Culture & Society

Taking a Stand with Your Brand: Genderless Fashion in Africa

An activist and a business owner make a bold fashion statement by standing up for LGBTQ rights.

June 06, 2023

In Africa, as in the rest of the world, gay rights is a deeply divisive issue, and queer people often face discrimination and violence. Wandia Gichuru, CEO of Vivo Fashion Group, and Chris Makena Muriithi, CEO of BOLD Network Africa, decided they wanted to do something about it using their collective strengths in business, fashion, advocacy, and storytelling.

The Zoya X BOLD collection is about more than creating fashion for the queer community — it’s about starting a conversation about inclusivity and acceptance and welcoming everyone to the table.

Saying you’re a socially conscious business is a lot easier than actually being one. That’s what Wandia Gichuru learned from Chris Makena Muriithi, whose organization BOLD Network Africa advocates for LGBTQ rights. When the two met — online and, ultimately, in person — they talked and talked. And then they took action, creating an entirely new product line for the queer community.

“Fashion is a big thing for LGBTQ culture,” Muriithi explains, but clothing brands aren’t exactly serving the market. It was a perfect opportunity for Gichuru, whose Vivo Fashion Group had already built a business catering to the unique needs and preferences of African women.

Educating and engaging Vivo employees was a key first step. “If we’re going to do this, we don’t want to do it just as a PR exercise so we can tick the box,” Gichuru says. “Can we figure out why we’re doing it and why it matters, so that as an organization we learn from this and we become more accepting?” While Gichuru wanted to take a stand, she also wanted to respect her staff, many of whom were very religious. She told them, “I’m not going to force you to work on this but I want you to understand why we’re doing it.” With pride, she recalls, “Literally everyone stayed on the project. No one, no one left.”

As a former journalist, Muriithi saw that queer stories were never told with the decency they deserve. So, storytelling is a key pillar of BOLD’s advocacy work, and also of the Vivo collaboration. “Most of the stories that were told were negative. Yet we have such powerful stories about queer people who are doing well, who have businesses, who have been able to tackle life in many different shapes and forms. So for me, that was very, very important, just to be able to shed a positive light on the queer community in Africa,” they explain.

While profit wasn’t the team’s first priority, the collaboration has been a success by many measures. “The sooner people see the importance of just leading from love, accepting everybody for who they are, the better we are going to be as a society, as an economy,” Muriithi says. Gichuru elaborates, “In the long run it is going to make business sense because what you’ll see is, in a world of increasing choices and a lot more competition, people will start making choices based on what they believe a brand stands for.”

Listen to their inspiring journeys — the risks, rewards, and reactions — and how their professional collaboration had a profoundly personal impact as well.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Full Transcript

Wandia Gichuru: I think we should be more bold, too. I mean, just go back to the word, choose your lane. Say, “This is where we will stand, and we’re not afraid.” And yes, there might be some backlash and whatever. I’m not saying that none of these things make us a little bit nervous or worried, but I still think that’s life. You’re going to upset some people, and there’ll be a lot of people who will recognize it and many who will appreciate it.

Darius Teter: Welcome to Season Three of Grit and Growth from Stanford Seed, the podcast where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs, with insights from Stanford faculty and global experts on how to tackle challenges and grow your business.

In the United States, over the past decade, LGBTQ rights have become more accepted. Companies even change their logos and branding in solidarity with the queer community for Pride Month, celebrated every June.

Sometimes, these efforts are criticized as rainbow-washing. But maybe this view is a bit too cynical. We should not assume that progress is constant and linear. Here in the US, we face a concerted effort to demonize people who are gay, trans, or gender non-conforming.

Major US companies, including Target, Budweiser, and Disney are facing a backlash right now, as I record this, for standing with the queer community.

And while this backlash may hurt their sales, these are huge companies with enormous resources. What about taking a stand in a much more challenging context?

