Business Essentials

Izzy Obeng: Changing the face of entrepreneurship - Brought to you by NatWest

Izzy Obeng: Changing the face of entrepreneurship - Brought to you by NatWest

Thursday, 08 October 2020

The founder and director of enterprise community Foundervine explains why everyone, whatever the background, should be able to start and grow a sustainable business.


Izzy Obeng started her career at KPMG, where she worked as a management consultant within the firm’s People & Change practice. As founder and director of Foundervine – an inclusive enterprise community that develops early-stage entrepreneurs – she is committed to supporting small business creation across the UK and Africa.


Why did you decide to start up your own business? 


“I grew up in Tottenham, North London, and at that time it wasn’t the most inspiring place. There were lots of young people who had incredible potential but not many avenues to use it in an effective way. I could see Canary Wharf from my window and used to think ‘how could we help get more people into these spaces?’. 


“I started my career in management consulting, coaching entrepreneurs who had brilliant ideas but often struggled to access the kind of support they needed. In London at that time – and to a large extent now – if you were someone from an under-represented background – a woman, a person of colour – it wasn’t as easy to get specific support or access to networks to take those ideas further. Foundervine was born out of a frustration at the lack of inclusion in the ecosystem and the lack of support for founders from less traditional backgrounds.” 


What did you set out to achieve with Foundervine and what’s on your to-do list?


“I’m proud of what we’ve done so far. Two thousand young people have come through our programmes over the last three years, 62% of them women, and we have been focusing on providing high-quality learning and networking opportunities. I think we occupy quite a special place in the start-up ecosystem. Increasingly, individuals see us as the kind of place they can go if they have a business idea and they don’t know where to start looking for mentors, or peers who are like-minded. But there’s still a lot to do, so over the next three years our plan is about expanding the range of learning, working with venture capital funds and angel networks to increase access to funding for our founders.”


How has the coronavirus affected what you do? 


“We joke that Covid-19 has become everyone’s CTO [chief technology officer] over the last few months. It’s radically forwarded our digital strategy, expanding the number of digital products that we deliver, so people outside of London have more access to what we do and we were quite quickly and successfully able to transition the events we had planned and make them fully online. It’s about how we ensure our community can not only survive this period but thrive.” 


What’s been your proudest achievement so far?


“I have to say it was presenting Foundervine to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Buckingham Palace in March this year [for the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust]. It was such a surreal experience and Harry and Meghan are amazing. It was absolutely brilliant and that will definitely stay with me for a very long time. 


“From an individual perspective, for any founder, that transition to CEO is quite tough. Building a culture that empowers others, and managing others so they can grow, is a real cognitive shift, and it’s been amazing learning a lot more about myself and how I work with people as we’ve grown the team to 12.”


“Individuals see us as the kind of place they can go if they have a business idea and they don’t know where to start looking for mentors, or peers who are like-minded”Izzy Obeng, founder and director, Foundervine

What’s your biggest challenge?


“It’s figuring out how best we can continue to add value in an economy that’s changing so radically. We’re in a situation where Covid-19 has really affected careers and prospects for a lot of young people, particularly 18- to 24-year-olds, who are entering a job market that’s radically different. And Black Lives Matter and the global unrest around race has also highlighted the massive disparities between different groups.


“On top of that, we have a lot of challenges that come from navigating life in a virtual environment. It’s within our gift to build a really inclusive organisation that provides dedicated support to our community – how do we do that effectively, how do we stand in, and do our best for a community that really sees us as leading in this space?”


What’s your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?


“There are lots of things that you need to think about, and the process can be quite daunting for entrepreneurs who have an idea and don’t know where to start. What I would say is always just start, it doesn’t matter if you have all of the things in place or not. Just focus on pushing out that minimal viable product, that thing you can test and get feedback on, and grow whatever you’re doing further. If you wait until it’s perfect, the world will have moved on by then.”


What are your thoughts on Black History Month?


“Black History Month is hugely important. In the light of global events, we need to recognise the importance of having an opportunity not only to celebrate but to really come together and carve a path forward for all communities. Black History Month for me is so much more than looking back and celebrating what we’ve achieved as communities. That is hugely important. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to look at what small great thing we can all do to make sure the future looks bright for every single person within our society. It’s a fantastic month and I really hope that it’s an opportunity to bring people together in virtual spaces to celebrate and carve a path forward.” 


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