Pandemic buzzkill: French entrepreneur Willem Lombe hits a wall
Why We Wrote This
Son of Congolese immigrants, Willem Lombe is owner of a talent agency and an e-commerce site. But he’s struggling for traction in the pandemic economy. His personal story is part of the Monitor’s interactive 21 in ’21 global report about a generation coming of age in the pandemic.
Momar Sakanoko/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Entrepreneur Willem Lombe is struggling to keep his e-commerce beauty-products website and his Be Great Company talent agency alive in the pandemic slowdown. "In the end, it’s just you and your faith," he says.
January 22, 2021
By Willem Lombe
as told to Colette Davidson
My parents came from Congo about 40 years ago to France, a country they knew nothing about. They came legally when my oldest sister was little. It’s a blessing; not everybody got the chance to come here that way. Especially around that time, when there was the war. That’s why they left. They had degrees and diplomas and they wanted the same for us.
When my parents first got here, my dad worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant while he was finishing his master’s degree. Now he works for the state treasury. My mom works as a nurse’s assistant in a hospital in Paris. They’ve always had jobs. Always. It’s incredible.
When I look at my parents, hear their stories, and see all they did with so much courage and faith, I see dream chasers.
It’s hard to have faith in difficult times but it’s especially important in those moments, like now in the pandemic – and I mean that in both a religious and nonreligious way.
As a family, we always went to church. But my grown siblings and their families, my parents, and I would all do our own thing, going to different churches. Sometimes when my mom worked the night shift at the hospital, my dad would go to church for her. That’s what he said: When he went, it was like they both went.
Special Global Report
21 in ’21: Coming of age in a pandemic
But this was before the pandemic. Now there are very few church services.
Still, there were some people in our Congolese community in Paris who held private services. A bunch of them got COVID-19 and many died. I remember hearing my parents on the phone in the living room last spring, getting calls about these people they used to know.
That’s why you just have to pray and do what you can do. In the end, it’s just you and your faith.
Momar Sakanoko/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Willem Lombe was a top-ranked basketball player in France prior to embarking on a business career, not too long before the pandemic economic effects hit the global economy.
For me, I have had to have deep faith in myself. My drive to succeed has come naturally from my surroundings, but it’s also something from within. It’s like a light – you activate something to make your dreams come true.
That’s what my parents saw in my determination as a teenager to go to the United States to try to go pro in basketball. All my siblings are successful in traditional ways – they have higher degrees, good jobs. I’ve always walked a different path from the rest of my family. I wasn’t the best at school, just average. I’m more life smart.
My parents let me go, and I spent two years in the U.S. before I decided it was time to move on. It’s not like I abandoned my dream. I’ve built on it. I wanted more control and to move faster. So I came home, started two businesses, took business classes, and worked as a retail shop manager.
But the pandemic has really messed me up.
I launched an e-commerce site selling self-care products, and that’s going OK because it’s online. But my business school classes are almost all online now. The retail shop where I work has been closed half the time. And my real passion, the Be Great Company – the talent agency I started with my friend Momar – is suffering because it’s really hard to look for talent when there are no basketball games to attend and recording studios are closed. We signed one basketball player to a pro club in Denmark. But for the most part, things are on hold.
It’s like as soon as you start something, then – boom! – you get stopped and have to start all over again. Being cut off is the most difficult part. Emotionally, it’s going to change me. That’s probably the way it’s going to hurt me the most.
But, again, it’s about faith: You think so much is going to happen even if you don’t see it now. How do I keep going? I know the Be Great Company is going to be bigger than what we are right now.
But the pandemic won’t be our only hurdle. I do kind of feel like it’s going to be harder for us. When people see our last names, even though we’re doing something professional, they just see African names. We used to have our pictures as the profile photo on our company WhatsApp, and then we did a test and changed it to our logo. As soon as we did that, it was completely different. We got more interest, and our conversations with potential clients went further because they weren’t just thinking about our faces.
That’s the thing. Momar and I both played high-level basketball, but if you look on the business side of the sports world, you’re not going to see many people of color. No one is going to say anything explicit, but you can feel the discrimination. You can read between the lines.
Every time people doubt us, it gives me strength. I just feel sad that racism is still happening.
Now I want to focus on helping other people reach their dreams. It’s a different feeling than achieving my own – a true happiness.
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Even though this pandemic has been frustrating, we’re trying to push some stuff through, do as much as we can do to get the benefits later. I have faith that our time is going to come. But if we stop now, it won’t go anywhere.
It’s like fighting a battle. You have two choices: to back down or break through. Whatever happens, I’ll be more proud to succeed after going through something difficult than something easy. That’s why I’m still chasing those dreams and why I can never really stop until I reach them.