Today, we’re going to share a story of how an activist and a business owner are standing up for LGBTQ rights in Kenya, which is perhaps an even more daunting environment for corporate activism.

The entrepreneur is someone you might already know. Remember Wandia from episode one of this season?

Wandia Gichuru: Hi, everyone. My name is Wandia Gichuru. I am a Kenyan entrepreneur, a mother, and I am the founder and CEO of the Vivo Fashion Group, which is a group of companies in Kenya in the fashion space.

Darius Teter: In that episode, we discuss the origins of Vivo and their talent for identifying customer needs.

Wandia Gichuru: What we realized is that women of color have been pretty underserved. So global fashion is produced for a very white, Caucasian body type and skin tone. And a lot of Black women struggle to find clothing that both suits them but also fits them well, whether it’s in terms of the sizing, the colors, the silhouettes. And so, people responded to the clothing just because, for once, they were able to walk into a store and sort of find ready-made wear that fit their bodies and their shapes, and that they felt very comfortable and attractive in.

Darius Teter: Vivo has always been a socially conscious company, but recently they’ve gone one step further. They’re taking a stand on LGBTQ acceptance. This is no empty gesture. In Africa, gay rights remain deeply divisive. Of the 55 countries that make up the continent, 32 have laws criminalizing same-sex acts, with punishments ranging from prison time to the death penalty. Just this year, Ugandan lawmakers passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which bans individuals from even identifying as queer. This is the backdrop to our story. But Wandia hasn’t done this on her own. This journey wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Chris Muriithi.

Chris Muriithi: My name is Chris Makena Muriithi. Very many people call me different names, but those are all my names. And if I were to describe myself, I would say I am a bold human being full of life, joy, and confidence. That is who Chris is. And over and above, me being a human being, I’m the CEO and founder of BOLD Network Africa, an organization that uses storytelling and many different pillars to advocate for the LGBTQ community in Kenya and in Africa.

Darius Teter: Chris is non-binary, which means they don’t identify as a man or a woman. Instead of “he/him,” or “she/her” pronouns, Chris prefers “they” and “them.” And by the way, you may hear several points during this interview where somebody gets a pronoun wrong. But Chris says mistakes like this are normal. We are all adapting to change, and as long as you’re working from a place of respect, then you can expect grace.

Tell us a little bit about BOLD Africa. What does BOLD stand for?

Chris Muriithi: The many different names that queer people are given: You’re very brave, you’ve come out, then you are odd. So the letter “O” was odd. You’re always different from what other people are doing. Then you’re very loud, even in your expression and in your fashion. And then “D” still stands for difference. For me, it was all those words that had been used to put us down or to make us look like we are not like any other human being. Just to marry them and then we say we are now BOLD. So BOLD Network Africa is an organization that does advocacy for the queer community using storytelling. That is our spine, storytelling, but we have many different pillars that now come after that.

Darius Teter: I love it. So advocating and accelerating acceptance of the queer community in Africa.

Chris’s own story starts at an unexpected place: on television.

Chris Muriithi: After high school, I came to the city to chase my own personal dreams. I wanted to be an actor, so I came to Nairobi and I started off acting at the National Theater. After that, moved into TV and I was part of a local TV program that was on for a couple of years called Tahidi High. That’s where the name Makena came from because that was my acting name.

Darius Teter: Tell me about this show, Tahidi High. It sounds like Beverly Hills 90210 or something like that. What was it?

Chris Muriithi: Tahidi High was a high school drama, and so I was the head girl in Tahidi High for four years, just pretty much a lot of drama and everything that happened in high school. So, Tahidi High was known to have all the rebels, all the fun people, all the serious and strict people, and that’s where I was. But it was just that, and it was loved in Kenya with the generation that was on at that particular point because everybody in one way or another felt that they could connect and they could see themselves either when they were in high school or if they were in high school at that particular point, they could still also see themselves. That was Tahidi High, an amazing, amazing program and really, really built my acting career as well.

Darius Teter: Very cool. So what comes next after acting?

