Meet Urenna Okonkwo
‘Tech companies create products and services for everyone, for society and society is diverse.’
Urenna launched a fintech company called Cashmere in 2018. She lives in Blackheath and works from home and at Google campus, Shoreditch. She is currently on the Capital Enterprise Green Light Programme.
Where did the business idea come from?
A couple of years ago I was in Harrods with my friends. I tried these shoes on and they were actually perfect. I was working as a financial advisor and the thought of spending £600 on shoes felt irresponsible. I had to take my own advice. I felt guilty spending my savings on shoes. But — when I got home I thought ‘what if I had a special stash of cash…’
What challenges have you faced?
The first challenge was building a tech company with no experience — both business and technical. My background is more in finance. I never learnt how to code. I had to overcome that by immersing myself a lot in the world and I did learn to code. I also built a solid network of other founders in tech and was able to get advice from them. I didn’t end up building the product myself. I hired a freelance developer to do that but even that was a challenge because I was still non-technical so sometimes it was hard to communicate exactly what I wanted. Looking back, I would have involved my technical friends more in the development process.
Another challenge I faced was that, up until 3 months ago, I was working for Cashmere part-time, with a full-time job. I had to learn how to manage my time properly. It was a demanding role with exams; it was hard to juggle both. I had to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of my social life. I used to work on Cashmere early in the morning, then during lunch breaks and after work. It got to the point where I thought ‘if I carry on like this I will have a mental breakdown’.
Do you feel that anything in your background has been either an advantage or disadvantage in your start up journey?
As a black woman, I tend not to focus on that stuff or I would just go crazy. People underestimate you. I’ve been in situations going to tech meetups and I’m the only black female there. When I tell people I’m a founder they go ‘wow’. They think I work in support or operations in a tech business, not a tech founder.
I have to explain that I am smart and can do this!
My family definitely think I’m nuts. I come from a traditional Nigerian family where it’s all about: ‘Go to Uni, get good grades, get a job in the city’. Stability is always encouraged. It took a long time for them to be convinced that this is what I want to do. They are probably still not convinced. It’s ‘let’s see how it goes, she’s probably going to go back into full-time work’. I know it comes from a good place. They want the best for me, in case it fails and all the emotions that come with that. I get that. I know there is a huge risk. But there is no way of knowing if you can do it, unless you do it.
How have you overcome challenges?
I’ve had to learn a lot about fintech. I’ve worked in financial services for 5 years and I understand how it’s not geared towards millennials. Having that experience has helped.
I like to find hacks for things — what’s the quickest way to get from A to B, rather than having to go through all the bureaucracy?
I have a good support network- either at a similar stage or slightly ahead. We share a lot, mentor each other, a few networks like YSYS; they’re another Whatsapp group that has gone from 10 to 100, and we are all founders, we share resources, if anyone needs help — very open and collaborative. Every two weeks, we have safe spaces where 5 or 6 of us meet up to rant to each other about everything that is going wrong. Nothing leaves the room. Especially in start-ups that’s important … it looks glamorous on the outside, but it’s not as glamorous as it looks. There is a lot of hard work and mental breakdowns. It’s important not to feel lonely — that’s been very helpful.
Can you remember a day when you thought about packing everything in? What was it that kept you going?
Yeah once. Things weren’t going according to plan. I remember that when I was still working, one day, I walked out of the office and burst out crying. I got home and was talking to my younger sister who is 16 and I just broke down — ‘I can’t do this anymore. What have I got myself in to?’ She just told me she believes in me — ‘Just remember why you are doing this’. You have a strong why- so stick to it’. That made a lot of sense to me. Every time I feel that I remember my why.
Was there a moment where you thought ‘this is going to work’?
Usually when we have either small or big wins. We pitched a deal to a bigger brand, they said, ‘We want to do this with you’. I couldn’t believe they’d believe in me. I do panel talks and workshops with my audience. When I get feedback from them, inspire them to start a business or manage their finances better it keeps me going.
What’s the best advice you have received?
“Be obsessed with the problem you are trying to solve.”
Often, we are obsessed with the solution.
The problem I’m trying to solve right now is helping millennials enjoy luxury and be financially savvy. At this point, the solution is coming in a website and app, but it could something else, like doing workshops. When we focus on the problem things fit into place. In tech, things are always changing. Your solution could be good right now but who knows in the next 2 years your solutions could be obsolete.
What are your dreams/ plans for the future?
At the moment, Cashmere is just a website. What we are working on for next year is that users would have a personal financial assistant linked to their account. It could monitor day to day spending ‘you’re spending too much on Uber or Starbucks. Cut that down’ — and look at personal circumstances also.
Then I’d like to expand into luxury travel and nice experiences, and possibly move overseas to EU/US/Africa.
Is there anything you wished you had known before?
It’s okay to be cutthroat. At times I have felt very overwhelmed. And I had to lower my standards. I guess just to get things done. And I realise that every single time I’ve done that with the people I work with it’s always come back to bite me later on. So, I’m trying to be a bit more discerning. That’s definitely something I’ve learnt. Every time I work with somebody I have to do my due diligence. Who that person is, how they work. What they’ve done in the past, because that saves a lot of trouble.
What could existing founders/companies do to make their workplaces more inclusive for someone like you?
For me, because I worked in finance which is very white, male dominated, a lot of times I felt they were always very geared towards what men would like to do, such as football and golf. The women were on the sidelines with their wine in their hand. It comes down to little things like that to make the experience more inclusive. Get opinions from everyone, rather than assuming what everyone wants to do.
Also, having people in senior positions who reflect society because for me, where I worked all the directors were white, male, so I couldn’t see myself progressing in the company because I didn’t see anybody looking like me progressing. Have a diverse management team.
Why do you think it’s important for tech companies to be diverse and inclusive?
Because tech companies are creating products and services for everyone, for society and society is diverse. So, it makes sense that your company reflects that. We all come from different backgrounds, act differently and if we have the same type of people making decisions for a large group of people there will be a huge gap.
What is your message to inspire other under represented founders?
This is deep… I think it would be if you’re truly, truly passionate about your idea, then you should go for it and you shouldn’t let the fact that you are a minority stop you from doing that. I don’t know any black female founders in fintech. I don’t see that as a bad thing. Personally, I think ‘cool, I could be the first and the younger generation will see me and think she did that so I can’. So even if you’re not inspired by someone you can be the one to inspire others.