Mariatu Turay braided hair to survive when she was homeless and penniless after fleeing war-torn Sierra Leone at the age of 16.
Now she is prominent in London’s African community as an entrepreneur with her own fashion boutique and believes her story demonstrates that anyone can follow their dream.
Turay was born in London, the daughter of a Sierra Leone government official.
But was raised in Freetown in the west African nation until being sent to America with her mother and brothers at the age of 16 when civil war was raging.
Homeless in the US, she fell back on the hair braiding skill she had learned at school where all the girls had to plait their hair.
Begging from work, she ended up in a hair salon, then learned secretarial and office skills so she could get corporate work.
Moving back to London, she used her hairdressing skills to pay her way through college, earning a degree in economics, politics and public administration. Then she worked as a civil servant.
It was another skill she had learned during here upbringing in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that gave Turay the impetus to become an entrepreneur, however.
Her mother had given her a hand-worked sewing machine when she was 11. Now she taught herself design.
The result is Gitas Portal, a London fashion brand specializing in ready-to-wear apparel featuring African and Ankara wax prints.
The firm, which she set up in 2011, opened a boutique in Deptford, South-East London, in 2016. It is aiming, she says, to be a celebration of its founder’s Sierra Leone and Barbados heritage.