For Black History Month, Nana Wereko-Brobby has curated a series of interviews, Meet The Founders, with successful entrepreneurs and black business role models in the UK.

The original article can be found on Square Mile Magazine.

Picture the sceneIt’s October in London. A young black founder enters a room full of investment professionals and startups embarking on a major fundraise. There are around 50 guests, and some very deep pockets in the room. However, only one founder in here is black. And there isn’t a woman in sight.

I’ve experienced first hand the lack of diversity in the start-up world. However, I’ve also seen some amazing initiatives pop up in the last few years — like UK Black Tech, an independent organisation aiming to increase the number of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds working in — and founding — tech businesses.

Things have certainly improved since 2017 when TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher tweeted, “It’s great that there are so many UK ‘Women in Tech’ type groups now, but where’s the support and groups for black tech founders?”.

On the London circuit, walk from investor event to panel discussion to high stakes pitch day and there’s still a tangible sense that we’re massively underrepresented. Pity party this is not; it won’t stop black founders doing their thing. However, for Black History Month, it’s energising to be reminded that there are some fantastic role models in ‘Tech City’ right now.

Their stories are interesting for all and critical for many…

Kenny Alegbe, founder of HomeHero

Kenny Alegbe | meet the founders
Kenny Alegbe

What did you start?

HomeHero. It makes running your home easy, helping you find time for the things that matter most. We do this by offering a platform that manages your household: from collating and setting up all your bills in one place, to taking care of admin like fixing your boiler, sorting out cleaners and responding to technical issues in the home.

How did you get into that?

I was going through a property transaction and had an idea. Like most entrepreneurs: I came up with my best guess on how to put it into action, quickly realised it was totally wrong and then learned from the existing market to arrive at the actual idea.

My problem was that there’s a lot of pain in the process of getting into a property and managing all the disparate needs across the home. So I thought it was worth finding a way to take away the time and stress people have around that — because ultimately time is the most important thing you have.

Did you have a mentor or support structures in place when you founded it?

I’ve always been somebody who is happy when other people around me are doing well. When I was younger I was always able to find jobs in things I wanted to learn about, so went from working in law to working in an asset management firm to then working in a hedge fund just because I found those areas interesting. Plus I’m persistent.

I pulled together a group of five or six people and set up a sort of fraternity. Every Sunday we would have a Skype call and there was one piece of homework: Whatever you learnt in your job that week that was particularly interesting and helped you better understand the world, you had to bring into the conversation. The real advantage of network is really about exposure and understanding how things work, so I created this one to share knowledge.

My mum was also an entrepreneur and she was a serious influence. She’s an amazing woman who has gone from selling fruit on the side of the street in Nigeria to having visited most countries in the world and imported/exported goods internationally.

Can you recommend three books that were game changers for you?

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz. I love this book because it makes the point that building a business is hard for everyone, no matter what you do.

The Daily Stoic, by Ryan Holiday. It grounds you when it comes to facing challenges. Striving to achieve something in life and become notable is just as hard as it was thousands of years ago. Stoicism teaches you that happiness is a choice.

The 50th Law by 50 Cent. For some this might seem surprising, but there is a lot to be learned from people who have come from humble beginnings and have managed to climb. They often have many lessons to share.

What’s your coping mechanism/philosophy when things go wrong?

I’m definitely one to go for a walk, clocking in about 20,000 steps a day.

What does your morning routine look like?

I get out of bed and create a ‘to-do’ list of what I need to get done. I don’t eat breakfast, I drink a lot of coffee. I then cycle into work. Then typically I’ll ask myself “Who do I need to speak to today?” and put those meetings in first.

What’s been the most rewarding moment of your journey as a founder?

A few years ago I was having a conversation with someone in a hospital reception. She was telling me about her son and then asked what I did.I told her about my product for the home, she asked the name and it turned out she was a customer.

Can you tell us about another business leader who inspires you and why?

The entrepreneurs that inspire me don’t actually tend to be the ones with big profiles. They tend to be the ones who are really thoughtful and intentional about the businesses they build. What the likes of Alex Chesterman have done in property is really interesting. I like people who are creating something new.

