In an effort to celebrate African gentlemen, home and abroad, Nigerian-American entrepreneur Ismoila Alli-Balogun embarked on a mission to create an online luxury retail destination called “Heritage Circle.”
The 31-year-old former U.S. Army soldier began Heritage Circle with the aim of enriching the lives of modern African men with the best rewards for their hard work.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ismoila Alli-Balogun: I was born August 20, 1985, in Prince Georges County, Maryland. My parents moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where I began my education at Maryland Convent Private School and later attended Command Day Secondary School, a military institution led by the Nigerian Armed Forces. I returned to the United States in 2001 and enlisted in the U.S. Army after 9/11.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, I worked on security coalition convoys with the 10th Mountain Division. After my service, I completed my Bachelor’s degree at the City University of New Yorkand began my career in investment banking at Renaissance Capital’s first Africa office in Lagos, Nigeria.
I later joined African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa to help develop the Entrepreneurial Leadership curriculum. I completed my MBA at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania and thereafter founded Heritage Circle.
What motivated you to venture in to business and how old were you when you started?
I was 23 when I started my career in investment banking. In my first two years I worked on equity and debt financing deals, raising over $1.5 billion for Nigerian banks. I was still in my first year when we almost created sub-Saharan Africa’s largest bank.
We wanted to marry Nigeria’s biggest bank at the time with another bank that had a powerful, 26-country footprint across Africa. It was an incredible learning opportunity. It helped me put into perspective the opportunities and challenges of scaling a brand in Africa — the frustrations, false starts, and success stories.
I must’ve worked on 100 pitches for some very successful businessmen in Nigeria during that time. Many of them were CEOs of companies they had built entirely from nothing. All of it inspired me to want to build something.
What was your first venture and what experience did you get?
I first became fascinated with the military in secondary school. My lecturers were Nigerian soldiers, and they loved to share war stories about their time as soldiers and peacekeepers.
Their stories inspired both my U.S. military service and my first venture, African Youth Unite for Change (AFYUCh), a non-profit organization that mobilizes former child soldiers to rebuild war-affected communities.
In 2009, I was responsible for our East Africa outreach to Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. It was our most-substantial outreach and my first real exercise in giving back to my community.
We had our first project in Gulu, a former battleground of the Ugandan rebel militia, where we worked with former child soldiers and war-affected youths to help them launch development projects in farming, sanitation, and clean water wells.
That same year, we reached out to over 100 victims of the genocide in Rwanda and the civil war in Burundi. The experience taught me to never be too busy to make a difference in my community.
Tell us about Heritage Circle and why you started it.
At its core, Heritage Circle is designed to embody African expressions of achievement and success. We want to enrich the lives of African men in a significant way and provide them with the best rewards for hard work.
You think of prestigious high-end retailers like Harrods in London, Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, etc. There’s a major part of personal elegance missing from the luxury retail landscape in places like Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Zimbabwe, and several other countries.
We are building Heritage Circle to ensure African men have a one-stop, premium destination that projects their tastes and preferences, aspirations and values. There’s a certain level of transparency, convenience, competitive pricing, and discretion that digital innovation brings. We see an incredible opportunity to build Heritage Circle on a truly pan-African and global scale.
What makes Heritage Circle different from other online retailers on the market?
Our mission at Heritage Circle is celebrating the African Gentleman. We are a one-of-a-kind lifestyle brand with a one-of-a-kind mission. What unites us today is the understanding that our members are drawn to Heritage Circle for more than products.