Knowing your team is also incredibly important. Like any other company, a technology company is only as good as the minds that make it run. Like components, departments work together and rely on each other. As a leader, you must know all the pieces in your puzzle before seeing the big picture. My cofounder and I make up for each other very nicely. It starts with us and then the partners and colleagues we bring on.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Akin Adebowale and Ousman Sahko.
Akin Adebowale — born in Nigeria and raised in the United States, Blacktag CEO and Co-Founder Akin Adebowale is a multidisciplinary artist and engineer and graduate of the University of Georgia. His first entrepreneurial venture, BASE Official, was a creative agency that impacted the careers of culture icons like Drake, Kanye West, Common, and more, contributed to the growth of major brands like Hilton Hotels and caught the attention of Bob Johnson, founder of BET and first Black US billionaire, as both a client and later mentor to Adebowale. Drawing on his experiences with independent fashion clients, Adebowale later founded fashion and design marketplace, OXOSI, which most commonly sourced from African countries, was geared towards Black designers, and successfully raised a total of 2.1M USD in just two years.
Ousman Sahko — born in a war-torn Sierra Leone, Blacktag Co-Founder and CCO Ousman Sahko’s journey of narrowly escaping tragedy to immigrate to the United States shaped his creative vision and work in elevating underrepresented communities in media. Sahko began his career as a photographer, working with brands such as Unicef, United Nations, Levi’s Care, and World Bank and later paved his way in the tech industry with director roles at both Google and Spotify. His first entrepreneurial venture was a precursor to Blacktag called Lunchbox Studios; a multicultural creative agency made of creative minds from the worlds of entertainment, advertising, and new media focusing on subculture marketing with major brands such as Google, Spotify, Adidas, Coca-Cola, as well as independent artists.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
AA: Like most people who find themselves at the helm of a startup, my journey that ultimately contributed to the launch of Blacktag has a lot of layers to it. I was born in Nigeria and lived the first few years of my life there before moving to the US with my family and spending most of my childhood and teenage years in Atlanta, GA. I’ve found these early years for me were extremely formative in shaping my work ethic and creative inspirations and that I’ve continued to draw on them throughout my life.
In college at the University of Georgia I studied Fine Art and Computer Science, a dichotomy that served as a strong foundation for every avenue I’ve taken my career down to this point. Immediately after graduating, I moved to NYC and launched my first business, a creative agency called BASE Official. It was through BASE that I was fortunate enough to work with some of the most influential Black creators of our time at a very young age, like Drake, Kanye West, Common, Kid Cudi, and so many others. It was also through BASE that I was fortunate enough to sign BET as a client, which afforded me the opportunity to learn from and work with a legacy company in this industry.
Inspired by my work with some really incredible fashion clients at BASE Official, I launched another company that sat at the crossroads of the tech and fashion industries, called OXOSI. As a fashion and design marketplace geared towards Black designers, I was always proud that OXOSI was able to source most of its materials from African nations.
It’s these distinctly different puzzle pieces that have all come together to help form Blacktag. I think aspects of each of these experiences have shaped my professional aspirations and hopefully will shine through in our pursuits of elevating Black voices and creating more economic opportunities for Black creators with Blacktag.
OS: Similar to Akin, my story and journey to founding Blacktag isn’t one dimensional and started from a very young age. I was born in Sierra Leone in 1992, a time when the country was war torn over the blood diamond conflicts. After being separated from my family, I was lucky enough to be reunited with them at a refugee camp and escaped to the United States.
Seeing so much atrocity and at such a young age shaped so much of my life, but most importantly I think created my intense focus on working to improve cultural and socio-economic hardships. This has been truly the connective tissue throughout my career thus far.
I started my professional career as a photographer and had the opportunity to work with philanthropic organizations like Unicef, Levi’s Care, and World Bank. From here, I made what felt like a very natural transition into other creative areas including cinematography and directing. I also gained important business strategy skills that I was able to leverage to launch my first entrepreneurial venture, Lunchbox Studio.
Based out of Atlanta, GA. Lunchbox Studio is a multicultural creative agency that works with some of the world’s most recognizable brands such as, Spotify, Adidas, Coca-Cola, as well as independent artists. My work here caught the attention of Google and I was fortunate enough to be a part of the founding Creative Lab Team. All of these experiences to this point have culminated into where I am at the starting gate of Blacktag and our mission to elevate the creativity and economic power of Black artists.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
AA: Although Blacktag was conceived long before the events of 2020, it is still very much in its infancy, so going through this unprecedented year as such a young company and trying to raise capital has been a very interesting experience. We expected to see and feel the economic backlash of the pandemic and did the best we could to prepare for that as soon as it hit. What we didn’t anticipate was the social uprisings that started this summer in response to the murder of George Floyd and the countless other racial injustices that the Black community has carried the weight of for centuries. We’re living through our generation’s 1968 and it’s been very eye opening to see first hand how different people we engaged with throughout this process and over the course of this year have responded to us and to Blacktag, particularly during a time of such social unrest.
