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US vs. African Business: Interview with Mo Cissé

Mo Cissé

Mr. Mo Cissé, who came to the US at age 12 from Guinea in West Africa, aims to become the global leader in sustainable fashion through his online company, Meraki Allure, LLC. In contrast with the US, Mo explains how Africa offers faster turnarounds, faster partnerships and far fewer legal constraints, all based on a handshake, relationships, trust, and a personal reputation that creates credit. With a primary focus on family, Mo highlights that people with the tiniest salaries are often the happiest people.


Mo Cisse’s journey

Launching an African clothing line

The African handshake in business


Mo Cissé Bio

Originally from Guinea, West Africa, Mo has been in the U.S for over 20 years. He is a proud alumnus of the University of San Diego. As someone with an unwavering commitment to the betterment of our communities and the well-being of humanity, Mo was recently invited to be a founding member of a global effort to make San Diego the Consciousness hub of the world through the Global Coalition of Conscious Contributors (GC3). His biggest passion came to fruition a few years ago as the Founder and CEO of MERAKI ALLURE, a high-end clothing line that also offers a wide range of Image Consulting services. Additionally, as a multi-lingual immigrant, he strives consistently to encourage diversity and collaboration among like-minded individuals for a greater cause.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome to Global Gurus. Every Friday, we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. I’m your host, Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International. Thank you for joining us. If you’re tuning in for the first time, we start each podcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays”. Here we explore funny bloopers or mistranslations or misuse of words that do not quite convey the professional image that your organization should want to project. So, since today’s guest is from Africa, I wanted to use a blooper from Africa from a story in a Nairobi newspaper that said, of course, in English. “A new swimming pool is rapidly taking place since the contractors have thrown in the bulk of their workers.”

That’s funny.

Oh, OK. 

So, as we can see, when words are misused, either in translation or in common usage, the meaning changes quite a bit.

Yeah, I’m dramatically so.

Well, today’s guest is Mr. Mo Cisse. And he will tell you a bit more about his background, but he’s doing something a bit in reverse today in that we normally interview people who do business either in the US or Europe, in other countries. Mr. Cisse has come to the United States from his native home of Guinea, West Africa. And so, we’re going to explore again a bit of reverse how one does business in Africa versus the United States and just to see  the cultural differences as well. So welcome. Glad you’re with us. And perhaps we could tell us a bit more about your background, how you grew up, and how you gained your global experience.

My pleasure. My pleasure. Thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure to have these types of conversations, especially with someone like yourself who’s traveled to many more countries than I have. So yeah, my journey is unique as well, as many immigrants came here over 20 years ago. I initially lived in New York and then moved here to San Diego, CA, where I now reside. 

So, the experience is unique in the sense that my mother was an entrepreneur herself, and the way that she afforded to bring me to the US is because she was and had an alliance with others. They were entrepreneur women from Guinea, from West Africa, and they would travel to other countries in Africa and also in the US and Europe, selling African clothes. So, at an early age, I already kind of got a taste of what entrepreneurship could look like, and the different versatility that it can give you. So, as I started my journey here in the US, I’d love to tell you that I jumped into entrepreneurship right away, but I didn’t. I worked in corporate America. I waited almost a decade before finally pulling the trigger and launching my own business at the end of 2015. So that’s the nutshell of our story and how we landed here and how the whole international perspective began with my mother and me has transpired.

And you have a very unique fashion company, and perhaps you could tell us about that, especially what makes it unique.

Yeah, it’s my pleasure. So, Meraki Allure is the brand, and we have one audacious goal of being the global leader in sustainable luxury goods. Sustainability is specifically important to us as we create custom and ready-to-wear clothes for men and women because fashion has now become the third most wasteful industry in the world; that’s next to the oil industry. So, we need to be part of the solution for our industry rather than the problem.

And is the food industry the #2 most wasteful?

Depending on the year, they’ll go there interchangeably, but basically, fashion becomes #3 and agriculture. Also, food will be #4, so the interchange, because a lot of what the fashion industry needs also derives from agriculture, you know, the cotton and all these natural products that are derived from the soil. One small example is back in the day, and I’m sure you can relate to this as well as someone that has traveled, Philip, that back in the day, the fashion industry would respect the seasons. You would get new products four times a year depending on the seasons, but now products are being produced almost every week. Yeah, it’s a good deal.