Chris Muriithi: After that, BBC came into East Africa, set up a base here in Nairobi,and I applied for a reporter role there. Then I moved on to the BBC for three more years as well as a reporter and producer for African youth programs based in Nairobi.

Darius Teter: The work that BOLD does is vital because queer people in Kenya face discrimination and violence. So, Chris, what is the state of LGBTQ rights acceptance in Kenya?

Chris Muriithi: It is not illegal to be gay in Kenya. Nobody’s going to come and arrest me because I came out publicly and I say that I’m gay. But the issue that is there is that there’s a penal code from the Colonial Days, Section 162 and Section 165 of the Constitution, that criminalizes same-sex acts with 14 years of imprisonment. So it is not illegal, but there’s a penal code that criminalizes same-sex relations. And by doing that, it has created very many different opportunities for queer people to be discriminated against. Without removing that penal code, it’s a weapon that is used, of course, to discriminate against the queer community. We do not share the same equal rights when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to employment, when it comes to freedom of expression, and also deep, deep-rooted homophobia because of our cultural practices, religion. So it’s just working through every single motion.

Darius Teter: To achieve equality, Chris needs help, and they think businesses can be a powerful ally. In fact, the idea of corporate responsibility is what first connected Chris and Wandia. So first, my first question to you, Wandia, is how did you and Chris meet?

Wandia Gichuru: Well, I followed Chris on social media before we had ever met in person, about two years ago maybe. There was a time that Chris, almost like a rant online, was saying, “Where’s business? It’s great that there are individuals who are coming out and publicly showing support and being allies, but we need corporations. We need businesses to also say, and not just say, but demonstrate, whether it’s through where they put their money, what products they’re creating, who they market with, who represents them.”

And I remember reading that post and thinking, “That’s so true. And what are we doing? We’re not really doing anything.” I don’t even remember whether you reached out to me or if I reached out to you. But there was a conversation through direct messaging on Instagram or something, saying, “Hey, should we meet? Let’s talk about this.” And that’s how the conversation started.

Chris Muriithi: And Wandia has always inspired me, so I followed her as well. And then I think Wandia said, “Why don’t we do a collection?” And, I think, initially, even we were thinking of doing the collection to be a Chris Makena kind of capsule. But after talking to each other, we were like, “Why don’t we just make it a BOLD X Zoya collaboration because it’ll appeal to many more people. It will directly appeal to the community, accelerate acceptance, allyship.” So I think that’s how I remember it.

Darius Teter: Clothing was a natural fit for the cause.

Chris Muriithi: Fashion is something that the people in the queer community really embody because it’s one thing that makes them feel seen, like their identity is out there. It’s such a big, big thing when it comes to LGBTQ culture.

Darius Teter: And the line could address a market gap much like Vivo had done for African women. So when we think about fashion and wardrobe, are there specific problems or pain points? Now, we heard from Wandia about the general problem that clothes aren’t made in Africa for Africans based on body type, but also preferences for colors and patterns and styles. Is this similar? Does this mirror the pain points for the LGBTQ community in terms of buying, finding great fashion?

Chris Muriithi: A hundred percent. Every single time I walk into a mall, I have to go to the men’s section to buy a shirt. I have to go to the men’s section to buy pants. And of course, they’re not going to fit me the way they’re supposed to fit because they’ve been cut for a man. So there is a great problem. And not just only me, even when I speak to other people in the community, you hear them say, “I have to go to the women’s section, get something, then go get it modified so that it can be able to work for me.”

Darius Teter: But the collaboration wasn’t just about creating a product; it was about starting a conversation.

Chris Muriithi: For me, even before BOLD Network Africa, the way I made many people in my circles accept me was through education. And I knew that most of them were ignorant, and not because they wanted to be like that. It’s just really because they have never ever watched something, read something, or just even taken the time to understand what it means to have a queer friend, what it means to have a queer cousin.

