#Impact&CommunitySeries: ”I am passionate about building confidence in children” #LLA Meets Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu, Author & Founder of Philly & Friends.

 

Image credit: Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu

Growing up, many of the books we read as children did not feature black or African children. We didn’t see ourselves represented in the classic children’s books or the media we consumed. Quite sadly, this left many of us thinking that foreign is better.

One woman, who is changing the narrative today, with the power of words is Vera Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu, who via her books, is teaching children to embrace diversity and love themselves. In this interview with Leading Ladies Africa, Vera shares the inspiration behind establishing the brand “Philly and Friends,” the impact of her works on parents and children and her plans for the next five years. Lean in!

Hi Vese, it’s such an honour to have you on Leading Ladies Africa. How would you describe Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu?

Thank you so much for interviewing me. I feel so honoured that you’d be interested in hearing my story. 

I am a simple Urhobo girl, born and bred in Lagos, Nigeria. I come from a family of 4 girls, and my amazing parents did everything to ensure they gave us the very best they could offer. My family is my world and my most precious times are those spent with them. My wonderful husband; who I started dating in my first year at Imperial College, my most precious gifts – my 2-year-old girl and 10-month-old son, my lovely siblings, niece and nephew – who I love very much, and my amazing parents – who I’ll do anything for.

I am a homebody. I love spending time with myself – I’m a self-care advocate, maybe more of a self-love advocate.  I am a sweet tooth, a lover of mathematics – I come alive when solving complex math problems (throw in a Physics too). I love God, and I consider the Holy Spirit my best friend. 


I am reserved but strong, easy-going but pretty focused, quiet but pretty hyper, determined but very playful. You can hardly catch me idle. I’m one of those people who is always doing something. I find it pretty hard just to sit and chill with nothing on my to-do list. I set a goal, have an idea, or come up with a plan and go for it.  I like to have a good laugh, binge on TV Shows, hang out (and gist) with family and friends. I love food, and this has been the driver in co-founding DVees with my sisters- we produce bottled Chapman in the UK. 

Finally, I am passionate about a lot of things, particularly building confidence in children, telling our story and teaching them to love who they are. This passion led to me writing the children’s book; Who Do I See in the Mirror? and launching Philly & Friends,

 You founded a children’s brand named “Philly & Friends”, tell us about it and why you went into this field?

Philly & Friends was born out of my desire to teach black children to love themselves and improve representation in children’s literature and media. With only 1% of children’s books in the UK (9% in the US) featuring a black main character, I wanted to give my daughter and other children like her the gift of representation.

Growing up, a lot of the books we read as children did not feature black or African children. I did not see myself represented in the classic children’s books or the media I consumed. Quite sadly, it left a lot of children with the subconscious idea that foreign is better. I want to change this narrative.

When I had my daughter in 2017, I realised we had made very little progress. There weren’t many quality children’s books that featured a black or minority ethnic main character. At the time, less than 1% of children’s books in the UK featured a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic main character. 

I didn’t want her to grow up with the same experience I had. I wanted to create a diverse children’s character she and kids everywhere can love and identify with. I believe she and children like her deserve to know they matter. Children around the world deserve to see the world for the richness and diversity that it offers. Diversity is beautiful, and I don’t want to rob our children of the opportunity to enjoy it.

Philly & Friends is a children’s brand that publishes diverse children’s books and creates products and media content that feature black children. I design our books and products to instil confidence and positive values.

I am passionate about making a difference in the world around me and teaching my children to do so. Therefore, I was particular about Philly & Friends being a brand with a purpose. We are dedicated to empowering literacy in children, and every book sold sponsors a book into the hands of an underprivileged child.

It’s interesting because I didn’t set out to launch a brand. I had an idea to improve diversity in children’s literature by writing a book. However, when I embark on any project, I go full-on 200%. I wanted the book to be able to sit comfortably on the shelves next to a book published by Penguin or Random House and so I did a lot of research to ensure I did everything to the highest standards. And thus, the brand Philly & Friends was born.

Image credit: Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu

From your list of works as an author, you seem keen on telling authentic African stories in the simplest form? Why is this important to you?  Can you share some light on your books?

I grew up reading a lot of foreign books, like Enid Blyton. They were great books that exposed me to the world outside my reality and helped me embrace diversity. However, there weren’t that many children’s books that told stories from our world.

