Barkue Tubman-Zawolo’s '88 company, MBL International Group, does everything from event planning, marketing and PR, to “VIP handling” and investor networking.
Ask entrepreneur Barkue Tubman-Zawolo ’88 why she returned to her homeland of Liberia in 2006 after growing up in the United States, and her answer is compelling.
“In a third-world, developing country, just about anything you can think of is needed,” says Ms. Tubman-Zawolo of the entrepreneurial opportunities. “Liberia is like a blank canvas, and I can paint anything on it.”
Ms. Tubman-Zawolo’s brush is a broad one. Her company, MBL International Group, does everything from event planning, marketing and PR, to “VIP handling” and investor networking.
Indeed, Ms. Tubman-Zawolo is related to one of Liberia’s historic VIPs. Her grandfather, William Tubman, was president for twenty-seven years before dying in office in 1971. After a coup in Liberia in 1980, Ms. Tubman-Zawalo’s family came to New York City. When her mother moved back to Liberia in 1985, Ms. Tubman-Zawolo started boarding at The Hun School, which was challenging at first.
“I was used to... seeing my family every day,” she recalled. “I was lonely, and trying to learn to cope with being on my own.”
Luckily, she found a fast friend in classmate Samantha Zises Cohen ’88, and many great teachers.
“The instructors were amazing,” Ms. Tubman-Zawolo recalled. She still keeps in touch with former science teacher Gary Brown, who “made class fun and had a wonderful personality.” Another favorite was Dave Faus ’76, who “made history class conversational.”
“Hun ended up being a great experience,” she said. “I learned about teamwork, independence, and how to share. I even learned how to play lacrosse, because Samantha played it!”
After graduating from Elon University in 1992, and deciding not to pursue “her dream of being a rapper,” Ms. Tubman-Zawolo says with a laugh, she pursued the next best thing: entertainment management. She first worked for Queen Latifah’s company, Flavor Unit Entertainment. While there, Ms. Tubman-Zawolo started her first company, Family Tree Entertainment (her clients included Macy Gray and Outkast.) In 1999, she started Miss Boss Lady Entertainment, and managed R&B acts such as NEXT and Donell Jones, landing them gigs opening for Alicia Keys, Boys II Men, Usher, and Destiny’s Child.
In 2006, Ms. Tubman-Zawolo moved back to Liberia and rebranded her company as MBL International. One day, she may run a United Nations international conference for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The next, she may host former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder Robert Johnson, or international rock star Bono. She also has her own non-profit, the African and American Women for Peace (AAW Peace).
In 2014, Ms. Tubman-Zawolo stayed in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. She helped the government set up Red Cross emergency call centers, and ran her newly opened Peace Café, in Monrovia. (“We threw out an entire freezer- full of mangoes because we thought they might be contaminated,” she recalls of the panic.) She lived with the threat of Ebola, wearing long sleeves, obsessively cleaning her shoes and possessions. She felt she couldn’t leave her country in its hour of need.
“My husband called me an Ebola freedom fighter,” she says of her spouse, entrepreneur Karton Zawolo, whom she met in 2008.
At press time, while living in New York City awaiting the birth of her first child, due in March, Ms. Tubman-Zawolo was working on her new venture, BeAfricaLuxury, an online marketplace selling African products.
“As an African who spent most of my life in the U.S., people here are undereducated about the really nice things such as arts, wine, and fashion, made in Africa,” she said. She started the business when she was shopping for her wedding.
“I couldn’t find a place with what I wanted, so I created it!” she said.
Not a surprise at all.