Brooklyn-raised Nigerian-born entrepreneur, Seun Shokunbi is the founder and CEO of a consulting and leadership development firm based in New York City.
She works to connect social entrepreneurs in the African diaspora community with the resources they need to succeed and make an impact in their native communities. Seun has multiple degrees in Communications and International Management from Fordham University and SOAS, University of London. She has a career spanning almost a decade of work in education, consultancy and international development, working with organizations like the Clinton Foundation and the United Nations. She is billed to speak at TEDxRidgeways in Nairobi, Kenya this November.
I had a heartwarming conversation with Seun and amidst a lot of laughter and reminiscent moments, she shared some of her deepest thoughts and insights on leadership, entrepreneurship and what it means to be a Nigerian away from home.
How was Karfi born?
This depends on where you want me to start that story. Long story short, it started out because a lot of people were asking me over and over to do it. It was, as Nigerians would say, by fire by force.
I was not looking to become an entrepreneur. It was totally something that I fell into. My sister and I had been talking a lot about wanting to move back to Nigeria, but we didn’t know what we were going to do once we got there. So, we decided to immerse ourselves in the ongoing conversations about development in Africa. Particularly, we attended African economic forums at Harvard University and Columbia University.
When we went to Harvard, I told people about my work in development and how much money I had raised for other organizations through my work. Immediately this light would come on in their eyes.
One of the biggest problems entrepreneurs, particularly those from Africa, the face is access to capital. The people I met at Harvard were social entrepreneurs who mostly came from Africa, were living in the US and had a strong desire to move back to their home countries and start businesses to benefit not just themselves but also their communities. They were looking for someone to guide them to do this effectively, and Karfi was born out of that.
Our mission statement is to obtain and sustain resources for aspiring African leaders; obtaining the resources they lack and keeping it in the control of African hands.
Another thing that is critical for me, is to empower Africans to lead Africa. I don’t have anything against bringing people of non-African descent to the continent to support allies in this work, but I am a strong proponent of this work being owned by people who have a stake in Africa’s development. Karfi is not just about gaining financial benefits but more about leaving a legacy and building something we can pass on to coming generations. That sounds very lofty for being an entrepreneur but I don’t believe in going into business without having a bigger vision that goes beyond just myself.
You are hosting the Genvolution Conference in New York next month. Tell us about your vision for the event.
The GenVolution Conference is currently scheduled for September 28 in Manhattan. The address is on the official Karfi website. Our amazing keynote speaker, Ifeoma Ike, is the Chair of the New York City Public Advocate office and she will be sharing her thoughts on young people entering politics. Another one of our speakers is Yvonne Commodore-Mensah, CEO of the African Research Academy for Women and recipient of the Presidential Achievement Award from former President Barack Obama.
The GenVolution Conference is also a charitable program, and our proceeds will go towards funding scholarships for women seeking careers in media advocacy for gender equality, in partnership with the International Association for Women in Radio and Television based in Kenya.
GenVolution stands for evolution from generation to generation. It is a dialogue between Gen X, The Millenial Generation and Gen Z.
One of the things I have been thinking about in this journey with Karfi is that we need to get the ball rolling a lot earlier than we do right now when we talk about how to do entrepreneurship the right way.
People take different professional paths and journeys as entrepreneurs or corporate employees. Some unnecessary mistakes have been made because lessons haven’t been passed on appropriately. The point of the GenVolution Conference is to talk about those lessons as they pertain to entrepreneurship by having an inter-generational dialogue.
There are so many differences in mindset and attitude among these three generations, and added unto that is the culture of being African. Growing up as Nigerians, we are told our elders know best and should be respected. Basically, we should consider whatever they say to be laws that must be followed.
We have also defered to them as political leaders for quite some time now. Politicians, for the most part, don’t represent our age groups and a lot of the more seasoned and globally recognized business leaders coming from Nigeria are also much older. When you think about the fact that Africa has the largest youth population globally which is projected to increase by more than half in 2030, this becomes a conundrum.
Young people are the majority inhabitants of the African continent but they are not in the majority of representation in leadership. The Genvolution conference is about fixing that.
It is an opportunity for young people to push back on the status quo and demand more opportunities in leadership, social entrepreneurship, women empowerment and so much more. One of the pressing questions is how can we present more legitimate options for young people to obtain wealth and attain comfort in Nigeria. I want young people to have the opportunities to ask these questions and have older people listen to them, both live and via the live stream.
We will also be discussing the African diaspora as it relates to all people of African decent; African Americans, folks from the Caribbean, Afro-Latinos and everybody else. We all deal with marginalization on different levels, so it is a problem we should fix as a coalition.
