The entrepreneur who’s reimagining stock photography to be as diverse as our world
Published on May 27, 2021
How TONL co-founder Karen Okonkwo became inspired to tell the stories of the real people behind the images.
Not long after moving to Seattle to start a job in medical sales 10 years ago, Karen Okonkwo started to feel like something was missing. Her new role gave her plenty of freedom and autonomy to explore the city, but she felt the lack of a strong friendship base. So she decided to start her own Meetup group.
“It was called Young, Black, and Beautiful in Seattle,” she recalls. “I was looking for other black girlfriends. In running that group, it allowed me to experiment with putting on events. A friend of mine said, ‘You're so great at putting events on, you should start a business.’ ”
Soon after, Karen took the first step on her journey as an entrepreneur, launching Party with a K. As successful as that venture was, Karen knew her passion wasn’t limited to event planning. “What really lit my fire was the independence,” she says. What’s more, she discovered she didn’t just want to make money—she wanted to make an impact.
She found the perfect intersection of independence, income, and impact with the launch of TONL, the ground-breaking stock photography company she co-founded with Joshua Kissi, a famed photographer and one of the creative visionaries behind Street Etiquette, a popular street style blog from the late aughts.
Unlike the cheesy stock images of (mostly) white people we gloss over daily, TONL provides an archive that’s as striking as it is inclusive in its depictions of the world around us. And in the Narratives section of the site, they provide a journalistic perspective, adding depth and context to the images by telling the stories of the individuals featured, including leaders of multicultural households, people living with a disability, and members of the LGTBQIA+ community learning to rise above discrimination.
Karen knew her passion wasn’t limited to event planning. “What really lit my fire was the independence,” she says.
We spoke with Karen to learn about her evolution as an entrepreneur, the inspiration behind TONL, and their mission to change cultural misperceptions.
Many passion economy entrepreneurs talk about their love for a craft or creative activity that propels their work. What’s the fuel that keeps you focused and motivated?
KO: My ‘Why’ is to serve the underserved. That really manifested itself in the event planning. From there, I started to get more into blogging. That segued into starting another business with my sorority sisters called The Sorority Secrets. It was through The Sorority Secrets that I became more aware of how I was operating subconsciously.
What I mean by that is, our content was really rich. It was basically sharing secrets of beauty and fashion, told through the eyes of sorority women. However, I was called out and told that I didn't have any black or brown people on my site. That was the start of my awakening and my awareness of just how white the media is—how imagery and movies and TV shows that we've all grown up to see have always been catered to a white-centric viewpoint. That's actually what led me to start opening up my mind more to possibilities and how to solve that.
How did that awakening change the way you think as you’re developing a new business?
KO: I think we as a society are starting to realize that our consumers are holding us accountable. You and your business have to have a soul. You have to have an ethos. You have to have something you stand for. What I've learned through taking a stand and trying to solve that issue is that when you are neglecting these things that are so important, that need to be solved, you in turn are actually not helping your business. You're going to be a part of what we call cancel culture.
“We as a society are starting to realize that consumers are holding us accountable. You and your business have to have a soul. You have to have something you stand for.”
Companies can no longer just do the status quo or do what has been done before. They actually have to be more critical about how they are implementing diverse voices and diverse faces. That, honestly, is what is always going to lead me in anything that I do. Do I have all the right people in the room? Does everybody look the same? Does everybody think the same? That's not progressive. That's not what the world is turning to or what the world looks like now. That's the number one thing that I take away whenever I'm considering any new venture.
I’d love to learn about your collaborative process. How did you and Joshua Kissi meet and begin the conversation about a different kind of stock photography company?
KO: TONL was derived through a connection that Joshua and I both had with his now wife, who is my best friend, Mekdes Kissi. She was dating Josh, and I learned that he was a famous photographer—very well known, especially from Street Etiquette, [the creative agency] he started over 11 years ago with Travis Gumbs. I looked at his work. I thought it was great. I had just gotten off of being called out for not having Black and brown people on my site. And I was very frustrated that when I was looking online to solve that problem, I couldn't.
