Deborah Okenla, founder of Your Startup, Your Story, has made it her mission to build and guide a diverse range of entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom. That has transformed to over 17,000 members in six years and she has helped raise over £5 million.
Your Startup, Your Story (YSYS) founder and CEO, Deborah Okenla and her team provide access and opportunities for founders and investors. But, in truth, Okenla’s transition to becoming an advocate for black founders in tech was triggered by four life-changing experiences.
Like many African families, Okenla’s parents wanted her to study law and that is exactly what she did. After graduating, she landed a job in Manchester with Ernst & Young.
“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 and 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. At the time, she was also beginning to feel like she might be outgrowing her organization. That was when she had her first triggering experience.
“We were working on 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.
The next experience was when her hiring manager, who had worked for the company for 25 years, was laid off, and Okenla’s third experience was when she lost a close friend to suicide.
With the combination of these experiences, Okenla felt as though she was just sitting in the office mourning and absentmindedly watching her time go.
That is until she stumbled on a platform called Eventbrite. She registered for a hackathon event and in three days was able to learn how to build a business from ideation to execution. With no
experience in tech before the event, Okenla immediately fell in love with 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. 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’, ” recalls Okenla.
She quit her job and joined an accelerator program where she specialized in designing programs that would recruit startups and introduce them to investors. The only problem was there was an increasingly disproportionate number of black founders receiving investment compared to their white counterparts. Okenla made the decision to harness her own skills and create her own community.
That was when YSYS was conceived. Her initial group consisted of people she connected with on Twitter and soon, through word- of-mouth, the business grew to host restaurant meetings and a large 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 the past six years, she says YSYS has raised over £5 million ($6.2 million) and supported over 3,000 diverse founders in the UK. Some of their partners include the Mayor of London, Financial Times, LinkedIn, Google, Spotify and many others. But there are still hurdles and barriers to overcome.
In addition to designing education initiatives and programs, Okenla also knocks on doors that would encourage the UK ecosystem to pay attention to people from diverse backgrounds.
“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’.”
Okenla’s mission is to help over 100,000 people excel in tech by the end of this year and the organization is well on its way to achieving it. When she looks back, it still amazes her that a simple WhatsApp group – starting with 30 people – is now an organization with over 17,000 members in six years, and one that has completely changed the course of her own life.