Our Notable Women series features inspirational women who are leaders in their field and who we personally admire. We have deliberately chosen to profile women with a variety of different backgrounds, ages and careers in order to celebrate the diversity and creativity of the modern woman.
introducing our third interviewee
Vania Leles is the Creative Director and Founder of Vanleles Diamonds. She is the first African woman to own a fine jewellery store on London’s iconic Bond Street. Vania’s mission is to create beautiful, ethical jewellery that is inspired by Africa but designed to fit with the international, modern woman’s taste and lifestyle.
WHAT IS YOUR AVERAGE DAY LIKE?
I don’t really have a typical day but the first two hours of my morning are always the same—I devote them to my son. I don’t pick up my phone, I play with my son and I’m still in my pyjamas. My nanny comes around 9am, I change and then I leave the house. That’s the constant part of my day. I take an Uber to the office, I then have my coffee and get on with the working day. Every day changes as I oversee every aspect of the business. Clients often set my agenda as I always accommodate them first even if they haven’t booked an appointment.
If I don’t have clients, I do my admin and sourcing. I design mainly in the evenings or weekends as I need headspace. I see myself as a chameleon—I wear different hats in the day. In the morning I’m mummy, during the day I’m a businesswoman, in the evening I’m a wife. I carry around multiple pairs of shoes to fit with all these different sides of myself—my sneakers for walking home from work, some nice shoes for dinner with my husband, as well as other pairs under my desk!
What do you see as your biggest
achievement(s) to date?
Other people would say it’s being the first African woman with her own fine jewellery company. However, I don’t see it as an achievement just yet. I’m still getting there. Instead, I’m collecting my little miracles every day. Jewellery is still a very generational industry with families that have been doing it for years. It’s amazing there is still so little African representation on the design side, given that so many of the world’s precious stones come from Africa.
It’s not enough to be the first African, I want to make sure I’m not the last one too! I want to start something and continue to have a voice in an industry so dominated by other generational families.
Which other women inspire you
the most and why?
My mother, Zenaida is such a strong, amazing woman. She had to leave her country in the civil war with the clothes in her bag and nothing else. She was able to build her life again and she’s not once complained. She’s a force of nature who works very hard and nothing is bad enough to destroy her day. She keeps me grounded.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Africa’s First Elected Female Head of State) is also an inspiration. Her nickname is the Iron Lady of Africa. She spent much of her political career in exile trying to increase international awareness about the chaos and violence that was consuming her country. Throughout her career, she demonstrated passionate commitment to good governance, advocating for the rights of women and the importance of education to provide a better future for her country and its people. She has been righteously honoured with the ‘Nobel Prize for Peace’ for her sincere efforts.
Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe is another incredible African woman. Her and her husband have pledged to give away more than half of their wealth to charity and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. She is Executive Chairperson of African Fashion International (AFI), a company that promotes fashion designers from Africa and enterprise development in the fashion industry. AFI also empowers disadvantaged women from townships through the Design For Life initiative that supports education and diagnosis of breast cancer in women from rural communities.
Have you noticed a shift in terms of how women are being portrayed in the media in the last few years?
As a former model one of the shifts I’ve noticed is that women (and particularly models) are increasingly expected to show there is more to them than just a pretty face. Now, many models use social media to showcase their various side projects and other interests in order to build their personal brand. In some ways this is good as it is encouraging women to be more multi-faceted but in other ways, it’s just even more pressure to appear ‘perfect’.
Overall, I think social media is a double-edge sword in that sense. It gives women a platform but it also raises expectations to present a certain version of yourself.
What do you think women are looking for from brands today?
It obviously depends on the social and income bracket of these women but I’d say most are looking for quality and how a particular brand is affecting the environment. Women today want brands to have ethics and be environmentally responsible as well as able to make desirable, beautiful products.
What are your favourite brands and why?
I love brands that empower women, for example Tory Burch and her foundation. Also, brands that are socially and environmentally conscious such as Gabriella Hearst for her love of fair trade wool and socially and environmentally responsible practices.
On a daily basis, I use a lot of Daylesford beauty products and Pat McGrath lipstick. My perfume is by Sana Jardin, a friend of mine who has launched one of the first fully socially conscious fragrance brands. The flowers are harvested by Moroccan women and then sold through a cooperative which retains 100% of the revenue.
Food-wise, a lot of the food from my fridge is from farmers’ markets in Sloane Square, Battersea Square and Pimlico Square. Clothes-wise, I like LK Bennett. I love Chanel shoes because I’m size 42 and not many brands do comfortable flat shoes in that size. I don’t leave the house without a scarf. I wear Gap t-shirts most days.
Oh and also, Uber. I use that most days! Even though I know it’s a bit controversial, it makes my life easier! I tend to listen to The Economist podcasts on my way to and from work as well.
Do you think we need another term to replace ‘empowered’?
I do think ‘empowered’ is used a little too liberally these days, particularly on social media and by certain celebrities but I still think it has great value as a term. When I think about my ideal customer, I definitely do think about an empowered, independent woman and I use the word myself quite regularly.