OS: I completely agree with Akin, the timing of raising capital for us has definitely been the most interesting part of our company story so far — and will always play an important role in the many stories we go on to tell. Blacktag is a content platform designed to close the wealth gap in the Black community by leveraging Black content and creativity and to subsequently redirect billions of dollars in ad spend back into the pockets of Black artists and creators. So, beyond pitching major investors about closing creating economic opportunity during the most challenging financial time since The Great Depression, we were also asking them to come face to face with the systemic racism in the media and entertainment industries and put their money and names behind a solution. Candidly, there were a few meetings that felt like we were being read a script on diversity and inclusion efforts and checking a box for a firm, rather than being seen as a valuable company about to make monumental changes in the entertainment industry. Fortunately, there were also companies who were ready to open their eyes and be a part of the real once in a lifetime change that the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired. We did find honest companies eager to not only work with Black founders, but also believed in Blacktag’s mission to help close the wealth gap in the Black community.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
AA: On June 18th, the day before Juneteenth, we had our first meeting with the New Enterprise Associates (NEA) and the Creative Artist Agency (CAA), who would eventually come to be our major investors. It was still the height of the pandemic, so the meeting was being held virtually and Ousman and I expected to talk with one or maybe two other people. We could not have been more off base. When we got on the call there was upwards of 20 people tuned in. It felt like every person on both payrolls had joined this meeting to listen to us and to hear about Blacktag. It was this monumental career moment that we never saw coming.
OS: Looking back on this moment is so funny, too, because it’s a direction that we never expected the business to go in so quickly. To be talking to key players at NEA and CAA at this stage of the company was unfathomable. Most people in our industry never get even close to those conversations. We were doing it before our company was fully off the ground. After that call, Akin and I felt the potential of what we were building with Blacktag and knew that the rest of the road was going to be filled with similar unforeseen turns and we had to remain adaptable as a team and as a company if we were going to keep growing. Not long after that we were waking up to phone calls with people like Zendaya and signing deals with Issa Rae. So yeah, I’d say more than one or two people definitely listened to what we had to say that day.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
AA: I’ve always believed so passionately in Blacktags mission and the work that we’ve done to this point, but the hardest part for me was taking that first leap. My last start up was a fashion and design marketplace called OXOSI that ultimately failed and that experience was so emotionally taxing and in many ways traumatizing. In accepting that failure, my biggest challenge was to allow myself to see all that OXOSI did accomplish and the many ways that it put me on the path I’m on today with Ousman and Blacktag. Once I was able to do that I was able to recognize that even though I had failed, I had failed up, and I’m still climbing. That gave me the courage to not settle into a safe job and to once again take the risk of building something from the ground up. That mentality and the unmatched teammate that I found in Ousman gave me the drive to keep moving through every obstacle we’ve seen over the last two years and the confidence to not take bad investments despite any moments of desperation.
OS: Similar to Akin, my biggest challenge was moving past the incredible failure I’ve experienced with two failed businesses. But the more I learned about Akin, the more I learned how similar our experiences were and how determined we both were to not feel the deep cut of failure again. We realized that in the past the ways our businesses had failed were out of our control and ultimately came down to the decisions of other people. That taught us that the chemistry behind Blacktag needed to be entirely different than anything we’d done before. We trusted each other’s total lack of tolerance for failure again and designed Blacktag to have as much velocity to succeed as the drive we put into it. Feeling that power and pressure on myself to be successful kept me going through every challenge we’ve faced with Blacktag so far.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
AA: Nothing I’ve done to this point would have happened without the investors I’ve had at various stages. From the first investors in OXOSI to Connect Ventures who led the Seed Round of Blacktag, these people were willing to take a chance on an idea and I’m so grateful for that because it’s made Blacktag so much stronger coming out the gate. Despite the failure of OXOSI, the experiences I had with investors and raising capital, was truly a treasure chest of important learnings that I carried with me to Blacktag. Every partner and investor that I’ve worked with has played an instrumental role in my upbringing as an entrepreneur and taught me so many invaluable lessons.
OS: I’ve been fortunate to have had so many different business experiences and each one shaped where I am today. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work for a massive, global organization like Google. It’s an incredible brand that boosted my career in many ways, but it also taught me a lot about the organizational structure I wanted from my own company. After my time at Google, I really felt how important it would be to my own success to create an organizational structure like Blacktag that is small enough to build genuine relationships with the people you work with and also overflowing with diversity. I never wanted my employees to feel how I did when I looked around and didn’t see anyone around me that looked like me. I also owe a tremendous amount to Cam Snaith of Bleeker who has been nurturing my career for the last four years.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
OS: Throughout my life when talking about success, I’ve always heard the question, ‘how much is luck and how much is you?’ But I’ve always resonated with the quote “luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” Our whole lives Akin and I have been preparing for this moment. Our families and our upbringing as immigrants to this country have been such an incredible part of our journey and have been instrumental in setting the building blocks for the opportunities we have with Blacktag.
