue other passions: design, entrepreneurship, humanitarianism and motherhood. Perhaps her creative streak is a hereditary gift from her parents, who were both musicians.

Raja decided to take a different path for two main reasons: to fulfil her passion and to embrace her independence. "Personally, I also always knew that I would go down the line of setting up a company, because I really need that independence, as a woman specifically," she reasons. "I always knew in the beginning of my career that it would be very restrictive as a woman and as a mother, working and staying in the corporate world."

In accordance with British law, a woman has the right to 52 weeks off work for maternity leave; two of those weeks are mandatory. For 39 of the 52 weeks, a woman is entitled to an employee salary. For 6 of those weeks, an employee is entitled to be paid 90 percent of their average weekly earnings. For 33 of those weeks, an employee is entitled to be paid £138.18 a day or 90 percent of their average weekly earnings: whichever is lower. Paternity leave is granted for a maximum of two weeks and an employee is entitled to be paid £138.18 or 90 percent of their average weekly earnings: again, whichever is lower.

Given the parameters of the law, being a mother and remaining in the corporate world, particularly in the first year of your child’s life, almost unfailingly proves difficult. Even after the first year, re-entering the corporate world is not always a smooth transition. "I don’t personally feel that structures can accommodate and be flexible enough. That’s not necessarily their fault; at the end of the day, they are businesses and they can’t be flexible for every individual person," explains Raja.

This is especially the case in corporate fields, where excessively long and demanding work hours are the norm. "Leaving on time is considered leaving early," she says. Balancing such a heavy schedule and being a parent is inevitably difficult, especially as a woman, in many societies.

Even though Raja does not think there is much of a stigma attached to the working mother in British society as a whole, she does think there is a strong stigma attached to the overworked mother, much more so than to the overworked father. "When your job extends beyond the normal working hours and you can’t be there for school plays and so on, that is when judgments come in," she says, voicing her opinion with clarity. She says this is especially the case for women in very successful or demanding positions. From conversations she has had with other women, she feels that when working mothers miss out on events in their children’s lives, they feel a lot of guilt, and/or are made to feel guilty by society.

She feels, however, as though this is not necessarily the case for men. She explains, "For men, there isn’t as much of a guilt trip, but for women there is still that very big element attached to being an image of a mother, and what that is and should be."

Putting whatever judgments anyone may have aside, Raja is a multi-tasking superwoman, fighting diapers by day and creating couture by night. "I probably picked the worst and best time. I can’t think of any other time in my career when I could have the time to take this gap."

As an entrepreneur, Raja has the independence to set her own rules about how she wants to manage her time and her company, develop her vision, and interact with the society and environment in a manner that is fair and sustainable.

Raja always had an entrepreneurial extinct. "I always knew that I would have a business of my own that would focus on womenswear," she says. With the September launch of the fashion branch, Buqa Couture, that desire became a reality.

"Professionally, it’s a dream for anybody to become an entrepreneur, and to create something of your own. It’s amazing to work in the mainstream and gain all of these experiences in some of the best companies in the world. But eventually, you are always working with other people’s ideas. I wanted to be able to create something of my own, something that will grow," she explains.

That is exactly what we are certain Buqa Life will do, grow. It is already a multifaceted lifestyle brand, and each aspect will only continue to flourish.

Although Raja always knew she would launch a womenswear line, she was not aware that her fashion line would have such a powerful sustainable aspect. It came later, as a result of her long line of campaign work for different social issues. She believes it is important to be as socially active in her business as she is in her private life. "When I approach the business, it will be with the same moral standing that I do anything else," she asserts.

