Words by Alex Lawson, The Evening Standard Sept 2017
Struggling under a mountain of debt, Kojo Marfo was on the brink of committing suicide before he found the impetus for his business. This week, he’ll lead his troupe of bright young things out at the O2 Arena.
Earnest, passionate and eloquent, the 28-year-old Ghanaian describes his venture My Runway as a “youth development platform”, designed to help youngsters forge a career in the creative industries.
His year is centred on an annual fashion show (this time at the O2 Indigo, on Sunday), with separate interests in career guidance and charitable endeavours.
“I consider myself half-Branson, half Gandhi, I have a big heart, bigger than my chest, and am business-savvy,” says Marfo when we meet in a bustling west London café.
But the man who bursts with pride at his charges’ achievements almost killed himself before his entrepreneurial spirit took hold.
He’d grown up near airports, watching planes take relations away from Africa. His desire to become a pilot as a kid led to an aerospace engineering degree at Coventry University, after a “defining” spell at an elite Methodist boarding school which former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan had attended.
Struggling to pay his uni fees, he visited his sister in Leicester to “see her for the last time”, but missed his bus home.
At a trip to church the next day, “the leader said ‘there’s a young man here who is thinking of taking his own life, I need you to come forward’. I’d never seen him before or spoken to him, it was so weird, I was a bit hesitant. He said you’re going to be a leader, a great man, you’re going to start campaigns. He said it in detail. He said I would do bigger things for my country and myself. I just started crying.”
Instilled with that sense of purpose, a side job at retailer Comet was quickly ditched in favour of putting on a string of successful student nights — freshers parties, balls, comedy shows. He invested in a nightclub specialising in urban music, staffed entirely by students.
And then took his event planning nous across Midlands cities, putting on parties and eventually created his signature fashion show. “I decided I wanted to have a creative, theatrical performance but themed around fashion. I found the models on the street and we did something totally new in terms of movements and expressions,” he explains.
He conquered the area, (“at my graduation, I wore a kilt and called myself the last king of the Midlands”, in homage to The Last King of Scotland film) and set his sights on London.
“That’s when the vision became clearer,” he says. He split the business, founded five years ago, into three — the annual production, which takes a different theme each year; career guidance in the form of workshops, networking events such as a recent film industry panel at the BFI and its charity work in supporting youth issues including homelessness.
Another strand of the business, sourcing models for music videos — including a recent effort by rapper Fuse ODG — helps to boost My Runway’s modest revenues. “One or two” investor meetings have so far left Marfo unconvinced that the City shares his vision.
Its cohort of resourceful young talent is the lifeblood of the business. Wannabe models, musicians, videographers, writers and marketers mingle, with Marfo at its centre, suggesting career paths for each.
He beams as he describes some of the success stories: Filipino model Rainier Manzano Infante, who happened upon a My Runway audition and is now the face of designer brand Stone Island across the world, and a trio of women who did his in-house PR before creating a company, which just handled Hollywood roadtrip movie Girls Trip.
A huge part of MyRunway’s efforts is its presence on social media, which has created a network of people trying “to make positive things the new cool”. “We say, if you’re snapping about Kim Kardashian she might not need your support in the same way a friend who is starting their new business might,” explains Marfo.
Perhaps the company’s defining moment came last year, during My Runway’s show at the Copper Box Arena in the Olympic Park.
The death of one of its photographers not long before the show made a partnership with youth suicide awareness charity Papyrus even more poignant, as the lights went down, the audience’s phone lights came on and images of those lost were shown.
“I realised youth suicide kills more young people than anything in this country and no one is talking about it. We need to make sure what we consider a taboo is out there. We say the boat is rocking but it’s going to get to the shore, don’t jump out of the boat, stay steady.”
Branson and Gandhi might just have made a unique businessman.