Ceiphers (kay-furs) Olweya is a Kenya-born entrepreneur now living in Phoenix. I heard about Ceiphers from a friend who is part of the Glendale Chamber of Commerce. I looked over his Ceiphers Clothing website and felt an instant pull to interview him. Ceiphers kindly agreed, but he was at a conference in Utah, so we arranged a phone meeting.
Ceiphers describes his journey as descending from a long line of philanthropy beginning in Kenya. There his grandmother only had a second grade education but taught herself how to sew and do alterations on clothes. She rented space on the patio in front of a business until she earned enough money to buy that business. She empowered women in the community by employing them and teaching them job skills. After retirement she decided to get a tutor and continue her own education. She fell in love with education and it became a passion of hers that she then passed down to her daughter, Ceiphers’s mom. His mom worked as a math teacher and volunteered for Care United where she traveled to other countries and worked in rural communities teaching children English, Swahili, and mathematics. She then began working with the United Nations where she worked her way up to a promotion in 2004, landing her a job at the UN headquarters in Manhattan.
Ceiphers was just entering his teen years when they moved from Kenya to New York. The climate was a shock to his system; it was his first time experiencing snow in winter. It was a challenge to form relationships with classmates in the beginning due to his accented English that his classmates struggled to understand. Ceiphers began playing American football and running track and felt that these sports activities helped him to better integrate into the American culture. Once classmates looked beyond his African accent they were able to relate to each other and friendships formed. Ceiphers had other family members living in the United States and spent a couple years with his aunt in California and then with his dad in Texas, where he graduated from high school. He chose Northern Arizona University for his post-secondary education and moved to Flagstaff, AZ in 2009. A huge snowstorm his freshman year reminded him that he needed to acclimate to winter weather once again.
a Chicago born white American who grew up in Phoenix and who is his wife today. In my interview with Ceiphers, I noticed he mentioned his wife in nearly every story he told. He is as passionate about his marriage as he is about his business and philanthropy. Ceiphers met Rachel at a party where they quickly became friends. While Ceiphers dealt with personal issues and the loss of his grandmother, Rachel was always there to support him. They eventually developed a romantic relationship that grew out of their friendship. Upon graduation, Ceiphers and Rachel moved to Phoenix to start their lives together.
Help (humble yourself, accept help when needed)
Ceiphers struggled to find employment in Phoenix, going out every day with a backpack full of water bottles and walking from business to businesses in hopes of finding a job. But he kept getting no’s. “The fact that I was an immigrant made it hard for me to move forward in life,” he told me. In 2015 he was feeling a desire to make a change, to become the man he felt he needed to be for his wife, his family, God, and himself. On a long drive with his wife, he expressed these feelings. He had always gone by the nickname “CJ”; he decided that was a name for a boy, and that to become a man he needed to embrace his given name, “Ceiphers.” Rachel mentioned that the letter C in Ceiphers could stand for change. They wondered what else did other letters of his name stand for? That is when the two of them broke down each letter in his name and came up with the idea that would inspire their future business.
These are values that Ceiphers and Rachel live by and try to inspire those around them to live by. Perhaps influenced by his grandmother, Ceiphers was drawn to fashion, believing that one’s sense of style says a lot about a person. In Ceiphers’ words, “Fashion is a form of expression, but philanthropy is our passion.” Ceiphers wanted a business that allowed him to continue his family’s legacy of philanthropy. Being from Kenya, he is very familiar with kitenge fabrics that are worn there.
Kitenge is a beautifully patterned fabric found in East African fashion typically worn to commemorate a special occasion. A sheet of cotton is laid down and different colored dyes are used to produce an intricate pattern; then a thin layer of wax is added which fills in the colors so there is no worry about colors bleeding or fading. Ceiphers and his wife began researching American companies that produced kitenge clothing and found that although companies do exist that make this style of clothing, they were marketing it only to Africans. Ceiphers and Rachel wondered if there was a way to incorporate kitenge fabric into mainstream American styles of clothing.
This is where Ceiphers beams up once again about his brilliant wife. Rachel expressed concern that Americans would feel they are appropriating African culture if they were to wear a complete kitenge outfit, but maybe they could use the fabric as accent pieces on everyday clothing. Rachel’s brilliant idea led to the birth of their company, Ceiphers Clothing. Their products include everyday clothing such as t-shirts, dress shirts, tank tops, hats, bow-ties, hooded sweatshirts, and more—and nearly every piece is designed with an accent of kitenge fabric. The clothing is also made in the United States. As the Ceiphers slogan proudly proclaims, each garment is “African inspired, American made.” Their goal is to use kitenge design to share African culture with the broad American consumer market. Ceiphers also shares African culture on their social media page by highlighting a Swahili word-of-the-day each day. Sharing culture is important to Ceiphers as a way to bring people together, not widen the gap.
Ceiphers’ ultimate goal is philanthropy. A dollar of every item purchased from his company is donated to Nyaburi Integrated Primary School located in Kendu Bay, Kenya, which educates children with disabilities. Ceiphers also organizes donations for the school such as printers, shoes, and medical equipment. Ceiphers speaks passionately about how much he loves seeing how the donations positively impact the children of the school.
Ceiphers’ business also donates to causes locally here in Phoenix. As members of the Metro Phoenix and Glendale Chamber of Commerce, they work closely with non-profit organizations, hosting fashion fundraisers to raise money for local charities. The Service Dog Fund Corporation is one example of a local non-profit they work closely with. They have collaborated on an event called Home of the Brave to raise money to provide service dogs for disabled veterans. Ceiphers shared that he has a sweet spot in his heart for veterans. Ceiphers and Rachel also volunteer their time, which they feel is their most valuable asset. Their volunteering and philanthropy efforts are rewarding and fulfilling elements of their lives.
Our community is fortunate to include immigrants like Ceiphers, not only to share his African-inspired fashion in clothing but also for his dedication to supporting our local community in addition to his international philanthropy.