Founder Spotlight: Meet Stella and Kene

Foundervine
Foundervine
Published in
6 min readNov 3, 2023

Established in the year 2020 with vital support from Innovate UK, Millicent Labs stands as a pioneering entity in the Millicent Network, fervently committed to catalyzing widespread acceptance of digital finance.

Their aim is to bestow individuals across the globe with equitable, crystal-clear, and inventive financial tools, thereby fostering financial empowerment on a global scale.

In our exclusive interview with Kene Ezeji-Okoye and Stella Dyer, Co-Founders of Millicent Labs, we unravel the motivations behind their journey, exploring the challenges they’ve conquered and the resilience that propels them forward. Join us on this insightful exploration as we uncover the inspiring story of Millicent Labs, a beacon of change in the realm of digital finance.

Stella Dyer & Kene Ezeji-Okoye

Tell us about Millicent and what motivated you to startup?

Stella: The motivation behind my decision to join Millicent is deeply rooted in my personal background. Arriving in the UK as a war refugee, I resided in council housing and witnessed firsthand how financial system inefficiencies adversely affect individuals. This experience fueled my determination to succeed conventionally.

Eventually, I earned an MBA from Harvard Business School before working at Morgan Stanley in M&A and corporate finance, managing Goldman Sachs’ global high-tech investment banking group, and then a couple of C-suite roles in private equity.

Along the way, I became fairly disillusioned with working so hard to make rich people richer, without a larger sense of purpose. Consequently, I took a break to focus on raising my family. I was then approached by Robert F. Smith to shepherd his $20m gift to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I can confidently state that this role had the most profound impact on me. Connecting with individuals who have been disenfranchised for 400 years, and encouraging them to share their history, stories, and artefacts for preservation in the Smithsonian, was significant. Letting the world know that our history matters. That we matter. At that moment, I realized my next endeavor had to be equally impactful.

When Kene discussed Millicent with me, what resonated with me was the ambitious idea of transforming the world by creating a financial system that is open, fair, and accessible, empowering even the smallest participants.

Kene: During the pandemic, as the world swiftly transitioned to a cashless society, I realized it was the opportune moment to launch a business I had been envisioning for years: creating a system of payment rails and financial market infrastructures that combine the structure and safeguards of today’s financial system with the exponential benefits of distributed ledger technology. In essence, upgrading the world’s financial plumbing.

I never had the courage to pursue this dream previously due to its immense scale. However, with the support of Innovate UK funding, we have successfully initiated collaborations with esteemed institutions such as the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements. Our achievements include recognition from prominent entities like the G20 and the Reserve Bank of India, as well as backing from renowned corporations like Barclays, in partnership with Foundervine.

Tell us about your journey on the Barclays Black Founder accelerator and the new Black Venture Growth Programme.

Stella: Our journey through the Barclays Black Founder Accelerator was highly beneficial for both our personal and professional development. Given my time away from the financial sector, as well as the UK, meeting an incredible network of like-minded individuals facing similar entrepreneurial challenges, as well as gaining support and insights from one of the world’s most prominent retail banks was invaluable. This was particularly significant given Millicent Labs’ focus on transforming the financial sector.

One of the most exciting moments in our journey was the BFA 3.0 Demo Day, a significant event where the company received the prestigious Foundervine People’s Choice Award. This accolade marked the culmination of an intensive four-month program, during which Millicent Labs stood out among 10 companies chosen from a 50-member cohort. These select few had the opportunity to showcase their innovative products before a discerning audience and a panel of experts. The fact that Millicent Labs was not only chosen but also co-awarded the sole award of the event, the People’s Choice Award, speaks volumes about the resonance of their vision with the audience. This recognition serves as a powerful affirmation of Millicent Labs’ mission to build a more inclusive financial infrastructure, underlining the impact of their work on creating a more accessible and equitable financial landscape.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in your entrepreneurial journey?

Kene: Given that we work with blockchain, I’d say Sam Bankman-Fried. Oddly enough, his downfall hit the legitimate side of the industry more than anyone else.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before starting up?

Stella: Being a founder is incredibly demanding. I thought my 80+ hour weeks on Wall St were tough, but the mental load and responsibility of entrepreneurship take it to the next level. As Nvidia’s co-founder and CEO Jensen Huang stated, ‘Nobody in their right mind’ would start a company, a sentiment I partially agree with. The stress is immense, but it’s outweighed by the sense of purpose and achievement.

Kene: If you aim to become a startup founder solely for wealth or the success stories in TechCrunch, it’s not worth the effort. But if your drive comes from a genuine desire to make a fundamental change in the world, then it’s an entirely different narrative.

What are some of the important milestones and recognitions in your journey so far?

Kene: We were fortunate to initiate our journey by securing an Innovate UK Smart Grant, enabling us to kick start our venture. This underscores why the UK stands as a global innovation hub. Another milestone was the BFA3.0 Demo Day award, along with our participation and recognition in the Bank of England and Bank of International Settlements Project Rosalind.

Along the way, we’ve had the privilege of meeting numerous remarkable individuals who believe in our vision and have supported us. Although I won’t mention specific names to avoid overlooking anyone, we are sincerely grateful to each and every one of them.

Winning the G20 TechSprint organized by the Reserve Bank of India and the Bank for International Settlements in Mumbai this year was a significant personal achievement. Presenting our innovative cross-border payments and FX infrastructure before esteemed judges from institutions like the IMF, World Bank, FATF, Bank of Thailand, and Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance was incredibly challenging, given the unconventional nature of our money movement approach. Despite the initial apprehension, our fusion of traditional finance and DeFi concepts resonated with the judges. Achieving my goal of receiving an award, symbolized by a novelty oversized cheque, was indeed a memorable moment.

Any top tips for entrepreneurs struggling with structure?

Stella: Timebox your days, prioritizing essentials like meditation, exercise, and proper meals. These aren’t negotiable; they’re the foundational elements for peak performance. You must operate at your best to deliver for your company, community, and stakeholders. By scheduling these in your diary, you guarantee they happen, instead of being constantly postponed and left unfinished.

Kene: Consider getting a coach if possible. Unlike advisors, coaches don’t provide solutions; instead, they excel at drawing out answers from within you that you might not discover otherwise.

Entrepreneurial communities can be such powerful support networks — do you have any asks or gives to the Foundervine community?

Stella: We have received immense support from the Foundervine community, and I find myself at a loss for requests, except for the heartfelt appeal to continue supporting each other, particularly amidst the challenging market conditions. Moreover, if there’s any way in which we can extend our assistance, please do not hesitate to reach out.

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