At least a year had gone by when that situation happened, but it was still at the forefront of my mind. So here I am seeing a photographer who does great work, especially with Black and brown subjects. Here’s this need that I remember from my own experience. Let me approach him and see if he would be interested in this opportunity. Not because I wanted to do it, but again, because I felt like it was a need that needed to be filled, and I felt he could do it.
Stock photography has a bad rap. It's corny. It's cheesy. It's stale. It's very homogeneous. So he's like, ‘I’ll only do it if you do it with me.’ Now, as I'd mentioned, I already had my corporate job in medical sales. I had the party planning business. I had my women's group. So I was at capacity. We decided that we weren't going to pursue it.
About seven months later, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered by the police. Instead of the news talking about how they were brothers and fathers and esteemed figures in their community, the news was painting a different story of them being villains. That got under our skin. So we re-engaged. We said, ‘Hey, remember that idea? Let's do it. Now's the time for us to take back our stories. Take back our narratives. Showcase who our community really is, and also stand up for underrepresented and misrepresented communities that don't have a platform.’ So that is how we came together in 2016. Then we ended up launching TONL a year later, after we did our own market research.
How do you keep your stock photos from seeming staged?
KO: Great question. When we were doing our market research for a year, one of the things that we wanted to make sure that we did is, we wanted our images to go beyond just a blog or news site. We wanted it to actually feel like it could land on an Instagram page, that a regular user would use it to express themselves. So we took time to create a filter, to make sure that it was modern [and] of the times.
We also make sure that when we are having these photo shoots, it isn't ‘Snap, snap, snap—Bye!’ It's a conversation. We learn more about who they are. A lot of our narratives that we have aren't even narratives that we came up with necessarily. It's because in conversation, we've learned such unique things about our subjects that we're like, ‘Oh, we want to highlight you.’
So we take our time. When you do that, you can actually see the difference in the emotions and pictures because everything you're seeing is actually genuine and authentic. We also tell our subjects to come as you are. We don't have makeup artists or hairstylist or fashion stylist. It's come as you are with no logos and things that can prohibit it being a stock photo. But it makes people feel more comfortable and at ease. So those are the things that we've done to make sure that we stay of the times and we're progressive in the way that we showcase our imagery.
“We take our time. When you do that, you can actually see the difference in the emotions and pictures because everything you're seeing is actually genuine and authentic.”
Could you talk about the development of the Narratives section of your site? What inspired you to tell the stories about the real people behind the photos?
KO: We are all about authenticity. We have a motto which is ‘Story over stock.’ Basically, it's the humanity of people because, yeah, you can go on a stock photo site and you can pull a picture of somebody and use it. But how much better would it be if you understood what culture that person represents, what their story is?
We’ve had people email us saying, ‘Because of your narratives, I found a better way to use that image. I’m actually using it authentically.’ That was really important for us—for you to walk away feeling like you've learned something new. Because the more you learn about people that don't look like you, the more empathy you have. I think what society is missing is empathy. Though we have the internet, we have planes and buses and trains to allow you to travel, many people stay within their four corners and develop their own thoughts. But perhaps you would adjust your mindset if you were exposed. So our site is an opportunity for you to see a trans woman, to see somebody disabled living their life, to see somebody who is not the typically centered body type. Even that is not a real thing—the typical body types are varying body types. So that is the point of our Narratives—to help you connect on a humanity level.
What characteristics do you look for in your collaborators?
KO: I really believe in partnerships. Sometimes people ask me, ‘When I start a business, should I do it by myself or should I have a partner?’ I personally feel like there's more value in bringing two or more heads together. But the value stands in where they have their level of expertise. I'm not going to sit here and expect Josh to be the most refined when it comes to business operations. That's not what he’s focused on. He's a creative. He's an expert in photography, in the curation of photo shoots. That's his niche in our business model. That's where he stays. For me, I'm more in business development, looking for new business, marketing, some daily operations.
