Former Team GB athlete Kike Oniwinde is digitally connecting the dots between black professionals so they can support each other and a new generation.
Growing up in East London, Kike Oniwinde never dreamed she might have a future as a tech entrepreneur. Her mother raised her and her two brothers alone in a crime-ridden neighbourhood “where everybody knew somebody who died in a knife crime”.
In a sometimes-unforgiving environment, her mother instilled into her a relentless sense of determination. She won a place on Team GB as a javelin thrower and entered the University of Nottingham to study economics with three As at A Level. She worked as an intern at Goldman Sachs and Citibank. She secured a track-and-field scholarship to the University of Florida, where she earned a Master’s in Management.
Two years ago, Oniwinde founded the BYP Network – a digital platform described as the LinkedIn for black young professionals. It connects professionals and entrepreneurs with one another and with corporations, and hosts networking events that attract major names such as Spotify.
“If you’re the only black person in the workplace, which tends to be the case for a majority of black professionals, and work long hours and go home, you’re not seeing anyone like you,” Kike says. “But actually there’s a whole community of people like you who are going through the same thing. And if you find them you can help each other and that’s how you grow.”
Kike says one of her driving motivations for launching the BYP Network was growing up in a community where nobody imagined it might be possible to find, and share insights with, fellow black dream-chasers. The University of Florida, where she met a community of exceptional black students, academics and professionals, became a liberating experience – and planted the seed of her future as a tech pioneer.
“The news doesn’t tell us we exist. It’s always negative news about knife crime, it’s always statistics about how black people get paid less, black people don’t progress in the world,” Kike says. “But there’s talent. Nobody told us there was talent. Florida was a moment, like ‘Wow, this is incredible.’” Florida also gave Oniwinde the invaluable experience of being out of her comfort zone in an unfamiliar environment, struggling with the pressure to perform in sports and study while receiving a full scholarship. It’s an experience that helped steel her for the plunge into the tech world, where survival can hinge upon making the right connections and finding creative solutions even when you’re completely out at sea.
“I didn’t know how to fundraise, I didn’t know that fundraising was a thing I could even do,” she recalls. “But before thinking about that, I just did what I could and went for it. Before you know it, two years have gone by and you’re an expert.”
While calling herself “an entrepreneur and also an activist,” Oniwinde says she quickly found herself growing frustrated with the limitations of protesting inequality and discrimination. “On platforms like Twitter, we tweet, we complain but there’s not much action. We need a platform where we can actually work together around the globe to solve our problems,” she says. “I wanted to offer a solution.”
The positive ethos tapped into a powerful current of unmet need, not only in the UK but around the world. Today, the BYP Network has 30,000 members in 65 countries and is growing fast. It has attracted £200,000 through pre-seed funding and awards, such as the Sky Tech Scholars initiative, and now has venture capital firms lining up with cheque-books.
While success might seem to define Oniwinde’s life, she says it’s a repeated experience of failure that has brought her to where she is today. During her studies at Nottingham, a back injury threatened her athletic career and she also found herself floundering in her degree studies. “At that moment I dug deep, I overcame it,” she says. “I was just very focused and resilient.” She completed her economics degree with a 2.1, qualified for the Commonwealth Games and won her scholarship to University of Florida. “It was this crazy kind of outcome,” she says. “And because of that I’m no longer afraid of anything.”
Representing Britain in international competition also prepared her for the challenges of running a tech start-up, with pressure, defeat and soul-testing exertion all providing invaluable lessons. The fact that there are more avenues to success in business than in sports also gives her confidence to see a world of opportunity. “In entrepreneurship there can be so many winners. It’s very difficult to be the next Usain Bolt,” she says, “but look at how many successful business owners there are.” While she hopes one day to return to elite sports, for now she has found a higher purpose that gives her a new sense of mission. “I feel much happier now because it’s not for me, or about me,” she says. “I’m helping people, and that’s so much better. And as long as they’re happy, as long as it’s bringing change – that’s success.”
KIKE ONIWINDE’S ADVICE FOR NETWORKING
Networking is a two-way street.
The first thing to understand is it’s a relationship. You don’t just network for the sake of networking. It’s definitely a give-and-take situation. If you meet someone, you really have to think, how can I help them as well. How can I build a mutually beneficial relationship?
Push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Make sure, first and foremost, that you’re out there. You’re not going to meet anybody new if you’re in your house. Go out to these events that you see. If you’re invited somewhere, go there. You don’t know the moment that will change your whole path in life. You simply don’t know who you might meet. There’s that whole cultivated serendipity.
Break down the steps.
I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I knew I had to find the right people, the right platforms that could help me. And people should have that mindset. Okay, I want to get into this industry. How do I do it? Who do I contact? You’re not in it alone, you need to meet people who know things. I’m very coachable – I will put my pride aside to learn.
Don’t let setbacks erode your confidence.
You need to identify why you failed. You learn from failure. All I’ve done is learn from failure. You don’t know what will come out of it. So failure is a part of life, and sometimes I think when something terrible happens: oh, what will this lead to? This must lead to something great. That should be the mindset.
There’s more opportunity than you might expect.
There’s not a lot of diversity in tech. But tech is so broad, you can be a lawyer in tech. You can be a medic in tech. You can be anything in tech. If this is the industry you want to enter, just research what it takes to get into it. Start positioning yourself to meet the right people. People don’t know it’s open to them. I didn’t know there was a lack of diversity in tech, I just entered it. I said I wanted to build a tech platform – and so I did.
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