This Liberian CEO Didn't See Herself Reflected In Mainstream Fashion Brands So She Created One
With the rise of more and more black women breaking away from traditional 9-5s to become their own bosses, the CEO is getting a revamp as the SHEeo. CEOs are forging their own paths, blazing their own trails, and turning their passion into a profit. Curious to know how she does it? In the Meet The SHEeo series, we talk to melanated mavens leveling up and glowing up, all while redefining what it means to be a boss.
Growing up as a Liberian immigrant, Charlene Dunbar struggled to find clothing that celebrated her African identity and culture. Inspired by the stylish garments of her mom and Liberian church ladies, Dunbar decided to put a contemporary spin on traditional pieces, and in 2010 launched her brand, suakoko betty to give women a way to express themselves through unique African designs, prints and color combinations. suakoko betty was selected as a 2014 Belk Southern Designer Showcase winner and was sold in select Belk stores, and has since been featured in ESSENCE and made available at boutiques online and in cities across the Southeastern region.
In this week's feature, meet Charlene Dunbar of suakoko betty.
Courtesy of Charlene Dunbar
Title: Founder/CEO of suakoko betty
Location: Atlanta, GA
Year started: 2010
# of employee(s): 2
30-Second Pitch: "Hate dressing like everyone else? Express your style and creativity with modern, African-inspired print dresses and separates by suakoko betty."
What inspired you to start your brand?
I was inspired by my experience as a young immigrant and really struggling to celebrate my identity and culture as an African at a time where being African wasn't cool. I started suakoko betty as a way to celebrate African design and color and give women a way to express themselves.
What was your a-ha moment that brought your idea into reality?
My husband was taking his music artist to perform at an African Arts festival in Memphis and I feel like God spoke and let me know it was time to start working on this vision for the "modern, everyday African-inspired clothing" I'd had in my heart for a long time.
Courtesy of Charlene Dunbar/suakoko betty
Who is your ideal customer?
My ideal customer is minimalist meets artistic rebel. She wears bold colored or printed pieces and needs style that moves easily between work and play. She is always seeking new experiences and creative inspiration.
What makes your business different?
We're fantastic about customer service and like to help our customers with styling and lifestyle inspiration.
What obstacles did you have to overcome while launching and growing your brand? How were you able to overcome them?
One key obstacle was me understanding the importance of marketing my brand. I spent a lot of time on design, which is a strength for us, but wasn't always intentional about marketing and reaching new customers. I've overcome that by learning as much as I can, seeking out the expertise of others and making investments in marketing.
What was the defining moment in your entrepreneurial journey?
A defining moment for us was being selected as a Belk Southern Designer Showcase winner. There was a grueling interview process and we were selected out of 300 applicants. When we won, we had to figure out how to make 10 times more volume than we were accustomed to and it really validated the need for our brand and what we were capable of.
Where do you see your company in 5-10 years?
I see suakoko betty as a household name known for stunning African-inspired design and for showcasing African artists.
Where have you seen the biggest return on investment?
I've seen the biggest return on my marketing investment, as it relates to content and optimizing our website.
Do you have a mentor? If so, who?
I have a few informal mentors; including trusted customers and store owners.
Biggest lesson you’ve learned in business?
The biggest lesson learned is the importance of staying focused and not dividing myself across too many initiatives. I worked full-time while growing my business and had to learn to pick battles and be strategic in how I spent my limited time.
For more suakoko betty, follow them on social media @suakoko betty.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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The 7 Best Tina Turner Quotes About Love, Life, And Legacy
The world has become a little less brighter following the loss of the indomitable force known as Tina Turner.
The legendary singer --who was crowned the Queen of Rock 'N' Roll after captivating many hearts for six decades with her electrifying raspy voice, explosive dance moves, empowering life story, and much more-- died on May 24 at the age of 83 after battling a long illness. Turner's passing was confirmed in a statement released by the star's publicist Bernard Doherty.
In a statement to People magazine, Doherty revealed that Turner had "died peacefully" in her home in Switzerland, which she shared with her husband, music producer Erwin Bach. Doherty also announced that a private funeral service would be held at an undisclosed date for Turner's close family and friends.
"Tina Turner, the 'Queen of Rock'n' Roll,' has died peacefully today at the age of 83 after a long illness in her home in Küsnacht near Zurich, Switzerland. With her, the world loses a music legend and a role model. There will be a private funeral ceremony attended by close friends and family. Please respect the privacy of her family at this difficult time," the statement read.
Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images
In addition to the public statement, Turner's passing was also confirmed on her social media accounts. Although, at the time, details surrounding Turner's cause of death were limited, it was ultimately revealed that the "River Deep Mountain High" songstress passed away from natural causes. This comes years after Turner underwent a kidney transplant, which her husband donated, and suffering from various health issues. The list included high blood pressure, stroke, and intestinal cancer.
