In her final blog for this month, Sheeba Philip discusses one of her toughest setbacks and how going through that uncertain time in her life helped her work through the anger and frustration she felt toward God, and learn to embrace the healing power of journey through setback.
You can listen to this entire conversation with Sheeba on our podcast, Driven 4word! Listen below or click here to find your preferred listening platform.
Why did your success at Akola ultimately become a setback for you?
My time and role at Akola was always challenging, but I think the pandemic drove the real setback of the company. Akola was a nonprofit for a very long time. I joined the company in March of 2019 to restructure the company from a nonprofit to a for-profit to raise their first round of capital. It was an exciting time for Akola! Our products were launching in Nordstrom and in Saks. Our investment team and our board believed that Akola had all the fundamentals—a great team in Uganda, a great product, a great team in Dallas, and great distribution to really scale. Our ambition, at that time, was to be the first luxury jewelry brand that was grounded in a purpose of serving the poor and creating jobs for women in the most marginalized of communities in Uganda.
We were off to the races, and we closed our seed round in March of 2020, right as Covid hit. Like, I literally closed the seed round and the pandemic was announced about a month later. Our number one customer, Neiman Marcus, filed bankruptcy weeks later and everything started to kind of fall apart. By God’s grace and the provision of our investors, our board, and our team, we weathered the storm and were able to stay stable for the next couple of years for the pandemic when so many small businesses and retail shut down. We really transformed the company from a wholesale-led company to a digitally-led company because we had to with the pandemic.
But the start of the pandemic was also the start of the setback. In early 2022, I was sitting with the Akola board, saying that this was just not a sustainable model. If we ultimately want to preserve the mission for the Akola Ugandan women and really give them a pathway out of poverty, we needed to make sure that the Africa Division stayed intact. And the best way to do that was to set them off and empower them as a local company to run and not be weighed down by a really big cost structure here in the U.S.
The setback was that we could not run this company the way we had originally intended to. Our dreams of scaling and growing a fast-paced luxury brand based in the U.S. is not going to happen, at least for now. It was a tremendous setback and disappointment for me, but I’m also just so grateful to God that He kept alive the mission, which was the reason why I went to Akola, and the reason why investors gave their money. I’m so grateful for the investors and people that gave their money, knowing it was a risky bet but believing in the mission more than their financial return. I’m so grateful for that.
When you go through setbacks in your life, what emotions immediately came to the surface?
I think back to when I had to make that massive decision with the Akola board. I had a lot of anger, asking, “God, why did you pull me out of that really tough journey with JCPenny, this beautiful season of discernment, then I come to Akola and do all of this work—blood, sweat, and tears—only to have this conversation at the end? Where is a redemption? How does this possibly serve a bigger mission?” Frankly, the whole situation just felt mean and cruel.
But I think where I got to a place of peace and ultimate faith and trust in God goes back to that word I’ve used before: it was a journey. You have to look at setbacks like a journey. The Akola setback journey looked like conversations with investors and remembering why we did what we did. It looked like talking to the Akola founder, Brit Underwood, who gave 25 years of her life to the work of Akola. That conversation really helped me put into perspective how I was feeling. I only gave four years of my life to Akola and there I was, talking to the founder who laid her life down to go to Uganda and now had to make that company-altering decision with me. That was tough, praying with her every day, and both of us weeping over the situation.
This journey also looked like talking to friends who said, “Hey, Sheba, you’re not defined by your work. You did the best that you could. We’ve all watched you. We’ve been rooting for you, and you did your best. Now trust that the Lord is in this and nothing is wasted.” So those initial emotions are hard. They’re tough. There was a lot of anger and disappointment with God and feeling like He was just wasting my time and my talent. But then it’s that journey—of relationships and people and getting in God’s word and praying—that gets you through to the other side.
What would you say is the number one thing that has driven you forward in your life?
Just giving myself grace. I’m not saying I do it well, but it keeps me going forward. It’s me saying, “Okay, I messed up. I’m gonna give myself grace.” or “I wasn’t the best leader in this moment. I’m gonna give myself grace.” As you give yourself grace, you give grace to other people, and you end up dusting yourself off and moving forward. So to me, driving forward in life is about giving myself some grace.
Sheeba Philip has built a 25 year career leading purpose-driven brands and businesses at startup, mid-size and Fortune 50 companies, as well as across retail, CPG, and non-profit sectors. Her experience leading big and small businesses across multiple industries has given her deep expertise in brand marketing & communications, ESG strategy, and global operations. Sheeba has managed multi-million dollar P&Ls ($700MM+) and transformed multi-billion dollar iconic brands ($12 Billion+). She has revitalized consumer brands in mature categories through redesigning brand marketing, product assortment, and customer experience. Sheeba leveraged her Fortune 50 experience to also establish start-ups for growth. She has built and led organizations with an international footprint across East Africa, Latin America, and South/Southeast Asia.
Sheeba’s leadership and work have been recognized by outlets such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, NY Times, BuzzFeed, People, PR Daily, and Vogue. She is a member of the Kraft Heinz Creative Council, a select group of brand leaders across industries that provide strategic counsel on the company’s marketing & advertising initiatives. Sheeba was featured on InStyle Magazine’s 2021 List of “50 Women Making The World A Better Place”. Sheeba is passionate about integrating her faith and work. She is a board member for Redeemer City to City, a global ministry founded by Tim Keller. She is also is an advisor for faith-driven entrepreneurs and regularly speaks on brand building and Christ-centered leadership. She holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.
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