BIack entrepreneurs in the UK face formidable challenges, contending with systemic barriers that impede their business endeavors. From unequal access to funding and networks to enduring racial biases, the path to success is fraught with obstacles. Discrimination in markets and limited representation compound these challenges, making it difficult for BIPOC entrepreneurs to gain visibility and opportunities.
Despite their entrepreneurial acumen, navigating these hurdles requires resilience and strategic prowess. Addressing these issues is imperative for fostering a diverse and thriving business landscape where BIPOC entrepreneurs can compete favorably with their counterparts.
These challenges are what Deborah Okenla has made her priority. Young and vibrant Okenla is the founder of Your Startup, Your Story (YSYS) She is on a mission to build and guide a diverse range of burgeoning entrepreneurs to navigate the challenges and complexities that are impeding the growth of the founders across the United Kingdom.
Okenla’s primary goal is to assist more than 100,000 Black tech founders in excelling in their respective fields, and YSYS is well on its way to achieving this. In just six years, this entrepreneur has already supported over 17,000 individuals from diverse backgrounds in advancing their careers in the tech industry. Through impactful programs, including fundraising initiatives, YSYS has supported over 3,000 diverse founders in the UK.
The organization has secured over £5 million ($6.2 million) in funding from various partners who share their vision. Notable partners include the Mayor of London, Financial Times, LinkedIn, Google, Spotify, Innovate UK, atomico, Nationwide, University of Westminster, Niantic, and many others.
Reflecting on her humble beginnings, Okenla remains astonished that only a few years ago, her initiative was a mere WhatsApp group, initially consisting of 30 individuals. This has blossomed into an organization boasting nearly 20,000 members within six years. This remarkable growth has not only impacted her trajectory but has also impacted countless other entrepreneurs.
Despite regular obstacles and difficulties, Okenla maintains an unwavering sense of optimism and dedication toward empowering her fellow entrepreneurs. However, there are still numerous challenges and impediments that must be surmounted to achieve their collective goals.
Journey to becoming an Advocate
Okenla’s path toward becoming an advocate for Black founders in tech was influenced by four significant events that transformed her life. Like other numerous African families, Okenla’s parents had aspirations for her to pursue a career in law, and she dutifully followed their wishes. Upon completing her studies, she secured a position at Ernst & Young in Manchester in Northern England.
During her tenure at Ernst & Young, Okenla encountered her first significant moment on this journey when she attended an entrepreneurship award ceremony. This event ignited a strong desire within her to leave her job and embark on a journey as an entrepreneur herself. Subsequently, she began to sense that she was outgrowing her current organization.
“They had this thing called Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, and the guy that won it that year had a fitness space I was a member [of]. And I said, ‘I can’t believe this man built this amazing business’. I think that is when I began to understand that there are people behind these businesses and the things we use every day,” says Okenla.
An environment that stifles innovation and creativity makes it uneasy for a creative and innovative-minded individual to thrive happily, and this is the second experience that made Okenla uncomfortable with her paid job. The second was an even stronger catalyst that spurred her into entrepreneurship.
“We were working on a process that was long and tedious and I wanted to improve it. I was credited for it but was told I should not waste my time doing things that made the work better. I did it on non-billable hours and on the weekends. That’s when I got this massive shock. I realized if you are an intrapreneur or an entrepreneur, make sure you have an environment that nourishes it and supports it rather than stifling it,” says Okenla.
When her supervisor, who had spent 25 years with the organization, was let go, and when she was left reeling from the tragic loss of a dear friend, Okenla decided to be courageous about her ambition. The experiences left Okenla with a sense of merely sitting in the office, thinking, grieving absentmindedly as her time slipped away without fully harnessing her inherent abilities and potential.
While contemplating her next course of action and pondering how to kickstart it, she came across a platform known as Eventbrite. She enrolled in a hackathon, and within three days, she acquired knowledge of how to transform an idea into a fully functional business. Despite lacking any prior experience in the tech industry, Okenla swiftly developed a deep affection for the ecosystem.
“I just loved the environment those event organizers were able to create and the engagement from people all over the world was incredible. I felt empowered,” recalls Okenla. “Afterwards, I went to the event organizers and said ‘I would love to be a volunteer and help’ and they literally laughed at me. I said ‘If you are not going to let me do this, then I would create my own ecosystem.’”
She resigned from her job and enrolled in an accelerator program, focusing on developing programs that attract and connect startups and investors. However, she discovered a problem – a growing disparity between the number of investments received by Black founders compared to their white counterparts and Okenla determined to make a difference by utilizing her expertise to establish her community.
That was the moment YSYS was launched. Initially, her team comprised individuals she connected with on Twitter. Soon, through direct physical discussions, the enterprise expanded to include restaurant gatherings and a thriving community on Slack.
“We have had individuals join our community and go ahead to raise a Series A round and we have also had individuals who have not worked for a long time land their first role and those are the stories that have kept us going.”
In addition to creating educational initiatives and programs, Okenla actively advocates for increased recognition and support for individuals from diverse backgrounds within the UK ecosystem.
“I wrote an open letter [to the government] and that led to a meeting with British Business Bank and they said they will track the diversity data to see who is applying for the fund and if it’s not as diverse as possible, ‘We will see more of what we can do’.”
Happily for the founder and numerous entrepreneurs benefitting from her initiative, YSYS has remained on an upward trajectory since its inception, and Okenla is poised to increase the membership from its present 17,000 entrepreneurs to over 100,000.
Her dedication to expediting the progress of diverse founders and talented individuals remains unwavering as she actively engages in community-oriented programs. Additionally, she passionately advocates for an all-encompassing startup ecosystem by spearheading campaigns and conducting workshops.