Yeah, I didn’t quite realize that. I know that a lot of it is just-in-time ordering, but I didn’t realize that it was on almost a weekly basis. That’s pretty dramatic. And as you say, that can be very, very wasteful. Could you tell us about your launch? I assume you started domestically in the United States and then expandeda little internationally. Is that correct?

So, for us, one of the key things that naturally helped us expand abroad is strategic alliances. One of the strategic alliances we have is funny enough, with a dating coach, she only works with men, and she works with executives and things like that. She has clients all over the world, including Canada and other countries. So basically, that’s what happened the first time we stepped outside the US with strategic alliances like that. I would work with her clients and dress them for their dates and sort them. So, it was a fun thing, but it’s also funny how life happens.

It’s very nice. It’s wonderful. Tell us a bit about how U.S. business practices greatly differ from African business practices. If you were launching in Guinea or another West African country, how would it perhaps be different than what you did here?

That’s a great question. On a small scale I will tell you that for the average American, even doing business here in California is different from doing business in Texas. You know, the laws are different. The type of tax we pay in California is completely different from the type of tax you pay. 

So that’s just a small example, but as far as my country goes, there’s a lot less red tape for businesses. And there’s also a much quicker turnaround as far as when you can launch and when you can get partnerships. You know, a lot of things back home in my country, specifically in Guinea, can happen on a handshake or even based on relationships you have. But here, with the way that the law is and the way that the government structured things are just very procedure-oriented and sometimes you wonder why you’re waiting a month or some paperwork and that should just take a couple of days, you know. So that’s one small example.

One of the reasons for my connection with you. Why? I love what you do. It reminds me of a joke. The story I think was about Ford or Chevy that came out with a car in Mexico, and they named the car Nova, not realizing that the word in Spanish is like “no go,” you know, and the card didn’t do that well in Mexico at that time. I heard about that story even before we launched our company. So, it made me very conscious. Hence, being very aware of how things translate overseas and being very aware of that, you know, why did we make this decision? Our name, Maraki, is a Greek word. It means doing something with love and putting a piece of yourself into your work. So, I wanted to pick a company name that’s also easy to pronounce in multiple languages.

That’s great. Yeah, it’s wonderful that you did that. I have learned over the years that the Nova story is not true because anyone would know that Nova in Spanish means no go, and Ford would probably not be that stupid to do that, but they have branding blunders. In other countries, too, Ford introduced the Pinto car at risk.

Yeah, I remember that car.

And the Pinto was here in the United States. But Pinto, it turned out, was launched in Brazil, and Brazil speaks Portuguese, and in Brazilian slang, Pinto means, well, shall we say, male genitals.

Ah, I see. That’s funny.

When they changed the name from Pinto to Carvalho, which means horse, you know, like a speedy horse, then the cars started selling when they changed the name. 

 That’s funny.

Yes, these are the kinds of branding blunders that companies endure a lot. Well, a company. They are smarter now than they were, but there are some very, very funny ones that my company publishes about very funny international branding blunders with just company names.


Oh, that’s a good one.

And you were very wise and looking for, say, a Greek word that involves love. It adds love to the process, but what I found over the years is that many companies, many, many companies, especially large ones, or multinational ones, do not take the time to think about how the brand name, the company name, or the slogan would work in other languages. And this happens to be a service that my company offers to screen them to be sure that they work properly. I’m sorry, especially the multinationals, and I hope the listeners will forgive me. But multinationals tend to be a bit more arrogant and think they know everything and don’t need help, and that’s when they make these big mistakes without expecting it.

You know, simple.

It’s very interesting what you said about doing business on a handshake. I remember in my native Philadelphia hearing the stories and I know that this happened, especially in the 1900s & the 20s and perhaps in the 30s, but certainly in the 20s, that business here was also done on a handshake, and we have a street here called Jewelers Row. A jeweler would take a bunch of diamonds or rubies out of his pocket and ask another jeweler whether he’d like to buy some for rings and other pieces he was making, and they would seal the deal with a handshake and that’s it. And not, you know, the contracts that we have now and the liability and all. So, in terms of those issues, it was based on trust and relationships, and that’s very much how business is done in other parts of the world.