You also run the Karfi Foundation. Can you share some of your work with us?
Karfi started out as a consulting firm but I decided it is important to have a philanthropic arm. The Karfi Foundation is the Corporate Social Responsibility(CSR) sector of Karfi.
The Karfi Foundation offers free and/or subsidized support to aspiring African leaders, and provides micro-grants to the most marginalized communities in the African diaspora. I strongly believe that entrepreneurship is a democratizing tool. It can give people who would not otherwise have a voice, a say in what is going in their environment.
One of our first projects is the GenVolution Conference. We are also in the process of considering young entrepreneurs for micro-grants, as a seed investment in their social enterprises.
What is it like working and living as a Nigerian in the diaspora?
I have been answering this question a lot lately. I grew up in a predominantly African American community, but I identify entirely as Nigerian, not even Nigerian-American. The diaspora is its own new ethnicity because we don’t quite fit into our own countries and neither do we fit into our newly established homes where our parents have settled, but we still exist with the people.
The question is, who are we?
We have a separated experience that is very unique to ourselves. Quite like how African Americans recreated themselves after landing in the US, the diaspora community has created its own identity.
Living as a Nigerians in the diaspora, we definitely have luxuries that don’t entirely exist in Africa. If we were ever to go back, we would be living in the lap of luxury. I was home for the first time in 15 years last year and I felt like I was the queen.
There is a disparity where people think we are making a lot of money because we are based in the States, but the cost of living is really high here. Rent, for example, is really expensive.
Culturally, being African was considered foreign and out of place while I was growing up. I was bullied so much. It is so interesting to see how the table has turned. Now It is the most popular culture. After Hip Hop, there’s Afro Beats.
A coping mechanism my cousins and I developed while growing up to deal with not quite belonging here or there, was to throw underground Afro Beats parties here in the States.
We’d have music from our friends who have now become huge stars on the Afro Beats scene. I never in a million years would have thought that the weird music we were dancing to 10,15 years would now be playing on Top 40 radio stations. We created that as a way of having a connection to our home land.
A lot of the music was coming from Nigeria at the time. Dbanj was out. 2face was out. My uncle would travel to Nigeria and bring us back the latest records. We saw movies from home too and took lines from them that we could relate to our own experiences in the States.
It was not fun when I was getting teased but it was fun to have a small group of us who understood our unique experiences and we had an opportunity to find solitude with one another. That is what those parties meant to us.
Now you tell someone you are a Nigerian and you might as well have told them you are a superstar. People ask you if you know a certain artist or a part of your culture and it’s frustrating because of course, I know. I’m Nigerian.
As it relates to business, a lot of us in the diaspora have the default thought that we can take what we know where we live and just copy and paste it back in our countries, which does not work. This is why consulting firms like Karfi exist. There are a lot of nuances to development work in Africa. What works in Nigeria might not work in Ghana.
A lot of people have the good intention of saying,” I want to go back and help”, without taking a step back to really think about what it means coming as someone who didn’t grow up in Nigeria and all the privileges that come with it. There are a lot of reasons why things don’t work as they should back home. It’s great to do research for my clients and translate the information to them, knowing they will go back to do work that is well informed and will maximize their success in supporting their communities.
How do you reconnect with home?
I was back in Nigeria last year after a 15-year absence and it was so refreshing. I felt like making plans to move back immediately. It is still at the back of my mind. If not Nigeria, I’d still like to move to an African country.
With the political atmosphere in the US, it doesn’t feel good to live here as someone of dark complexion. This is the point where the Pan-Africanist in me re-emerges. When they see us, they don’t see race or nationality. They just see a black person. There is a strong negative viewpoint around that and it has made it uncomfortable to live here for the past three and a half years. When I went home, it was a relief from hearing all the depressing news about how black people have been treated under this U. S administration. It was good to feel like the majority for once and not have to worry about explaining myself because everybody around me looked like me.
I want to stay in tune with that feeling by going back home a lot more. I’m definitely thinking about ways to visit more often. For instance, I will be in Kenya this November for a TED talk, but it’s really just an excuse to go back home.
I also watch YouTube a lot. I really like TVC Connect. I love the morning show with the ladies. It is inspiring to see four Nigerian women leading a major talk show on daytime television. Their perspectives on politics are so inspiring. It is my dream to get on that show someday. I’d love to have a conversation with them. If anybody knows them, please introduce me.
I keep track of Sahara Reporters, BBC Focus on Africa and I host a podcast, The IRON Series by Karfi, where we have conversations about those of us in the diaspora wanting to have an impact in our home countries. We are currently sponsored by Spotify so you can listen to us on there. The GenVolution Conference is also a way to keep in touch with the conversations going on back home.