If and when you’re not working, how do you decompress?

Travel. I have a big family and every birthday I ask for cheap flights when the January sales start. So at some point in the year I’m being sent somewhere, from Bratislava to Rigo, on £7 flights.

What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs entering this world?

Belief.

For more info on HomeHero, see homehero.co.uk

Abadesi Osunsade, founder of Hustle Crew

Abadesi Osunsade | Meet the founders
Abadesi Osunsade

What did you start?

Hustle Crew. It’s a careers community and education company on a mission to make tech more inclusive. Through talks, training and mentorship we help underrepresented individuals accelerate their careers, and teach tech leaders why their companies how they can design better HR solutions.

How did you get into that?

It’s not a happy story, I must confess. In 2016 I found myself working at a high-growth startup that had headhunted me from my previous role at Amazon. For the first time in my tech life — which spanned 5 years at that time — I felt excluded. I called out sexist and racist behaviour to the COO and co-founder only to be singled out by my whole office and made a pariah. I figured if it could happen to someone with my credentials and experience it was probably happening to many other people — especially women and people of colour.

Did you have a mentor or support structures in place when you founded it?

I’m incredibly grateful to the friends who act as an informal advisory board in my career. Most people who mentor me probably don’t realise how much I value their advice. These are friends from university, managers from previous jobs and even people I haven’t met but whose articles or podcasts I rely on for insight. I tap into online and offline communities focused on tech, entrepreneurship and minority groups in tech to build a support network. Of course, outside my professional life I lean heavily into my partner, friends and family, too. Bootstrapping a startup in London is difficult, there are times when family members had to help me cover my rent.

Can you recommend three books that were game changers for you?

Mindset, by Dr Carol S Dweck helped me readjust my relationship with failure and take bigger risks.

Playing Big, by Tara Mohr gave me the tools to think bigger about goals I set for myself and how to execute them.

Reset, by Ellen Pao made me realise that even the most talented women in this industry face discrimination and exclusion. Her response to the injustice she faced inspires me to be brave every day.

What’s your coping mechanism/philosophy when things go wrong?

My faith means I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe I’m part of a greater plan I may not always understand the details of. I practice a lot of meditation and this has taught me to be kind to myself. So I may wallow for a bit but not too long. I have a resilience toolkit which is a list of all the things I can do to re-energise and recharge.

I work my way through these things in the bad times — yoga, painting, deep conversations with best friends over a good meal. In really bad times therapy has helped me escape unhealthy patterns caused by failure.

What does your morning routine look like?

My phone is my alarm but it stays on do not disturb and airplane mode for the first bit of the day. Before I do anything I drink a big glass of water and meditate. After that I’ll dress if I have meetings or get into gym clothes if I don’t, so I’m ready to workout later and have no excuses.

Before I open my laptop I get out a post it and write down my to-do list for the day, starting with the most difficult or undesirable task to complete.Then I’ll open my laptop, check Slack and Gmail for any urgent action items, and then start working through my list.

What’s been the most rewarding moment of your journey as a founder?

The most rewarding moments are hearing from young women of colour who have leveraged our resources to land their dream jobs, negotiate for a higher salary, or successfully launch their own side hustles. They slide into my DMs on social media from time to time sharing their journeys and accomplishments.

Can you tell us about another business leader who inspires you and why?

Sharmadean Reid, CEO and Founder of Beautystack, she’s my peer and yet she’s been able to accomplish so much in her lifetime. Beyond her accomplishments she’s always found ways to share advice and build communities like Future Girl Corp to empower others. Future Girl Corp was instrumental in helping me establish my business. I’m a huge admirer of her ambition, intellect and authenticity. Also she manages to slay the corporate world while looking like she could strut down the catwalk at any moment. Her style is impeccable and utterly unique. She is a powerful, enigmatic woman.

If and when you’re not working, how do you decompress?

I love Simple Habit for meditating. I have a love/hate relationship with Instagram but scrolling can be fun at times. I love Twitter as a virtual hangout to connect with my internet friends all around the world. In the last few months I’ve set a goal to try and workout every day, though I don’t always hit that . I recently invested in personal training with an amazing Pilates instructor.

