Voices from the Field: The Journey of 7,000 Miles – From New York to South Sudan

One woman’s journey of entrepreneurship, self-reliance, and empowerment.

Aprelle Duany, luxury brand in Africa

This week we are excited to introduce “Voices from the Field,” a blog series featuring first-hand accounts of women’s economic empowerment in action.  Our inaugural voice is the remarkable Aprelle Duany, a talented designer who launched a luxury handbag company in the Sudan before being forced to relocate to Kenya.  Over the three part series, we will learn about her decision to start her own company, the challenges of launching a woman owned business in a conflict area, and how she envisions her work benefitting other women in the future (and not just through beautiful accessories).  ~Cindy

I was at a point in my life where I was lost. From the outside in, my life looked great. Utilizing my engineering and IT background, I was successfully climbing the corporate ladder, living in the big city, and had a great paying job. But I could not ignore the growing, nagging feeling of discontentment.

I had a vague vision for my life that did not include my current career path. I always had a passion for design and my childhood dream was to become a high-powered executive in the fashion industry, but I didn’t know in what capacity nor how to get there.

At this point, up for a promotion, I was horrified at the thought of calculating more billable hours just to maintain my financial security. I didn’t know what to do, all I knew was that I was unfulfilled, and I needed to make a change.

I started identifying and defining what motivated me. I took a series of personalities tests, career tests, the whole gambit. As I think about it now, I was searching for a sign, something to jump out to me to give me the permission to take a leap of faith.

I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen? My worst-case scenarios always came down to one thing: I would fail miserably and make a fool of myself. But even worse than that, what if I never tried? Would I look back 5, 10, 15 years from that moment, regretting that I just stood still in fear of the unknown? I continued to rationalize to myself, I had built a great resume and had a strong network. I could get my old job back or a similar one at a competitor, if my leap of faith turned out to be a disaster.

Armed with a sense of purpose, I developed a plan to pursue the life that I dreamed of. I knew that in order to have a career in fashion I would be better positioned for success with a design degree. I put together a one-year plan, which included saving all of my earnings, increasing my 401k, living on Ramen noodles, and researching design school programs.

My research of the design schools led me to the Fashion Institute of Technology. When I read the description for the Accessories Design Program, “You were born knowing that it’s the shoes, handbag, belt that make the outfit”, I knew instantly that this was the direction I wanted to take. After an in-depth and competitive application process, I was admitted into the Accessories Design program as the oldest student!

Due to my previous work experience and advanced degrees, I was admitted into a one year accelerated program. It was the fastest year of my life! I was so encouraged, I was finaly in the right place, doing the right thing. It was amazing.

During the same year, I experienced multiple life events: marriage and having my first child. What a whirlwind! After graduating from FIT, Summa Cum Laude, I was confident that I would quickly find a design-related job in one of the top fashion houses as the first step in my new career.

Not just yet, at this point life really kicked it. My husband, who had left his home country as a child refugee, was also feeling a pull. He wanted to go back home and help redevelop his country: South Sudan.

What? South Sudan. I thought to myself, “Isn’t a war happening there?” I was where I wanted to be, I can’t go live in Africa? I am allergic to grass and not remotely adventurous, this would never work. But, slowly after many conversations and a lot of soul searching, we eventually transitioned our family to South Sudan.

When we landed in South Sudan, I think I was in shock. First of all it was so hot! There were no roads, no electricity, and no grocery stores. Even with my humble childhood beginnings, I had actually been living in the lap of luxury compared to what I saw in Juba. All around us we saw first hand the devastation of decades of war and conflict.

People say, “If you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere”, those people have never lived in South Sudan.

Slowly I began to integrate into my new environment. Learning a new culture, new language, and feeling at home were daily struggles, but they also gave me an opportunity to learn more about myself than I had imagined. I was much stronger than I ever thought I was.

Though a difficult journey, living in Africa has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. It has afforded me a unique perspective and given me the opportunity to master the skill of innovation and creativity.

The challenges in South Sudan continued to grow. In 2013, we found ourselves in the midst of a conflict that took the lives of many of our friends, family, and neighbors. At the height of it, I clearly remember two prayers: “God, please protect me and my children”. I promised, that if He were to get us out of the situation, “I would no longer take my gifts and life experiences for granted”; I would use them as a platform to inspire and empower others to live their best lives.

We eventually were evacuated out of South Sudan, and we transitioned to neighboring Nairobi, Kenya, a more developed environment that could support a growing family.

In early 2014, the APRELLEDUANY brand was born in fulfillment of that promise and I have been walking confidently towards my dream ever since.

At many stages of life, when we face challenges, we have the opportunity to shrink in fear or innovate. Ultimately, we go through things for other people not ourselves. If we don’t stand tall and show up for the occasion, we not only let ourselves down, but we also miss the opportunity to inspire and empower others around us.

Have you ever wondered what is on the other side of your dream? What will happened when you decide to conquer your fear and jump?

This is the first of a three-part series on entrepreneurship from Aprelle. Next month, she writes on the harsh realities of setting up a new business in South Sudan and Kenya. 

APRELLEDUANY is an emerging luxury brand that encourages others to use their gifts and experiences to pursue their life’s dream. While creating a luxury offering focused on innovation and inspiration we aim to expand the global image of luxury and challenge the current perceptions of Africa.

Kenya-based APRELLEDUANY fuses the founder’s training and experience in New York City, with the strong heritage and beauty of Africa.

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