Unexpected Connections — A Sense of Community with Karen Okonkwo
Interview by Eugene Kan
Text by Alek Rose
Photos by Sam Fu
Text by Alek Rose
Photos by Sam Fu
In the modern day, where relevance is almost directly correlated with social media presence, we are encouraged to categorize ourselves. We are one thing and one thing only. This however does not portray the whole picture for a creative. Creativity is not one single thing, it is a lifetime of lessons learned, failures and triumphs—a complex construction of seemingly unconnected experiences.
On Wednesday, November 7th, MAEKAN and Imprint come together to bring you the Unexpected Connections Conference. Throughout the day, speakers from all sides of creative culture will explore the ways in which their everyday life intersects with their professions.
To find out more information, including who will be speaking at the conference and how to get your tickets, head over to http://ucc.maekan.com
Karen Okonkwo is a 30-year-old entrepreneur. Amidst other business ventures she co-founded TONL, a stock photo company seeking to portray a more diverse, realistic world in their content. Karen’s goals in life have always been centered around community—from studying law to training to be a doctor—so when she realized that she couldn’t represent the true diversity of the world through stock photos on her blog The Sorority Secrets, she set about to change it. Teaming up with Joshua Kissi, the two have carved out a contemporary niche in what seemed to be a dying market. At TONL, Karen has aligned her natural desire to unite and integrate communities with an entrepreneurial mindset, the company has shed a light on an industry that seemed a thing of the past.
So I think ultimately what it comes down to for me is that I love to gather people and I love to help people, so when you talk about communities and you look at my track record, I’ve always been the person to try to lead communities.
Eugene Kan: What would you say was your first passion when you were growing up? In terms of something that you felt like, “Hey I’m really inspired by this”, or this is something that you could do without really needing to force yourself because you’re just interested in it.
Karen Okonkwo: Right. Well growing up, (I’m Nigerian-American) in our culture you’re always taught to be the best. So whether that is the best as an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer, those are the things that our community tends to tip more in favor of and you kind of branch out and do it. So, lucky for my parents, I actually wanted to be a lawyer. I love defending people—I’m very curious about getting the facts right in the story. So that is actually what was my first true, “what I want to be when I grow up”.
Eugene: How old were you when you finally came to this revelation?
Karen: Oh gosh, I probably was like 9 or 10. But, I’d say five years later, unfortunately I was involved in a car accident with a group of my friends [that changed my interest in studying law]. I wasn’t driving; I was a passenger. And one of the women in the car died and it turned into this really big legal battle where I was the only one who nothing happened to, so I ended up kind of being a witness. I was interrogated by this lawyer who was just a sneaky woman. And it was at that point that I knew that I did not want to be a lawyer, because I said if I’m going to compromise my character and twist things just for a win, then that doesn’t align with me. And so it was going through that point in which I realized I wanted to be a doctor. I love helping people, I still have the ability to speak for people and cover their needs and do that in a more loving, caring environment. So that’s what I went to school for initially but then, my junior year I had an epiphany.
It was actually due to a homeless man. He pointed at me when I was going to an African festival in Phoenix and he said, “You! You’re a businesswoman; you’re going to tell people what to do someday.” Before that moment, I was at a crossroads because I didn’t want to pursue medicine anymore but I didn’t know what else do. [Because of the message from the homeless man] I went home that night, I dropped all of my science classes and filled them with some electives and lo and behold a new major was starting at ASU—Arizona State University—called business communication. So I totally shifted, went down that route, studied business with communication, had family studies and human development as my minor and I ended up uncovering medical sales which is currently what I do now.
There’s a lot of value because sometimes people have ideas and they’re very self-centered about their ideas. What I mean by that is they don't seek out the very community that they’re claiming that they want to address. In all aspects of community, I truly mean that I go to that community and I ask them their opinion.
Eugene: That’s all a pretty interesting and like super lofty and developed trajectory from one thing to another. That’s awesome. But amidst all that, have you always found this sort of passion and interest? I guess what I would deem to be very intellectual interest, because like whether it’s law, medicine and even business, those aren’t things you just chill to, you know what I mean? They’re pretty deep. How would you describe that passion or is there something more like, I’m making this up, but like, “Oh, I’m really big into music” or “I’m really big into video games” and these are actually unlikely connections to how they inspire me in the medical sales field?
Karen: Yes. So I think ultimately what it comes down to for me is that I love to gather people and I love to help people, so when you talk about communities and you look at my track record, I’ve always been the person to try to lead communities. So the segue into TONL is that I had created a blog. The blog was called The Sorority Secrets and it basically showcased best kept secrets from sorority women. It was through developing that site with my two sorority sisters that I became aware that there was a lack of imagery that was ethnically diverse. And, let me be clear and say that it was other people in my friendship circle, in my African-American friendship circle, who questioned it. They were like, “How come you don’t showcase different races other than white women in sororities?” And I didn’t realize that subconsciously that’s what me and my two friends were doing. It wasn’t on purpose; it was just because there wasn’t any media out there that was showcasing other races in sororities. And so again the whole community thing, caring for people, solving a problem. I immediately thought we need to adjust that, we need to adjust the fact that there’s not a lot of ethnically diverse imagery out there and that’s how TONL was started.
Eugene: How do you think that your interest in community building has the ability to transcend into probably virtually any sort of professional tasks you take on?
Karen: Are you saying how do I make an idea or a problem into a community thing?
Eugene: Almost the other way around where knowing that you know how to develop communities, how do you think this could translate into any sort of professional opportunity you might take on? So for example, TONL is obviously very community driven, but let’s say tomorrow you want to start a coffee shop. I’m sure there’s a lot of carry-over there. What do you think is the value in being able to create community and to foster a community?