Darius Teter: Before they could educate others, Vivo first had to look inward.

Wandia Gichuru: I already knew we were going to do something, but we hadn’t gone into the details of what is the collection going to look like. Once you go down that path, now you’re just in work mode, you’re just doing prototypes and patterns, and you just focus on the product. And I wanted the why and the understanding to come before that. And so even before we started jumping into what would the collection look like and what are the styles, what are the pieces, I think one of the things that I felt was super important is that we took a step back and sort of said, “Well, if we’re going to do this, we don’t want to do it just as a PR exercise, tick the box, but can we figure out why we’re doing it, why it matters?” And not just a conversation between Chris and me, but really to get the Vivo team and the staff, whether they were directly going to be involved in the collection or not, but just so that as an organization we learn from this and we become more accepting.

Chris Muriithi: And I remember when Wandia said, “Look, I think for me it’s very important that we talk to the staff, that they understand why this is important. They understand who we are making this for, so that even when they are doing the work, it’s not just the work, but tomorrow they might educate someone else. Tomorrow we might have someone who is queer, who is working in this space, and how would we want them to be treated?” And for me, I was just like a hundred percent because that’s what I like to do. I like to educate. I like to talk to people and just make them understand that all these different biases that we have, really, we don’t need to have them.

Wandia Gichuru: And so Chris and some of her team from BOLD came and ran a diversity and inclusion workshop specifically talking about diversity issues within the queer community and within organizations not understanding that.

Darius Teter: Not everyone at your organization will share your beliefs. And while Wandia wanted to take a stand, she also wanted to respect her staff.

Wandia Gichuru: Our head of production is a very, very religious person. In his part-time, he’s a pastor. And I was worried that he might be very uncomfortable about having his team produce this collection, knowing who we’re producing it for. And even he said, “No, it’s fine. We make clothes. We’ll make clothes for anyone. That’s not an issue.” I mean, there were Muslim women on the team who were in full hijab. And also, I mean literally, especially with the people who were working directly on the project, I was like, “If any of you are uncomfortable, you can say so. I’m not going to force you to work on this, but I want you to understand why we’re doing it.” And literally, everyone stayed on the project. No one left.

Darius Teter: By giving her staff the choice to opt out, Wandia could push forward on the cause while still taking care of her employees, and that can make a huge difference. Chris knows firsthand the power of a supportive employer.

Chris Muriithi: While I was working at Nation Media Group, it wasn’t a very, very inclusive and open environment. I wasn’t able to express myself that much. But when I moved to the BBC, which is an organization that was openly inclusive, no discrimination at all, I found myself becoming bolder about who I am and how I wanted to express myself. Then unfortunately, while I was working at the BBC, there’s an incident that happened and I was outed to the public. So I woke up one day and my car had been vandalized, and it was picked up on Twitter because I was already known and I was a journalist, and very many people talked about it. It was one tweet after the other of people saying, “You’re gay, you don’t deserve to be alive. We don’t support this in this country. Gay people are a sin,” and all those different kinds of things.

While I was working at the BBC, seeing the acceptance that I was given by my employers at that particular point, seeing them saying, “You are valued and you are seen,” in that moment, I felt like I wanted to do that for so many of the people in the community like me who had never had an opportunity to be seen or to be loved, and to have people who say, “You are human just like anybody else, and you need to live a life with equal rights even in your own country.” So while I was at the BBC and after that incident, I remember starting to think of what are some of the different things that I did to be able to come out and say, “Actually this is my story and I want to own it.” TEDx Parklands in Nairobi, Kenya approached me and they said, “Look, we’ve seen what you’ve gone through and we want to give you an opportunity to own your story on a TEDx platform.”

And I said, “A hundred percent.” So I came out to the whole world through a TEDx, and it was themed “Choose to be Bold” because that’s what I did. For many years, I was not living an authentic life, but all of a sudden, I was like, “I choose to be bold.” And after that, there was the birth of BOLD Network Africa.

