Sean Akadiri left Nigeria at the age of 19 with a student visa, heading for college. After considering the map of the United States, he landed on Oklahoma, because college was inexpensive there. And “I liked the name Oklahoma,” he told me.
In his last semester at East Central University, he ran out of money. “I literally went to school with no books,” he said. The tuition bill sat unpaid. He stayed after class to tell his professor, Rahmona Thompson, why he was dropping out just short of graduation.
“She took me straight to the president’s office and paid my school fees,” he said. “It was about $5,000.”
Amazing, right? Akadiri told me that story in the offices of Stitch Crew, a non-profit incubator in Oklahoma City. It was the first of what I hope are many listening tours of entrepreneurial ecosystems in the United States and around the globe.
(I reached out to Thompson to confirm, but didn’t hear back from her).
We are wrapping up our first week live on Times of Entrepreneurship. I started this publication with the support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and MIT’s Legatum Center for Entrepreneurship & Development because I saw a need for reporting on the world of founders and innovation beyond Silicon Valley.
It’s always been our jobs as journalists to tell the stories that aren’t being told, especially the stories of the underdogs. It’s much harder to launch a venture off the coasts and in emerging markets.
But what draws me personally and emotionally to write about entrepreneurs is that they are often supportive and generous people. Nobody bootstraps. Everybody owes a lot to other people. Honest entrepreneurs give credit where it’s due and pay it forward.
The entrepreneurs I met in Oklahoma City, from the StitchCrew co-founder, Erika Lucas, to the other half-dozen gathered around the table, gave lie to the idea that the dominant narrative in the United States is anger. Anger drives media traffic; and journalists often find the stories they seek.
At Stitch Crew, we were sitting in space donated by the Oklahoma City Thunder – the NBA team that was never supposed to be able to make it in Oklahoma City. Paycom Software inc, an Oklahoma City based cloud software company, just joined the S&P 500. (In a strange twist that also shows the energy money in OKC, Dippin’ Dots is owned by the scion of a wealthy Oklahoma City energy company).
But even in a city of unlikely stories, the startups stood out. Akadiri’s story was remarkable. He’s since gone on to found an ag science company, AgBoost, that has seven patents and $200,000 in revenue. With a staff of seven, he has raised about $1 million and helps ranchers genotype their animals. It was a long, slow process of painful cold calls, he said. “I don’t look like an ag guy,” he said. “It was just a joke to a lot of people.”
Courtney Brooks was inspired to start a makeup company by the universal language of beauty she encountered studying abroad in India. She’s raised $230,000 so far. “I’ve heard a lot of no’s,” she said. “The yeses were amazing.”
Dale Spoonemore, who is autistic, found a purpose with a web site, www.seedtospoon.net, that has a partnership with Burpee and helps people learn to plant. More than 150,000 people have downloaded the app. And there was Ally Myers of Suma Work, which recently added a for-profit skills assessment arm and job matching service for mothers, done via video interviews, and a company called Occupath, which uses virtual reality to aid job training. A brand called Leaky Lady — more on it next week — has a solution for incontinence.
Lucas was born and raised in Mexico, and built a career in the corporate space, eventually working for a private equity company called Acorn Growth Cos. She was helping to raise a fourth fund, for $150 million, when she, and Bryan Byrnes, senior vice president of marketing and sales with the Thunder, came up with the idea to launch an accelerator.
“We kept seeing founders leave the Midwest in search of capital and more collaborative environments. It became painful to think we were losing some of our best thinkers, problem solvers and change makers to other markets,” she said. It also didn’t make sense: There’s plenty of money in Oklahoma, one of the historic homes of the oil and gas industry.
Starting with donated space from the Thunder, and $50,000 from a local businessman, Dick Tanenbaum, StitchCrew has so far helped 39 companies, which have collectively raised more than $9 million. StitchCrew doesn’t charge and doesn’t take equity. Lucas also founded a women’s collective that includes 153 women entrepreneurs across Oklahoma.
“Erika has given me the platform to get where I am. It’s all about the relationships, and I had none of those,” said Akidira. “If I was in Silicon Valley, if I was a white dude … ” his voice trailed off.
He looked directly at Lucas. “You don’t understand how you’re changing people’s lives.”
I’ve always believed as a journalist that if you want to understand the real story, to figure out who the real change makers are, you have to go to a place. In Oklahoma City, it was a nice to see a bad ass woman get the credit she deserves.