JUST IN: How I Moved From Medical School To Interior Design –Toks Aruoture

How I Moved From Medical School To Interior Design –Toks Aruoture

Can you give an insight into your background and what inspires you?
I was born in the , but I grew up in . I grew up in Benin City, and had wonderful parents who were really great at telling us that we could be anything we wanted to be. They kept saying how smart we were, and that was really helpful for me. I used to go through my father's medical books as a child, so I assumed I was going to be a . When I was 17, I moved back to England to do my A levels and go to university with a plan to study medicine. Well, those words my parents said that I was so smart, and I could do anything, I think I took it a bit too far. I didn't study and I failed really badly. So I didn't get into medical school, but I went in to study pharmacology.
In my second year, I got married to my wonderful husband, and I became obsessed with decorating our flat. I began to spend less time in lectures and more time in home decorating stores, buying wallpaper and discounted paint and all of that just to make my new home look beautiful. And then one day I dropped out of university and I got a job as a medical rep to work with a pharmaceutical company, which paid really well. I had a company car and everything was wonderful from the outset.

But the reality was I didn't enjoy it. I didn't really love what I felt was very much a fake lifestyle. We were talking to doctors and consultants – these very important people. It just didn't sit well with me. I didn't enjoy them. Besides, I felt I should be the one being spoken to because I was supposed to be a doctor. But I stayed in and had my first three children, and when the youngest was weaned I asked for reduced hours. They didn't give me reduced hours. They said no. But at that exact time I happened to be reading a book where someone said your gift is that thing you do so effortlessly that everyone thinks is a big deal except you, and for me it was interior design because everybody loved my home and they kept saying ‘come and decorate my house'. So I thought maybe that's my gift.

I enrolled in a of interior design courses and I set up a residential design firm. And then I went from there and was running the business, everything was going well. It was going very slowly at the start. In my first experience in business prior to that, I had only worked in a grocery store as a checkout girl. So, I had no experience in business.
And then one day my husband came back from work and said, ‘Hey, why don't we move to United States?' And I said ‘let's go.' We sold our home and packed our three boys and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and life was absolutely perfect. In the process of my move. I acquired a furniture store, which was a luxury baby furniture store, with absolutely stunning high-end craftsmanship, Premium Wood. This was a world that I was going into for the first time and that's how I got into that space. But then after about two to three years of living a blissful happy life and the business was constantly growing, we started to hear rumours of a recession. This was in 2008, and the recession gathered storm and eventually hit us, and we lost absolutely everything.

So, we returned to England empty handed and pregnant with my fourth son. I call that season of my life the perfect storm because anything that could go wrong went wrong. But when I called a friend of mine, Susie, from the airport I said, ‘You know, we're on our way back; we've lost everything and we're coming home.' She said we should come straight to her house from the airport. And when we got to her house she had converted her dining room into a big bedroom for us. And we stayed with her for a few months until we could get back on our feet and rent a small apartment.

I recall, you know, those days I would spend many hours crying. I'd wake up crying. I'll go to sleep crying. The only time I had peace was when I was fast asleep and I couldn't think and the entire time was just like: When is this going to end? And then one day, my husband and I had a chat and we accepted that we really had lost everything; there's no going back.

And there is something really powerful when you accept that you can't change your circumstances. You know, it actually infuses you with the power to start again, because all the energy had been going towards trying to hold up a dream that was dead. But now we let go. And now we had all this space and time and we might as well just dream a new dream and start something new. I started researching the juvenile furniture market in the UK and found there was absolutely nothing like what we sold in .
I began to approach manufacturers and companies in the UK, saying we would love to sell your products. And they were like, no, if you need to have a physical shop or you need to buy a bulk; amount I had no money. I didn't even have money for a website.

The only thing left was for me to build it myself and, at the time, website building required a bit of coding and it was not as easy as it is today. But I learned on Google how to build a website and had the website up and running. So, when the UK companies turned me down, I went to Europe. Many of the companies there are businesses that had been in the family for generations and the craftsmanship and the artisanship was really strong and superior.

