Sowing the Seeds of Tomorrow’s Fashion Stars

Roberta Annan’s fashionably philanthropic life

“I am a proud African and know how much untapped potential there is across the continent,” says YPO member Roberta Annan, by way of explaining her ethos for creating a sustainably successful Africa. “My focus as an ambassador and business owner is to create clear pathways for people — whether that means training women for jobs or developing mentoring programs to enable a new generation of entrepreneurs.”

Originally from Ghana, West Africa, Annan has lived and worked in four continents, starting businesses and charities that include contributing on the grant that led to the creation of the Regional Leadership Center for the Obama Young African Leaders, working on various initiatives with the United Nations and joining the Trade and Investment Taskforce of the B20 — a business group actively building a consensus about approaching global challenges and priorities as defined by G20 countries.

Voted one of the top 50 Most Influential Young Ghanaians in ranking poll by Avance Media, at 35-years-old, Annan has already created an unparalleled legacy of change.

A fashionable investment

Growing up, Annan watched her mother — a child rights advocate who helped the Ghanaian government implement a policy making child trafficking illegal — stand up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. It is no wonder then, that since starting Roberta Annan Capital Partners in 2016, one of Annan’s most indelible milestones is launching Africa Fashion Fund (AFF). The non-profit investment vehicle offers seed funding to emerging luxury brands manufactured in Africa, with women at every level of the value chain.

“My work always goes back to dealing with the root of Africa’s needs: strong, healthy women,” explains Annan. “When you are given financial opportunities, you have a greater chance at maintaining a balanced home life and staying in good health, which leads to less poverty and better-educated children; all of which has a domino effect on the economy.”

While it has become the normal to incubate talent for tech, finance and other areas of business, the fashion world has lagged behind. With the creation of AFF, Annan has provided just such a vehicle for designing African women.

Under the AFF umbrella is an inclusive incubator that provides designers low-cost studio space and showrooms, business and fashion mentoring, networking opportunities, access to international markets and educational seminars by local and international experts. By tapping into the expertise, experience and network of partners like The British Fashion Council’s Fashion Trust, Parsons, Common Objective and Ethical Apparel Africa (to name a few), Annan is able to ensure her designers receive world-class support.

“I want to showcase the creative talent that exists in Africa,” says Annan, “whether that entails the beautiful beading work of the women in the Maasai tribe in Kenya, or the incredible prints you find in Ghana. One can already see the influences of some of the biggest brands in the world embracing our culture and merging it with Western styles — I think it is an exciting time for young, unknown designers to reach their dreams.”

Annan’s strategy for keeping AFF nonprofit is based on the idea that in order to give designers the freedom to be expressive, they need to develop without the pressure of having to generate immediate revenues. As the organization’s investment arm, Frallain focuses on the revenue side, investing in luxury African brands. It seems evident that soon enough, designers whose talents have been fostered in the incubator, will advance to become investment vehicles for Frallain.

“Again,” Annan explains, “this comes back to my passion for bringing everything back into the continent — there are very few who can currently offer this kind of African fashion ecosystem.

Show and tell

With the advent of reality shows like “Project Runway” and “The Fashion Fund,” it has become more and more possible for young, unknown designers to reach previously impossible heights; or at least, reach them sooner. Annan’s focus on African fashion designers seems like a natural place to mine untapped talent, especially considering the additive philanthropic aspects.

“With fashion becoming more accessible through social media, exciting young talent is emerging at a rapid rate; it is vital to have avenues through which to incubate and train,” says Annan. “I think shows like Project Runway and what we are doing through AFF are vital to new designers looking to make a mark on the world. Who knows what other opportunities will emerge over the next five years?”

Looking back, it is no surprise that Annan has dedicated her life to the trifecta of women, fashion and Africa.

“I come from a family of philanthropists who spearheaded campaigns on women’s rights in Ghana and was taught from a young age to love my roots,” says Annan. “I have always wanted to showcase women and expressed my creativity through clothes, organizing my own fashion shows and beauty pageants and modeling throughout college … one of my key passions has been empowering women through business; in my role as CEO, I am able to provide opportunities for women to learn, to develop and to work.”

While the fashion world can sometimes be blinding with all that’s glitter and gold, it can also be a bond, a way for us to express ourselves; find our tribe. Perhaps the threads Annan has sown will expand the possibilities of this while bringing us all that much closer.

“Fashion connects people across the globe,” says Annan. “When I talk about being an ambassador for Africa, it is not just about flying the African banner, but about putting my money, time and skills where my mouth is and fully investing in the continent I love so much.”

YPO is a global leadership community of chief executives driven by our belief that the world needs better leaders. We grow stronger as people and leaders through peer learning, life-changing experiences and important relationships. We inspire and challenge one another based in open sharing and trust among a diverse community. With YPO behind us, we are uniquely prepared and supported to make meaningful impact on lives, businesses, and the world.