I agree. I agree. It’s probably how humanity began. And you know, when we were at war, when we knew our neighbors, I’m sure you know, that’s part of humanity back in the day. But, you know, as things expanded and people may have shied away from that, but as you already know, African culture is so community-driven that a lot of those values remain even when there are disputes there that get settled  in meetings.

Is it meetings like with the head of the tribe or the clan or something? Or is it meetings with the business leaders?

It depends on what the context is or what the agreement is, you know, but it could be in our case. We’re talking business. So, it could be the business leader of that entity or that organization to discuss it. And of course, there are still legal agreements and contracts, but I have just come in response to your first question. There’s just a lot less lead. Look, procedures like it are here, especially in California, when you want to do business with people.

Yeah, that’s very true, and again, that’s the way it’s often done in other parts of the world that are very community-oriented and certainly on a personal level or in non-business. Doubly if their disputes are frequently resolved, not through the courts, as one would do here, but with village elders, for example, or community leaders, in whatever way they do it. 

Perhaps you could also share with us some cultural issues that you’ve encountered here in the United States and just differences in how one does business here versus there.

In comparison to Guinea, the challenge here, I foresee in culture, is sometimes how do I put it in the right context? 

Sometimes the value ends up being more based on material things than the relationship with the person you’re dealing with. So, for instance, my mother, since she’s been an entrepreneur all my life, mostly in Africa and things like that, and her relationship, her reputation was like her credit line, line of credit for business. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah, that’s fascinating.

And it’s hard. Yeah, it’s hard for me to find the right words to compare that to the American context, in a sense. You know, of course.

I think what you’re saying is that, again, it’s based on relationships and trust ultimately, and that the network of vendors, buyers, and whatever that your mother has created and perhaps friends of friends that she would get an introduction to, then the relationship is based on trust and not necessarily on the formal legal contracts and the way one does things here.

So that’s one part of it. And the other part of it is, as you can attest to this as well, the way that Americans and work-life balance are not the same in my country, and there are just some days that there’s not going to be any work and you can’t even tell people to try to work that day. Of course, you can always find people that desperately need to make money and, you know, things like that, but generally speaking, family time is so important. Being able to be with your loved ones. Again, being a very community-driven culture, So I do see that as a big difference here where someone still wants me to do it. Certain business events and deals on a Sunday, you know, you know what I mean? I’m like, Man, can I have at least that day, to myself, you know?

I have five hours to myself.

Exactly. You know so. I think that’s a big difference. There’s a big difference, culturally speaking.

Yeah, well, it’s the expression that Americans use. Other cultures exist solely to make money.

“Big difference, big difference. 

And, where one puts priorities, and as you say, the family is a major priority. So, I’m curious because I know when I lived in Africa this was the case, but if you had a factory in Africa if you were, you know, the entrepreneur and had a staff. What would happen if one of the employees had a funeral to go to?

Oh, that’s not negotiable. They’re going to go.

Right, exactly.

Yeah, that’s not negotiable. You’ll be almost insulting an entire culture if you say so no, to that, you know. So that’s a very great example. I know it’s in some cases, I’d be like, well, I have to work anyway. But as you mentioned, it’s about the quality of life. I know so many people in my culture that barely make $300 per month in salary. But there are some of the most joyous, happy people you could ever imagine. And I know that here, in more and more cases than not, people that are doing well financially are just super stressed out. You know, the quality of life is not there, even for me as someone that lives mostly here in the US, that’s part of the reason I love going back home to visit and do business because it reminds me of those values. It forces me to re-engage myself. For those sample values of being present and not getting too caught up in whether it’s financial gains or, for that matter, material gains.

