Sick of looking for stock photos and only finding an endless supply of the same types of people over and over again? Same. That’s why entrepreneur and side hustler extraordinaire Karen Okonkwo is dead set on diversifying the stock photo industry. The mission of her company TONL is about human connection, authentic storytelling, and creating a safe space for different people of varying backgrounds, preferences, and abilities.
Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Brit + Co. In my very first office job as a creative assistant at an ad agency, I remember spending hours upon hours looking for good stock photos that authentically represent our population. And I also remember always coming up short. The representation of different body types, skin tones, even personality types in stock photography has been traditionally pretty dang homogenous. That’s why TONL is such a game-changer. Co-founder Karen Okonkwo and her partner Joshua Kissi are both incredibly passionate about not only representing different ethnicities and backgrounds, but also the diverse stories that go along with more inclusive representation.
In this edition of Creative Crushin’, I’m excited to share more about what inspired Okonkwo to start up a side hustle all about celebrating diversity, and how she balances entrepreneur life alongside her day job.
Brit + Co: First off, tell us a little more about your background. Where did you grow up? What did you study? Where are you currently based? Family life, etc.
Karen Okonkwo: I am Nigerian American and the second of five children. I grew up in Chandler, Arizona and I went to Arizona State University where I studied business communication with a minor in family studies and human development. My day job is in medical sales.
B+C: What drove you to start TONL? Tell us about your company’s mission.
KO: I was inspired to start TONL after the realization that there was a lack of racially diverse imagery online. This discovery was made when I was running a blog of my own with my sorority sisters. Our mission is to not only showcase what the world would REALLY look like, but to also educate people on their stories. Ultimately, we want people to accept and love people in spite of our differences.
B+C: Tell us more about your co-founder. How did you two meet and come up with TONL? How do you divide and conquer the work?
KO: Joshua and I met through his now fiancé, Mekdes. We initially hit it off with our innocent debate over who is number one: Nigeria or Ghana. Clearly, the answer is Nigeria, ha ha! It also occurred to me how extremely talented Joshua was in photography. I then decided to connect with him about my idea for diverse imagery online. We always joke that I am the left brain and he is the right brain. I handle more of the marketing and business development and he handles more of the creative and photography work.
B+C: It’s clear that TONL is about more than diverse stock photography. Why is storytelling a key differentiator of your business and mission? Tell us more about the Narratives section of your site.
KO: From the beginning, it was our goal to make sure that we told the stories of the people behind the lens. What initially lit a fire to start TONL was the unfortunate deaths of a Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. What ensued in the media was an annihilation of their character. But we knew that there was more to them in a positive light that was not being conveyed. Other stock photography businesses are all about the bottom dollar. We are about the human connection and creating a safe space for education on different people of varying backgrounds, preferences and abilities.
We bring that to life through our narrative section where you can not only download images of that model, but you can also learn more about them.
B+C: From a creative perspective, stock photography (no matter how diverse it is), can often come off as a little stale. How do you help shape and curate your library to better reflect your audience?
KO: We recognize how homogeneous, stale, and corny current stock photos were. Thus we took our time deciding on the perfect filter and asking our models to come as they are. We understand the power of imagery in this day and age that we live in and we know that people use imagery on various platforms. We wanted our images to reach all forms of media outlets.
B+C: What kind of impact do you hope TONL has on the future of diverse representation?
KO: We hope that different organizations will care about how they are inviting diversity. That first step comes in the form of imagery. When people see themselves in an ad for a job, for example, they then feel like they are wanted.
B+C: In the past year or so, there’s been a huge shift in representation across the board, which gives me hope! What are some other companies/entrepreneurs with a similar mission that our readers should know about?
KO: Fenty Beauty, Nike, Breaktide Productions, Rashad Drakeford (Beats by Dre), and Intentionalist (Seattle based company).
B+C: What’s been the biggest challenge so far? And how did you overcome it?
KO: Since we didn’t have a lot of mentors in the stock photography business, we had to go with the flow when it came to the platform that we used. The platform has been challenging to say the least, but we have overcome it by using those weaknesses to create a better platform. Our new website will debut hear soon!
Favorite Quote: “Aspire to inspire before you expire”
Trivia About You: I like to twerk around my house at any given moment!
Go-to Party Tune: "Juicy" by Notorious B.I.G
Late Night Snack: Cereal
Currently Reading: Start With Why by Simon Sinek
B+C: Before you founded TONL, what did your career path look like? Do you still have a day job?
KO: Before I Co Founded TONL, I was still in entrepreneurship. I have a marketing business as well as a party planning business called Party with a K. I do currently have a day job in medical sales and I have been doing that for almost 9 years.
B+C: How do you balance the two? What does time management look like for you?
KO: In medical sales, you have a lot of flexibility. You make your own hours in accordance to the quota you have been provided. I use any downtime that I have (usually in the evening) to knock out all of my personal business ventures. Time management for me is being intentional about the most important things that need to get done. I am a perfectionist so I like to complete as many tasks as I can before I hit the sack.
B+C: Being a founder can definitely mean that a LOT of people lean on you for support. What does *your* support system look like?
KO: My support system looks like my family and my friends and business partners. Most of the people in my circle are also running their own businesses so it is always nice to relate to them and their journey.
B+C: When you’re feeling burnt out or overextended, how do you reset and recharge?
KO: If I am ever feeling burnt out or overextended, I usually schedule a massage. Either that, or I go on a trip overseas. Next stop for me is Paris and Barcelona!
B+C: What advice do you have for entrepreneurial women just starting out? What do you wish someone told you when you started out on your own?
KO: My advice for entrepreneurial women is to start with your why. Your why should make you cry. If it isn’t strong enough, then I wouldn’t suggest embarking into entrepreneurship. It is definitely an uphill battle starting out any business. I wish that someone would have educated me on the difference between developing a small business and a big business early on. They are really two different things and will take your business in different directions. With a small business, you are setting yourself up to always be trading your time in for money. With a big business, you are making your money work for you.
B+C: Five years from now, where do you see TONL (and yourself)?
KO: In five years, I see TONL being the premier stock photography business for all ethnically diverse imagery. I see myself doing TONL full-time and I also see us traveling the world speaking about diversity and impacting change.