Going to the UK to study at 15, I realised the grave error in this. We never exported our own stories to tell the world who we are. We didn’t even have these stories for our consumption. This error manifested in different ways, through questions, comments and on a few occasions, treatment. I experienced a bit of racism; I was walking home from school in Bristol and had some kids laughing and chanting behind me. I wasn’t bothered by it until I got home and found they spat at me. I had huge phlegm on my winter jacket with spots of saliva. Looking back, I can’t help but think, if we told our story and these kids understood who we are, they might have been a tad bit nicer.

My desire to tell our story inspired my second children’s book. If we do not educate the world (and ourselves) about who we are, they will define us using their limited exposure and dark coloured glasses they wear. Our history is at risk of getting lost in the generations before us, and we must do all we can to preserve and retell it accurately to those who come after us.

The book is titled ‘Remarkable African Women: The Untold Stories of 40 Brave African Women’. The book introduces the untold stories of 40 inspirational women from different African countries who made bold and powerful moves. Women such as Asli Hassan Abade; the first female military pilot in Africa. Gisele Rabesahala; a politician and the first woman to hold a ministerial position in Madagascar. Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti; a women’s rights activist and first Nigerian woman to drive a car.

I am writing the book to inspire children using real stories of African women who led, overcame and conquered in their various fields. I want to tell a positive African narrative and introduce African history to the minds of young children worldwide. 

African women, in particular, have been marginalised for so long, and I want the world to know we are strong and resilient but most importantly, we matter. 

Given the social terrain of the African community, what would you say motivates you and keeps you inspired?

My desire to make a difference in the world around me motivates me. I believe God placed these passions, ideas and desires inside of me. I want to know that I poured out and used all. He gave me to make the world a better place.  

One of my favourite sayings is “Become the light you wished you had in your darkest hour”. I want to know that in my little way, I lit a candle to help others see clearly.

If all else fails, my kids motivate me. I want them to grow up in a better world than I did. 

Image credit: Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu

What has been your greatest challenge so far in the course of your journey as an entrepreneur and writer?

Self-publishing has to be the greatest challenge. I had to teach myself everything, figure out each step involved in publishing a book and self-fund the project.  Self-publishing is not for the faint-hearted, and it requires a lot of financial, mental and physical investment. You are the writer, marketer, producer, salesperson, logistics, supply chain manager; you are everything.  There were many times I wanted to give up, but I am glad I didn’t because the feedback, support and appreciation for the book have been nothing short of amazing. I honestly never expected it to have this much impact. 

And the memorable moments? Can you share 2 life-defining moments birthed from what you are doing right now as an empowered woman championing this cause?

A moment I will never forget has to be the look on my daughter’s face when she realised she was the muse for the character, Philly. The expression on her face and the look in her eyes is something that would forever stay with me. 

Another life-defining moment was attending the How I Built This Summit with Guy Raz. Philly & Friends was selected as one of 60 people chosen out of over 1000 startups to be a Fellow at the Summit in San Francisco. The opportunity to practise, perfect and pitch to Guy Raz, a few entrepreneurs and the fellows was a wonderful experience, one I will forever cherish. 

Image credit: Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu

Let’s talk about your debut book: ‘Who Do I See in the Mirror? The book has done quite well, well done! What is the inspiration behind it and how have you been able to measure its impact?

Who Do I See in the Mirror? is a simple yet powerful book that introduces children to the concept of self-love and acceptance. It explores the parts of the body, making the idea of self-discovery exciting while encouraging them to love each part. As Philly looks at her reflection in the mirror, she realises that from her curly hair to her strong brown legs that love to dance, she is unique. It reminds children that they are much more than their physical appearance.
Historically the beauty standard in the media hasn’t been favourable to the average black woman or child. I wrote this book to help our little girls and boys love themselves and see the beauty in who they are, mainly because children’s literature is lacking diversity.

I wrote the book because I want to do right by the next generation. I want our children to see themselves represented in the media, books and toys consume. Representation is everything. You believe what you see, and you become what you believe. I also believe that our books aren’t just for kids from ethnic minorities; they are for everyone – boys and girls. They teach love, tolerance and acceptance; they make the world a better place.

My 2-year-old daughter inspired my debut book, Who Do I See in the Mirror? I wanted to create a diverse children’s character she and kids everywhere can love and identify with. I want her to see herself in the books she read. I can’t emphasise the importance of representation enough. I’ve seen her open a page in the book, without any prompting, imitate what the character; Philly, is doing.  

