Founder and CEO, Urban MBA, Hackney, London
Sitting Down with Urban MBA Founder Kofi Oppong - ‘The University for Street Entrepreneurs'
Urban MBA is based in Hackney, London, founded by Kofi Oppong in March 2019.
Joe Wooden and Kofi Oppong talk deep about Kofi’s founder journey and how Urban MBA changes lives.
“I felt I was so lucky, with what happened to me after being homeless, that I wanted to give back to the community and people like myself, who needed a reason to go on.”
Kofi Oppong is the founder of Urban MBA - “The University for Street Entrepreneurs”, as Kofi calls it. Urban MBA is an education programme set up to help marginalised and disadvantaged young people develop entrepreneurial skills. Registered as a non-profit organisation and offering free courses, Urban MBA assists young people with sustainable social and commercial businesses.
We sat down together to discuss Kofi’s story of being a social founder, his thoughts about the flaws with the education system, and how he is striving to address this issue.
The Motivations and Philosophy behind Urban MBA
One of the key reasons Kofi set up Urban MBA was because he felt the schooling system had let him down. It was only after he finished his formal education, and began to read, that he started to feel he had a better understanding of the world:
“I was absolutely flabbergasted because I started to read books, like ‘The Celestine Prophecy’. I read that book when I was nineteen and I gained more of an understanding of energy and ideas like that, and about humans on a spiritual basis, than I’d ever been taught at school. I read things like ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’, which gave me an example of finance. I read ‘Think and Grow Rich’, which talks about Andrew Carnegie and some of those great entrepreneurial rock stars from that period.
And I was just like, was I sleeping at school? In the period after school, I learned more about reading books than I ever learned for the five or six years at secondary school. It was ridiculous – that shouldn’t happen. And, so my motivation came from the fact that I’d been blindsided by school, and I felt that there could be a better way of doing it”, Kofi explained.
Kofi also talked about the rapid technological developments that are happening today, the effects this will have on employment opportunities, and the necessity for the education system to do better to cope with these challenges:
“A big thing that we are really focused on at Urban MBA is that we feel the education system cannot keep up with technology. It took the education system so long to learn about dyslexia, and other neurodivergencies. People who have dyslexia were called failures, but actually they just had different ways of learning. Education can’t keep up with technology, because the speed of technology is faster than ever.
And so, as we move forward, most things are going to be driven by AI (Artificial Intelligence).”
Kofi’s philosophy is clear:
“We need to use our creativity to create businesses. My concern is that people will increasingly become freelancers. They’ll need to be able to create a business in some shape or form, because there won’t be jobs in employability as we know it”, he explained to me.
An integral mission for Kofi and Urban MBA is to provide more efficient entrepreneurial support to young people. Kofi explained Urban MBA’s offering:
“[What we offer] is much faster [than a usual university degree], it’s practical, and then it gets you straight out into work. And I feel that is the future of what most students will need. There needs to be a change from a three year university model to a one year one, just because of the speed of technology.
People are getting shorter memories and the way they work is shorter as well. We want people to remember what they’ve been taught, so we tell them stories.”
Kofi was keen to emphasise the importance of students’ attitudes in his courses:
“At the beginning, we only care about their attitude. If you’ve got the right attitude, the other stuff can be taught. Everything else is teaching. If you come and you’re willing, you turn up fifteen minutes early to get to work, you can go anywhere”, he put forward.
A final integral facet of the Urban MBA philosophy is to provide continued ongoing help for their students.
“You can’t just teach somebody something and leave them. A lot of the entrepreneurs we have, we’ve been mentoring them for over ten years”, Kofi said.
Challenges and Lessons Learned of Being a Social Founder
When asked what he had found to be the greatest challenges in founding Urban MBA, Kofi responded “Finance, 100%.” He asserted that being from the BAME community has made funding far more difficult:
“As a black person my challenge has always been trying to get funding. For my organisation, it has been a nightmare. There was a report last year from the Conservatives that said there was no institutional racism. And funnily enough not accepting that there is, is why there is institutional racism.”
Kofi set up Urban MBA as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO), registered with the Charity Commission. He admitted that although he wasn’t sure about whether to do this at the beginning, setting Urban MBA up with this framework wasn’t a difficult process for him, due to the help he got:
“The thing about a lot of this stuff around entrepreneurship and business, and why lots of people from disadvantaged communities fail, is because they don’t have the networks. What I did was I found a guy who could do the procedure for me, and I paid him. He came, and I told him exactly what I wanted.”