I like cooking or eating a meal alone at my fave restaurant with a good novel on my Kindle. Recently reading books by Nigerian women has made me feel less homesick.

What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs entering this world?

Be fearless and be bold. Society has not been designed to optimise for our success. Most people in positions of power will probably tell you that you won’t succeed. But you don’t have to believe in them — you just have to believe in you! I’ve made a profitable business despite people telling me I should give it up. So keep going: create a support network online and offline and take each day as it comes.

For more info on Hustle Crew, see hustlecrew.co

Obi Nwosu, founder of Coinfloor

Obi Nwosu | Meet the founders
Obi Nwosu

What did you start?

Coinfloor. It’s the UK’s longest established bitcoin exchange. Coinfloor’s goal is to create a safe and accessible place to trade and invest in Bitcoin. Our ambition is to support the growth of Bitcoin as a mainstream currency by providing financial services that allow the benefits of it to be accessible to all.

How did you get into that?

I first heard about Bitcoin in 2011. I started researching it and became excited by its promise of becoming an entirely digital, immutable, store of value, which solved a lot of the problems that were wrong with the nature and distribution of money today.

Shortly after completing my research I bought a few Bitcoins at which point it plummeted in price! I promptly sold my holdings and didn’t return until 2013. Then, Bitcoin was once again resurgent but the existing trading venues lacked trust, reliability or security.

Coinfloor was launched with the goal of correcting this state of affairs by providing radical transparency and security through the use of Bitcoin’s unique programmatic and cryptographic properties.

Did you have a mentor or support structures in place when you founded it?

We had funding from a leading UK Venture Capital firm called Passion Capital that provided us with significant support in our early years. In addition to providing us with the necessary capital to grow, Passion also gave advice and support with respect to company formation, introductions to valuable clients and investors, and general operational concerns.

Furthermore, during my previous career as a startup CTO, I was fortunate enough to have amassed an amazing group of mentors, fellow entrepreneurs, and friends who helped me countless times along the way by acting as sounding boards, confidantes, and advisers due to their varied perspectives and experiences.

Can you recommend three books that were game changers for you?

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. This science fiction classic helped me to imagine a future where the virtual world would be as important an aspect of daily life as the physical world.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. I can’t profess to have mastered many of this book’s maxims. However, it was the first ever personal development book I read and it introduced me to the discipline of lifelong learning and improvement.

The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. I’ve always been a comic book fan. This graphic novel is one I have read repeatedly. The unstoppable resolve and willpower of the protagonist is something I took forward into my career and general philosophy.

What’s your coping mechanism/philosophy when things go wrong?

In general, I tend to believe that life has ups and downs and that the lower the downs, the higher the ups. I also I lean heavily on an excellent group of friends who believe in me, and I in them, no matter what. This mutual self-reinforcing belief helps us get through any challenges that the world may throw our way.

What does your morning routine look like?

No breakfast (due to my intermittent fasting regime); a review of the latest crypto, tech, business and world news; followed by a bicycle ride or walk to work, or my first meeting of the day.

What’s been the most rewarding moment of your journey as a founder?

The most rewarding moments are still when clients come up to me on the street or at an event, and tell me how they have trust in Coinfloor and appreciate the team and the service we provide. Whenever this happens, my desire to do an even better job only increases further.

Can you tell us about another business leader who inspires you and why?

Elon Musk. As with many of the greatest business leaders of modern times, he is an engineer by background. Furthermore, he has an audacious and world changing vision that he is steadfast in achieving through ingenuity, teamwork and sheer force of will. His success inspires me to dream bigger and to never ever give up on my biggest objectives.

If and when you’re not working, how do you decompress?

Swimming. I swim lengths for about an hour. It is a great form of exercise and I also find it to have a meditative quality. Watching fantasy and science fiction movies — they are enjoyable and also expose my mind to new possibilities.

Also catching up with close friends, ideally over a meal at an interesting and preferably new location. For me, there is nothing like the combination of spending time with loved ones, great food, and new experiences.