So that was how I negotiated and was able to start a business using just pictures and $75, and I started the business there and I use just the pictures on the website and as people were buying, I would pay them. I remember my very first order was a lamp, and it was something like £34. I had to put delivery time on my website, because when the customer buys it from the website and it takes enough time for the money to clear into my account, I can take that money and send it to the supplier. That was how I started off and then one evening I started to get emails from my suppliers and the emails all said the same thing. ‘We can't work with you anymore.' No one said anything until one of them had copied me into an email. I don't think she meant to. And I saw there was an email thread and one of my competitors had written to all my suppliers and said whatever she's doing in sales, I can do better, but on the condition I am not allowed to sell. And so that was how I had five, six suppliers drop me.

My kids were young at the time and I went for a run because I didn't want the children to see me cry. Also, I didn't know what else to do. As I started to turn back I just heard very clearly: just create your own furniture. Nobody's going to tell you where to sell it, how to sell it, when to sell it, how much to sell it for. And by the time I got into the house, I was laughing; I was happy because I made the decision. But it took a while. And in that space of time, I opened a shop on the most exclusive, expensive high street in London which is the Kings Road in Chelsea, because the stuff I was doing was very high-end and people were asking: ‘where can we sit on your chairs and try them'?
I took a gamble because I felt like people needed to see it. And I opened the shop in 2017 and then in 2021 we finally launched our own collection of furniture, linens and art. So that's been the journey.

Through all the downsides that you faced as a business woman, how were you able to keep getting yourself back up?
There are many things I can look at, say my relationship with God. It wasn't necessarily a pleasant experience. But the grace was enough for me to continue. Sometimes it will just be the words of encouragement from a friend. Sometimes it might be the fact that somebody asked for a product on the website, even if they didn't buy it. Sometimes it was a press opportunity, but a lot of it was more working from the inside-out, because I realised when I had lost everything and I didn't even have £100 to pay anybody to build a website I still got the website done, and I got it done because I pulled from something inside of me.

So, I began to think that there must be more inside me that I can pull out – more gems, more abilities. The website building became a landmark for me every time – the ability to draw from past experiences. But up until that point in my life, it was a big deal because I'd never done anything like that. So, you know what, as human beings we have incredible ability and resilience within us.
I am blessed I have got a very supportive husband. And I mentioned earlier that when you're going through a challenging season, you know who your friends are. So what that does to you is there is a risk of you becoming cynical and not trusting anybody, but if you resist the temptation to be cynical, what you're left with is the ability to build the right circle of people around you.

That curating of your space, your environment, is so important. And that's one of the things that I did without even knowing I was doing it. Many times, we make decisions based on our emotions, not on our thoughts. So what I tend to do is write my thoughts in bullet points, then I'm able to look at it and analyse it, and all the negative ones I can cross them out, and all the positive ones I can build on them. And the ones I'm not sure of, I can address and say ‘okay, what's the issue here'? So a lot of introspection allows you to find gems within you that God has placed inside you. So that was one of the things I was doing.

So I rewrote my story in a rock star version and I added bits of my own sob version to it, because I want it to be authentic and real. You know, and what I realised was, I was looking at things like I built my own website. I was ashamed that I built my own website when everybody else was paying an agency to do it for them. Then I realised that is the story of resilience. Every person has a rock star story, I don't care who you are. If you are alive, you have a story to tell.
The story that I was ashamed of became my calling card. I recently did a TED talk about it called the superpower of authentic storytelling and it was just showing how we allow shame to lead us. There is nobody that has not failed. Yet we hide and want to present this image of success. Those are some of the things that helped me on my journey.

And then I developed other tools as I went on which I teach people in my mindset workshops, or when doing public speaking on stage. One I call the bank of evidence, which is a really important and very powerful one, too.
There are those moments when you almost get a flush like an opening to see your future, and I don't know if I'll call it your future but you get this surge of energy when you imagine yourself in the future. And the other time you imagine it, you have moments when you truly believe it can be done. And then sometimes those moments then disappear forever, then you just get back into the grind. Every time you have a strong belief in yourself, write it down. So I write a letter to myself, I write a notice on my phone, I write that this thing you're trying to do, you can totally do it. You've got the zeal, you've got the ability, and there are people who are willing to help you. You are smart, and then I end with ‘in a couple of days you're not going to feel this way'. In a couple of days you're going to really doubt your abilities. Don't believe that person; this is the real you, and save that because it's a bit like trying to bottle up emotions. Save it in a bottle so you can you can draw from it whenever you need it.