Karen: There’s a lot of value because sometimes people have ideas and they’re very self-centered about their ideas. What I mean by that is they don’t seek out the very community that they’re claiming that they want to address. In all aspects of community, I truly mean that I go to that community and I ask them their opinion. I literally just got done right now creating a survey for TONL to ask our community: Where are we at? It’s been almost 365 days. How can we improve? How can we stay the same? What do you like or not like? So you can take that same element of always consulting your community to honestly develop the most sound business because you’re literally catering to what your consumer wants. I think that a lot of brands unfortunately sometimes they are so excited about their own idea that they fail to test it out, they fail to ask. They kind of hoard their ideas and then they drop something and you’re like, “They could have gone at it this way, they could have done it this way.” And I think that that’s something that we’re proud of at TONL is that we definitely reach out to the community. We did a lot of test runs with our friends to see the site and produce what we felt at that time was the best quality website.
I had a very different angle in life once I went to a third-world country and it just reminded me that not only are we so privileged but there are just so many different cultural nuances that are important for you to understand in such a way that it helps to communicate with different people.
Eugene: Beyond the whole the work angle, what are other things that you like to pursue when you need to relax or unwind?
Karen: Travel is a big deal to me and I started traveling as young as around like 9 years old because my parents really made a concerted effort to make sure that we went to Nigeria. So I had a very different angle in life once I went to a third-world country and it just reminded me that not only are we so privileged but there are just so many different cultural nuances that are important for you to understand in such a way that it helps to communicate with different people. So I don’t even say this with pride because I know that I have more countries to visit but I’ve been to 14 different countries now. I’ve been to Iran, France, Nigeria, Cameroon, Iceland, Dubai. I mean literally the list goes on and on in terms of different communities I’ve been able to immerse myself in, so that’s important for me to unwind to be able to take trips like that.
Eugene: How do you think that inherently allows you to do everything else on a professional level, I had to revert back to the ‘professional’ context. But I’m always fascinated how you think an impactful trip traveling can tip back into your regular life or your daily life when you return back statesside?
Karen: I think that everybody needs a reset button, and just like when you wake up in the morning, you’re hungry. You usually need to fill yourself. But as the day progresses you’re going to become hungry again. And so what I mean by that is, you can be like really eager and excited to do business and then you become a little depleted and vacations, a moment of silence, those are all things that can recalibrate you. And it’s oftentimes during those recalibrations that you end up seeing a different angle to your business and you actually end up coming back full throttle. So those are really important moments that I do not take lightly.
I think that everybody needs a reset button, and just like when you wake up in the morning, you're hungry. You usually need to fill yourself. But as the day progresses you're going to become hungry again.
Eugene: I think actually, you’ve been very pointed and very articulate so I actually only have maybe one or two more questions. I think you probably are aware of this just as much as I am but there’s often people you meet that are struggling to define a lane or find a passion that can hopefully eventually translate into something they can do professionally. How can you suggest to those people, this is a particular way that you can try to find your passion, which if done correctly could easily translate into professional context?
Karen: Yeah I think the one thing a lot of people don’t understand is that there are levels to business and if I could recommend a book for anyone to read it would be the book Business of the 21st Century by Robert Kiyosaki or even Rich Dad, Poor Dad which is the number one business book of all time. In Rich Dad, Poor Dad, he basically talks about the four ways to make money on this planet, and there are employees, there are small business owners—they’re on the left-hand side of the quadrant. People there are basically trading time for money. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, I just mean that it’s very transactional, you have to put in time to get the money. On the other hand, on the right-hand side of the quadrant are people who are big business owners or investors. In which case it’s time plus money, they basically have created an asset.
So the first question you have to ask yourself is are you trying to create a small business or are you trying to create a big business and you have to weigh the pros and cons of what each of them will yield. So, that is the first thing I think that people forget is they are so caught up and worried about the idea that they haven’t fully understood what level of business they’re planning on embarking on. Then you know what you’re setting yourself up for, if you’re setting yourself up to be a big business, you’re basically saying: I’m creating an infrastructure where I plan to be sold or I plan to basically create a big business model which obviously requires you to duplicate yourself through other people or through money. Most people don’t have money so they go for people. So you have to answer that question first before you even decide what are the next steps for your business. Hopefully that makes sense.
Eugene: Yeah, so as a last question: what’s the most recent thing that you’ve done that you’ve gotten excited about, like a new thing that you that you’ve been immersed in? Something you came across, maybe it was a new hobby or like a new artist? I guess it’s a chance for you to shout out a friend or a movement.
Karen: I love Oprah. She just started a podcast or basically turned her Masterclass into a podcast and I’ve been very inspired by it. She’s had some amazing guests on there so podcasts are kind of the new wave right now. As far as artists, I continually am inspired by being more in the creative world than I was before. I’d say that Temi Coker has been a huge inspiration. I love all the new artistic work that he’s doing as a part of the Adobe residency program because his stuff has been amazing. I’m trying to think of any other artists that I’m into right now. I really have immersed myself a lot in TONL and I have a marketing business so I really just focused on that and lot of other stuff, like business development. Also, [I am focusing on] our anniversary party, … I’m knee deep in that.
Eugene: Thanks for your time. Good luck with the planning.
Karen: You’ll get an invite for it.
On Wednesday, November 7th, MAEKAN and Imprint come together to bring you the Unexpected Connections Conference at which Karen Okonkwo will be speaking. To find out more information visit http://ucc.maekan.com