Darius Teter: So let’s talk about storytelling for a second. They say in great fiction, “You don’t tell us what the character’s like, you show us who the character is by their actions and their words.” So it’s the idea behind storytelling. Rather than telling someone, “Look, the queer community is part of the human community and should be treated equally,” you want to create a sense of cultural empathy for these stories, for the people who tell these stories.

So tell me a little bit more like whose stories and what stories are you telling on the BOLD Network?

Chris Muriithi: As a journalist, I saw how queer representation was just never there. Queer stories were never told with the decency that they deserve. It was always talking about a death, and really not recognizing that this person was queer, or talking about an incident and not honoring that this person was living their most authentic life. And really most of the stories that were told were the negative stories. Yet, we have such powerful stories about queer people who are doing well, who have businesses, who have been able to tackle life in many different shapes and forms. And those stories are never ever told. So, for me, that was very, very important just to be able to shed a positive light on the queer community in Africa.

Darius Teter: Chris also uses stories to educate.

Chris Muriithi: So I remember walking into that room, and of course, many people in the first couple of minutes just struggling to even ask questions like, “Am I doing something wrong by saying this? If I don’t get your pronoun right, is it wrong?” And I said, “Look, we are human beings. Human beings make mistakes, but what I’m here to do is to make you all know and understand what it means to be queer and how you can be more accepting.”

I remember just giving them different examples. How does it feel if today you leave the office and you enter public transport? You don’t really have to think about it. You just go out, and you jump into a matatu, and you go home. You don’t have to think about safety, security. Is someone looking at me and profiling me? Those are some of the small things that queer people have to think about every single day.

I already know from the time that I’m wearing that suit that I’m going to have a million and one people staring at me the whole day. If I’m entering public transport, what does that mean? Am I going to be bullied? Am I going to be harassed? When I come to the office, am I going to have people who are going to question me, “Why do you wear this and not this?” You also understand that there are certain things that people disagree with you. How would you want them to treat you? Would you want them to say that you’re an outcast and we never want to sit with you at this table? Or would you want them to say, “Even with your difference, we accept you at the table because our differences make us stronger?”

Wandia Gichuru: I mean, for me, it was incredibly powerful because quite a few, I think there were probably 30 or 40 people in the room from the Vivo side, and they had so many questions. I think it was one of the first times that they were able to ask, “What do all these letters stand for and what does it mean? And are you born like that?” The kind of things that they probably had been thinking all along.

And I remember, Chris, that towards the end of the session, you asked, “Now that you are a bit more aware of what makes up this community, raise your hand if you know somebody, like someone in your family, a neighbor, a colleague that you see regularly, a person whose shop you go into all the time. Raise your hand if you know somebody who’s in this community.” And every single person raised their hand.

Darius Teter: Wandia didn’t know it yet, but everything she had learned was about to hit home.

Wandia Gichuru: I mean, I had no idea when we started talking that it was going to become such a personal journey as well. We had started the conversation, and maybe a couple of months into it, my own child ended up coming out to me as non-binary and saying that also that they’re more attracted to girls. And I really, I mean I was okay with the lesbian part of it, but I really struggled with the non-binary and the whole having to come up with and call them new pronouns. And they were getting very frustrated with me and thought that I just didn’t care enough to make the effort. That was their feeling. And so as much as I was trying to support them and be accepting, I was also really upsetting them.

I mean, if Chris and I hadn’t started the conversation, I don’t know that I would’ve even felt comfortable to reach out to you, Chris, but then I did. You’d never met them, but immediately said, “You know what, I’m going to come over,” came to our house, sat down, spent two hours sort of talking, and I was asked to leave the room so I wasn’t there. But I mean, it definitely shifted the way they were feeling about me. And I think one of the things you said is, “Look, it’s been a journey for you to get to your own understanding of who you are. You’ve literally just said this to your mother. Let her take that journey too.”

