By Matthew Ponsford and Marc Hoeferlin*
Informed by the remarkable rise of their own “head teacher” to the summit of Nigeria’s cosmetics industry, the students — for the most part young women in their 20s and 30s — are being taught that makeup artistry can be their passport to self-confidence, independence, and a business of their own.
Making a difference to young lives is all part of the mission for 37-year-old cosmetics queen Tara Fela-Durotoye.
“There are certain things telling you that you cannot make it; that you will not make it; that Nigeria is not a place where people make it,” says Fela-Durotoye. “I beg to differ.”
Fela-Durotoye is the CEO of House of Tara International, a household name in her native Lagos, where the company develops makeup, perfume and accessories that eschew the Western-centered tastes of the big cosmetic firms in favor of products designed specifically for Nigeria’s women.
In 1998, aged 21, Fela-Durotoye was already on her way to becoming a qualified lawyer when she launched House of Tara as a makeup studio, at first specializing in makeup designs for brides and their wedding parties. Her artistry proved a hit with Nigeria’s booming middle class and, today, the company employs over 3,000 beauty reps across West Africa.
She says she was drawn to cosmetics by her inspirational step-mother, by seeing “what makeup actually does to a woman in terms of self-esteem and confidence.”
The Tara beauty range was born out of her frustration at the lack of suitable cosmetics available in Nigeria — “Importers didn’t know exactly what was right for Nigerian women,” she says — and sense that her products could fill the gap while encouraging pride in home-grown glamor.
“A lot of the Tara products are named after either beauty icons or beauty philosophies in Africa,” says Fela-Durotoye. “For us it’s about sharing the world and sharing our culture to the world.”
The past few years have seen the company expand into catwalk and film makeup design as Lagos fashion and cinema scenes have flourished. When French pharmaceutical giants L’Oreal came to Nigeria looking for a partner to help introduce their Maybelline range to the West African country, they signed up with Tara, earning Fela-Durotoye a spot on Forbes’ list of “20 Young Power Women In Africa” in the process.
As a child, Fela-Durotoye remembers visiting her grandmother, and gathering with the children from the local village to pass on lessons she’d learned at school.
“She always teased about how she expected me to be a teacher,” recalls Fela-Durotoye. “And I would say that she was correct. Grandma was correct,” she continues.
“I am still a teacher, the only thing is this time I’m not teaching maths or English. I’m teaching enterprise: I’m teaching makeup artistry as a platform for enterprise.”
Fela-Durotoye’s 14 schools teach a range of courses, from short personal makeup courses to professional diplomas in makeup artistry. When she founded the schools a decade ago, she says few considered makeup to be a serious career prospect, with parents pushing children toward professions like law, medicine and accountancy.
But with Nigeria’s economy growing, the market for “little luxuries” such as cosmetics — and demand for trained makeup artists for weddings, film and everyday life — has seen a rise. Today, Fela-Durotoye makes the lofty estimate that 80% of Nigeria’s makeup artists were trained by House of Tara.
Fela-Durotoye says she sees each student as a potential small business owner and her courses teach knowledge of the beauty industry, plus customer service and business ethics skills, in addition to practical beauty essentials. The aim is to equip graduates with everything they need to launch their own beauty store, and past graduates have gone on to start small firms that employ a handful of other makeup artists.
If it seems strange for makeup artist Fela-Durotoye to be training thousands of competitors, she says you’d be missing the point.
“What drives me is living purpose. I think my business is a vehicle to change lives.”