And that's not even the Bank of Evidence. That's one thing I do. Bank of Evidence is when you have confirmations that your dream is valid. So, for example, when I was going to open mic when I was opening my shop, I was really scared because it was a massive commitment. And there was no guarantee it would work. It was huge King's Road, Chelsea, and I'm this one lone businesswoman. So I was scared. So to counter that fear and to convince myself I was okay, I was driving one time on King's Road, and I saw a shop that sold socks. I said if you can sell socks and settle your rent, then I can sell furniture and definitely pay my rent. Another time I went into Harrods the major department store and went to the children's section I saw a dress for £62,000. So I said if somebody can spend £62,000 on a dress, then they can spend £2,000 on a cot. When I was actually moving in, the guy who helped me move from my office – because I had an office in my house; he had a small van, so he made about two or three trips, and it was at least an hour each way. And when he was done, I told him to please email me the bill, and he said that your bill is zero. This is a white man. He goes, ‘I'm so happy for you that you're doing this. I'm not going to charge you.' I didn't have money to put furniture in the store for display because all the money went towards the initial deposit, painting, plastering and copiers and everything. So, I sent a message to all my suppliers, and I said I am very excited to announce that I'm going to be opening on the King's Road. One of them replied and said we're going to give you £5,000 worth of furniture and just have it on consignment, whenever it sells you can give us the money. That was how I finished the store. That was evidence that I was on the right path.

One time I needed a platform to put the products by the window. I was with a friend when the cost came back and when I saw the cost I screamed and said it looks as if we would use cardboard boxes. Maybe I'll put wrapping paper around it or something; there's no way I can afford that. She asked what it was, I told her and she said how much is it? And she just wired the money to me. Another time I was so scared on the day I was going to sign the lease. I sent a message to a small circle of friends that this is what I'm doing, and I need you guys to pray because I'm scared. I didn't even say money problems or anything; I just said I'm scared. One or two of them actually said: ‘Send me your bank details, I want to sow into this'.

I remember the very day I was signing the lease. I was lying on the floor, crying and praying, and I could hear the Scripture, ‘I have not given you a spirit of fear. I give you spiritual power, love and a sound mind.' It wasn't enough. I just randomly grabbed one of my old journals, I didn't look at which one, randomly opened it and he just says, ‘I have not given you a spirit of fear, I have given you the spirit of power.' That was evidence. So you collect these things around as you journey and you save them so that when doubt comes, when you tend to want to quit, you can go back and read them.
The other powerful one is writing a day in your life. That one will give you an instant boost. Whenever I wake up, sometimes I wake up and I feel discouraged, I just take my pen and paper and describe a day in my life. I write, ‘Today is the 12th of April 2026. I'm so excited at where the business is today. Yesterday we did a sale of X amount, today we are going to visit this customer. I've also got an interview on TV in the morning. Then I've got a book signing at some stores. I'm thrilled with my life. I remember when I woke up feeling discouraged thinking this wasn't going to happen. But look at how far God has brought me. I'm so thrilled and excited and thankful.' And that just instantly changes things.

Why luxury nursery interior design?
I fell into it; it was purely by accident. It was because, in moving to the US, the route we used for our visa was a business visa. So, we needed to acquire a business, and we looked at everything from dry cleaners to sandwich shops, just different types, and we came across this company that was up for sale. And they sold baby and children's furniture. So, we bought the business and that was how I got into it. In so many ways, that was all I knew. The only I had business-wise was selling baby and children's furniture, but because I was already an interior designer, I merged my interior design skills with designing baby rooms and children's rooms and play rooms. And that's how I ended up becoming a children's interior designer.
When I returned to England, I set up because that was where my knowledge was and my skill had been built in. But even now I am starting another sister company doing adult furniture because we have had clients who, maybe, have just moved into a new house and we are doing the nursery, the playroom, and they need furniture for the rest of the house, so we can supply that.

Having been up and down and back up again as an entrepreneur, what would be your advice for entrepreneurs?
There is a saying that you don't do business with a business; you do business with a person, or with people. Your business is only as strong as you are as a person, and a lot of people focus so much on the foundation of the business – which is incredibly important, but they don't focus on themselves. The business can only be closed if you decide you are going to close it down. I know that there are external circumstances. I lost my business in the recession. The UK is going through a challenging time at the moment, same with businesses, too, and I feel it. So it is not to say that it is entirely down to you. Well, the truth is, even if there were no external forces, every entrepreneur comes a point where they feel they have to quit. But if you work on your mind and you use some of the tools that I've described, you know, work on your mindset, it will just give you a little bit more. There is a saying that a hero is no different from an ordinary person; he is just stronger for five minutes more. This is what I'll say to entrepreneurs: when you think you've reached the end of the road, just tell yourself, ‘Five minutes more'. Just do another five minutes, chances are things would have picked up. Then you come to another close again, you do another five minutes.

