Episode 123: Raphael Sofoluke, Derek Owusu and Lolly Adefope on Knowing Your Worth
On this week’s podcast, we hear from Raphael Sofoluke. Raphael is a successful entrepreneur and the founder of the UK Black Business Show — an annual event designed to inspire and connect Black business owners and professionals — as well as the founder of the Black Tech Achievement Awards. Named as one of Forbes’ 25 Leading Black British Businesspeople to follow in 2020, Raphael is also an author and a speaker on diversity and inclusion in workplaces. Raphael takes us through this journey, from wanting to be a writer and musician as a kid, to organising events, and using his contacts to start putting together one of the UK’s biggest black business events. He also talks about his passion for improving opportunities within the black community, as well as some of the difficulties and obstacles he’s faced along the way.Key takeaways:
How the isolation he felt attending exhibitions and conferences led him to want to connect with other black entrepreneurs and professionals
The difficulties of accessing finance when starting out
The fine balance between asking for sponsorship and being able to execute the event
Making sure the events you put on are always of a high quality
How the difficulties he faced led to him writing the book Twice as Hard
We also hear from award-winning writer, poet and podcaster Derek Owusu. Derek tells us about the recent book project he’s been working on, the difficulties of accepting feedback, and how he was inspired by fellow poet Claudia Rankin.
Finally, we hear from stand-up comic Lolly Adefope, who tells all about the best advice she’s ever received, as well as the worst (spoiler: it involves shaving her eyebrows).
The UK Black Business Show takes place this October.
Welcome back to Wanna Be, the podcast that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be in 30 minutes or less.
I’m Imriel Morgan, founder of Content is Queen, a podcast agency and club for ambitious podcasters with phenomenal taste, high expectations and a desire to sound as good as I do now. We run two members-only podcast studios in the heart of London. To get unlimited access to our studios, you can become a member for just £199 when you visit contentisqueen.org.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be here today. Wanna Be’s focus is to help you take consistent action to build a successful life and career in the creative and entertainment industries. Today, I am back with three incredible guests who are going to help you acknowledge that you have a lot to offer in your career, question the role of excellence in your life and reflect on how you take feedback and criticism. Let’s get into it.
Today’s guest is Raphael Sofoluke, who is an entrepreneur and the founder of the UK Black Business Show, an annual exhibition which highlights and promotes some of the amazing businesses founded by members of the black community. He’s also the founder of the Black Tech Achievement Awards. Raphael was highlighted in 2020 as one of Forbes 25 Leading Black British Businesspeople to follow. In today’s episode, we talk about creating high-quality experiences for your community, knowing what to ask for, and when you should ask for those things. We also get into the ins and outs of the potential barriers to entry when it comes to creating big, high profile events for your communities and how to overcome them. Let’s go.
Who did you want to be before you became who you are today and why?
Raphael Sofoluke 1:49
So I wanted to be a rapper. The first thing I wanted to be, funny enough, was a writer. So I wanted to be a writer when I was young, I just kept on saying ‘mum, mum, I want to write books, I want to write books’. Never got into that, but ended up wanting to be a rapper, well, a musician. So I started making a few songs here and there. But I guess that writing, that creativity led into rapping and doing music. And then doing music allowed me to start organising videos, hence creating events, which I say led me to the UK Black Business Show. So there’s kind of a logical route…
Loads of transferable skills that lead you to… Yeah, cool. So do you enjoy what you do now? Is this your calling?
I love it. Yeah, 100%. I love organising events, but most of all, I’m very passionate about empowering the black community. Our ethos is to inspire and connect black business-owners and professionals in various industries. So everything that I do is to basically inspire and connect black business owners and professionals. I get so much joy out of a successful show, not just myself being successful, it’s that exhibitors are meeting people, they’re increasing sales, increasing brand exposure. There’s so much I love about what I do. Yeah. 100%. It’s my calling.
I’m curious to know why that’s so important to you. Where does that drive and that instinct to support the black community — obviously, besides the fact that you are black yourself — where does that drive and desire come from? Because I mean, not everyone has that great sense of community or needing to create community…
We launched the UK Black Business Show in 2017, and one of the main reasons was that I felt there wasn’t a space for black professionals and entrepreneurs to connect with each other. A lot of the events I went to — whether it was the audience attending, whether it was the speaker panels, if it was the exhibitors — it all lacked diversity, it all lacked black people. There’s something that I wanted to change, after you go to these networking events and you feel alone. You just think, okay, why not create something where actually black professionals and entrepreneurs don’t feel alone, we don’t feel like we’re the only one in the room, we’re not looking for another black person as soon as we enter it, just to feel safe, have that safe space?