We, of course, have some overlap, in that we have individual relationships with many people in the industry. So we know how to bring those conversations together and push those forward. But I don't dabble into the photography and curation of shoots too much, and he doesn't dabble too much into the marketing and business development. So I think that’s what makes a great partnership is allowing people to sit within their strengths, and not harbor on their weaknesses. Find another person who can fill that or do what you think is best within your own strengths. Wherever there's a weakness, you just fill that with yourself if you think that you can do it or with a third party. That's what makes the best collaboration.
And you were able to do that when you were living on opposite coasts? Has your entire business been remote from the start?
KO: Yeah. We started off actually on Skype. We use Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom. One thing that we always did is, we made sure that we were traveling to each other’s cities at least three or four times a year.. I’d go to New York twice, and Joshua would come to Seattle twice to be in person. So there definitely was an in-person element to our business relationship.
“The more you learn about people that don't look like you, the more empathy you have.”
Do you feel like you can work with anyone, anywhere in the world, because of your experience working remotely?
KO: Oh, yeah. 100%. We didn't need to make an adjustment [during the pandemic]. We were already doing this. So we fell right into it nicely. A lot of these companies had just started to get used to understanding how to put things together via Zoom. A lot of people needed content online. So we were just really blessed because we were equipped already.
What kind of technology do you rely on for remote collaboration?
KO: I love Dropbox, because Dropbox has allowed our photographers who are remote to be able to create shared folders to put their content in that we use on our site. It’s so robust. It's smooth. It's clean. It's not just the photos that they can put in there—it's documentation. When it comes to models, we need to be able to say, ‘Okay, we have the model release form for this person.’ We haven't been able to find any other platform that makes it easy and simple for us.
I love the mentoring videos you created for your site Karensthoughts.co. Could you talk about why mentoring is important to you and who your most influential mentors are?
KO: I felt passionate about creating that site because as people see your success, they want a piece of that. And there's only so much of you that you can share before you become depleted yourself. So I created that content as a one-stop shop for people. I basically feel like, show me your mentor, and I'll show you your future. That's what I always tell people. When you want to get to the next level, you can't consult yourself. You're not equipped. You don't have that expertise.
The reason why I was able to step away from medical sales, and do TONL full time is because one of my mentors—Lance Azucena—showed me the different ways of making money. I had to stop trading my time in for a paycheck. Basically, creating small businesses and being an employee—nothing wrong with it, but it wasn't what I wanted because I was trading my time for a paycheck. As opposed to passive income, where you’re investing in a big business, you're scaling through people or through money.
When I understood that, I said, ‘Okay, I need to create a subscription model when it comes to TONL because that's ongoing cash flow.’ But I wouldn't have known any of that if I had not had a mentor who had done that and had been exposed to that, to share with me and show me the way. Knowledge is power, but knowledge on ice means nothing. You need somebody who can actually walk you through the maze and say, ‘Oh, turn left there. Turn right there.’ I don't like consulting myself. I'm not the expert, I got to get to the person who's gone to the next level, and the next level the next level. So that's the power in mentorship. I believe in it so much.
“Figure out your ‘why.’ If you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, you'll burn out.”
If you could offer one piece of advice to first-time entrepreneurs starting a new business this year, what would you tell them?
KO: I would tell them to figure out your ‘why.’ Because the money means nothing. The fame, the attention means nothing. If you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, you'll burn out. You'll quit. You won't have a legacy business because you went in it for the wrong reason.
Really sit and think about what is it that you are hoping to achieve out of this. Is this serving your bigger purpose? If it isn't, then maybe it just isn't a vehicle that needs to be public. Maybe it just can be a little passion project. Like when it comes to my party planning business, at first, that was something that was just a small business. Then I realized, it really is just a hobby.
When you have a hobby mentality, you are at ease because you don't care about the outcome. But when you're purpose driven in your business, you're doing it because there's a greater ‘why’ there that's pushing you. So you’ve got to figure that out first. Then take your time. Don't compare your beginning to somebody else's middle. You’ve got to go through your own journey. That testimony is going to be your unique testimony. It's going to make you stand out. There's enough room for you.