October marks the beginning of Black History Month in the United Kingdom (UK). Beginning in the UK in 1987 and mirrored after the celebration in America, Black History Month has been a way to pay homage to innovative and trailblazing folks across the African diaspora.
In this spirit, Raphael Sofoluke launched UK Black Business Show to highlight the ways in which Black professionals are specifically excelling in the arena of entrepreneurship. Over the course of a week, Sofoluke and team have beautifully curated an extensive offering of engaging panels, networking mixers and workshops that provide deep insight into what it takes to be viably successful and sustainable in business from the lens of Black entrepreneurs. Simultaneously, many of the best brands and companies in the world — such as Burberry, JP Morgan, Amex, Ralph Lauren—are convening at UK Black Business Show as exhibitors to make tangible connections with the UK's Black community in a major way.
Prior to this introspective week-long event. Sofoluke spoke with EBONY about his vision to create space for Black entrepreneurs to thrive and elevate their respective businesses.
EBONY: How did your entrepreneurship journey begin?
Raphael Sofoluke: I launched the UK Black Business Show in 2017, and now it's the biggest business show in the UK — in Europe — for Black business owners and professionals. We really just wanted to create a space for Black entrepreneurs and professionals to network in a large-scale environment. When I was attending shows — whether it was the audience, the speakers, or the sponsors — they all lacked Black representation and diversity in general. Because of this, I really wanted to create a platform for myself where I could meet like-minded entrepreneurs and professionals. The UK Black Business Show has pretty much doubled in size each year. We went from holding the event in a space with 25 stands and 510 attendees to now expecting over 6,000 a day and 15,000 attendees across the span of the entire week. We now work with some of the biggest partners and sponsors in the world such as JPMorgan, AmEx and Ralph Lauren to not only make sure they're seen as employers of choice for Black talent but also help them in terms of their talent, attraction and recruitment to level the playing field for Black entrepreneurs as well. That's how I fell into this space but overall I just really wanted to create that space and platform for black business owners and professionals.
You co-authored Twice As Hard: Navigating Black Stereotypes and Creating Space for Success. In your journey in writing the book, creating spaces for Black business owners and entrepreneurs, what are ways in which you feel that Black business owners have had to be twice as hard, especially in the realm of entrepreneurship in the UK?
Yes, this book includes exciting people from the UK and US, such as Matthew Knowles, Arlan Hamilton, professors from Howard University, and so many other great entrepreneurs. What my wife and I realized prior to writing the book is that the struggles of Black entrepreneurs and professionals in both countries are different but interconnected. A problem that coexists in both spaces is the lack of access to finance to ensure that Black businesses can stay around long enough. It's one thing to have a good idea, but if you're not able to find resources to support that good idea, then it's pretty much pointless. This is largely due to the kind of systemic racism that hinders Black entrepreneurs from getting funding for several different things as well. So these are examples of how Black business owners have it twice as hard in the UK entrepreneurial space.
Given that this event is the first of its kind in the UK, what has the weight of the responsibility of creating an opportunity for Black entrepreneurs felt like in creating UK Black Business Week and UK Black Business Show?
I think that's a great question, and it's a question that I've never been asked before, funnily enough. As you can imagine, it is a huge weight. When I created this, I just wanted to network with Black entrepreneurs and professionals. But year after year, it became clear that it was even more important to everyone else. At one point, it wasn't my full-time job, and I was doing it part-time, so it was tiring. One of the key things that helped me and kept me going was that people would come to this show once a year, and it would change their lives. They would meet a business partner, potentially find new jobs there, and ultimately become inspired. Regardless of whether it was making a profit in the beginning, I knew that it was a burden I needed to carry on because people needed it. My motto is executing with excellence, and that's what we do with the UK Black Business Show. We can prove that it's not just one of the best Black business events you've gone to; it's one of the best business events you've been to, period. So, we are making sure that everything about our show is seamless. For us, it's about how we can make an impact, connect our partners worldwide, and connect the Black business community.