Chizoba Martin: Daring to be Different in Sustainable Fashion
Telfer alumna Chizoba Udeh-Martin (BCom ’14) is the lead designer, creator and owner of luxury fashion brand Zoba Martin. The business focuses on creating custom garments for special occasions, particularly weddings. Chizoba, who made a pitch on CBC’s Dragons' Den, always knew she wanted to be a fashion entrepreneur, but never imagined she would be a designer. “I thought I would just own a boutique!” she says. Chizoba never thought her pieces would be featured in music videos — including the cathedral durag veil in Drake’s “Falling Back” video — receive widespread media recognition and be showcased in runway shows, all in just a few years.
A fashion entrepreneur at her core.
Chizoba grew up in Nigeria, where her passion for design blossomed. Her mother attended fashion school, coming home to share her projects and sketches with Chizoba and her siblings. Her aunt even designed and created her own wedding dress. Between Chizoba’s admiration for creating intricate pieces from scratch and coming from a family of entrepreneurs, it’s no surprise that she went on to be the owner and principal designer of Zoba Martin.
“It was an easy decision to choose Telfer.”
Following her mother’s wishes that she study abroad, Chizoba explored business programs across Canada, but was drawn to Ottawa because of its diversity. “It’s easier to be around people that look like you,” she says, alluding to the strong sense of multiculturalism in the National Capital Region. The Telfer School of Management stood out to Chizoba because the university had a separate school of business with a variety of programs. She was equally drawn to the option to learn in French and the events and opportunities for students that would help her become an entrepreneur.
Although Chizoba says she took time to adjust to university life, she mentions the supportive nature of the Telfer community. “Canadians always seemed to want to lend a hand to international students.” While studying at uOttawa, Chizoba also found a sense of community as a member of the Nigerian Student Association. At Telfer, Chizoba found that the connections she made with like-minded students were beneficial in her pathway to entrepreneurship. Some of her clients are fellow uOttawa alumni, demonstrating the longstanding support of the Telfer community.
“It felt natural to become an entrepreneur.”
After completing her Bachelor of Commerce in Entrepreneurship at Telfer, Chizoba attended the LaSalle College Toronto School of Design to pursue her creative aspirations. Her final project for her diploma was to create a 12-piece collection, which was a tremendous success. Chizoba discovered her passion for design and made the choice to pursue a career as a designer. She thought, “I like this, people like my work, so why not?”
Chizoba used her collection as a starting point to launch Zoba Martin in 2016. The designer decided to focus on bridal and formalwear because she had a passion for intricate, detailed pieces. She started by developing her website, taking on clients, and showcasing her pieces at pop-up events. In 2018, Chizoba was awarded the Emerging Designer of the Year Award by African Fashion Week Toronto. In 2019, Chizoba officially launched the brand. “I did it for myself and for those in my family that never got a chance to pursue fashion.”
Preparing to meet the Dragons
When Chizoba received the invitation to pitch Zoba Martin on Dragons' Den, she only had a short time to get ready. “Some people take years to prepare their business for a pitch,” she says. “I had 10 days.” Chizoba jumped at the opportunity to present on Dragons' Den, not only because it gave her the opportunity to scale her company and showcase her designs, but also because it would connect her with business professionals who could provide her with feedback. In just a week and a half, Chizoba pulled together her pitch. She worked day and night to crunch her numbers, prepare her designs and seek feedback from her network.
“I practiced my pitch over and over and over again.”
While on Dragons' Den, Chizoba mentioned how Zoba Martin is paving the way for increased sustainability in the fashion industry. “From over-manufacturing to materials that aren’t environmentally friendly, to fast fashion, there’s so much waste in the fashion industry that people don’t know about,” she says. Chizoba’s brand focuses on custom pieces, not only for clients to feel authentic and beautiful in their unique Zoba Martin graments, but also to curve waste in the fashion industry. “If pieces are custom made for clients, they’re less likely to discard it because it was personalized for them.” Chizoba was grateful to receive an offer from Wes Hall, who is also involved in the Telfer community through the Wes Hall Scholarship for Black or Indigenous Students. Chizoba is looking forward to scaling her business and to continuing to build her brand with the added support of the “King of Bay Street” himself.
“I didn’t want to see any limitations to my success.”
In Canada, there are more than twice as many businesses owned by men as by women. There are additional challenges women entrepreneurs face, including unconscious biases about their success. “When you’re a female entrepreneur, people seem to be surprised when you tell them you’ve made it,” says Chizoba. There are challenges as well for other underrepresented groups, including business owners from racialized groups, people with disabilities and youth.
Chizoba's advice? Push Through.
“People see me as a Black designer who only designs for Black women,” she explains. “All I can do is serve clients to my full capacity, and other people will catch up.” Chizoba made up her mind to start her business, and nothing could set her back, especially not assumptions about her as an entrepreneur. “When you think about the challenges you’re facing, they limit you.”
Chizoba advises current students to listen to their professors, take notes and embrace every opportunity to network with the people around them. “You don’t know where you’ll meet these people again.” She also advises young entrepreneurs to prioritize rest. “Although you have big dreams and are working to accomplish them, taking care of your mental and physical health is critical when working on any project, big or small.”
Like Chizoba, her brand has no limits. In the next few years, she wishes to expand her business across Canada and around the globe. She will continue to design custom formalwear and bridal couture for clients of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds, while working towards her sustainability goal of curving waste in the fashion industry.
Chizoba’s vision is to curate a brand that prioritizes self-care and well-being. She hopes to grow her brand with people as passionate as her about fashion and design. Zoba Martin has major undertakings on the horizon, and the Telfer community can’t wait to see them and support Chizoba on her journey.