One of Oprah’s most famous quotes is, “The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” It’s a wonderfully inspiring sentiment that can propel you forward — as long as you have the grit, gumption, and willingness to go against the odds.
One person who understands this firsthand is Moneifa Murray. As a self-taught seamstress who recently founded (and funded) her own line of luxury swimwear called Cheri House, Moneifa knows what it’s like to take a chance on a dream and pursue it — even if it means doing so in the midst of a global pandemic.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in a Caribbean household, Moneifa was drawn to the colorful costumes of her culture and Carnival festivals from an early age. Eventually, she graduated from St. John’s University in New York with a bachelor’s degree in finance. Soon, she started a career in financial services at one of the largest institutions in the world where she still works full-time.
While the buttoned-up suits, pencil skirts, and jackets of finance are a far cry from the feathers, sequins, and sexy silhouettes of Carnival, Moneifa knew that her skills, talent, and professional pursuits didn’t have to remain one-sided.
A lover of travel and world culture, Moneifa began to design and hand-sew swimsuits inspired by her adventures around the globe. But it was a trip to Rio de Janeiro that solidified her vision. Shortly after that visit, she enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology to learn technical swimwear design and manufacturing, all while still maintaining her day job in finance.
Cheri House was born from Moneifa’s passion for travel, culture, fashion, and style. Through remote supervision, she was able to oversee the production of her colorful, eye-catching swimsuits in a woman-owned factory in Brazil. Much like Moneifa, these designs are bold, confident, and ready to take on the world.
Homegirl Talk caught up with Moneifa to discuss running a business during a pandemic, the women who inspired her to pursue her dreams, and some practical tips for those with an entrepreneurial spirit.
As someone with a career in finance, how did you decide to start a swimwear line?
Growing up in a Caribbean household, with Carnival being one of several aspects of our culture, I had been exposed to intricate Carnival designs at a very young age. As a teenager, I found myself becoming more interested in the details of these designs and I became a designer myself.
I started by designing Carnival costumes for Brooklyn’s West-Indian American Day Parade (also known as the Labor Day Parade). I quickly expanded to designing Carnival Monday pieces for Trinidad Carnival and designed made-to-order costumes and feathers for other Carnivals in the Caribbean and Europe.
After a misunderstanding with a local seamstress who was sewing my 2017 Carnival designs, I decided to learn how to sew the design myself. Once I accomplished that, I figured I could try my hand at swimwear.
In the same year, I planned to go on my first Euro trip and wanted custom swimwear for that. This is how I started designing based on travel destinations. My first-ever hand-sewn swimwear line was called the Monaco collection, based on the most anticipated stop on my trip — Monte Carlo. I continued handcrafting swimwear for my travels until I decided to start a business and have my designs professionally produced.
How do you balance your finance career and entrepreneurial endeavor?
This has always been a challenge for me. I was so used to prioritizing work over my own needs that when I tried to achieve balance in the beginning it felt like neglect on both ends. I later found that integration (rather than balance) was the key, and resolved to make the most of my commutes and breaks.
Instead of going home after my workday, I spent hours in nearby cafes and restaurants to take care of things while I was still in work mode. This way, home could be reserved for rest and relaxation. Once we started working from home due to the pandemic, I was able to do more in the day but I felt that I was always working.
To combat that and prevent burnout, I started taking Friday nights off to just relax, do nothing, or do something fun. This helps tremendously to keep me motivated.
I understand that Cheri House is self-funded. How did you manage that?
I do not believe I had much of a choice, really. I knew that I wanted to start a swimwear business with my own designs (rather than wholesaling, white labeling, or drop shipping). I knew that I would need tens of thousands of dollars to not only design and professionally produce my swimwear but to also build a new brand and its operations from the ground up.
I am far from rich, but I had a vision, so I started researching financing opportunities. I quickly learned that reasonably priced financial products were not available to me because my business did not meet minimum requirements (such as minimum monthly revenue) and it is not tech or subscription-related (yet!), which is where most of the attention goes these days.
At the time I didn’t even have pieces to sell — all I had was my savings. I fortified my existing saving techniques, canceled travel plans (with the exception of Trinidad), and became super strict with budgeting.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the name Cheri House.
Cheri means “darling” or “sweetheart” in French and some Caribbean creoles. I found that very fitting for my brand. Cheri is also short for my middle name Cherice, which is my bad-ass, fun-loving, alter ego!
It’s a difficult time for many businesses right now due to the pandemic. Why did you decide to continue with your launch?
I am always up for a challenge and COVID-19 has been the most interesting challenge I’ve had to navigate to date. It impacted each business and individual differently.
For me, it was a time of reflection and rededication. I had already invested so much time and money into the brand that once COVID hit in the middle of my production, I decided to double down on my commitment to myself and my company.
I did not let it deter me. As a matter of fact, I figured that If I can have a successful launch during a pandemic, I will be successful if and when the world returns to normal.
Your swimwear is based on destinations you’ve been to, like Santorini, Bahia, Cape Coast, and Tahiti. How do you incorporate those elements into your designs?
It all goes back to how I plan for travel. Prior to going anywhere, especially if I was traveling alone, I would research and identify key experiences I’d like to take away from the trip. Travel for me is much more than visiting tourist attractions. I want to experience the culture, I want to interact with people who live there. I like to get a sense of the mood of the city, which is what inspires my design process.
Your swimwear designs are colorful, eye-catching, and sexy — who is the Cheri House woman?
Women who wear Cheri House swimwear are one or many of the following; travelistas, fashionistas, beach babes, pool enthusiasts, yacht loungers, or simply collectors of well-made exclusive items. We work hard, so we deserve nice things.
We have many choices when it comes to swimwear. Why do you think women will choose Cheri House over other brands?
Cheri House offers swimwear that is refreshingly unique and sexy in good taste. Women in search of swimwear would not have found our design and aesthetic elsewhere. This is because Cheri House designs are a combination of many factors that are a direct reflection of me as the designer. These factors include my cultural background, my travels, my attention to detail, and my obsession with flattering silhouettes.
What’s the one thing every person needs to know about starting their own business?
Having money to start a business is important but having money to keep it going is even more critical. Create budgets, forecasts, and make concrete plans to fund both.
What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs who are thinking about starting their own business but aren’t sure how to get started?
A good way to get started is by putting it on paper. Form your LLC, get your logo (even if it’s an initial draft), and secure your social media handles. Once you have invested in your legitimacy, the energy you need to develop the rest will come naturally.
Who are some of the most inspiring women in your life who encouraged you to pursue your dreams?
My mother and Rihanna.
My mother, Sandra Murray, has to be the most inspiring woman I know in the way that she was —and still is — determined to create her own path from very humble beginnings. She is fearless yet empathetic, strong-willed yet forgiving. I look to her as an example of divine femininity and try to align certain aspects of my personal growth very closely.
Rihanna, on the other hand, is everything I aspire to be from a business perspective. She is a multifaceted entrepreneur with several business lines built around ideals that are important to her. Despite her celebrity status, she retains creative control of all of her products. When I purchase from her business, from makeup to luxury apparel, I feel personally catered to and that is the feeling I want my customers to have whether they are purchasing my swimwear or Carnival wear, or attending my events.
Since you find inspiration from fabulous destinations around the world, where are you most looking forward to visiting next once this pandemic is over?
I have been wanting to travel to Europe for a winter trip for quite some time, so Switzerland is at the top of my list. I already have the swimwear design for it in mind!
To discover the latest looks (and get some serious travel inspo) be sure to follow Cheri House on Instagram.
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