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Meet three Nigerians in diaspora breaking startup ceilings

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When you are an immigrant in a foreign country there are myriad ceilings to how much you can aspire. To begin with, black startup founders are not very attractive investment prospects for venture capital firms.

A recent report noted that less than 1 percent of venture capital is invested in black businesses each year. Between 2009 and 2019, just 0.24% of venture capital went to teams of Black entrepreneurs — 38 businesses in total.

Hence, the road to $1 billion valuation for a business founded by a black person is very slim. According to CBInsights report, there are about 506 tech unicorns globally and black-owned are not more than three.

But for Tope Awotona, founder of Calendly, Toyin Ajayi, co-founder of CityBlock, and Roye Okupe, founder and CEO of YouNeek Studios, ceilings are just another milestone waiting to be conquered.

Each of the founders has either taken their startups to unicorn status or signed deals that are unprecedented in their fields and as black founders living in the United States.

Toyin Ajayi of Cityblock Health

Nigerian-born Toyin Ajayi, a 39-year-old family medicine specialist in December 2020 became a co-founder of a unicorn company, Cityblock Health.

Read also: Nigerian banks change strategies target payment firms

The health-tech startup trying to improve health care for low-income patients with complex medical needs closed $160 million in a deal that values the company at more than $1 billion. The new Series C funding which brings Cityblock’s total equity investment to $300 million was led by General Catalyst.

Cityblock was founded in 2017 by Toyin Ajayi, Iyah Romm, and Bay Gross. The idea was incubated at Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. The company currently employs over 500 people, with patients in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington.

Prior to Cityblock, Ajayi served as Chief Medical Officer of Commonwealth Care Alliance, a nationally renowned integrated health plan and care delivery system for individuals eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. In this role, she led clinical operations, spearheaded care delivery innovations, and oversaw multi-disciplinary teams of clinicians, community health workers, and administrators serving more than 20,000 beneficiaries across Massachusetts.

She received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University, an MPhil from the University of Cambridge, and her medical degree, with Distinction in Clinical Practice, from King’s College London School of Medicine. She completed her residency training at Boston Medical Center. She continues to practice primary care focused on patients with chronic, complex, and end-of-life needs.

Tope Awotona of Calendly

Calendly, a cloud-scheduling company founded by Tope Awotona raised $350 million from OpenView Venture Partners and Iconiq in January and in the process increased the company valuation to $3 billion. Calendly allows users to schedule meetings without all the back and forth emails.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Awotona moved to the United States when he was a teenager in 1996. He later graduated from the University of Georgia and landed a job at IBM as a sales representative. His first attempt as an entrepreneur was a dating site which never launched because Awotona quickly realised he neither had the resources nor the skills to run it.

He tried building an e-commerce site for selling projectors. The idea did not amount to much because he had no interest in projectors. Since projectors did not work, he built another e-commerce site, this time to sell grills only to find himself dealing with the same lack of passion for the business.

The idea of Calendly finally arrived a year later. Awotona had spent a whole day going back and forth over email to schedule meetings. So he started searching for a scheduling tool. But everything he came across was slow and clunky.

He launched Calendly in 2013 from his savings. When his savings ran out he approached venture capital firms for funding and none was willing to give him at the time.

“Those VCs were ignorant and shortsighted. The only thing I could attribute it to was that I was black,” Awotona said in an interview. There are over 10 million people using Calendly and that number grew 1,180 percent in 2020.

Calendly in 2020 made about $70 million annually in subscription revenues from its SaaS-based business model and seems confident that its aggregated revenues will not long from now get to $1 billion.

Roye Okupe of YouNeek Studios

Roye Okupe who founded YouNeek Studios in 2012 recently signed a monumental 10-book deal with Dark Horse Comics and followed it up with venture capital funding led by Impact X Capital.

As part of the deal, YouNeek Studios will develop a groundbreaking animation series based on a world of superhero and fantasy stories inspired by African history and mythology. Highly regarded former senior VP of co-productions at DreamWorks, Doug Schwalbe, will join the project as executive producer and to oversee distribution.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Okupe has written, produced, and directed several animated productions including, but not limited to, 2D/3D animated short films, TV commercials, show openers, music videos, and much more.

In August 2015, Roye released his debut graphic novel titled: E.X.O. The Legend of Wale Williams Part One, a superhero story set in a futuristic Nigeria. E.X.O. was received with critical acclaim. Malika – Warrior Queen was also received critical acclaim, selling more than 40,000 copies of its chapter one special during Diamond Comics Free Comic Book Day (2017). Both books have gone on to win several awards including a Glyph Comic Award (2017, 2018) and a Heruica Character Creation Award (2017).