"I want to be responsible and there are ways of doing business without harming other people," she adds. This is why Buqa Life has partnered with SHE, also known as Self Help Enterprise. SHE is a branch of Buqa Woman. "Buqa Woman is the division of Buqa that really focuses on the intellectual and the mental, a network where women can come together discuss and take on different projects and different issues," says Raja. SHE, run by the remarkable Shamlu Dudeja (a warm and kind woman whose love and wisdom fills an entire room), is one of these issues, a non-profit organisation focused on women’s empowerment. It consists of a network of Indian women living in rural areas where they lack access to asserting their human rights due to sexism. Through SHE, these women are given materials and are taught the skills to be able to sew beautiful and intricate traditional tapestries called Kantha. They are paid for each completed work. This amount varies based on the quality of the work. Their tapestries are then sold in different parts of India; all proceeds are used to better the lives of the women and their families. With this income and financial independence, women are able to reclaim their voice in their homes and stand on a more equal footing with their husbands when it comes to familial discussions.

Buqa Woman also comprises Buqa Times, Events, and Culture. "Buqa Times is a blog, a place for different external writers to come and contribute. I wanted every part of the website to be personal; everything nowadays is mass marketing, mass production. This website almost bares my soul: this is my world, these are the people that I know, this is what inspires us, this is what inspires me," she shares. On Buqa Times, women share inspirational stories and discuss critical issues.

Buqa Events brings women together in a place to discuss ideas and simply share. "There isn’t a group where women can go and share experiences without it having a very specific agenda," comments Raja. "Our only agenda is to bring women together and see what that develops into." All of these events will be announced on the website and will happen about every two months.

Buqa Culture is a hub to discover different art exhibitions, events, and music, particularly in London. It also runs profiles on women active in the arts and culture. To be featured, feel free to contact the Buqa team through their website.

So, Buqa Life is composed of Buqa Woman and Buqa Couture. Raja, the designer, has set out to dress the powerful and strong woman in a way that is ethical and in coherence with the sustainable fashion movement. The fashion line features elegant skirt suits for the working woman in bright colours and rich fabrics, with structured cuts for a versatile business blazer that can be just as easily worn with jeans as with a pencil skirt. The line also features beautiful saris, the colour scheme for the fall/winter collection being of course burgundy with yellow and gold highlights, and a wonderful winter white.

Exchanging words with the woman behind this beautifully woven basket of fashion design and lifestyle rekindled my admiration of fashion and how beautiful it can be. Fashion does not have to be the superficial world of hungry women and bitchy hierarchies of dos and don’ts of the season, of must-have trends and must-not-wear threads.

But to change the conversation about style, make it thoughtful, unique to the self and person friendly, we all need to chime in. "You can’t do it by yourself; there is strength in numbers," says Raja, a wise and warm entrepreneur, mother, wife, activist and now friend.

" This article was published in the newly founded and conceptual magazine; OURS. Please visit the website ours-mag.com for further information about this brilliant publication or pick up a copy of OURS magazine at Selfridges."

Christina Okello guest writes for Buqa Times about her personal experience of grace in the face of adversity. Christina has spent the last seven years in Paris working as a journalist, and has been employed by some of the industry’s most renowned companies. Originally from Uganda, she grew up in the UK, and has hoisted herself up to native French level. She combines her multicultural background with a passion for story-telling to produce human-interest stories. Going beyond the facts rather than just reporting them has always been her main objective. Never afraid to go the extra mile to get a report, soundbite, or the emotion that will tell a story, she is driven by her conviction for the truth and her love of people. In the last few years, she’s covered several Diaspora communities, acting as a bridge between them and the public, in a quest for greater understanding and ultimately tolerance. A story weaver, peoples’ writer, translator and human connector, she is happy when she connects all the dots, breaks down boundaries, and reveals the bigger picture.

Finding Grace

"With modern women still struggling to break the glass ceiling in the workplace and more affected by the financial crisis than men, they are under pressure to do more with less. But instead of restricting their appetite for success and well-being, it has multiplied it even more."