So that’s been very important for me, and also just creating wealth as well. I think I’ve been decent in terms of my corporate jobs. But even my missus, she works for a big tech company, I don’t think I could ever work for somewhere like that just because of the way I am.
What do you mean?
I’m extremely entrepreneurial. I always like to move around, I always think of new ideas. So I wanted to create a show for black entrepreneurs who were creating ideas but didn’t have the right exposure. Also giving them access to some of the leading entrepreneurs in the community who can teach them on branding and teach them on finance. So it’s very important for me, the black community. Of course, I’m black as well, but just creating a legacy and seeing how we can improve it for our communities. Yeah, something close to my heart.
What were the challenges with setting up the UK Black Business show in particular, because to set up the event would have been an entrepreneurial pursuit? So what were the barriers to entry? What was hard about that or challenging about that?
So the barriers that I’ve faced, probably similar to every entrepreneur, but actually even more black entrepreneurs: the main thing was probably access to finance.
Uhmm-hmm. I feel that.
Yes, exactly. I mean, what I wanted to do with the show was, I wanted it to be a bit different. So I wanted it to scream excellence, I wanted it to show that we could exhibit and put on the same events that I will see in some of the biggest banks and corporates. So the show takes place at Queen Elizabeth II Centre, opposite the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, and that was because I worked on the show there. It was amazing, extremely corporate. So of course, a venue like that is not cheap. And it’s just like, okay, if I’m going to do this, I’ve got to spend money.
So access to finance was a huge problem, a huge issue for myself and black entrepreneurs. But what I actually did do — because I was experienced in the events industry, I knew how to sell — I leveraged speakers as well that I knew from my music days. For example, we had Kojo Annan, and he spoke at the first show, because I knew him from the music events that I used to do. So every trick from the first year, pretty much bootstrap. Everything that came in, from ticket sales and exhibitor stands I used to pay for the show. So the show was funding itself. It still does, the show funds itself, which is also incredibly powerful, that full circle that actually black-owned businesses are powering the show and making it how it looks.
So that’s a huge problem, I think, for black entrepreneurs and professionals. And I mean, a lot of black entrepreneurs, they don’t apply for loans and things over the fear of being rejected. So there’s so many issues, as well as access to the right mentors, branding etc, just having that knowledge on how to grow your business. But yeah, I think that would be the key ones for me.
Yeah, fair enough. Being a black entrepreneur, that was my biggest barrier to entry. Before running this company, we resourced and built a studio into the flat I lived in before, because we couldn’t get enough finance together to access physical space to build a studio. I mean, now I was able to use reputation a bit like you. People I knew, people knew me in the industry, and then access, like some sponsorship money to get this studio, and then the second one in Peckham. But it is incredibly difficult to grow and just figure out how you’re meant to get money, and even when you do know, because now I can write a proposal, I can write a deck, and it’s still sending out and getting the yes and getting the amount that you want!
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I want you to get to know Derek Owusu, who is an award-winning writer, author and podcaster. He’s been busy working on his new book, and this is what he has to share with you today.
Derek Owusu 8:19
My name is Derek Owusu and I’m a writer, poet, and podcaster. What I’m currently working on improving is actually a project, and it’s my next book, which is due to be published in 2022. I’m currently going through the edit so I’m really just trying to beat it into shape, make sure it’s in the best possible condition it could be in for publication, which is a very long process. It’s agony. It can be really demoralising because you just get the edits back and you think, ‘oh my god, I’m just a terrible writer’. Obviously after it’s done, I feel like ‘no, it’s fine, it’s fine’. Maybe that’s something I need to work on actually, being able to take edits and feedback without thinking that they’re saying something negative about my abilities. But yeah, currently I’m working on just editing my next book and getting it into the best shape possible.
I would like to recommend a book. It’s called Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by the poet Claudia Rankin. I’m recommending this because it inspired me. I don’t think I would have been able to write my first book if it wasn’t for Claudia Rankin. I read the book and the way she put it together, the way she used prose poetry to tell a story, to create a narrative, it wasn’t in the traditional sense of a poetry collection, but it was marketed as that. But I just loved how she did it. It gave me the permission to pursue my own structure when it comes to a book, or the way to tell a story. I just really felt unburdened by having to conform to any way to write a book. It’s amazing, the subject matter as well. Again, mental health is something that I write about a lot. And again, that gave me permission to be able to explore that in as much detail and rawness as possible. So that’s the book I would recommend: it’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankin.