I need to correct myself. Certainly, if a loved one dies, the employee would take off to go to the funeral. But it’s normal, I don’t know, two days, maybe two or three days, and then perhaps vacation time to sort out the estate, for example, and the house and the belongings and all of that. But I know in Africa that funerals can last many, many days. At least in southern Africa, where I am used to living. Funerals last many days, and it involves inviting neighbors and their friends and having a feast. Feed all of the people. Who comes to mind, you know? Whereas in this country, visitors frequently would bring something for the family. But in Africa, from what I understand, at least the way it used to be, the grieving family provides the food for all of the guests who are assembling. Is that correct?

That’s the same thing for us in Guinea, which is that we would make it a feast one day over the weekend or Friday or something like that, where the neighbors like you said, family and friends will come.

And basically, it’s kind of like a sacrifice or a giving and offering at a celebration. And for the person that passed away, but for us, luckily, it doesn’t last multiple days, at least in Guinea. But it could last, and the festivities or the celebrations could last at least a couple of days.

Yeah, that’s fascinating. Have you encountered any big business blunders, either one that your company has made, or perhaps ones that you’ve heard of others making? You know, whether business blunders or cultural blunders, dealing in the United States versus dealing in Africa.

What do you mean by a blunder? I want to make sure I answer it correctly.

You start an initiative, and you find out that it’s not going to work because you’re going in the wrong direction. I mean, just try naming your product or your company and finding out the name is not quite the right name for that.

Got it.

Or a marketing strategy that you feel you know absolutely would work here, but when you take it abroad, it just doesn’t work.

Gotcha. OK, thank you for the explanation. I can use a lot of examples and get it specifically because a lot of Guinea’s GDP comes from mining. So, we have very fertile soil in my country with diamonds and bauxite, gold and silver, bauxite being the biggest which is sent literally to Pennsylvania or Philadelphia directly. 

Sorry, and that’s bauxite, by the way.

Bauxite. Sorry I was saying it in French. 

So that’s one of our biggest resources that gets sent out outside of Guinea, so long story short. The issue with that is, as you and most people know about many African countries, the issue of corruption. So, although billions of dollars aren’t made through this resource, because of corruption, the city or the civilians don’t get to benefit from it. So that’s one major example, but besides that, for us specifically, because I’ve been surrounded by so many entrepreneurs, I’ve been cautious about how to grow our business more. 

So, one example is, excuse me, we intentionally did not open a physical store for the last five to six years as a retail space. We stayed online because we wanted to avoid that overhead, but we also saw the trend even five to six years ago that a lot of brick-and-mortar businesses were not doing well. So, we waited, and we had no idea back then that there was going to be a pandemic happening sometime soon. So, while many of our competitors or even people in our industry went out of business during the pandemic, it was a blessing for us to be able to sustain and try through it. And so, I’m grateful for that being part of our DNA since we launched six years ago.

So, you’re still online only. Is that correct?

It’s not only online but also, of course, we intend to open some stores shortly, but this was something we were aware of from the start, and it also forced us to solidify the relationships that we do have with our clients. And so that can naturally network for us.

That’s fantastic. Well, it was very wise without knowing how wise it was going to be.

It’s a great way to put it. That is a fantastic way to put it.

You talked about your mother. Is she in the same business as MERAKI ALLURE, or does she have her own business?

She has her own business because all she does is African clothes.

And she sold them. Does she bring them to the US? 

She does it back home, like right now. Last week she was in Senegal, and she went over there to get some fabrics and things and take them to Guinea for tailoring and things. But now, she’s slowed down. She doesn’t travel as much because she’s getting older. She’s never had a traditional job all her life, which is unique in my culture to have a woman be the breadwinner of the family and to be such an interpreter.

Yeah, that’s fascinating. I know that you came to this country when you were 12, I believe.

Yeah, great memory.

I’d like you to share with our listening audience the experiences that you have had. But I was under the impression that your mother came with you. Has your mother now moved back to Guinea? 

Yeah, great question. Yeah, she only brought me to the US and stayed here for a couple of years. So now what she does is she just travels back and forth. Maybe once a year, but because of the pandemic, she just stayed in Guinea much longer this time. You are completely right. She brought me for my 12th birthday present, not to age myself, but I left Guinea on October 23rd 1997. I came here literally on my birthday to join my brother and sister who lived here already, and that first year was the best. The most brutal year of my life.

That was because of bullying and having to learn English?