Chris Muriithi: Just like Wandia said, I never knew that it was going to have all these different kinds of layers. We never knew that it was going to become that personal. We never knew that we were going to have a presentation in front of Wandia’s employees, and Saskia was one of the people who was presenting with me. But it was powerful and it was beautiful at the end of the day.

Wandia Gichuru: And in the end, Saskia ended up coming and being part of the presentation at the office, which I didn’t even know about.

Darius Teter: Wait, so Saskia, you mean the workshop in your office? Saskia participated?

Wandia Gichuru: Yes. Literally on the day of the presentation, Chris texted me and said, “Hey, hope Saskia is ready.” I was like, “Ready for what?” Anyway, so that was very special.

Darius Teter: This is an amazing story, Wandia. Were you proud? Were you nervous? Were you scared? What was going through your mind and your heart when your daughter Saskia got up and was part of this presentation?

Wandia Gichuru: Well, first, I didn’t know. So I was surprised, and I had no idea, and she wouldn’t tell me even after you texted, and I was like, “Well, what is this all about?” “You just wait and see.” But I think more than anything, I was proud. They were 16 at the time. Saskia is quite introverted. So even just for them to have the courage to do that, I knew they were nervous. But I was very proud and also proud of the team, proud of Vivo, proud of the questions they asked and their willingness to engage. I mean, I felt definitely everyone walked out changed to some extent and probably a lot more allies.

Darius Teter: I mean, the more you guys explain it, the more I love this collaboration. There’s the education part, right? Step one, understand. Step two, don’t be hostile. Step three, walk a mile in my shoes as I get on public transport. Step four, empathy. Step five, allyship, maybe. And even if people maybe aren’t willing to go out and march or protest, giving them an opportunity to work on this cool fashion collection is a way to be an ally that’s safe. Especially, you’re describing a group of people who are unsure even what is the right terminology to use and how to address people in the queer community. So that whole journey is, she’s so brilliant.

With the team on board, they got down to work.

Wandia Gichuru: I think what we did first was try to understand what are the limitations that we were so kind of narrow tunnel focused in how we think about clothes. So certain colors are very female, certain fabrics are very female, certain silhouettes are very female, and the same for men. And so at first, we just started to say, “Let’s just open our minds. What would it look like to take what is traditionally a very feminine color or feminine fabric and try and create a clothing style that would work for male body and vice versa?” And even before we started thinking about price points or marketing or anything like that, it was just, “Let’s play.”

Darius Teter: It’s hard to describe a fashion line on a podcast, but on their website, you will find simple navy corduroys, floor-length caftans bursting with orange and blue and purple, wide-legged pants in a mesmerizing geometric print. The Zoya line is colorful, joyful, and filled with surprises. It reflects the diversity of the queer experience, and that was no accident. Chris and Wandia were conscious to include the queer community at every step.

Wandia Gichuru: One of the things that I was quite determined is that we don’t just water it down to basic unisex. I mean, because there are unisex clothes. Your typical hoodie, your typical sweatpants, your t-shirts, your whatever. But I’m like, “That’s boring.” I mean, that’s not what this is about. This needs to be different and it needs to be authentic. It needs to be real, and we need to start from the community itself.

Chris Muriithi: For me, it was that the importance of just making people in a community feel seen, know that there is a big fashion brand in Africa that actually says, “You know what? Welcome to the table. We are here to listen to you. We are here to see what we can be able to do to create clothes for you.”

Wandia Gichuru: As we started developing the collection further, we got Chris to bring in actual members of the community to sort of look at some of the prototypes and the early samples, even the way that the models, the makeup was done. And actually, we never used models. We used members of the community, and we didn’t even tell them how to style the clothes. We were like, “Here’s the collection, come in, pick the pieces, tell us how you’d wear it, what would you wear this with and where would you wear it to? And bring your own kind of shoes that you would rock with it.” The way those outfits were put together was completely authentic.

Darius Teter: I love that. And I see Chris, I see you rocking some outfits on the page as well, which is so cool.

