LR Team ushers in the runway this Easter. For those of us who are Christians and non-Christians alike who partake in this celebration in one way or the other, let us not forget the essence of the season. The essence of forgiveness is at the core of this celebration. As Christ forgave those who betrayed him, those who stoned him, the thieves on either side of him at the cross and by extension, all of us, we need to forgive ourselves and forgive each other. Christ treats us that way because we are all ‘work in progress’.
The runway in the modelling world is one place that best describes the practicality of ‘work’ in progress. It would not be out of place to put it as ‘work’ and ‘walk’ in progress. This week, Nneka Okaro, an alumnus of the prestigious London Image Institute and now Chief Executive Officer, Panache Image Consulting Services, takes us on a ‘work’ and “walk” in progress journey from growing up, becoming a runway model to now heading a leading corporate enterprise that is adding value and changing the lives of individuals and corporate enterprises.
I was 11 years old and in my first year of junior secondary school when an older student told me I was ugly.
‘You’re ugly!’ she spat, face scrunched like a mildewed carrot. I remember that I held a cup of cornflakes in my left hand, a novel opened to a page under my left armpit, and spectacles slipping down my nose as I stared blankly at her, wondering why she spoke to me in the first place if she had no real information to pass on. She delivered what obviously had to her, been an important message and walked off in a huff.
My next encounter about the inadequacy of my looks came a year later. My mother suggested we take a family portrait, and so a date was scheduled for a photographer to visit. On the appointed day, we were shuffled and reshuffled along the western wall of our sitting room – my siblings, parents and I, until the photographer achieved the ideal juxtaposition.
When the pictures came out, they looked good. I didn’t care much about them, but that view changed when my Uncle came visiting. He saw the portrait hanging on the wall and screeched. ‘Look at that broad “Okaro nose”‘ I looked up, and there he was, cackling and pointing at my image in the frame. It occurred to me that he didn’t have to say anything if he had nothing good to. But again, I assumed there was something outside my grasp of understanding, to which he referred.
From then on, I noted that everyone except me seemed to have an opinion about my appearance. It was either I was too skinny, too tall or not pretty enough….
And on it went.
From the earliest stages of our lives, society imposes its standards on us, forcing us to compromise on its definition. A definition, which we were not a party to setting.
We are imperfect creatures. What we receive on the regular is criticism, and very rarely constructive. In the course of life, we are judged. Yes, we are constantly under scrutiny – from my story, and as you also would have experienced on various fronts, there is no lower age limit to this.
We live in a world where we interact with hundreds of people every day. The moment we see them, we make judgment based purely on the way they look and behave. In that initial split-second contact, we assess their appearance and decide if they are “friend or foe.” But it doesn’t stop there. We go on to make evaluations about their character, temperament, intellect and professional abilities and whether they are equal to us socially and intellectually.
So, how do we manage these expectations?
For most of my life while growing, I was engrossed in books – mostly fiction. In the years that followed, my reading and learning experiences shaped me towards what would ultimately become my life’s career.
I learned to build my confidence and to project myself in ways I wanted to be perceived. Being the ardent reader that I was, and still am, I encountered many individuals in these other worlds that had been through challenging situations they overcame. I didn’t think I was any different.
Growing up as the first child and losing my mother in my teenage years helped shape my leadership and protective capabilities. Already, I had inherited my father’s assertive personality so I was no pushover.
Ultimately, my interest in projecting a self-possessed facade led me to the world of Image management.
As a student, I combined my pursuit of a degree in civil engineering with a profession in modelling. My previously unsavoury lanky frame positioned me as an ideal runway model. In its way, this reinforced my confidence as we were schooled in the art of poise, walk, etiquette, personal presentation, etc. After graduation, I went into banking, rising to middle management position. I was privileged to work with the best brands that adopted international best practices and attained rapid growth in banking operations, service and people management, with the later areas becoming my core areas of interest and competence.
In anticipation of a career in these areas, I trained and certified as an Image consultant, resigned from my job, and incorporated an image consulting firm – Panache Image Consulting. Our services encompass branding (personal and corporate), finishing, capacity building, model & talent management and event management.
My role as an image consultant involves working with individuals and companies to project the image they want perceived by the public in terms of appearance, behaviour and communication. This is also called perception management.
So how do we manage these expectations, we asked earlier?
Well, there seems to be little doubt that our appearance sends messages. Whether we like it or not, we are making profound value judgment from very superficial evidence. Our choices in clothing, accessories, hairstyles and grooming have an impact on how others perceive us.
No matter your lifestyle or profession, your image does matter and since our initial contact is eye-to-body, it means that we look at clothes first. It would seem important therefore, to choose carefully the way we dress, purely to communicate what we want to have thought about us. Because a self-possessed image is one that projects success and which alternately attracts success.