Have a strong foundation on the business with regards to knowing your audience. There are so many business books out there that I don't feel like there is anything more I can add to that aspect of things. But the one area that people tend not to think about is their mindset. So you deal with all the business stuff, know your audience, target your audience. I'm in a niche area, because it's easier to market to a niche than to try and sell to the whole world. And then it is easy to tailor your language to a niche. So you want to make sure that you're clear on that. Then manage your expectations. You've got also got to manage your emotions; that part is so important. When your website is up and running and it is exciting and wonderful, you send it to all your friends and family. Everybody's happy. And then nobody's visiting the website. And then you drop down again. And before you know it you are up and down and up and down and up and down. So you have to learn to get a hold of your emotions. And don't let it go with the business; otherwise, you are just going to be constantly up and down.

Networking is great as well. Network within the right circles and network with intention as well. So, when I used to go networking, at first I used to go and come back discouraged because I thought that I was going networking to meet my clients. But I had to learn that because I'm in such a small niche. Not everybody's wealthy and pregnant. So I'm not going to meet my clients; I'm going to meet people who work for my clients. So, you got to be clear on who you're meeting and why you're meeting. Building with people is also very important.

Aside luxury designs, what else do you do?
I started the CSO in the UK. I do a lot of mindset talks. I do public speaking on the subject of transformational mindset, or transformational speaking. And I started to do that here as well. So I started at the LEADERSHIP Awards in Abuja last week and that was absolutely incredible. Also spoke with Independent Television (AIT) on International Women's Day. I did a slot on the news talking about advocacy for women. I did something on one of the radio stations as well, which was great. So, my goal in Nigeria is really speaking to entrepreneurs that are at the crossroads, either startups or they have already been going and they just need something other than just another business talk on how they can go forward. And not just entrepreneurs, young people as well, students, people who are clued in enough to know that they need a mindset shift. Because if I'm speaking to people who don't think they need any changes in their minds, it's a waste of time; it's people who are ready to do the work, dig into their minds and help propel their lives forward because they have a renewed mindset.

How is this different from motivational speakers?
I see a lot of motivational speakers in Nigeria, which isn't quite the same thing that I'm doing because I don't think we need more motivational speakers. But I think we need to dig deep within ourselves so that we always have a constant source of inspiration and we always have access to our unique gifts. And so, that's what I'm doing. It is a little bit different because it is transformational, and it is thought leadership as well.

In your view, do you see the need for mentorship coming from diasporans for Nigerian entrepreneurs?
I definitely think that's needed because the world is a global village, as they say now, and it means that standards of business in Nigeria, for example, has got to come up to a level that the rest of the world see as normal. And I can see that happening already. So those of us in the diaspora who have had the opportunity to access that level of service, that level of attention to detail, I believe, should mentor Nigerian businesses over here. My heart is here because when it comes to business, there is so much room for improvement. But it is not like there is anything lacking because the Nigerian spirit is strong and fearless and resilient and capable and hard working. Everything we need is actually here, even within the people. We have all that we need within us. And it's just really, perhaps those in the diaspora, who have had the opportunity to have access to it and come close up to see how things work, to bring that knowledge over here and mentor business owners over here to also raise the standard.

How ecofriendly are your designs?
We use woods that are sustainably sourced. Everything that we do cannot be 100 percent ecofriendly because, for example, the furniture is manufactured in the EU and then imported into the UK or manufactured in the EU and then exported to other parts of the world. And even just the transportation alone is not very sustainable. But we are working towards it. So we use organic fabrics where possible, and sustainable wood, child-safe paints. I like to call them lick-able paint – like you can lick them and you'll be fine because they don't have harmful chemicals in them either. So that's what we're doing.

What do you see in the future?
What do I see in the future? I really see myself spending a lot more time here in Nigeria and Africa as well, and really helping to transform minds, transform the way people think.

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