AA: Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow is one of my favorite life quotes and the title of the second studio album by American funk band Funkadelic. It has always reminded me that everything from art to everyday life is better with a free and open mind. The world is bigger, intelligence is wider, problems are more solvable, and ideas are more abundant when you adhere to the message of Funkadelic.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The
United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
AA: When you compress an issue for so long and have a government system designed to suppress the voices of the oppressed and the children of the oppressed, it’s not a matter of if things will reach a boiling point, but when. The pandemic, economic collapse, and images of police brutality that went viral in 2020 came together as the perfect storm to spark the social justice movement we’re experiencing today. We’re living through our generation’s 1968. For too long our boycotts and displays of pride and activism have been perceived as radical, but it’s not radical to want a level playing field. Black people and people of color aren’t going anywhere. We need to truly fix the problems that create systemic racism, not just start anew. Because if we don’t find solutions to the problems, then the shackles will never truly be off our feet.
OS: Nearly every country has experienced racism at some point in its history. A great example of reckoning with a haunted past is how Australia gave land back to the aboriginals. America has never admitted its mistakes like this. America has never faced that it took people away from their home countries in chains and enslaved them for 400 years for their own economic gains. Because there has never been this admission and consequently never true reparations, you still see the linings of slavery today across industries. Until we’re able to recognize as a country that there is still this instability in every environment, home, government system, and institution the racial tensions and uprisings won’t stop. This country was built on the backs of Black people in chains and despite the shifts we’ve seen this year I think there is still much more to come.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
OS: We’re all a part of a global economy and community that is a very diverse place. To be aligned with what the world is doing, businesses and organizations need to have a diverse team that will organically think more broadly and serve a wider range of people. Just like the world doesn’t have one kind of plant, the world also doesn’t have one kind of human. Organizations need to reflect this diversity to meet the needs of our global community and economy.
AA: Company narratives around diversity typically come from HR departments and stale messaging on D&I efforts. While it’s important to have diversity from a HR perspective, it’s also just a basic business practice: if you want to make more money as a company your organization needs to be diverse in order to be successful in the modern world. That mentality is won and lost in the marketing department. Organizations that adopt diversity within the marketing department will be able to connect with a wider range of consumers and therefore increase their bottom line at a faster rate than those that do not.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men In Tech in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
AA: First and foremost, the tech industry needs to focus not just on Black men, but on Black women, too. There’s so many talented Black people who regardless of gender have been deprived of opportunities in this industry because of the chains that systemic racism has used to hold them back. Like most industries, the tech industry needs to move away from archaic thinking around education and graduate to see the value of self-education. There are countless Black men and women in tech who didn’t have the opportunities to have the same kinds of formal education as their white counterparts, but doubled down and learned the industry inside and out. The tech landscape and broader society need to be more creative to change current hiring methods that cater to formalized education and puts self-taught applicants at a disadvantage. For example, proficiency tests may be too close to a standardized test and as a result, create roadblocks for many qualified self-taught Black applicants.
OS: Many of these tech companies that aren’t built on a foundation of diversity don’t even realize their current methods are a product of systemic racism. We’ve reached a defining moment in our society where companies and organizations need to take a hard look at their internal practices and honestly assess how they might be continuing centuries of oppression against the Black community. For example, continuing to hire from current employee’s alumni networks does typically fill positions quicker, but it also usually produces the same kind of employee. By creating variety in hiring practices, organizations will naturally create diversity in their workforce. However, the truth of the matter is that these are things that the Black community has been saying for decades. There are companies that are still operating internally like a plantation and those businesses will fail. The tech community needs to get beyond talking about the problems and on to acting on the solutions.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
AA: Blacktag is an interactive platform that’s helping to close the wealth gap in the Black community by leveraging Black content and creativity. Black culture has always been a driver of pop culture, but artists and creators have never been given the recognition or the financial credit they deserve for their work. Ousman and I founded Blacktag to create an ecosystem to connect brands with creators who understand how to authentically reach Black audiences. In this way, Blacktag will redirect billions in advertising to Black creators and help close the wealth gap in the global Black community, instead of non-Black brands earning billions on the backs of Black creators and communities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
OS: There is nothing like Blacktag on the market today. Every Black person and person of color has experienced endlessly scrolling through traditional platforms like Netflix searching for content that looks like them just to come up empty. Blacktag is serving that demographic of people and providing them with the content they crave and can’t find anywhere else.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
AA: We’re currently preparing to launch the Blacktag platform in early 2021. We’ve already signed projects with massive creators like Issa Rae and Common, with many more to come. From a creator perspective, Blacktag will redirect massive amounts of advertising money back to Black creators through partnerships. On the audience side, Blacktag will generate content that serves Black audiences and audiences interested in Black subculture.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
OS: Assuming that a company has created a product with a valuable function, the most overlooked area I see is in the design. You have to make people feel the magic of your product through what they are able to visualize. I’ve seen so many creators with a great idea for a product and its end function, but it fails because consumers aren’t able to picture it. That’s why it’s crucial to get feedback from graphic designers and photographers. For anyone who truly believes in the functionality of their product, but isn’t seeing the results they’d expected, I’d recommend revisiting the design and making sure it’s communicating the right message.
