Deborah Okenla, the driving force behind Your Startup, Your Story (YSYS), has dedicated herself to nurturing and supporting a diverse range of entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom. In just six years, YSYS has flourished to over 17,000 members, and it has played a pivotal role in raising more than £5 million.
YSYS, with Deborah Okenla at the helm as founder and CEO, is all about offering access and opportunities to founders and investors. However, her transformation into a champion for black tech founders can be traced back to four life-altering experiences.
In line with the aspirations of many African families, Okenla's parents urged her to pursue a law degree, which she dutifully did. After graduating, she secured a position in Manchester with Ernst & Young. It was during her time there that a pivotal realization struck her.
Okenla recounts, "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."
During that time, Okenla also began to feel that she had outgrown her role. It was in this period that she had her first life-changing experience. She explains, "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."
The second experience came when her hiring manager, who had devoted 25 years to the company, was laid off. The third life-altering event occurred when she lost a close friend to suicide. A combination of these experiences left Okenla feeling as though she was merely existing in the office, mournfully watching time slip away.
Her journey took a different turn when she chanced upon Eventbrite, registered for a hackathon event, and, within three days, learned how to build a business from concept to execution. Despite having no prior experience in tech, she fell in love with the ecosystem. Inspired by the supportive environment created by event organizers and the global engagement that took place, she felt empowered.
Afterward, Okenla offered to volunteer her time, but when her proposal was met with skepticism, she decided to embark on a different path. She left her job and joined an accelerator program that focused on designing initiatives to recruit startups and connect them with investors. However, she soon realized that there was a substantial disparity in the number of black founders receiving investments compared to their white counterparts. It was at this juncture that she decided to leverage her skills and create her own community.
This is where YSYS was conceived. Initially, it consisted of people she connected with on Twitter, and through word-of-mouth, the business began hosting restaurant meetings and building a substantial community on Slack.
Over the past six years, YSYS has raised more than £5 million ($6.2 million) and has 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. However, they still face challenges and barriers.
In addition to designing educational initiatives and programs, Okenla actively engages with entities that can encourage the UK ecosystem to pay heed to individuals from diverse backgrounds. She even wrote an open letter to the government, which led to a meeting with the British Business Bank. As a result, the organization is committed to tracking diversity data when assessing fund applications and pledges to take action if the diversity criteria are not met.
Deborah Okenla's mission is to help over 100,000 people excel in tech by the end of this year, and YSYS is making impressive strides toward achieving that goal. She reflects with amazement on how a simple WhatsApp group, initially comprising just 30 people, has evolved into an organization with over 17,000 members in just six years, completely transforming her own life in the process.