I’ve received messages from parents thanking me for writing the book. To me, this has been one of the biggest blessings to impact the lives of little ones. The most common message I get is of kids saying things like “She looks like me”, “She has my hair”, “She has the same skin as me”. The most recent one was of a 6-year-old girl telling her brother “There’s only one me and that’s why I’m very special” – A message from the book. 

I received the following message from a mum, and it hit the most: “P. S. Love your book. Just bought it recently for my 4-year-old as a girl at her school said she didn’t want to play with her as she doesn’t like her brown skin. My daughter came home saying she doesn’t like her brown skin, (she has never said this before) but since reading her your book plus reinforcing how amazing she is, she is back to loving all of herself ❤️“. 

Her message broke my heart and made me so happy at the same time. It’s really sad that a little 4-year-old girl has to deal with this sort of issue. However, I was pleased my book was able to provide the confidence boost she needed. 

What achievements do you hope for in the next 5 years?

I did not envision being featured on BBC or Metro, interviewed by BBC and Premier Radio or any of the media coverage I have received thus far. So, I have come further than I expected.

In the next five years, I hope that our books will be on the bookshelf of every little boy and girl — particularly children of African descent. I hope to have educated the world about Remarkable Africans, our stories and culture through the children books, products and media content we produce.

I’ve seen how dreams have changed and evolved through years on the entrepreneurial journey. So, I am open to seeing what the future holds and what wind blows in my direction.

Image credit: Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu

Mentorship definitely makes the journey a whole lot easier, do you believe in it? Can you share briefly, some women you consider mentors?

Mentorship is everything. With the wisdom of mentors, you accomplish in a year what may take others longer to achieve. I am inspired by so many great women. However, my greatest mentor, counsellor and all-time favourite woman is my mother, Mrs Ese Aghoghovbia. To me, she’s the wisest, most amazing woman I have ever met and I am so glad God gave her to me. She is humble, loving, kind, strong, reliable and funny. She was a career woman and rose to the pinnacle of her insurance career as an Assistant General Manager in NICON Insurance PLC before retiring to found a preschool, a long-life dream of hers. I admire her, all she is to me, my sisters and many other people who look up to her. 

Let’s talk about your personal life and family for a bit. Would you say your advocacy for children has helped you become a better parent? If yes, how?

I believe parenting is a very personal thing. Each child is different, each home dynamics is different, and each parenting style is different. Yes, my advocacy for children has made me more conscious about my choices, words and actions. I believe the words spoken to and over us as children manifest into the adults we become. So, I have become intentional about my parenting. 

However, I think parenting is a journey, not a destination. You are continually growing and learning new things as your child grows and begins to discover who they are. You need to continually remind yourself to be patient, gentle and lead by example.

I’m in my 30s, and I am still evolving. As people change and continue to discover themselves, relationships evolve. Parenting is another form of relationship and the same applies to it. I have an amazing relationship with my parents. I have watched our relationship grow and change at different stages. In particular, their parenting style. 

Image credit: Vese Aghoghovbia-Aladewolu

Do you have a life philosophy, personal mantra perhaps that keeps you steady when the going gets tough?

I was raised a Christian and spent a lot of my childhood watching Kids Praise (Psalty). Till date, any time I find myself in a tough place, I sing the song “I will cast all my cares upon you”. 

I often think as long as I am still breathing, there is a way out. I survived the last tough time, so I will survive this one. I always give myself a time out. So, when it gets tough and a bit overwhelming, I withdraw, drop everything and love on myself. ‘Last Last’ everyone and everything will be alright, including me.  

Can you tell us which of your accomplishments you’re most proud of?

Uh oh! Another of these questions. This is a tough one, but I guess I would say seeing the finished copy of Who Do I See in the Mirror? has to be one of my proudest days. I had a dream, and I made it happen. If no one ever bought a copy, I would still have been proud of the fact that I did it afraid.

 

The LLA Grassroot Series is a monthly interview series that highlights the achievements and journey of African female who has demonstrated exemplary initiative at the grassroots level.

The vision is to showcase the Leading Ladies who are transforming Africa and the African narrative through impact at the community level.

It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes leadership, inclusion and diversity for women of African descent.

If you know any kick-ass women of African Descent doing phenomenal things at the grassroots level, email lead@leadingladiesafrica.org, and she could possibly be featured.

 

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