Christina Okello

Somewhere in the busy labyrinth of the French capital is a haven of flowering meadows, lakes and waterfalls. Puffy clouds tinge the sky, while beams of sunlight peek through cedar trees that exude a sweet aroma. Buttes Chaumont Park is a popular haunt among Parisians and tourists, but for me, it’s the closest thing to grace. Running up its steep, green slopes, I feel somehow as if I’m edging towards heaven. The exquisite silence is so peaceful, the only sound the wind and my trainers hitting the ground.

In my trance-like state, I notice a young woman in her early thirties, sitting in the shade. With shapely, expressive features, she matches all the standards of modern beauty: fine blonde hair, slim, symmetrical face. But the glimmer in her eyes has gone dim: she wears anxiety like a second skin, and nervously chews her lip. With each bite, she unravels the curl in her lips that Maya Angelou once glorified in the Phenomenal Woman poem.

The scene strikes me. Not because of its singularity, but because it’s the third time this week I’ve seen a woman wearing the same anxious expression, including myself and my close friends. The gentle breeze doesn’t seem to chase the dark clouds away, and I wonder why it seems that modern women are losing their grace.

BEAUTY, OLD AND NEW

Perhaps it’s because so many of us are still struggling to make ends meet on the lower end of the salary scale, forced to juggle multiple roles and constantly bombarded with images of female perfection. Preeminent among them, is the compelling image of Cleopatra. The object of a new exhibition in Paris, antiquity’s epitome of beauty still haunts the collective imagination today.

Enter the Pinacothèque museum in the upper-end of the city, and you will be met by a collage of paintings and gold and pearl costumes of the Egyptian queen. At every corner, film shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Monica Belluci recreate her exotic charm. Yet it’s the story of the first encounter between Cleopatra and Anthony that remains legend.

On a barge of purple sails and oars of silver, she appeared to Anthony dressed as the goddess of love, reclining in a deck chair and fanned by servants clad as Cupid. The effect was overwhelming, leaving the Roman general enthralled at first sight. She was a woman of influence in a world of men. She was also a woman of extraordinary means.

Back in the park, the midday sun rises, and its rays catch the ripples on the lake. Beads of sweat form on my face as I round the bend, where the water glitters like crystal. I see in this reflection the opulence of Cleopatra, sailing down the Cydnus river in Egypt centuries ago.

Another woman of power comes to mind: Margaret Thatcher. The latter’s path from shop-keeper’s daughter to Britain’s first female Prime minister was made possible thanks to a sartorial makeover orchestrated by a team of skilled advisors. It would be degrading to reduce Lady Thatcher and Cleopatra to their image alone, and certainly political acumen and hard work contributed to their success; but having money and power helped them do a lot with that image. When you have neither wealth nor influence, can you still aspire to great things?

INSPIRATION AND HARD WORK

Yes, but you have to rely on your own resources. That is what I tell myself, at least, each time I embark on a new report. Even the birds flying overhead, seem more organized than some of the wild goose chases I have been on for one of my stories.

The waterfall rushing over the park’s steep, rocky cliffs falls over the precipice into the lake. The steel pumps generate a constant flow and I can start to forget that the lake is artificial. The pumps feed the cascade as if they were feeding the wheels of my imagination. I reach beyond the present, concoct plans, allow myself to dream.

It begins with an idea, then a pitch to a TV company, who will either buy or not respond at all. Recently, I received the green light for a report on the reaction of the black community to the populist surge across Europe. Two days beforehand, I had no camera nor editing studio. Two days later, the story went out to millions.

But it’s a long stretch to get there, a web of footpaths painstakingly woven. The grass disappears, and I arrive on set: with crew and equipment scarce, no sophisticated cameras, cables or lighting, it’s just my friend and I.

Tired even before we begin, I do a mental scan of the room: a deserted hall of unready display stands and a few onlookers, no sign of the festival I’m meant to shoot. But then from nowhere, it hits me: a crescendo of music, each note bigger than the last, like butterfly wings, and resemble the bristles of the feather flower that’s just landed on my path.