As the news circulated online, many of Turner's close friends and fans paid homage to the icon by expressing how much she meant to them. The list included Angela Bassett --who played Turner in the 1993 film What's Love Got To Do With It-- Beyoncé, Dionne Warwick, Mariah Carey, Ciara, and longtime friend Oprah Winfrey.
In an Instagram post, Winfrey recounted how her friendship with Turner started. The 69-year-old explained that she was a massive fan of the "Proud Mary" vocalist, and upon meeting, the pair's bond would blossom into a decades-long sisterhood.
During that time, Winfrey shared that she was in awe of Turner's resilience from her past childhood traumas and being abandoned by both her parents to how she overcame her violent relationship with ex-husband Ike Turner. The former television host added that Turner's ability to preserve through life's hardships inspired an entire nation.
"I started out as a fan of Tina Turner, then a full-on groupie, following her from show to show around the country, and then, eventually, we became real friends. She is our forever goddess of rock 'n' roll who contained a magnitude of inner strength that grew throughout her life. She was a role model not only for me but for the world. She encouraged a part of me I didn't know existed," Winfrey wrote while honoring her longtime friend.
Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns
"Once she claimed her freedom from years of domestic abuse, her life became a clarion call for triumph. I'm grateful for her courage, for showing us what victory looks like wearing Manolo's and a leather miniskirt."
Winfrey wrapped up her words by recalling her conversation with Turner regarding death. The Oprah Winfrey Show host revealed that Turner embraced it because "she had learned how to live surrounded by her beloved husband, Erwin, and friends."
"She once shared with me that when her time came to leave this earth, she would not be afraid, but excited and curious. Because she had learned how to LIVE surrounded by her beloved husband, Erwin, and friends. I am a better woman, a better human, because her life touched mine. She was indeed simply the best," Winfrey stated.
With Turner's untimely death, the "What's Love Got To Do With It" singer leaves behind an immaculate career spanning over 60 years. Alongside her countless hit songs, Turner's past accolades consist of eight Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Grammy Hall of Fame for three of her songs.
"The Best" songstress' other achievements included Turner earning her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, becoming a double inductee in the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame once in 1991 with Ike Turner, and again in 2021 as a solo artist, etc.
Turner is survived by her husband, Erwin Bach, many friends, and fans. Turner had four sons, two of whom she adopted while married to Ike. Her biological sons, Craig and Ronnie, both sadly passed away in recent years. To date, it is unclear if Turner has mended her relationship with her two adopted sons, who belonged to her ex-husband Ike Turner.
Turner’s music has impacted many people thanks to the beautiful storytelling and powerful words. In honor of Turner's legacy, xoNecole is looking back at her most memorable quotes on life, love, aging, and beauty over the years.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Tina On Life
"If you are unhappy with anything…Whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you'll find that when you're free, your true creativity, your true self, comes out."
-via 1986 interview with Ebony magazine.
Tina On Love
"He [Erwin] shows me that true love doesn't require the dimming of my light so that he can shine. On the contrary, we are the light of each other's lives, and we want to shine as bright as we can, together."
via Turner's book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good.
Tina On Her Greatest Beauty Secret
"My greatest beauty secret is being happy with myself. It's a mistake to think you are what you put on yourself. I believe that a lot of how you look has to do with how you feel about yourself and your life."
-via 2016 interview with Woman & Homemagazine.
Tina Turner - What's Love Got To Do With It (Official Music Video)
Tina On Aging
"Fifty is the new 30. Seventy is the new 50. There are no rules that say you have to dress a certain way, or be a certain way. We are living in exciting times for women. Keep up with fashion, keep up with your figure and the clothes you wear. If you look good and you can still do it, then go and do it. I have never worried about age."
-via 2009 interview with the Daily Express.
Tina On Death
"Even when it's time to go and leave to another planet, I'm excited about that because I'm curious to know what it is about. Nobody can tell you because nobody has come back. I'm not excited to die, but I don't regret it when it's time for me. I've done what I came here to do. Now is [time for] pleasure. I've got great friends. I have a great man in my life now. I have a great husband, and I'm happy."
-via 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Tina On The Legacy She's Leaving Behind
"My legacy is that I stayed on course from the beginning to the end because I believed in something inside of me that told me that it can get better…So my legacy is a person that strived for wanting it better and got it."
-via 2013 Oprah interview.
Tina On How She Would Want To Be Remembered
"As the Queen of Rock 'N' Roll. As a woman who showed other women that it is OK to strive for success on their own terms."
via April 2023 interview with The Guardian.
Although xoNecole and the world are mourning the loss of the incredible Tina Turner, it is humbling to know that she accomplished so many things, personally and professionally, during her time here and continues to show why she was, in fact, "simply the best," even after death.
We will miss you, Queen. Rest in Power!
Tina Turner - The Best (Official Music Video)
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