The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us.
Nnenna Stella is the founder and chief executive of The Wrap Life, a Brooklyn-based brand offering richly patterned head-wraps with styles influenced by West African culture.
Here she sits down with our founder Harry to share her life story; from waiting tables to building a thriving brand, discovering how impactful the act of representation can be for women of color, and learning how to adapt to the demands of running a business.
Harry (HD): For those who are discovering it for the first time, what is The Wrap Life?
Nnenna (NS): --Simply put, the Wrap Life is an online destination for gorgeous headwraps, crafted in Brooklyn out of rich, bold textiles that are globally sourced.
HD: You have grown in a short space of time a large following that is extremely engaged and feels a strong relationship with your brand, particularly on Instagram. To what do you attribute this fervor?
NS: It’s really interesting that you say “strong” because working in this studio and spending all day deep in the books and numbers, it’s easy to forget that there is this groundswell.
How we do it is pretty simple though: we just represent women. When you’re a woman of color, shopping online, you rarely see women of color on the website you shop, so that’s something that was in the back of my mind when I started this company.
People often ask me: “How do you empower?” It wasn’t really a direct intention. It’s one of those things that was the result of another thing. If you represent someone, they feel empowered. It’s not a lofty aspiration or something that requires a lot of effort: just show people themselves, in a different space, and then they feel empowered—because they see themselves in our world, or in another world.
So we don’t come to work every day and say “How do we empower women?” we just say “How do we do this thing really well? How do we make women feel beautiful, and confident, and supported?” Working through all of that leads to empowerment. And I think when you see other women and you feel empowered, that creates a community.
HD: That’s a really powerful thing you’re pointing out there. When you’re looking at anything in the media and online, there’s been a selection and a bias towards what’s portrayed, so when you put forward something different, then it has an impact.
NS: And you just feel more human when you see yourself represented, online or anywhere. Whether you’re a plus size model, or transgender—when you see yourself represented, you think to yourself: “Oh OK, I’m human, I am normal”, and it feels really good. So that’s the power in this brand. Women come to our website or social media and they see different kinds of women of color as well. Because growing up I felt there was a monolithic definition of what a black girl was—growing up in the south, I saw very few types of black women. But there are different kinds of people, different kinds of women. To give you an idea, I had a meeting last week with a woman architect. There are about 100,000 architects licensed in this country, and she is the 397th woman of color to be an architect. That is such a small number. And I’d never met a black woman before who was an architect. So I think it’s important to show different kinds of women, different professions, different shapes, different hair, different body types, different things like that.
Lil' Nnenna Nnenna-ing.
HD: Did you know when you started this company, that this void you were filling would become your success almost? Or did you already foresee this as the brand’s mission to some degree?
NS: I didn’t… When I started my company it was a slight initial feeling, I didn’t know that it would go so far. You start something and you have a little intuition about it, but then as you live and work through it, it becomes much more rich and intense; it starts to serve more people than just you and your initial thought.
“I think it’s important to show different kinds of women, different professions, different shapes, different hair, different body types, different things like that.”
HD: It appears that your initial starting point of solving a problem you had as a customer was both about a lack of headwrap options, as well as this dearth of representation of women of color.
NS: Yes. I remember at the time when I started this company, I was shopping at Nasty Gal (which is no longer), and other sites like Free People, which feels like it’s targeting hippie white girls with blonde hair. I wanted a woman of color to come to my website and think “Oh that could be my friend” or “Kinda looks like me”, you know? And I also wanted to be a company that provided a great service, I wanted women to think “Oh I got this really fast”, and make it seamless.
HD: You grew up in Little Rock, AR, you’re now in Brooklyn, leading this company that has this huge following, and you’ve gone through a lot of steps to get there, life changes and big leaps of faith. Can you trace back how you got that entrepreneurial drive and that ability to question the way things are?
NS: I don’t even know if it was that I wanted to be an “entrepreneur”. I was waiting tables for 10+ years. I was feeling really insecure about it, because I was over 30, waiting tables. I felt really small in my own life. My turning point was when I created this 30-day program for myself—and it feels weird talking about it because it sounds very “self-helpy”. But I got to a point where I felt like I didn’t have a choice and had nothing to lose; I had to give this everything I had.
For the 30-day process, I had to write 3 pages every morning which forced me to think about the previous day, and ask myself “what did I do well?” And that was transformative for me. When I first started I thought “this is stupid” and I felt like I was making it up, but as the 30 days moved forward, I started to realize… that I’m really good at a lot of things, especially things that are a good fit for running a company. Most of my life, I didn’t know that I was good at anything, I was just floating around, trying to figure it out; but after the thirty days, that changed. I assessed all these things and thought “I could start my own company”, and I had more confidence than I’ve ever had in my entire life.
So when I started the business, it’s like something clicked. I couldn’t half do it. And because I was confident that I was capable, I could work 12-16 hours a day. I was sort of obsessed, and had this sense that “I got this”. I look back at the person I was before and it feels so distant, and it’s incredible how dramatic that switch moment was.
“We could have spoken for hours. I had a sense that 'There is no rush, I don’t have to be anywhere, I’m enjoying your company'. Smell is a very powerful thing!”
HD: Wow! What words of advice would you have for future Nnennas out there, who maybe feel a little bit stuck and who haven’t yet taken that leap, but have the potential to?
