Izzy Obeng graduated with a degree in Politics in 2014 and worked in consultancy before establishing her own company Foundervine. An award-winning social enterprise, Foundervine supports new and established founders to create successful entrepreneurial ventures through access to training, networks and capital. Izzy is also a public speaker, an Adviser to Lloyds Banking Group and Big Issue Invest, among others, and is a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient.
Winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for Innovation and Enterprise, Izzy shares candid insights on her career journey, relatable role models and expanding her comfort zone.
On being at university
I didn’t have the easiest start at Bristol. I was an inner-city girl from London, and I couldn’t figure it out in my first year. But once I found my footing it was a more enjoyable experience.
The societies and networks that I was involved in was where I found my community. I was in the Epigram team where I got my first insight into writing for a media publication – I still have all the newspapers I wrote features for. I also got involved in student politics, which really helped me figure out who I was.
In my final year, I got more involved in student enterprise, participating in different hacks and competitions. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be supporting businesses. I remember doing the ParliaMentors programme with The Faith & Belief Forum, an organisation that supports young people to engage with politics, where I was given the opportunity to shadow a local Bristol MP. The programme ended by giving a presentation in Parliament and it was such an amazing experience. I also joined an Enactus team at Bristol, with the goal to help charities and small businesses in the city improve their engagement with the student community. Our student team worked with the charity Emmaus, and this is where I learned how much I love consultancy. We pitched our work with Emmaus in a competition run by Tata Consultancy and while we weren’t successful, it was amazing to do a live pitch in a professional setting.
It was these extracurricular activities that initially inspired me to work in politics. I knew I didn’t want to do frontline politics, but I was keen to do something in the background – writing policy or contributing to thought leadership in some way. I also really enjoyed consultancy so towards the end of my degree I applied for consultancy jobs, and a million applications later I was offered a role.
On finding her way
Early on in my career I had the opportunity to do a TedX talk. My talk was on the future of entrepreneurship and combined the three things I was really interested in – diversity and inclusion, entrepreneurship, and Africa. It was my first proper public speaking gig and it was terrifying but I absolutely loved it. And something happened in that moment – I thought to myself, ‘I’m onto something here. I want to do something interesting; I don’t just want to coast’. Four months later I quit my job and decided to work in the start-up space.
On setting up 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 support. I could see a real potential to help build wealth and opportunity. Originally, I had thought I could do this through politics, but later realised I could have more impact creating opportunities.
Earlier in my career, while coaching early-stage founders,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 ideas bubbling around my head about helping accelerate early-stage ideas, and this is eventually what led me to create Foundervine.
Being on a board
I was 24 when I took on my first Trustee role. I was one of few women and the only black person and it was transformative for me in terms of understanding the importance of having more diversity in senior leadership positions. You have to demystify these things. When you’re young, it sounds like such a daft thing to join a board – you just think, ‘what do I know?’ Once you do something you’re intimidated by though, your comfort zone begins to expand until you can feel like you can do just about anything. And when you’re there, you realise, most of us are making it up as we go along, and we all have more to contribute than we think. It really did set something off in me and I now sit on several boards.
I’d love to see more women and people from less represented backgrounds take on board roles, because these are the companies that govern our lives in different ways. They make huge decisions and if they’re not representative of the society they are operating in, they will not be as strong as they can be.
It’s important to have relatable role models who you can show you the messiness of life too – who can show you where there’s balance and where’s a lack of balance.
One of the women I’m really inspired by is the American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is incredible. There’s a Netflix documentary called Knock Down the House which follows her journey into Congress aged just 29, the youngest woman ever to do so. I admire her intelligence, determination and tenacity in the face of so many odds.
There are also people in more immediate spaces that I find very inspiring too, such as Dr Yvonne Thompson CBE, Chair of the Black Cultural Archives and Suzie LeVine, the former US ambassador to Switzerland, who is a powerhouse.
Advice to others
When you – or other people from your background – have traditionally been shut out of certain spaces, there’s something very powerful about moving into them and claiming them as yours. Once you realise that everyone else is just trying to figure it out too, that move becomes easier. Though I know I can’t represent anyone but myself, I have a sense that if I can shift a person’s mindset when they’re talking to me, then they will take that shift on into their own context and interactions.
On the 2023 Alumni Award for Innovation and Enterprise
It’s amazing to be recognised for the work that I’ve done since I’ve left Bristol. I couldn’t have imagined this journey when I was a student. I remember not knowing where to go or what to do, and not really seeing people who looked like me or sounded like me in the spaces that I was interested in. So this award is another amazing badge for Foundervine, and something for current students to look at when they are figuring out what their own journeys are going to look like.
I would advise all students to start building a community around themselves outside of their comfort zone much earlier. To not be embarrassed about their personal story and to take any opportunity they can find that involves public speaking, entrepreneurship and learning new professional skills outside of their courses.
Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. You can see the full list of our 2023 winners on our website.