“What we do now”, Kofi went on to say, “is we have two entities. Urban MBA Training Limited, and then we have Urban MBA CIO, the charity. The CIO owns 30% of the training company. The training company is going to be more of a sustainable model as we go forward. So a lot of our global online commercial courses will come through the training, and money will be funnelled back to the CIO from that work, because you need a sustainable model in terms of what we are trying to do. And we also want to go global so there’s different rules. It can be easier to go global if you’re more of a limited company.”
A big dilemma for Kofi has been whether to collaborate with other social impact organisations, or to view them as competitors.
“There is an unwritten code that social enterprises and charities should all work together. But that doesn’t work at all, right? I’ll tell you why: if I find twenty organisations that are teaching entrepreneurship, it becomes a competition. So your networks and partnerships should be with other people that aren’t competing with you, because otherwise it ends up getting messy.
We’re very selective about who we partner with. Whereas at the beginning, we used to try and partner with everyone, we don’t do that anymore”, Kofi said.
Kofi's three top tips for other social founders, and for anyone considering becoming a social founder:
“Find somebody who knows about finance if you’re not a finance person yourself, because that usually makes or breaks most companies.”
“Get enough staff. Because the amount that will go through you, I’ve seen it drive people mad. I’ve used volunteers. I’ve used a company called MPA Coaching, where they used to send French interns. So they would come and work six months to get their university degree. They would do social media, as an example. So if you bring in a volunteer for just three weeks, you don’t see any traction with them. But because they were here for six months, we could teach them what we wanted them to learn about social media.
“You have to make sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing, because the challenges that come with being a social founder, and the punches that are in front of you, you can only get through by loving it. That is the most important thing I’d say. There’s all the other advice about networking etc, and all the skills you’ll pick up as you go along. But do you love what you’re doing? If you do not love it, you will struggle to go forth."
“Love it. Finance. People”, Kofi summed up.
How Urban MBA Works and Alumni Success Stories
Accredited through SFEDI, Urban MBA offers four different courses for aspiring entrepreneurs. There are six, twelve and one year courses, which are all free. There is additionally a one day workshop session, recommended for corporate organisations and charities, which costs £495. As an example of the type of courses that Urban MBA runs, during the twelve-week course students learn about goal setting, the journey of successful entrepreneurs and they conduct research around their own entrepreneurial idea. They then create a product or service in its most minimal form, and present it to the group. After this, they work on creating a business plan, look into funding, and are given a reflection period where they refer back to their goals. Lastly, the students learn about outsourcing, digital media and marketing, and building websites.
There is a strong list of successful alumni from Urban MBA. One of their former students, Haji Tokyo, founded ‘Saint Giovanni de la Mode’, https://saintgiovani.co.uk/ a fashion brand based around the concept that fashion doesn’t age, but instead evolves across generations. Another alumna, Victoria Omobuwajo, has launched Sunmo Snacks, https://uk.sunmosnacks.com/ pioneering a snacking habit of plantain crisps, and a range of protein drinks.
Discussing everything above, it’s amazing to think that Kofi was once homeless. Enraged by him not having concrete plans, Kofi’s parents kicked him out of his house at the age of seventeen. Looking back at this thirty-three years later, Kofi spoke of how this gave him resilience:
“Resilience. I’m proud that I’ve managed to put together my experiences, which could have been a hindrance, to support people instead. I felt I was so lucky, with what happened to me being homeless, that I wanted to give back to the community and people like myself, who needed a reason to go on”, he told me.
Kofi worked at JD Sports and Nike as a Product Manager. In our meeting, he spoke of the invaluable experience this gave him:
“The question was, could I do it? [become a social founder] When I started going up the ladder at Nike, I knew that I could.”
It was heartwarming to see that Kofi recognises the good work he has done, and to see him remaining ambitious around what else he can achieve in the future.
“I’m proud that I’ve navigated through the area of finance that I always felt I had more difficulty in. I’m proud of the people that are coming out at the end of my courses, showing what we do is very viable, and is what we need for the future. My next proudest moment will be to write a White Paper around what we’ve done, and how we can help people in these communities. I want to create a template of how to better communities and local people, get them into the right things that will stop a lot of the problems we’re having”, Kofi said.
At Social Founders we are inspired by Kofi and excited to follow his founder journey going forward.
This feature was written in May 2022 by Joe Wooden, Communications and Research Officer at the Social Founder Network.
© Social Founder 2018