Meet Karen Okonkwo: The young Nigerian-American transforming the idea of stock photography

Meet Karen Okonkwo: The young Nigerian-American transforming the idea of stock photography

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, I came across Karen Okonkwo’s tweet while scrolling through my feed. Not long after seeing the tweet, I found myself researching about Karen and her company, TONL.

I read everything I could about their work and eventually reached out to Karen for this interview. For some context, TONL is a digital media company that’s changing the narrative for ethnic representation by displaying images of diverse people and their stories around the world.

They believe that our voices and visibility matter. Hence, photography and storytelling can help humanize and hopefully diminish the stereotypes and prejudice against black and brown people, especially.

As a content writer, I understand the importance of their mission. Many times, it’s difficult to get images of black people on the internet. Her company is helping to address this challenge.

Below are Karen’s responses to my questions on her journey, work, philosophy as a content creator, being a woman in business, etc. Enjoy!

Being a first-generation Nigerian-American

“As a first-generation Nigerian-American, you grow up in a household where you are expected to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer.”

– Karen Okonkwo
Karen Okonkwo is a Nigerian-American social entrepreneur

As a first-generation Nigerian American, you grow up in a household where you are expected to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I decided to go down the path of medicine and quickly figured out my junior year that I was meant to be a business person. I segued into medical sales where I spent nearly 10 years in the profession. All the while, I started to explore entrepreneurship. My first business was in 2012 and was a party planning business that is still in existence. I also dabbled into the blogging scene. I credit that experience in exposing me to the lack of diverse imagery online. Flash forward and now I am the co-founder of a diverse stock photo business called TONL. 

Building a fast-growing media company as a young, black woman

Okonkwo, Co-founder of TONL

Running a fast-growing media company feels like I am running with weights on my ankles. Meaning that I have a lot of fresh ideas that I want to get in front of people, however when you are bootstrapping you definitely are going at a slower pace. Nevertheless, I am grateful for all of the momentum that we have created over the years and the quality work that we have produced. I have uncovered so many things about our business from website development to customer relations, to the different areas of our site that have spoken the most to brands. These revelations have been significant to our business and my career.

Reflecting on her mission and the days ahead

Karen Okonkwo, Inc 30 Under 30 entrepreneur

I think that simply existing as a platform means that we have achieved our mission. The future holds for us more storytelling through different channels, like more video. Our readers, our subscribers will be able to learn more about different groups of people through our narrative section as we expand our reach. We will also be launching a contributor portal here in 2020 that allows for more photographers to submit diverse imagery that has often been overlooked by other brands.

Philosophy as a content creator

Karen is changing the narrative for ethnic representation

My philosophy as a content creator is authenticity. You can tell when a photographer is not being genuine and just looking for a shot as it shines through in the subject through the photo.

I get clarity at work by focusing on my why. My why is to serve the underserved so I run every decision through that filter. If it doesn’t serve the underserved then I have to ask myself if the time and effort are worth it. Most of the time it is not. Thus, it leaves more room for me to provide the quality needed to perfectly execute whatever I am working on.

“Africa is an underserved market that we know holds a lot of talent. In this next year, we are going to tell more stories on the continent.”

– Karen Okonkwo, Co-founder of TONL

How Karen’s Nigerian roots impact her work, and views on Africa

As Nigerians, we are always taught to be the best. So I always try to act at the highest caliber and produce the highest quality of products and services to our clientele. Mentorship is a big thing for me so I continue to surround myself around people who are better than me so that I can elevate to that next level, especially when it comes to business matters. Africa is an underserved market that we know holds a lot of talent. In this next year, we are going to tell more stories on the continent.

Karen was listed in ADWEEK’s Disruptors: 39 women who are spearheading a revolution in advertising, media, and tech

Advice to millennial entrepreneurs

My advice to millennial entrepreneurs is to lean into mentorship. The same mind that got you to where you’re at right now is not the same mind that will get you to the next level. Humble yourself and be a student at all times. It is OK to divvy out responsibilities so that you can shine more with your personal strengths. Too many times entrepreneurs have an ego and want to do it all and they end up burning out and just being OK at a bunch of things rather than being excellent at one or two things. Recognize your weaknesses and source them out to people who are able to get the job done.


To learn more about Karen and her work, follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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