Home » Agents » How to Successfully Connect your Business to Social Change: a Conversation with Nasozi Kakembo, Founder of xN Studio

How to Successfully Connect your Business to Social Change: a Conversation with Nasozi Kakembo, Founder of xN Studio

by | Jan 28, 2022

xN Studio is a lifestyle decor brand founded in Brooklyn in 2011 by Ugandan-American-DC native, Nasozi Kakembo. Nasozi’s Ugandan heritage is behind both the inspiration and the foundation of xN Studio. Evidenced through the traditional techniques and timeworn textiles that anchor this brand, xN Studio aims to adorn the sacred space of the home with a combination of classic and modern design.

Photo of Nasozi Kakembo

A quick browse through xN Studio’s website shows that it’s no regular home decor brand. The colorful mudcloth and indigo pillows, handwoven baskets, and organically dyed raffia coasters are just a few examples of the many beautiful, unique, traditional home goods available at xN Studio. Best of all, these products are proudly made either in Africa, primarily in Uganda, or the east coast of the United States. To make these products, xN Studio has partnered with expert artisans and entrepreneurs which drives its brand mission of developing Africa’s creative industry.

Photo of xN Studio pillows in the home

This February we choose to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans. We are also supporting Black-Owned businesses that are uplifting the communities around them, making a change, and crafting products that help transform a house into a home. Today, we’re sharing Nasozi Kakembo’s story, learning about her approach to lifestyle decor, how she has successfully connected her business to social change in Africa, and any advice she would give to young entrepreneurs looking to enter a similar industry. Here’s what she had to say.

What or who inspired you to create xN Studio?

My mother worked in an African art gallery during my entire upbringing, so not only was our home infused with African art and objects, but I also spent a lot of time with her at the gallery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. as well as African-based cultural events in and around D.C. My father was also an entrepreneur in a sense; he started his own medical practice 25+ years ago, so I always had at least one example of what that looked like and meant.

My Ugandan heritage is also central to my artistic inspiration. The baskets and other customary objects that we had in our home tied me to my family members in Uganda, many of whom I was not able to meet until my teens, and some whom I never got the chance to meet.

xN Studio partners with artisans and independent entrepreneurs in Africa to create traditionally crafted products and also donates a portion of sales to the 501(c)3 charity, Mukono Foundation, which helps support children at the Suubi School. What was the impetus to connect your business to social change?

Connecting my business to social change was always a key element of the business model from day one. My career and educational background prior to founding the business was in philanthropy and international human rights (and before that, I studied architecture and art history). While I loved architecture, I didn’t find that it was the right tool to address the things I cared about in the world, like access to clean water and quality education. Working in the social impact space for close to a decade, I collected and reflected on best (and worst) practices, and devised a way that I could leverage a business model for social change.

As it turns out, it’s not that hard and it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a difference. It is also customary for immigrant families to send money “back home” to family members, so giving back was always something we did, we just didn’t call it or consider that. It’s just what you do, and Mukono Foundation is essentially a mechanism that allows me to be more “official” about it and for others to join the cause as well.

Photo of Suubi School children outside a schoolhouse in Mukono, UgandaPhoto of artisans in Uganda weaving baskets

You often refer to xN Studio as a lifestyle, can you elaborate on what this means and how this is reflected in the brand and its products?

xN Studio’s tagline is Lifestyle. Without Borders. I mean this in both the literal and figurative sense—borders are made up and imposed; both geopolitical and mental. So my brand is about expressing who we are or would be in the absence of these abstractions. Expressing what our design looks like, what our spaces look like, what our communities look like if we weren’t put into prescribed boxes—or borders. 

Initially, people didn’t necessarily associate African art and culture with high-end home decor, or high-end anything for that matter. African products didn’t “belong” in elevated spaces; which is completely false but that wasn’t a widely accepted notion. By inserting very African pieces into very non-African ones, and being precise about the styling, people eventually began to see that the exclusion was false all along. The work speaks for itself, so I spent a lot of time developing images and photoshoots that spoke to this truth and brought it to life

Photo of mudcloth pillows

Tell us about your relationship with the main cities connected to xN Studio: Brooklyn (the U.S. headquarters) and Uganda (the African headquarters)?