Because LGBTQ issues are so divisive in Kenya, Wandia and Chris were prepared for a negative reaction. So Wandia, what was the public reaction to the Zoya X BOLD line, the collection?

Wandia Gichuru: To be honest, I didn’t see that much hate. We had featured Chris as part of a Women’s Day campaign where we interview different people, men and women, and Chris being non-binary, and told their story on Vivo Pages. For whatever reason, that got more of a reaction. I mean, we had people commenting and saying, “If this is the direction Vivo’s going, I don’t want to shop there anymore,” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We had to decide as a business, are we going to respond to that or just ignore it? And I think we ended up just ignoring it and to hell with it, I mean, my feeling is, it’s a free market. You can choose where you want to put your money in. If us acknowledging Chris as a change maker in our society and someone who stands up for, regardless of whether you call yourself a woman, Chris, you stand up for women’s rights as well as for gay rights. And if that’s going to make someone not want to shop at Vivo, then that’s fine. Go shop somewhere else.

We’re not going to bend over backwards to try and accommodate you. But with the collection, I personally did not see that much hate. What I saw was people loving it either because they really understood what it was about or they just thought it was cool.

Chris Muriithi: I always say, I applaud Wandia for just saying, “You know what? I know that some hate might come out of this, but I know what this means for me, for my company, for the community.” And she went ahead and she said, “Let’s do this.”

Darius Teter: At this point, any hate has been far outweighed by positivity.

Chris Muriithi: I had so many people who are not even part of the community telling me that they’ve purchased the pieces. So many people who are just allies and they’re like, “It’s such cool clothing because it doesn’t look like it has any sort of order.” You’re not being told to go to the men’s section to buy those tracksuits. It’s just there. So very many people who wanted to feel comfortable, people who just wanted to feel like they were rocking some cool pieces, ended up buying most of the outfits that we made as well.

Darius Teter: Taking a stand can create a domino effect. Are you seeing positive movement in the fashion space, Chris, beyond the Zoya X BOLD collaboration?

Chris Muriithi: A hundred percent. Different kinds of organizations now were able to look and say, “Oh, okay.” We can also think of something like economic inclusion and what it actually means to be an inclusive, to be a partner, to be an ally as a business, and what that can also do for your business. Just understanding that when you are more inclusive, you open up more opportunities for investment. You open up spaces for the queer community to even say, “Okay, I’m a proud owner of a restaurant, and I can be proud to own it, and this is the amount of money that I’m contributing to the economy.” So I think we’re only moving forward, and the sooner people see the importance of just leading from love, accepting everybody for who they are, the better we are going to be as society, as an economy.

Wandia Gichuru: I think we should be more bold too. I mean, to just go back to the word, choose your lane. Say, “This is where we will stand and we’re not afraid.” And yes, there might be some backlash and whatever. I’m not saying that none of these things make us a little bit nervous or worried, but I still think that’s life. You’re going to upset some people and there’ll be a lot of people who will recognize it and many who will appreciate it.

Darius Teter: Now, all of this is very inspiring, but what about the business side of things? Did taking a stand cost Vivo money? Was the risk worth it? Well, with a campaign like this, profit is rarely the point.

Wandia Gichuru: I don’t know that anyone at that point cared that much about whether or not we were going to make tons of money from it. It was just like, “Guys, look at this. We’re here. We’re being seen. We’re so excited. We love this.” A chunk of it goes back to BOLD Network Africa. So we see it also as a way to give back. I mean, any change you make. When we started to produce our clothes in Kenya, there were people who said, “Oh my god, but there are some people who don’t think Kenyan products are as good. They think if it’s imported, it’s better quality. Are you sure you’re doing the right thing for the business?” And I’m like, “I want to employ people.”

For every product we make in Kenya, we employ six to seven times more people than when we import the product. So if we care about this country and we care about the future and passing on an economy that will stand, then these are things we have to take positions on. And yes, we don’t make as much money because it’s probably a bit more expensive to make it here, but we have a lot more positive impact.