You might not know this, but I’ve actually known Derek for quite a few years, when I used to produce his podcast Mostly Lit. I can definitely understand and also relate to the challenges he expressed about accepting feedback and not trying to take it personally. Yeah, I hear that. And I suspect some of you might relate to that, too. You should definitely go ahead and check out Derek’s novel That Reminds Me, which is available in all major bookstores. Now, back to Raphael.
How do you know your worth? Or are you charging based on worth versus what you need, and making that distinction? And how did you juggle that decision making?
That’s a great question. First of all, I’ll give you an example. 2017 I started off with the UK Black Business Show. What I needed was, of course, a big sponsor to come and give me 50K, 100K to get to maybe how we looked third or fourth year. But I didn’t get that. I didn’t get that in my first year. But actually, we had around 25 stands of just black-owned businesses, around 500 attendees. So yeah, we’ve doubled each year in terms of size. But in my first year, if I’ve got that big corporate sponsor, was I ready to execute at that time? Maybe not. And could that have damaged the relationship moving forward? Could I have gotten 50K off them the first year, and then that was it? They’re never going to exhibit with me or sponsor my shows, because of the experience, and maybe it wasn’t up to scratch yet.
So actually, I was looking back at things. I’m happy how things went, I’m happy that I’ve got certain sponsors on board now, down the line, where I’m able to hire a team, invest in marketing etc. So this year, we’ve launched the UK Black Business Week, I don’t know if you’ve seen a bit about that. So the UK Black Business Show will now take place as a part of a week, the UK Black Business Week. So there will be events from Monday to Saturday, and then with the big UK Black Business Show.
And for this week, we’ve got American Express sponsor, JP Morgan, HSBC, Accenture, and that’s also because of some of the things that we’ve done the previous years that proved our value. So I think it’s important to make sure if you can get a lot of money from someone, well, are you able to execute it?
That’s the thing!
If you can’t, I would be a bit wary and I would just make sure that you lower down the value a bit, just to keep the expectations on both sides, right, and keep everyone happy. I think that would be my advice, but I don’t know what you think about it.
I mean, I’ve run festivals before and our first festival, it was the first black podcast festival, and we flew out Americans, we were just deeply inexperienced as event organisers on that scale. It was attended by 800 people. We had Charlemagne, we had the Friend Zone.
I think I saw that.
Yeah, it was huge. And basically, we thought, this is gonna sell itself, we were just so convinced, like this is gonna sell itself. The end of that festival, not only was I completely burnt out and crying all the time, but we ended up with £20,000 in the hole, because we just did not plan that properly at all. I didn’t know I could get £20,000 to pay people that much money, let alone to then lose it, right? So now I don’t do that. Now I’m like, well, I need sponsors on board. We need to make sure the branding is going to be right to give it the full effect. And yeah, we’ve run things on a smaller scale with minimal branding, and just made sure that the quality of the content was good, but it’s really, really challenging. And I think now, I think because I’ve done it so many times, a bit like you, I’ve shown that I can at least pull together an event, pull together a program, make sure that the speakers are of quality, the audience is happy, the feedback is good, and I’ve had loads of previous sponsors that gave out a very, very low level that now I feel like confident enough to ask, because with that money, I know what we can execute at now.
But I think you’re absolutely right. You were spot on when you said if someone gave me the 50 to 100K that we probably needed to run that first festival upfront, would we have been able to execute at the size and scale that would have been expected at that level? I’m not entirely convinced we would have been. What I found with that particular festival is that people, at least my initial sponsor conversations, they just didn’t value black audiences in the same way. I think that has changed now. We know why it’s changed. But they just didn’t. And when we launched the Women’s Podcast Festival that was like a palatable thing for them to get on board with, like it was instant yeses, how can we support financially or otherwise? How can we add people to this? We got people to send, and I think it was just the inclusion of white voices.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
So I suppose my question off the back of that really would then be: have you ever felt pressured to expand the voices that are represented? I mean, it’s called the UK Black Business Show but then, has anyone ever come at you with political Blackness having to enter the space?
All the time! Not a day goes by… We get loads of messages on our Facebook, ‘this show is racist.’