It falls from the rich, velvety voice of a gospel singer belting "Amazing Grace." I once was lost, but now I’m found... was blind but now I see. The lyrics hearken back to the iconic images of the Black civil rights movement in the United States. In that moment the essence of my report materializes: French Blacks are reclaiming their culture to defy populism.

Suddenly, I snap out of my stupor from two days of manning logistics, and find the adrenaline to quickly write my stand-up and go on camera (though first I re-do my face and hair in a nearby disabled toilet). But I don’t have an army of servants or make-up artists, only a single compact case of Mac make-up.

And grit. More mighty than the pebbles boring holes under my feet, stiffer than the helmet hairdo of Margaret Thatcher. It’s what allows you to persevere report after report, in total uncertainty of whether your story will actually come together, and in total amazement when it does.

LIVING FOR YOUR GOALS

Out of breath, I’m drenched in sweat. Young kids play football in the open space a few yards away, each touch of the ball punctuated by triumphant cries, building into an uproar when a goal is eventually scored. My friends and family think of me this way, that I’m driven by my goals. As a journalist, I belong to what Malcolm X called the fourth power, which, after politicians, the monarchy, and the courts "can control people’s minds." Yet every month I struggle to control my rent.

I’m not the only one. According to Avanti Mukherjee, the financial crisis has placed a disproportionate burden on women, who are more likely to be in vulnerable jobs than men. As a freelancer, I’m in constant freefall, never knowing where my next security net or safe landing will be. Admittedly the same goes for male journalists, but they still earn more.

Back in the park, every now and then, streaks of light appear through the procession of trees. I run into the thicket, trying to stay on the main path, but they all seem to lead in entirely different directions. I recently took the one with the least twists and turns when I joined a new radio company, without any previous experience. Overloaded from day one, I ran faster to keep up with the speed, trying to stop the building cloud of dust from burning my eyes.

People help me stay focused. An eye-witness in Katanga, displaced by clashes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose story became known to the world because I was there to listen. An analyst in Wisconsin I found at short notice to comment on the arrest of senior Malian terrorists, who helped me understand the stakes because, he said, I asked the right questions.

It is difficult to describe the feeling of relief and achievement after an interview or a report: the toil and sweat for just fragments of a story, fragments you hope will build into something that perfect strangers will recognize as their own. It’s the sudden gush of wind in your lungs, the menthol odour of the trees. It’s the feeling of coming out of the thicket and being cradled by swathes of sunlight, or in the arms of your best girlfriend who waits for you with flowers after a painful breakup. You look back and realize how far you’ve come.

A few meters away, a twig snaps and I notice a silhouette approaching me, a man in his late twenties. The face that leans forward to ask for my name is welcoming, but he can only run with me for a short distance before giving up. Men struggle to keep up with me. They see the outer beauty: little do they realize all the cracks underneath that are letting the light in. That’s where my beauty lies.

INNER AND OUTER BEAUTY

It’s no coincidence that some of the world’s most beautiful women are also the most broken. Before becoming Hollywood’s top bombshell, Marilyn Monroe staved off a troubled upbringing, tossed back and forth from one home to the next. Award-winning actress Audrey Hepburn almost starved to death during the Second World War, and battled anorexia and depression for decades after. Russian supermodel, Natalia Vodianova struggled to support her family, and was forced to work at the age of 15 in order to provide for her sister suffering from cerebral palsy.

But each one has been voted the most beautiful woman alive. Marilyn’s luxurious, platinum curls; Audrey’s contagious, impish smile; Natalia’s soul-piercing stare. They have bedazzled audiences the world over and earned the admiration of scores of fans. What I admire beyond their obvious star appeal, is their strength, their ability to transcend hopelessness and work to make the world better. That’s what Audrey Hepburn did as ambassador for UNICEF, what Natalia Vodianova has done through her charity work helping kids with disabilities in Russia, and what Angelina Jolie accomplishes through her work as goodwill ambassador for the UN. Their beauty is not just their hair and make-up, but their power to change the world. For the better.

