For Onyeka Obiocha, a 21st-century business should be based on three words: People. Planet. Profit.
Sometimes called the “triple bottom line,” it’s a model that emphasizes business and corporations as having responsibilities not only to their customers, but also to the environment, to their communities and to their workers.
“You can have X amount of revenue and be on the Inc 500 list, but are your employees happy?” he said. “Are people being cultivated? Are you being a good steward of your resources? What is your plan long-term?”
This is the philosophy that Obiocha brings to his role as the new executive director of CTNext, a networking and mentoring organization for entrepreneurs who are trying to launch start-ups in Connecticut. CTNext is part of the quasi-public state agency Connecticut Innovations, which finances Connecticut businesses using venture capital.
Obiocha started looking into social entrepreneurship when he was in his senior year at the University of Connecticut, where he majored in Economics. At that point, a friend of Obiocha’s at UConn reached out to him about a company that he was starting. The idea was that people could purchase items online while also donating to a charity or nonprofit of their choice.
“So pretty much Amazon Smile before Amazon Smile,” he said.
Obiocha said that he didn’t originally think entrepreneurship was his calling — he thought he would pursue international development work. After graduating from UConn, he went to South Africa, but after about a month, he realized that the work wasn’t for him.
“South Africa is one of my favorite places in the world, but I realized that a low-resource environment just wasn’t for me,” said Obiocha.
After returning from South Africa, he started working for a start-up company in Hartford and signed up for a program at the non-profit organization reSET that gave workshops on how to grow a socially-conscious business. At the first session, he said, he met a young man who was interested in starting a coffee roasting company. At the time, Obiocha said he was skeptical.
“I was like, wow, I’m so sorry to hear that. Like, that’s such a saturated market. There’s Dunkin Donuts. There’s Starbucks. There’s Intelligentsia. There’s all these things, you know, why would you go into coffee?” said Obiocha.
But by the end of the program, Obiocha was convinced.
“From his point of view, there was just a beautiful opportunity to re-imagine the supply chain and where the value is added to,” he said.
Obiocha and his new partner, Vishna Patel, started the coffee shop A Happy Life. They roasted the coffee in a commercial kitchen in Wallingford, and then built the shop out in New Haven.
“Literally buying the bamboo, cutting it and installing it ourselves, building out the coffee shop in downtown New Haven,” he said.
Through the coffee shop, Obiocha said, he was able to help other people start up their own businesses, including a subscription gaming lounge in New Haven and the “Jitter Bus” — a coffee shop formed by three baristas out of a retro-fitted school bus.
At the time, Obiocha was living in Hartford with three friends – one working in a start-up shoe company, one freelance graphic designer and one working at a clothing company. He said that while he was busy in the coffee shop in New Haven on the weekdays, there was nothing to do on a weekend evening.
“There was really no place for us to go, you know, just dance for hours in Hartford Friday and Saturday night,” he said.
Obiocha, along with his roommates, founded Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, a self-defined “community venture studio” which organizes events in Hartford.
“[It] was really just an opportunity for us to start throwing parties for people that we connected with,” he said. “And eventually, over time, it really turned into an opportunity for people to build community.”
Obiocha said that he and a few friends organized what he called a “slow roll” – a biking trip around the city of Hartford on Saturday afternoons. After getting a few flat tires, he said, the group realized there was no bike shop in Hartford, and so they used a crowdfunding campaign to launch BiCi Co. with the Center for Latino Progress. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner also helped organize the Know Good market in Hartford, an outdoor food market where local restaurants and food trucks can gather to sell their products.
Obiocha said he enjoyed being able to work on community building in both Hartford and New Haven at the same time.
“I was really excited to be able to operate [in] two cities that I’ve come to love, but also in two very different ways, and always on the basis of building and growing and helping to bring people together,” he said.
After deciding to part ways with his partner at the coffee shop, Obiocha took a job at Yale University, eventually ending up at the Tsai Center, which was founded in 2017 as a place where students could go for mentoring and financial support to help them get a business idea off the ground.
“In my office hours, I was getting college students working on food technology to SOM students who want to build out a [venture capital] fund for psychedelics to Yale [students] who were getting their master’s in religious studies thinking about what’s the next iteration of Sesame Street for this time,” he said. “So it was really interesting getting exposed to so many different ideas and learning with and from my students. And I think all of that has allowed me to really get an understanding of what it means to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem within an institution.”
Obiocha said that he believed that business models like benefit corporations and social enterprises, which actively consider the larger impact of their actions on the world and on their communities, are going to be the model for the future, simply because that is what customers want.
“I think there’s more and more people really looking at brands and businesses that they want to interact with to have some type of understanding of the larger societal constructs in which they operate. And I think that’s great,” he said. “We see … more and more larger organizations buying local or even spending money on minority- and women- owned businesses. So I think there’s an evolution there that I’m excited to see.”
In terms of Connecticut, Obiocha said the key is not to look at the state as a whole, but rather to try and play to the strengths of each region and look at what it can bring to the local community.
“I’m really interested in saying, how do we leverage the unique resources that New Haven has, that New London/Groton has, that Stamford has, that Hartford has. And even having those be the nexus of entrepreneurship innovation for their regions, for their counties,” he said.
Obiocha said he believes that Connecticut has plenty of resources — they just aren’t always accessible. For young entrepreneurs, he said, there are three big challenges: getting access to funding, being able to build a good team and getting mentorship and guidance. The team, he said, is critical — he said that investors decide to place their money less in an idea itself and more in the people who undertake it.
“Oftentimes I find entrepreneurs who might have a brilliant idea, but they keep it so close to their chest under wraps. And I’m like, share it freely. If someone steals your idea then honestly, to me, all that means is that you might not have been the best person to execute on it,” he said. “Because if it’s a good idea, then it leverages your unique skills, your passion, whatever makes your heart sing and puts it into something into the world.”
Obiocha said he’s looking forward to helping create an environment in the state that both serves entrepreneurs and broadens the idea of what it means to be innovative.
“Whatever outputs come from that … we’ll see. But I think as long as we keep our ear to the ground and do right by the people, then we’re going to be in a great place,” he said.