Alumni interview: Izzy Obeng (BSc 2014), Managing Director of Foundervine

After graduating from Bristol in 2014 with a politics degree, Izzy Obeng worked at KPMG before starting her own company – Foundervine. This award-winning social enterprise helps diverse founders build start-ups from scratch and specialises in delivering digital start-up and scale-up acceleration programs.

Since launching in 2018, Foundervine has helped over 2,000 future leaders from diverse backgrounds to create and build their own ventures. 27-year-old Izzy is now based in Accra in Ghana, and her team of twelve work remotely in locations up and down the UK. As well as sitting on the Alumni Association Committee, Izzy has been involved in alumni events – including a recent Bristol Connects Live event focused on entrepreneurship. We spoke to Izzy to hear more about Foundervine, her time at Bristol and what it was like to meet the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

How did you come up with the idea for Foundervine?
I grew up in a part of London where there weren’t a huge number of role models and I saw a lot of young people going down less-than-desirable paths because they lacked opportunity. I always knew I wanted to do something to help people find those opportunities. At first I thought I could do that by going into politics, but I realized I could have a lot more impact in business.

At KPMG I coached lots of young people, mainly women and people of colour, who were interested in starting their own businesses. I realised there were lots of resources for people who already had a business model, but not for people at the idea stage – which is when you really need advice and support. I had a lot of ideas bubbling around my head about diversity and inclusion and around training young people which eventually led to me creating Foundervine.

Izzy with members of the Foundervine team

What’s it been like running your business during lockdown?
It’s actually been a fantastic time for us and we’ve found a way to grow really well over this period. We’ve managed to quickly pivot towards a fully virtual model which has made our offering much more accessible. For people who wouldn’t normally be able to travel to a London event, perhaps because of the cost or childcare commitments, we can now offer them the chance to build their networks in a virtual environment. As the lockdown eases, we’re looking to build a mix of offline and online events to cater to the needs of different audiences.

It’s an interesting time for us because we’re currently raising social investment in order to build our capacity and meet the demand for our services. With the right investment, in the next three years we’ll be able to support 10,000 people from diverse communities to start ventures which could really help to boost the economy. It’s a time when we could bring many more diverse voices in, which would be amazing.

Earlier this year, you had the opportunity to speak to Harry and Meghan about Foundervine. What was that experience like?
It was brilliant and it was a complete surprise to be asked to take part by the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. They couldn’t tell me who I was meeting until two days before and even then I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. I remember being sat on the tube with this massive secret.

I was so surprised by how down to earth they were. It was slightly disarming to be talking to Harry and thinking – we could be in the pub right now! It was like meeting two very lovely, ordinary people and I think that’s a huge part of their charm.

Izzy and other young leaders meeting The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Image credit: Hazel Thompson

During lockdown you’ve sat on multiple panels and spoken at careers events – all whilst running a business. How do you fit everything into your life?
I’m incredibly busy and rarely get to switch off – but that’s a challenge for founders in every industry. The bigger the team grows the more responsibility you have to oversee the work of others and make sure they’re empowered and supported. I find myself trying to be as effective as possible with my time but I don’t always achieve that. I’m just so obsessed with our mission and the importance of what we’re doing. It doesn’t feel like work most of the time which is dangerous in its own way.

What impact will the current economic climate have for the groups of young people that Foundervine champion?
We’re not at the stage yet when we can truly understand the full impact that it’s going to have but we can start to see some of the symptoms now. We know that young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be in insecure work, less likely to be in graduate jobs and more likely to be supporting family members. They’re also more likely to live in a household with a key worker and therefore more at risk of contracting coronavirus. There are so many factors impacting young people’s ability to access the kinds of career that they’re looking for.

Now more than ever we need to invest to make sure young people learn the skills that they need to compete in this changing economy and pursue their own opportunities. We need to invest in enterprise education, digital-skills education and provide more funding that enables them to deal with the evolving financial landscape.

In a recent Sunday Times piece, you spoke about having more conversations with companies in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Are you seeing those conversations turn into action?
I think it’s too early to make a call on whether the rhetoric is going to align with long term planning. Unfortunately, we have seen instances of companies engaging diversity-centric organisations in a way that is one, tokenistic and two, exploitative. They realise they have a diversity problem, so they bring in an organisation to talk to their senior leadership team, in exchange for something pro-bono like event space. Essentially, they’re getting free consultancy time from organisations that are already really stretched and exhausted at the moment. They’re fulfilling an internal need without supporting these organisations in a sustainable way.

But we’ve also seen lots of organisations genuinely putting their money where their mouth is. We work with Capital Enterprise – a really important player in London’s start up ecosystem – who have made a commitment to invest in black businesses and networks run by black investors. They’re genuinely trying to create change and empower other organisations to create change. We’ve seen similar work being done by UnLtd who are engaging black organisations and supporting more black social enterprises to get funding. Organisations are walking the walk but I think time will tell in terms of what the long-lasting impact will be.

You sit on Bristol’s Alumni Association Committee. What does that involve and what do you hope to achieve together?
The main aim of the committee is to provide meaningful engagement opportunities for alumni at all stages in their journey after leaving Bristol. It’s made up of a really interesting, varied group of people from all over the world who are genuinely committed to forwarding Bristol’s impact on the lives of its alumni. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what engagement looks like – specifically in regard to diversity. We also look at ways in which we can support alumni projects and are really involved in events like the Alumni Forum. I joined this year in February as it was such a great opportunity to support an institution that had a fundamental impact on my life.

How did you find your time in Bristol as a student?
Bristol was a perspective-changing experience for me. I’d come from inner-city London – an extremely diverse place with a very London-centric attitude towards the world. Then I moved to this gorgeous city that had its own history completely outside of London and its own thing going on which was really eye-opening.

But when I was a student, in my view the University had a real challenge when it came to diversity. Of course, it’s very difficult for me to say how that’s changed since then. But being a black student from a working-class background at that time was challenging. I struggled in my first year to figure that out. I think a lot of first-year students are figuring things out, so I wasn’t alone in that. However, I think that lived experience and background can complicate things for some students more than others.

Alongside the challenges, Bristol expanded my horizons in terms of the people I met, the places I travelled to and the relationships I built. I tried to be as involved with extra-curricular activities as possible, whether that was through the Bristol Labour Committee, the Afro-Caribbean network, Enactus or Base Camp. Those experiences shaped who I am and how I lead people. So it was a genuinely life-changing experience that I’m grateful for.

What is your advice for people who are hoping to start their own business at this time?
Build a network of similarly minded people. They will be gold to you and you’ll save a lot of time, money and stress by having coaches, mentors and friends to guide you. I would also say just get started with something. I think, particularly for high achievers, there is this need for something to be perfect before you ship it out. But the reality of starting any kind of business is that by the time it’s perfect, it’s actually old. The best thing to do is to build a lean, viable product that you can test with customers – grow it that way. Whilst you’re waiting for perfect the world is moving on.

To find out more about the work of Izzy and her team, head to the Foundervine website.

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