In developing a personal brand, we ask ourselves. Who am I and what do I stand for? What are the things that are important to me? My values? And how do I ensure that these messages are communicated and received as intended? You may ask yourself why the later aspect is important. And that you do not care what people think about you. The truth is that we care. We all want to be understood on some level. When we are misjudged, especially when we have the best of intentions, it rankles.
As Nigerians, we rarely can compete effectively in situations outside our local experiences or environment because our basic education does not arm us with the necessary soft skills required to handle them.
Soft skills are the character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people. In the workplace, soft skills are considered a complement to hard skills, which refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills. They include the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, interpersonal skills, managing people, leadership, emotional intelligence, etc.
At Panache, we provide a slew of the necessary interventions required to take any individual from where they are to where they want to be. Some include: social networking, business protocol, dining etiquette, effective personal presentation and use of body language to make positive impressions and elicit desired responses. A lack of confidence is communicated very easily and when sensed, subsequent opportunities could be lost. Braggadocio is not confidence.
In my quest to bridge the skills gap between Nigeria and the rest of the world, I particularly hold dear, the areas of modelling and finishing. Our model management motto: ‘Everyone is a model’ negates the idea of any one standard of beauty, because everybody is beautiful in their own way. We empower our models with personal development courses to bolster their confidence level. They also experience a dose of our finishing program. We promote ethical modelling, empowering our youngsters with jobs and earning potential that do not compromise their values. In addition, we teach our gentlemen the essence of service and equity, especially creating an exclusive male usher service to entrench these norms. Panache model management is known to reject jobs that conflict with its values.
This piece would be incomplete if it goes without the mention of an area about which I am passionate– that of women in the world, in Nigeria. From the second I stepped outside the cocoon of my nuclear home, I noted over time, the debased way in which women are treated. The pursuit for a world where women can fully exercise their rights to the same opportunities available to their male counterparts was never something I had to consider or choose. It cannot be separated from me. It is me.
Formally and informally, I share the message of equity. I discuss with, and educate in my circle – men, women and children about the benefits of a system of gender equity. I learn about challenges and situations being experienced by the women and men outside my immediate environs (because harmful practices are also ascribed to men) in a bid to develop ways to improve them. Presently, I work with some groups to effect the change we wish to see.
1. Mirabel Sexual Assault and Referral Centre provides free forensic and counselling services to victims of sexual assault. Statistics of those treated at the centre in Lagos show survivors that have passed through their doors to include men, women, boys, girls and children – including babies. The oldest being a 70-year old woman and the youngest a 4-month old baby.
2. The Equality forum is a group on Facebook that provides a safe place for raising awareness of, and discussing all forms of prejudice against women. We are a group of people who are passionate about eliminating prejudice in all forms against women, and we aim to change the situation by respectfully challenging and influencing those within our circles of influence. The group also spearheads several radio shows in London and Nigeria for public education.
3. MAD-V (Movement Against Domestic Violence) MAD-V is a Movement that works towards curbing and eradicating Domestic Violence in the society especially against women and children. This movement was started by the HOUSE OF NACHUM, a department of Warien Rose Foundation, an NGO involved in Empowerment, Support, Education and Entertainment. It is the online version of DVA (Domestic Violence Anonymous), a support group also initiated by Warien Rose Foundation for women and men experiencing domestic violence. It informs, educates and empowers so that victims can make informed choices. All services are free.
4. Youth empowerment – Panache Image provides a platform on which it educates young men and women on equitable gender practices. We are of the opinion that appropriate values be entrenched before the wrong ones take root.
I am fortunate to have traversed several sectors and had various career expressions. In my drive, I continue to advocate for less judgement and more tolerance because we are all different. Like I read recently from a friend ‘The fact that you don’t understand something does not mean that it does not exist or it holds any less value.’
And so at the end of every official interaction, participants agree that making judgement based on superficial assessment is something we all do, and then we agree to make concerted efforts to hold back our judgement. And even then, endeavour to give only constructive criticism, respectfully and tactfully.
We are equal creations of our creator.
From dust. To dust.
Some LR team members decried the fact that Nneka Okaro made our mortality stare us in the face with the statement “from dust to dust”. However, a greater number of us believe she made us understand the simplicity of what we all share in common – our shared humanity.
This versatile entrepreneur and former runway model, translates her innate un-paralleled passion for style using her acquired corporate and project management skills to create a brand that offers world-class service in personal and corporate image management.
Nneka is a member of the Association of Image Consultants International (AICI) and holds the position of Vice President- Education in the Nigerian chapter of the organization; a member of the Institute of Financial and Investment Analysts of Nigeria (IFIAN) and a certified Project Manager.
Our experience with her and the Panache Team was humbling and truly reflective of the fact that “everyone is a model as well as a ‘work’ and ‘walk’ in progress”. Kindly progress to the comments section and let us know how much our “work” has resonated with you this week. Happy Easter.