AA: Another area a lot of companies can strengthen is in brand voice. Companies today need to not only create a brand voice, but to make it a very bold one. There are so many companies popping up everyday, you need to take a strong stance in order to be heard through the noise of competition. Hiring a diverse team will also help to develop this bold voice that will connect with a range of consumers and audiences.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
OS: One way a high performing company can create a high performing sales team is by building a diverse sales team because diverse thinking is a major driver for sales. Strong teams are made of individuals from different backgrounds who are successful operators and understand how to tap into diverse communities.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
AA: Branding is everything to me. It’s not just about design like many people often think, but it’s about your brand voice and personality. It’s about the way your brand communicates with its core audience. Customers need to find a sense of home and a sense of belonging in your product. That feeling comes when your entire brand feels like one body that’s speaking directly to the consumer.
OS: Effective brands also don’t allow themselves to fall victim to the cycle of capitalism. The most effective brands know exactly who their subgroups are and fall in love with creating products and services for that group of consumers. Brands often fail when they lose sight of their core audience.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
OS: The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to provide the best user experience is diversity. You need to understand that every person isn’t just like you and you need to create a team and organization that reflects the diverse world we live in. You also need to understand your core audience and identify how they receive information. You’re not going to create a positive user experience if your target audience can’t understand or relate to your messaging. Once you have a firm grasp on who that group is and how to communicate with them, you need to lean into them and not be tempted to force your business into growth moves it’s not ready to make.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
AA: Because Blacktag is a first-of-it-kind platform and marketplace, we have a headstart in limiting churn. Our audiences are here because there’s no where else to go for the kind of high-quality content that’s found on Blacktag and it’s an offering that’s only continuing to grow.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
(1) Technology is obviously an important thing to know when creating a technology company. Having at least one founder who understands code and design helps tremendously. Some of the key assets that helped us during fundraising were demos and design,
(2) An understanding of trends is vital on both the consumer and enterprise sides. For us, paying attention to trends allowed us to make the right pivots and evolutions that eventually led to a successful close.
(3) Knowing your customer and their community is paramount. Targeting a group that you know does wonders for your focus, and focus does wonders for your business.
(4) Knowing your team is also incredibly important. Like any other company, a technology company is only as good as the minds that make it run. Like components, departments work together and rely on each other. As a leader, you must know all the pieces in your puzzle before seeing the big picture. My cofounder and I make up for each other very nicely. It starts with us and then the partners and colleagues we bring on.
(5) Lastly, know your damn self. As in, know your limits, your likes, dislikes, your needs, and what drives you. You need to be as balanced and sane as possible in the wonderful and wicked world of technology. One of the key things I learned from my first technology company and now being applied to Blacktag is the detriments of overwork and burnout. Turning the computer off and taking your weekends is actually great for you and ultimately, the company.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
OS: There are so many things as individuals both Akin and I would love to spark change around. We saw an opportunity to make strides in closing the wealth gap for Black artists and creators with Blacktag and it’s been so empowering to watch that dream take flight. The Black Lives Matter movement saw incredible steam this year and that fight needs to continue, not only for the economic growth of the Black community, but to save human lives. 2020 has truly been a boiling point across all fronts and our planet is fighting for its life, too. As a global community we need to find renewable solutions for energy and eliminate the use of fossil fuels and plastics. All of the opportunities we’re fighting for will be for nothing without a planet to live and continue to create on.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
AA — Joni Mitchell. Simply, just listen to the Blue album, then you’ll know.
OS- Thomas Sankara — as an admirer of the Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s citizens, even long after his assination. As president of one of the poorest countries in the world, Sankara believed fervently that Burkina Faso could learn to sustain itself without foreign aid. He refused aid packages from the International Monetary Fund that, he said, came with strings attached. As he famously proclaimed, “The one who feeds you usually imposes his will upon you.” I am deeply connected to sankara’s beliefs and personal strife alongside dignity, self reliance, a man is measured by his ability to find solutions for the betterment of his people and not meritocricacy nor self indulgent.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!