It would be better if you just called it ‘The BAME Show’, or ‘The Diverse Show’. We get it all the time, but I think even in 2017, I was one of the first to actually create a brand in the UK with this black show. So we get it. I don’t pay attention to it any more. I think I used to at the beginning. Sometimes it was really racist comments, and I’m just like ‘Uhhhh’. But I know that I’m doing something worthwhile. And I know that you expect this when you… not to say I’m a trailblazer, but because it was something fairly new, when you’re doing something like that, you expect a bit of backlash as well. But luckily for me, it’s been more positive feedback, especially from my community, and also outside the community as well. There have been some great allies in supporting the show as well, who’ve been championing it. So for me the achievements that I’ve had in 2017, and the achievements that the UK Black Business Show just outweighs all the negative stuff, even if I’m getting 100 comments a day on Facebook. So yeah.
Fair enough. I commend you for dealing with that because people saying racist stuff to you is not nice, on mass as well. It’ s challenging to say the least. It’s not easy to avoid. If you’re not careful.
I want to talk about your book Twice As Hard, because that’s a great name, by the way, strong name.
How did that come about? What was the motivation to write this book, and this book right now?
Wow. So funny enough, the book, I thought about it in 2019, December.
That is a very rapid turnaround!
Yeah, actually! I was thinking about it in 2019, December. It was way before everything had kicked off with George Floyd and everything. And at first I just wanted to write a book. Remember I told you from young I wanted to be a writer? So I was doing the UK Black Business Show and first of all, I just thought, oh, with all these speakers that I know, I know so many media entrepreneurs, why don’t I just create a quote book that someone could just click through and read from Akala, a daily quote, blah, blah, blah.
Kind of like one of those toilet books?
Literally! But to be fair, that’s what my agent probably thought of it. So I told him, and he was like, ‘that’s not going to work. That’s not going to sell.’
So he’s just like, ‘go back to the drawing board’. And then, I was speaking with my wife, I didn’t know what the book was going to be about. I just really liked the title Twice As Hard, because it just summed up the experience of Black professionals, entrepreneurs. And then me and Opeyemi, we were just speaking about our experiences in the workplace, me as an entrepreneur, as well as herself as a leading DMI professional. And we’re just talking about the experiences and we just said that, actually, we could do a book to talk about the stories, the challenges and stereotypes that black entrepreneurs and professionals go through in the workplace, and actually interview all of these people. Instead of getting the quotes, interview them, and then get their stories and get how they’ve made a successful career out of it and see, okay, did they have to face the challenges that we’re facing?
When you look at some of the stats as well, I think there’s zero black CEOs in any of Britain’s 100 largest companies. There was a report that came out, I think it was last week, about black professionals being twice as likely to be turned down for a pay raise. So the fact is, it is twice as hard, but we want to make it easier, and I guess this is the book that I wish I had when I was growing up, actually, that you’ve got so many stories of people, the likes of Matthew Knowles, Beyonce’s dad, to Trevor Nelson, to people like Munya to Glenda McNeil, the first black woman on the American Express board in history in the US. It’s just filled with so many amazing people. And also we’ve got that allyship chapter as well. So we interviewed two allies for the book.
So we hope this is going to be a guide. Wherever you are in your career, you’ll have knowledge on how to navigate white spaces, branding, mentorship, networks, everything that you need hopefully. And for the ally or person who’s not black, it gives them a bit of insight into what we kind of go through on a regular basis and how they can better support the black community.
Yeah, sounds great. I really can’t wait to finish it. I might also just get the audiobook because I’m an audiobook person, personally.
That’s your thing, yeah.
I have a slightly, possibly unpopular or controversial question: I’m always really intrigued by the idea of mediocrity, and what place it has in the world, because I think we actually need to give space for mediocre. But what are your thoughts? Because you said at the very beginning, with the Black Business Show, you wanted it to be a place of excellence, the best that we can produce and develop. And I imagine that a lot of us also want to strive for excellence, but not everyone does. So I would love to know your thoughts on black mediocrity and what place it has in society going forward?
What I love about the name of your podcast, Wanna Be, it’s almost like everyone’s trying to get there, no one’s there yet. I think it’s a fantastic name. But certainly there should be a space, actually. So what I wanted to do with the Black Business Show, I wanted to create the space where it was excellent. So I mean, as in the venue, the branding, all of that. In terms of people who are coming into our show, we make it extremely accessible because we want everyone to come in. We don’t want just the people who have loads of money who are already nearly there. We want to cater to those people who are not there yet, they’re striving to become better. That’s my thoughts on it really. But I’m someone who always champions showing role models, showing representation. So those who are striving to be better can see other influences.