All of a sudden, the taps which I’d closed off inside me open again. I’m seized by a burst of energy that overflows from wells I’d forgotten even existed. Every kilometre reveals a different vista, a different panorama emerges from every turn: darts of colour fly at me from blossoming flower beds; the sky offers a palette of soft purples, soft blues and dusty rose. I’m running faster and farther up the sloping lawns and the higher I climb, the further away the dense forest that once overwhelmed me becomes.

The air restlessly trembles, like over a kettle of boiling water. In its pattern of whirling bands I spot the outline of the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur on the horizon. Like a mirage. Of promise. Like every tourist in the beginning, I was attracted to Paris for its promise of "la vie en rose," where Epicureanism and pleasure were uttered in the same breath. I wanted to see life through rose tinted spectacles. I ended up seeing myself.

In the approaching evening, shadows of light and darkness stretch out across the floor, creating vivid patterns. At times, the light overshadows the dark, at times the dark wins out, and their frenzied battle evokes for me the disturbed world of racial inequality. I was lucky enough growing up not to be caught in this trap. Private school education helped me overcome the barriers of skin and colour.

From a modest African family, the notion of excellence was instilled in me from the first day I walked through the doors of secondary school where these words were engraved: "A place to grow, a place to excel." Despite being a black woman, I felt the world was at my feet. But when I moved abroad, the rug was pulled out from underneath me. The barrier was no longer just colour but language.

GRACE UNDER FIRE

I struggled to be accepted in a foreign tongue, trying to erase my English accent to sound more French because my job depended on it. It wasn’t hard, since I’d already erased my native language beforehand to fit into British culture; now I find myself paying for Swahili lessons to get my mother tongue back because my job, once again, depends on it. It can feel like you are constantly changing to fit the mould and are never yourself.

It’s when she is put under the microscope without a mask that a woman embarks on the path to grace: a higher spiritual plane that cannot be defined, but pushes you up toward the horizon. There you throw off the ill-defined corsets that restrict you, the multiple roles hemming you in. Your frustration rings out against the backdrop of the setting sun, echoing the seagulls’ sharp cry that carries for kilometres. You dig deeper to find your organic self: you draw inspiration from the expansive landscape lying before you, a sea of possibilities.

Along these tree-lined roads and gentle hills, I spot two musicians at opposite ends of the street playing the same tune, one on the accordion, the other on the saxophone. They come together to create a harmony, music that evokes an unexpected epiphany. The spectacle reminds me that human relations assume their highest form when there is exchange. And that language is not so important. I remember other moments of exchange I’ve witnessed, like a Ramadan meal shared between Jewish and Muslim communities that I filmed last summer, showing an alternative to the political divide separating them on the world stage. A scene I would never have witnessed had I not been pushed. And grateful that I was.

All this time, the wind is rustling against my face, sending my hair flying back like sails. The exhilaration pumps in my veins like an anabolic drink, giving me the sensation of power. It’s not the opulent kind of Cleopatra, nor the hard-hitting type of Thatcher. It’s the combination of polar opposites: being able to wield a mascara pen in a fast-moving train with acute precision; juggling a baby in one hand and making calls in another.

The looming rocks and cliff edges further ahead tell me I’m close to my destination. Everywhere I look, the clouds are turning shades of red, pink and purple, setting the blue sky on fire. The horizontal rays of the sun contrast the stony fault lines of the path, reflecting the cracks inside all of us. Laid bare, I discover my naked beauty. It’s not the golden eye shadow that lifts me up after a long day’s work, nor is it the copper-gold highlights that allow me to light up a room. It’s the burning in my eyes of the sinking sun in the horizon. I stop running, but realize I can still continue. Beauty is being able to keep the fire in your eyes glowing against all the odds, it’s persevering. Your beauty is your grace. And your grace is hope.

To read more articles by Christina Okello please visit: http://www.christina-r-okello.fr/