What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs entering this world?

First, be anti-fragile. By this I mean to seek to make new mistakes, gain new knowledge, and fail until you are no longer afraid of failure. At that point, you will be free to reach your full potential. Second, it took me far too long to realise that the game of life is rigged. Don’t play by the established rules and never expect nor wait for the incumbents to change the rules to be more fair. Create your own game and rules, give yourself the unfair advantage.

For more info on Coinfloor, see coinfloor.co.uk

Leon Ifayemi, founder of Spce

Leon Ifayemi
Leon Ifayemi

What did you start?

SPCE. It supports nonprofit and public sector organisations in delivering transformative housing services​, by consolidating powerful and intuitive rental tools on one platform.

We’re able to reduce administrative overhead, making things easier for both landlords and tenants. SPCE is the only UK company to successfully enrol in and complete the ‘Colliers Proptech Accelerator Powered by Techstars’.

How did you get into that?

I came up with the idea for SPCE in my penultimate/second year of university as a student ambassador, working on behalf of my university’s estate office to conduct student viewings.

I noticed that there were huge consistencies in the issues that students were facing, particularly for international students coming from abroad to the UK and having to lodge in very expensive temporary accommodation whilst looking for a more permanent place to stay.

In my third year of university I was put on the other side of the lettings fence and became a keyholder for landlords, dealing with everything from rent collection to property maintenance.

Here I noticed a similar number of issues, especially with the agency model, which was charging private landlords anywhere between 12–20% of the rental income for a basic property management service, and so when I graduated I decided to do something about it.

I began by working at Deutsche Bank followed by Barclays and Rothschild, where two of my clients funded the business. In April 2017 we raised £280k and have since raised two additional allotments of £140k and £150k — over £500k in total. We used this capital to accrue a world-class team and build a fantastic product, which we launched in December 2017.

Although we launched the business as a consumer-facing marketplace, at the start of this year, we made a decision to pivot the company, by transitioning from being a consumer-facing marketplace to a software-as-a-service business focused on licensing the SPCE platform, as of October 2019, we have scored a contract with the biggest grouping of higher education institutions in the country. #WatchThisSPCE.

Did you have a mentor or support structures in place when you founded it?

Once we were set up I had a multi-disciplinary advisory board in place and later had a more formal mentor structure. This enabled me to bolster my existing skillset and learn to become a better CEO and leader. Accelerators are great vehicles to support progress, especially when you don’t know where to start when looking for support.

Can you recommend three books that were game changers for you?

The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

How To Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Max Tegmark

What’s your coping mechanism/philosophy when things go wrong?

I meditate daily, doing breathing exercises in my room for 30 minutes. I also train twice a week with mixed martial arts, which is a great stress release. So many entrepreneurs ignore their physical and mental wellness but there’s such a clear synergy between personal health and performance.

What does your morning routine look like?

First I plan and establish a list of priorities the night before. I wake up at 6am. I have alarms for literally every element of my day, from taking a shower, to finishing my shower, to getting dressed. I have a light breakfast and take a blend of Omega 3 and 6 tablets with vitamin C. Then I take the train to work, during which I’ll either catch a 45 min nap, or start work on the train.

What’s been the most rewarding moment of your journey as a founder?

Signing a deal with a group of universities that account for 25% of the total universities in the UK. Despite not being the oldest or cheapest option, it assured me that we’re on the right path.

Can you tell us about another business leader who inspires you and why?

Ryan Holiday, former director of marketing at American Apparel. He had written 3 books by 26 and his mantra is “ego is the enemy”. Ego is the main thing that prevents you from pursuing and perfecting your craft. It has you more concerned about what people think, than completing the work. Second, Bill Gates, — because he’s nerdy and understands the importance of knowledge and insight in informing his work. Third, Steve Jobs, a true artist and a leader. And finally Henry Ford, who pioneered the division of labour.

If and when you’re not working, how do you decompress?

I paint, write and sculpt. I’ve been writing a novel for 6 years which is about to be submitted, that’s been a real journey — as you develop the characters’ stories you work through your own so it’s therapeutic and useful.