I feel like you gave me a bit of a politician’s answer, if I may say!
Raphael for mayor!
I think there’s more of it now, we’re allowed to just be, or there’s more space for us to be within our own community. Not everything is excellent that gets produced or developed about black people, or that black people are developing. So I guess who decides what’s excellent and who’s not, right? That’s also subjective. So we definitely need more spaces to just exist. The reason why I ask is because when I got told, and like every every black child ever gets told, when you have to work twice as hard to be just as good. I’m like, well, what if I just work as hard as everyone else, then technically, I’m operating on a level of mediocre for my own standards set by my community, I’m still operating at a level of excellence, that’s probably better than average. I always thought, well, where is the space for me to just operate at the 60 that everyone else is? And will that ever be good enough?
Yeah. 100%. I agree. Even if you think about it, even for a black person to get into a white space is an achievement, regardless of them making it up to that senior leadership position. For them to even be at a company like Facebook, or JP or Bloomberg, they’ve already overcome a number of barriers. Firstly, at that interview process, which we all know, is so many thoughts and unconscious biases from the hiring managers. 100% even getting into that space, there’s challenges, but we don’t need to actually get to that, like you said, to the top to be seen as a success, because we’ve overcome so many things to get to where we are already.
I would love to know what you’re working on improving right now.
The UK Black Business Show in the UK, Black Business Week, making sure that is incredible for everyone, making sure that it just leaves everlasting impact. Always working on developing myself as well, seeing how I can better serve the community. How can I better serve people as well? How can I better serve entrepreneurs? What can I give out myself? Or what can my team do to help others? I think that’s what we’re working on. At the moment I just finished a book, of course, which is the main thing, so everything is just all about the book right now, that we’re doing, and yeah, other than that, that’s what I’m working on.
Thank you so much, Raphael.
Be sure to check out Raphael’s book Twice as Hard, which is available from all good bookstores. I highly, highly, highly recommend you check out the UK Black Business Show. Get tickets if you can, and come down and show your love and support. Before we wrap up, here’s comedian Lolly Adefope with some must-hear advice about knowing what you have to offer. Take it away Lolly.
Lolly Adefope 22:56
The best advice I’ve ever received… I think when I first started working in the US, I felt very… just like I was at the bottom of the ladder, and it was just like, I’m so grateful to be here. And I think part of it is also just being away from home, being in a different country and not being used to working in a big studio or something. But I just felt really like, ‘oh, I don’t need anything, thanks so much for letting me be here for allowing me to step onto this set’. And my friend Aisling, she said, ‘they’re lucky to have you. It’s not just that you’re lucky to be there’. And I think it’s quite hard to remember that and also to find the balance of not getting too cocky about it. But just remembering that both of those things are true. They’re very lucky to have you and you’re very lucky to be there. And do not sell yourself short and just think that you’re Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and you’ve been given the golden ticket. You’re bringing a lot to the table, and it’s a mutual thing. That advice helps you get the most out of it because you’re not just constantly on your knees, thanking everyone.
And the worst advice… maybe when I was 19 and my friend said that I should shave the side of my head, or actually when I was about 16 and I found tweezing my eyebrows too painful, so my friend said that I should use a razor. Shaving my eyebrows into shape. I think that’s the worst advice I’ve ever been given.
That’s a wrap! Thank you so much for listening! I hope this half an hour has made you think, reflect and contemplate what your next step should be. I’d like to encourage you to think about one person who would benefit from the messages that we’ve shared today, and I’d love for you to share this episode with them right now.
If you’d like to hear the extended version of this interview with Raphael, then please do screenshot and share this episode in your Instagram stories and tag at Content is Queen HQ. Also, just a quick reminder that we have now finally opened up our two studios here in London. They are members only. Please do check it out if you’ve got a podcast or plan to start a podcast, or you just want to be in a community of high achieving podcasters, who want to work together, collaborate and lift each other up, this is the place to be to do that. So head to contentisqueen.org to check out the options. Until next time, bye!
This is a Content Is Queen production hosted by me, Imriel Morgan. Edited by Joseph Perry, sound design by Amber Miller music and sound effects are from Academic Sound.