Brooklyn was where I founded my business and I don’t think it would exist without that period in my life. I had a “typical” 9-5 job and while it allowed me to travel the globe and meet incredible people, it didn’t appeal to my artistic side. I am very much a technical and an artistic person (YES! You can be both!!), and being surrounded by so many people in Brooklyn charting their own paths in so many different ways was enthralling. Whether it was the Senegalese-French family who set up a cafe across the street from my home (and then another, and another) or the street vendors, I had a front-row seat to what a fulfilling life could look like and what else that could mean besides a 401K and 14 days vacation. I was hooked.

Uganda is the heart of the business because that is where I see the most opportunity, both artistically and in terms of making a difference. It of course helps a great deal that I have family there and have spent a lot of time there throughout the years, and it is one of the characteristics that make my mission and my work unique. I am intimately familiar with the best ways to go about making a meaningful difference, and not feeling like an outsider helicoptering in, which is often the case with US-based social impact ventures.

Photo of Angie, an xN Studio artisan based in Ghana  

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced since starting your business in 2011?

I’d say my biggest challenge has been being ahead of the “trends.” When I started my business in 2011, African-inspired home decor wasn’t making waves in the press or in major retail outlets. To put it succinctly, it was a very hard sell at the large-scale retailer level. My target customer knew exactly who I was and what the brand was about, but the big stores (and even some independent retailers) were not into my brand at the time. I stood by the products, their story, and my customers’ feedback, and eventually, many of those same retailers began carrying African-inspired home decor. The rest is history.

How has the pandemic affected your business? Have you needed to pivot business strategies as a result?

My business was immediately impacted by COVID-19 in terms of my supply chain, and then again due to a renewed lockdown in Uganda as of June 6, 2021, where the majority of artisans that I work with are located.

As a result, I provided an Artisan Relief grant for the first time. The reality is that there are no financial safety nets in Uganda, and with tourism (one of the key industries) stunted because of lockdowns, my partners there were quite literally running out of food and couldn’t meet other basic needs. My brand and the Foundation ramped up fundraising to alleviate some of the devastating consequences of the pandemic there.

One way in which I was able to pivot back to a normal strategy was returning to in-person events for the first time in years during this past holiday season. I partnered with Salt & Sundry and West Elm for two pop-up events, and it was so nice to meet and speak with customers in person again!

Please share the biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting xN Studio. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Looking back, I wouldn’t have incorporated my name into the business. I think it’s important to keep a healthy distinction between work and personal life, even if it’s your own business. It’s much harder to do that, and build out a brand that is independent of your identity when your name is part of the business name. This might not be an issue for some, but I’m a relatively private person, and so that separation between my work and my private life is something that is very important to me.

We love the gorgeous aprons, baskets, and pillows available at xN Studio. Which product is your personal favorite and which is your best seller?

My personal favorite is the collection of baskets. They were always part of my childhood home, and connected me, visually, to my family there. I always found them so beautiful and it has been exciting to work with them over the years and see how they translate into homes and lifestyles in the US and other countries outside of Africa.

Bestsellers vary based on time of year, but the Bogolan Bauhuas Planters have been a persistent strong seller since I introduced them in the fall of 2021.

Photo of bestselling baskets used in outdoor decor 

Photo of bestselling Bogolan Bauhaus planter 

Can you share one piece of advice you would tell an aspiring black entrepreneur thinking of entering the same business/industry and connecting it to social change?

Ask for everything! Do not sell yourself short! Ask for help, ask for advice, ask for money. Black entrepreneurs are not only deprived of precious financial capital, but we also don’t have access to vital information that could propel our businesses forward. We have tremendous resources within the networks that we build, and we can’t shy away from them. There were times when I felt like that was all I had; the people with whom I had built relationships over the years. Although it might take me some time to work up the courage to ask for a certain thing, I always do, and never regret it – even when the answer is “no”. That said, your own knowledge or network is valuable to someone else as well, no matter how new or “inexperienced” you may feel, so make yourself available and be a genuine partner in this process.

You can learn more about xN Studio, and shop their beautiful products on their website. We also encourage you to follow them on Instagram and Facebook for a healthy, colorful dose of home decor inspiration.

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