CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO.
Karen Okonkwo of TONL, a platform which seeks to transform the idea of stock photography by displaying images of diverse people and their stories around the world, has said, “For people to feel welcome in any industry, they need to see online that there are other people that look like them, in those particular fields. Imagery, in the form of advertising, is the first step in saying, ‘hey you are welcome and we want you here.’ That angle is very powerful and underutilized.”
“Sometimes, especially in the black community we feel tokenized,” she’s explained. “I’m not trying to act like the spokesperson for the black community. I’m simply someone who is trying to provide change and influence. I may have some missteps along the way. Try to give people grace as they launch their businesses and feedback.”
But representation is of the utmost importance to the entrepreneur and content creator. For TONL, photography and storytelling can help humanize and hopefully diminish the stereotypes and prejudice against black and brown people, especially. They are committed to showcasing the ethnic backgrounds of every day people. And the Nigerian-American social entrepreneur believes anyone can do this.
“If you don’t see what you want— anyone who has a skill set, be that change. Start your own Facebook group or start your own meet up, or agree to mentor one person, that’s how we create that cascade of people. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, either. That knowledge is there for you to take.”
More below on why she says she’s a secret gangsta. (We don’t think it’s too secret.)
You’ve said that with TONL it was not only important to create a database of diverse photographs, but to also tell the stories behind the people in the shots. Why was this important?
Often times the narrative for people in our community is already decided for them: criminal, thug, loud, low income and the list goes on. We felt that it was important that we allow the underrepresented the opportunity to tell their own stories; allow us to really get to know them. The hope is that people reading will embrace who these people are and not what they think they are.
When your work is redefining a category, what are you up against?
The biggest hurdle for many of us is access. We are up against household stock photography names so we have to not only be up to speed but one level better as a niche business.
How hard is it to fight the system?
Based on so many racial injustices, it is very hard to fight the system. It’s the same system not designed for the underrepresented in the first place.
Where do your drive and passion come from?
I attribute my drive and passion to my Nigerian roots. We are fighters, competitors. We strive for excellence in the littlest and biggest things-its just in our nature and a part of our culture. My Dad is a successful entrepreneur and my Mom is a hardworking woman with several accolades under her belt so I had great examples growing up.
When you run into a career obstacle or road block, what drives you forward?
When I run into a career obstacle, my why drives me forward. I know that I’m positioning myself to impact the world tremendously and so for every obstacle I know it’s just a groove, a stepping stone for the best that is yet to come.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
My biggest pet peeve is when people smoke cigarettes in front of public facilities, especially the hospital! I hate cigarette smoke around me period!
What are your biggest fears about running a business?
My biggest fear within running a business is not being able to properly compensate people helping to build our business. When you’re bootstrapping, you have to be very careful in how you try to expand, but you also want to be fair to those willing to put in the work to see your business to fruition.
When you’re bootstrapping, you have to be very careful in how you try to expand, but you also want to be fair to those willing to put in the work to see your business to fruition.
What’s something you’d like people to know about your job that they probably don’t?
I handle the Marketing and Business Development for TONL. I think sometimes people think that I’m a photographer and I can’t help but chuckle because that’s not my strong suit. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can take some okay pictures, but I leave all of that to Joshua, Temi and Sam.
What about your career makes you feel the most complete?
I feel so complete whenever our phone buzzes with a new order. It tells me that someone was able to solve the long, frustrating issue of locating imagery of people of color online. It makes me pleased to know that we are a trusted outlet for that.
If you had to trade jobs with anyone else in the world, who would it be and why?
I would love to be Oprah for a day! She is my mentor from afar and it would be an honor to see life through her lens.
At what point in your career did you find the confidence to really take charge and become the woman you are today?
I had moved to Seattle for a Medical Sales position and while the job was everything I had wanted professionally and financially, I knew it didn’t align with my deepest desires. All the while, I was starting to build new friendships in a city where I knew no one, hosting events and really making a name for myself in that realm. A friend of mine complimented me on how well I through events and suggested that I turn it into a business. It was at that point that I decided to take charge with full confidence and start my very first business which is still in existence today: Party With a K, LLC.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? Or your favorite piece of #realtalk?
Give it to God. There is so much power in that piece of advice because when you realize that God has it already planned out for you, you can just sit back on autopilot mode. Every move we are making in life has been set forth before we were even conceived. When you understand that, you live life with an immense amount of peace.
What song do you sing in the shower when you’ve had a bad day?
Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow has me hella hype these days! I’m a secret gangsta so it’s fun to rile up that side of me haha.