I was learning English, and in the most brutal part, the kids were bullying me. My nickname back then was “the African booty scratcher” because they thought that all Africans walked around naked and had no clothes. You know, kids at that age have no filter, so they just say whatever they wanted to say. So I would call my sister. I had been dropping every day, telling her, crying, and telling her that I wanted to go back home. And luckily, she had the wisdom to tell me to just give it a year. If you don’t like it after a year, we can take you back home. And of course, after a year, I started to make friends and all that, yeah.

That’s wonderful. It’s a great adjustment. And you know, when people go to new countries, when they go to settle in new countries, it can be very exciting at first. And you know, not necessarily the glamour of it, but you know, just everything is new and exciting and fun and you’re learning all the time and then once you settle in, it becomes much more difficult. You have to pay the electric bill, or you have to figure out many of these things we just take for granted.

Absolutely. I think if I had come from at least one English-speaking country in Africa, like Nigeria or something, at least I would have had a head start in English. The fact that I had never taken any English classes and was learning from cold turkey made the transition much more difficult. And the other thing that you talked about as far as starting to pay for things, the first thing that it makes me think about is that back then there were calling cards. So, whenever my family needed to call my family back home, we were spending hundreds of dollars per month. You know, the first thing is that now you can download any one of these apps and you’re able to communicate with people on Wi-Fi. So yeah.

That’s fascinating. And you know, it’s funny because you use the word “calling card”. This is another example of English. In French, a calling card is a carte de visite and we call it a business card here.

Sure, yeah.

You can certainly go back 50 years ago or more when you went to visit someone. Each person, a man or a woman, would have a card with his or her name on it. And you could give it to the Butler, or you could hand it to someone to say, “You know, I’m waiting to meet the host.” That’s certainly the way it was in this country in colonial times and revolutionary times. So, the calling card now means something very different.

Wow, that’s so cool. I love that. That’s why I love my conversations with you. I always learn something new. That’s awesome. Thank you. Like that.

I know your life is not all business, of course, because you’re African and you don’t work on Sundays.

I try. 

So, what do you like to do outside of business?

Oh man, I think music is my therapy. I love music. I was in the marching band for four years between high school and college, and so sometimes, especially here in San Diego, I’ll go take salsa lessons and things like that. I love that I’ve crossed the border. I’ve probably been to Baja Mexico over 20 times. I go there for lunch, for music, and to travel whenever I can. Two of my favorite escapes for me.

Fantastic, yeah. One other question just about business, just to get back to that. How do you measure success? How do you measure your success? I presume you consider your company to be very successful. 

That’s a great question. 

At this point in my life, I believe I’m not there, and I’m no longer concerned with perfection. What I am attached to is progress. Am I growing? Am I improving? Am I making a difference? And as long as I can answer yes to most of those things, I’m happy. I’m at peace, so for me, the fact that we’ve grown, we’ve improved, and we face many challenges, but we’ve learned from each one of them, and we continue to adapt. And we’re surviving well through the pandemic. 

So, to me, those are the things that make me happy. It makes me feel successful because I went all in on something I believe in. After all, having major regrets is something I fear the most at any stage of my life. And what I do know for sure is that failure weighs ounces compared to regret. You know, I would rather go all in on something I believe in and face challenges than staying comfortable and wonder later on how come I didn’t do anything, you know, because I have done that as well.

That’s truly wonderful. It’s great that you’ve got that inspiration and that motivation to do it that way. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us before we close?

Yeah, I’m grateful for this opportunity to join this conversation. I’m grateful that more people, not just Americans, for being open to international aspects of things,  different ways of thinking, different ways of doing business. So, I’m just glad that this platform exists, and I want to encourage more people to continue to step outside of their local areas to connect with more people because, believe it or not, we have way more in common than what you see on TV.

Yes, very true. And also, to step out of their comfort zones. Yeah, to improve themselves. That is always true. Possibly the most significant distinction.  Well, thank you so much. So, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you as a guest on our show, and I hope you’ll join us again another time.

My pleasure, my pleasure.

So, this has been Philip Auerbach. Please return next week for another installment of Global Gurus and their stories about international business. Thank you.

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