NS: My advice would be—and people hear this all the time, and I have to remind myself of this—not to compare yourself to other people. I’ve learned that when I am comparing myself, that I am focused on somebody else’s thing. Energy goes towards what you’re paying attention to, so if I’m paying attention to someone else and how glorious their life looks on Instagram, that energy doesn’t reside within myself to figure out my own thing.
So I would say: try not to compare yourself, and figure out how to highlight what you’re good at, which is what I did in my 30-day program. Asking yourself: “what did I do well or what do I do well?” gives you a little hint, but once you pay attention to it, it expands and then you see yourself a little bit better.
HD: Let’s talk about unplugging and focus. Starting a business is grueling and, quite frankly, hardcore. How do you stay sane and how much do you get away from that grind?
NS: To be honest, I’m still in the process of learning how to do that. When I take a day off, it’s still not a day off, and I feel bad about it. I’ve read too many self-help books and too many books about entrepreneurs and how people work 20 hour days or whatever. I think it’s unhealthy, but I still feel like I should hustle... I also have to remind myself that I started this company because I wanted the freedom to take time off. Actually, Monday I took the day off and I didn’t feel bad about it… it’s a constant mental dialogue of “Relax it’s OK” and trying to understand that I don’t have to be like other entrepreneurs. I can create my own path, my own schedule, everything. This is something that is unfolding in my life right now.
HD: Seeing or hearing from other entrepreneurs, what were some things where you initially considered “Oh I should probably do this” and then through your own experience learned that your own path is something else?
NS:The main one is the time you put in during the day. I used to sit at a desk for hours straight through. And now sometimes I’ll take a break and watch a show for 20 minutes to relax, and then get back to work. It’s about learning to take your time. Having worked in restaurants, I got addicted to scheduling and having to be somewhere with work I have to do. When you own your own company, you still have to do a lot of things—but you decide how you’re going to show up to that space.
“Sometimes I think 'I’m so lucky, I can’t take this for granted! I need to work and prove I deserve this!'”
So I'm trying to remember that I get to decide how I show up, and I don't have to feel bad. And then I try to remember to feel grateful as well, because I know a lot of people work for other people and they don't get to wake up whenever they want, meditate, write, go to the gym, and then come in to work. So the fact that I get to do those things when I want to do them helps me not feel so bad about having a little flow.
HD: That is the difficult thing to reconcile—on one hand, there is the reality that our body has limits, and on the other hand you want to hustle and work really hard because you feel lucky to have this opportunity.
NS: That’s exactly what it is. And so sometimes I think “I’m so lucky, I can’t take this for granted! I need to work and prove I deserve this!”. That’s something I'm working through.
HD: Do you have any rituals or routines that help you focus and be in work-mode?
NS: I’m able to focus and be in work mode if I feel like I started my morning well. It sounds corny, but I visualize how I want my day to go. I also write any thoughts or feelings. I don’t manage it every day, but I aim to write every morning. Just creating space for myself in the morning helps me prepare for the day.
HD: Conversely, what helps you unplug and get in “chill mode”?
NS: That starts with a meal. When I have a delicious meal at the end of the day, I know my day is done and I can relax and enjoy this food.
HD: Do you put your phone away?
NS: Yeah especially if I’m having a meal with someone else, I keep my phone off the table. It’s hard though. I get email anxiety and I don’t like that. It’s like I respond in my head but not in real life. It’s weird.. I wonder how many people feel crappy when they don’t answer an email right away?
The Wrap Life at Afro Punk, Atlanta.
HD: Oh I think it’s a vast majority of people with office jobs.
NS: (laughs) Apart from meals, a glass of wine, a cocktail can be the thing that helps me disconnect. Or a television show that has nothing to do with my life. There’s no podcast, no learning, I don’t have to be present; I get to zone out, relax and turn off my mind. I used to feel bad about that, but I think it’s useful to let your mind turn off for a bit and just let stuff go.
HD: Let’s switch gears… to smell! If you had to describe the smell of Wrap Life...
NS: Definitely Earthy, with some smoky notes, and vibrant with some citrus. Those are the notes that feel good!
HD: And do you have a smell that inspires you or has a strong personal meaning for you?
NS: I would say sage or palo santo. When I burn them, they serve as a trigger and I feel very grounded. I burn it at home after cleaning or if I get in a weird feeling space. Palo santo and sage are a form of cleansing for me.
HD: Do you remember the first time you smelled those two things?
NS: Yes, I do. A couple of years ago for palo santo. The first time I met the guy who supplies our incense which is made in Peru. I went to his apartment and he burned it, it was incredible… I almost felt an instant connection with this man because of the way the incense smelled. It was very grounding. We could have spoken for hours. I had a sense that “There is no rush, I don’t have to be anywhere, I’m enjoying your company”. Smell is a very powerful thing!
HD: (nods vigorously!) Last but not least, what’s going on with The Wrap Life?
NS: We’re working on the idea of being of service and simply providing better service. Aside from the Wrap Life, I’m starting a second company. I’m taking my time with it and allowing room for more creative and honest expression. I’m excited to feel that switch again and see what new version of myself I can become.
Interview by Harry Doull
Artwork by Dan Abary
All photography courtesy of Nnenna Stella (unless noted).
The Keap Ignite Series
We share something new and inspiring every month alongside our subscription candles. The Keap Ignite series is a 12-volume interview series with artists, creators and community leaders that have inspired us. For our subscribers, this takes the form of a collectible mini-zine and matchbox in each monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.