“TONL” Co-Founder Karen Okonkwo on Liberation Through Representation
Karen Okonkwo is a Nigerian-American serial-entrepreneur based in Seattle. Her level of hustle is worthy of respect. Not only does Karen have a full-time day job in medical sales, but she owns an online marketing business, a party planning company, and is the co-founder of the subject that sparked our conversation: the amazing stock photography venture TONL.
Karen’s fantastic work in this enterprise has landed her on Inc.’s 2018 30 under 30, and on the pages of many well-known media outlets such as Forbes, Create Cultivate, The Huffington Post, and AdWeek.
TONL’s mission is to “transform the idea of stock photography by displaying images of diverse people and their stories around the world,” and it’s the product of becoming aware of the reality that people of color are vastly underrepresented online.
A few years ago Karen was running an online blog called The Sorority Sisters. “One day, a friend who was an African American approached me asking why we didn’t showcase more people of color on our blog. My initial reaction was: ‘excuse me? Of course, we’re doing this'”, Karen told Mindful Feminism. Once she went to check, it turned out her friend was actually right, and she immediately wanted to rectify the embarrassing fact. “I remember I spent hours looking for these images, and not only where people of color mainly absent, but when they did appear, they weren’t shown in a good light or through quality images.”
Although Karen stepped away from The Sorority Sisters, the issue was lodged in the back of her mind. So much so, that a while later when she met her business partner, photographer Joshua Kissi, she suggested they do something about this market gap. The project didn’t launch right away because at the time both where at capacity with their own things, but a series of horrid events within the black community –especially the deaths of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling in July of 2016- served as a catalyzer to start the business. In Karen’s words, “We said you know what? Let's do this! because our voice matters, we need to showcase the real stories of our people and show them in a positive light.”
That intention was manifested in a business that does so much more than sell beautiful images. Telling the stories of people and communities that have been traditionally invisible is taken to a whole new level with TONL’s “narratives” initiative. Through this offering on their website, TONL invites their users to “discover shared experiences and mutual interests” with some of the people you’ll find in their photos. A novel and incredible way of fostering human connection in something as mundane as stock photography usually is.
Karen explained the rationale behind this idea, “while I do believe that you should recognize skin color and nobody should say they ‘don’t see color,’ you shouldn’t lead with it. You should allow people to show who they are and what they have to offer. And that’s what the narratives have been able to do.”
In addition to the powerful effects of the business on communities as a whole, Karen has had the opportunity of getting gratifying feedback from individuals that she’ll never forget. She shared with us one of these many moments. “Last year, I joined my friend at a church home to support an event that was going on for women, and this girl came up to me, she took my hand and swelling up in tears said ‘thank you so much for TONL’, now I can see myself and my kids can see themselves in your imagery. Although I felt weird –any sort of compliment makes me a little bit uncomfortable- I also felt very good. Because I saw in real life what our imagery is doing for people.”
For Karen, “in today's world diversity and inclusion are no longer option”, and that makes her feel hopeful about the future of her company and society, “I believe we’re going to start seeing things balancing out, everybody is going to have a seat at the table and the opportunity to also speak their voice”.
We admire this trailblazer. Not only is she liberating herself from corporate America but she’s bringing others with her on that path by building projects like TONL that say to underrepresented people, you matter and we see you.