What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs entering this world?

Be fearless, don’t be the victim.

For more info on SPCE, see liveinspce.com

Louise Broni-Mensah, founder & CEO at Shoobs

Louise Broni-Mensah | Meet the founders
Louise Broni-Mensah

What did you start?

Shoobs — the leading destination for the discovery and booking of Urban culture events in the UK. We make it easy for millennials to find Urban events that match their taste, on any night of the week and keep them engaged with compelling entertainment content. We are the answer to “what should I do tonight”?

How did you get into that?

I have always had a great passion for music and events. As a student at the University of Birmingham, I presented a variety of shows on the university radio station Burn FM and worked part-time for Sony Music as a Marketing Campus Representative.

After graduating, I interned at various record labels in London including Sony Records and Relentless Records, but eventually decided to pursue a more traditional career, entering the banking and finance sector, working for UBS Investment Bank.

However, in my spare time I kept my music passion alive by going to music shows every weekend and managing a Hip-Hop artist. Whilst going to Urban events, I often had to endure hours of countless searches to find a suitable night to attend and buying tickets or getting onto a guestlist was always a cumbersome process. I wondered why it was so difficult to discover and book Urban events, particularly those that happened on a regular basis, such as club nights (as opposed to concerts).

It was this experience that led me to start Shoobs.

Did you have a mentor or support structures in place when you founded it?

I firmly believe that success leaves clues and if I am going to be successful, I must align myself with people that have already embarked on the journey. As such, I have been very intentional about building a network of mentors that provide guidance, a sounding board and valuable insights as to what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

Can you recommend three books that were game changers for you?

Success Principles, by Jack Canfield
Essentialism, by Greg McKeown
Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight

What’s your coping mechanism/philosophy when things go wrong?

I fundamentally believe that “Life is happening for you and not to you” and therefore I know that everything always works out for me in the end. As such, I look at every setback and challenge as a lesson, an opportunity to be stretched and grow.

What does your morning routine look like?

Firstly, I begin my day with a prayer and my daily affirmation. This is also a great reflective moment, where I can be still and feed my mind with positive thoughts.

Following this, I head over to the gym to join a HITT class. I will admit that I am not always enthusiastic about enduring a gruelling gym session beforehand, but I always feel amazing after the gym and this is a key part of my routine!

After the gym, I have a healthy breakfast and then review my to-do list for the day (which I write the day beforehand). During my commute, I spend timing reading personal development books.

What’s been the most rewarding moment of your journey as a founder?

With less than 1 per cent of all Venture Capital funding going to Black female entrepreneurs, I initially faced many hurdles in accessing funding. However, I defied the odds to become the first Black female entrepreneur to secure capital from the world’s most prestigious accelerator, Y Combinator in Silicon Valley. Y Combinator is an accelerator known for supporting such names as Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit. To be validated by one of the top seed investors in the world was definitely one of the key highlights of my journey.

Although, I was the first black female entrepreneur to be accepted into Y Combinator, I was determined to ensure that I was not the last. It has been rewarding to be able to share my success story, give advice and ultimately inspire more people to break through the glass ceilings.

Can you tell us about another business leader who inspires you and why?

Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx is an inspiring business leader. In 2012, she became the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. Sara has been successful by building a business on her own terms, in her unique way. She values principles such as celebrating failures, by seeing the lessons there; becoming a no-limits person that strives for the goal, no matter the obstacles; Being intentional about protecting and nurturing the mind through affirmations and strong daily habits.

If and when you’re not working, how do you decompress?

I love music, so when I am not working, you will find me listening to music, watching a live music show or dancing away in a club!

What advice do you have to young black entrepreneurs entering this world?

We are at a turning point, where there are now more resources, network and support out there for young black entrepreneurs. Do not wait for someone to be the first, when the world is waiting for you to be the first trailblazers to inspire others.

For more info on Shoobs, see shoobs.com

HomeHero is a digital home manager, taking care of your chores, bills, maintenance and admin, to free up your time for what matters most.

Find out more about us at www.homehero.co.uk and blog.homehero.co.uk

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