Darius Teter: And in the future, taking a stand might be good business.

Wandia Gichuru: Another thing I would say is, I do think in the long run, it is going to make business sense as well because what you’ll see is in a world of increasing choices and a lot more competition, people will start making choices based on what they believe a brand stands for. I mean, I see it with the younger generation. It’s sort of, where do you get your stuff made and who’s making it and who do you employ? I mean, they’re asking these kind of questions. So even if it’s purely from that profitability, whatever point of view, I think you’ll need to think about where you stand. Maybe not today, but definitely in the future.

Darius Teter: Taking a stand has left a lasting impact on Vivo.

Wandia Gichuru: I think the experience of having walked this journey as far as we’ve walked it, even though we thought, “Okay, we’re this open business, inclusion is one of our values, we want everyone to belong,” I don’t know that we had really thought about what that meant. When we advertise for jobs, do we actually state on the job ad that we are a company that will welcome applications from everyone regardless of sexual orientation? Like, just put it out there. Say it. When we hire people and orient them, when they go through their induction, do we make it obvious that this is part of what we stand for and that we will not tolerate discrimination?

I think I was always a lot more conscious of it from a gender point of view. I mean, I have fired people in the past when they’re sexist, if they refuse to listen to somebody because that person is a woman. I mean, I’ve always been very clear about that. So I think as business leaders who are trying to build companies that will stand for something, that are true to the values they claim to stand for, then we should be questioning this. And not just for the queer community, but for race, for gender, for religion, always.

Darius Teter: To Chris and Wandia, the Zoya X BOLD collaboration has been a huge success.

Chris Muriithi: I think for me, when I think about this collection, it’s more than a collection. It’s really people were reminded to be human beings from the onset, from the conversations that we had with them, to them helping to produce this collection, to seeing other people wearing them and them feeling seen and happy. For me, it’s really just what humanity should be.

Wandia Gichuru: And I want to keep doing it. I think we’re due, Chris, to start talking about the next one.

Chris Muriithi: Summer collection.

Darius Teter: The story on LGBTQ rights in Africa is still being written. Since we met with Chris and Wandia, the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission won of victory in Kenya’s Supreme Court, but that win has sparked open criticism from Kenya’s president and increased violence against the community. And this fight isn’t just happening in Africa. In the United States, years of progress are under threat from hostile legislatures and state leaders who are actively banning books, punishing corporations that stand with the queer community, and passing “Don’t Say Gay” laws. Taking a stand carries risk, but living boldly and brightly as a queer person in Africa often carries much more. As a business owner, consider the influence that you have in how your platform might help others. Being an ally matters most when it’s hard. In the making of this episode, Chris shared the concept of holding space.

Chris Muriithi: To be a better ally, to be able to educate people about the queer community, if you have someone who you know is queer, always hold the space for them because we know that we are still marginalized, and we definitely need people to hold our hands so that we can be able to enjoy the same privileges that everybody else does.

Darius Teter: As we come to a close, I’d like to hold some space for them to deliver their message.

Chris Muriithi: I always go back to the basis: we are all human beings, really just trying to do this thing called life. We have to move from a space of love. Parents have to understand that you might have children who might walk up to you and say, “This is who I am,” and that particular point, what they need from you is love. They don’t need you to understand. They don’t need you to immediately say, “Oh wow, I embrace you. I fully understand everything that is going on,” but what we need is love. When it comes to the rights and where we are going, we are only moving forward. We will never move backwards. It is next to impossible to think that the generation that is coming, you will be caged the same way that we were caged.

Darius Teter: I want to thank Wandia Gichuru and Chris Muriithi for choosing to be bold. This has been Grit and Growth from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you like this episode, follow us and leave a review on your favorite podcast app. Erika Amoako-Agyei and VeAnne Virgin researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem, and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be back soon with another episode.

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