How We Got Here —
Karen Okonkwo

Interview by Carmel Yang
Photos by Sam Fu

Interview by Carmel Yang
Photos by Sam Fu

Everyone’s journey is a unique inscription through time and isn’t a path that can be retraced or duplicated. How We Got Here is a series of concise recollections of personal journeys as told by talented creative individuals with different backgrounds, careers, and interests who share their struggles and motivations to explain how they reached this point in their lives.

Our latest episode features serial entrepreneur Karen Okonkwo. She talks about the pivotal moments that shaped her unique experience as a first-generation Nigerian-American and her path to success that culminated in the founding of diversity stock photography company TONL.

Karen Okonkwo

— 32, Seattle —

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The year was 2016 and I had just woken up to the news of another fatal shooting – Philando Castile, a black man who was killed during a routine traffic stop. Not even a week ago, another black civilian – Alton Sterling – had been shot six times by officers in Louisiana.

Seeing the victims’ photos blasted on the news, I was perturbed by how the media portrayed these men. Instead of being seen as fathers, sons, lovers, they were subverted into stereotypes. This made me wonder how did America see people of color. Did our individual stories exist? Was the world divided into this shallow dichotomy of color?

Being a first generation Nigerian-American, I felt like grew up three different worlds. Because I leaned heavily into my family’s Nigerian roots, my upbringing was more nuanced than America’s typical race narrative. I wasn’t white, but that didn’t automatically give me the same struggles as a black person whose family has been in America for generations.

The path to get to where I am was challenging but, on paper, I excelled. Post-college, I joined the corporate world, working medical sales in Seattle. Around that time, I co-created a blog called Sorority Secrets, which shared stories and tips about Greek life.

Being a first generation Nigerian-American, I felt like grew up three different worlds. Because I leaned heavily into my family’s Nigerian roots, my upbringing was more nuanced than America’s typical race narrative. I wasn’t white, but that didn’t automatically give me the same struggles as a black person whose family has been in America for generations.

Even with my successes, I knew I was meant to do something more. When I was fifteen, I was involved in a serious car accident. In that moment, I realized I was meant to be here for a specific reason – to help others, to serve the underserved. It’s these chance, daily encounters that make me question what kind of life I want to live and what kind of impact I want to make.

Those recent tragedies got me thinking about representation and the importance of storytelling. We are all valuable human beings with our own stories and, by diversifying our worldview, we can humanize and educate people beyond stereotypes. A quick search showed how difficult it was to find stock images of not only black people, but all people of color.

The reception from my blog had made me aware of the power of visual images – and general homogeneity of most available images. Around 2017, my partner Joshua Kissi and I launched TONL, a diverse stock photography site that celebrates diversity by featuring and employing a multitude of people.

Even if the world seems to be black and white, we can use individual stories to color in between the lines.

In that moment, I realized I was meant to be here for a specific reason – to help others, to serve the underserved. It’s these chance, daily encounters that make me question what kind of life I want to live and what kind of impact I want to make.
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