b&b182 Karen Okonkwo, co-founder of Tonl, on the importance of including POC in stock photography #DDJA

Welcome to the Dead Day Job Army, a monthly Brunch & Budget series where entrepreneurs and freelancers of Color share their stories and talk about the real.
It’s not easy to start your own business and it’s even harder when it feels like you have to explain to your family what you do every time you see them, when you walk into an event and can count on one hand the PoC in the room, when you try to ask for what you’re worth, but don’t want to get passed over for the next person. We ask folks to leave their shiny pictures and Instagram highlights at the door and tell us what it’s really like to do the work, put in the time, and devote your life to your work.

Today we have Karen Okonkwo, co-founder of Tonl, a stock photography company which features people of color and minorities. She talked to us about what caused her to begin the company, and what the process was like.

Check out Tonl at


Music featured in this episode:

Omo Naija by Magugu
Repatriate Your Dollars by Nai-Jah
Ballot or the Gun by TONE 7

Episode Highlights:

Karen Okonkwo: It took me 5 hours to find a really basic shot of a black woman drinking coffee.

Karen Okonkwo: When you’re starting a business it’s important for you to look at the bigger picture and understand how much you need to initially invest.

Karen Okonkwo: I remember I was a little kid and I ran home–and I was seeing all the other kids with C’s and B’s so I thought I was cool walking in with some B’s–and I was so excited. I opened it and showed my dad and he literally looked down at me with distress and he’s like “B’s are bad,” and he just walked away…ever since then I have never ever allowed myself to be anything less than.

Karen Okonkwo: It doesn’t matter if you’re first to market, it matters how you execute, it matters how you’re community, and really the community is the reason we have what we have and I don’t take that for granted.

Dyalekt: Being first to market doesn’t guarantee success.

Karen Okonkwo: Make sure, if you’re first to market, if you’re second to market, that you are studying what the people want.

Karen Okonkwo: I would not get into this rhythm of “Oh it has to be perfect,” because the only way you’ll know what works for your business is by working your business.

Karen Okonkwo: We reached out in the form of engaging our followers in every step of the process.

Karen Okonkwo: Have a landing page that engages them, that actually makes them feel that they’re really a part of the product.

Karen Okonkwo: When anyone asks for something that is not on our page, I literally say “Nope, but you will be the first person that we will feature. How about we take a picture of you?”

Karen Okonkwo: Rather than focusing on climbing the corporate ladder that doesn’t even serve you, get a job that can give you flexibility in time.

Dyalket: A lot of times they’ll say “Take the thing from your side hustle, take the thing from your talent of you skill, and apply that to the business world” when the opposite can be true as well.

Karen Okonkwo: Stop believing that you are going to suffer if you leave your job.

Karen Okonkwo: Focus on the product, focus on engaging your audience, and the money will come.

Karen Okonkwo: Just because you hate your job doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go start a business.

Karen Okonkwo: Your why should make you cry. If you sincerely feel deeply connected to whatever you want to do, and it’s attached to your purpose, that’s how you know you should do it.