From social entrepreneurship to community development, Onyeka “Ony” Obiocha has made a significant contribution to the community in Hartford—and now New Haven. In February 2017, Ony was included in Connecticut Magazine’s “40 Under 40,” which recognizes young professionals who are making a difference in Connecticut.
A co-founder of Hartford startup Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, Ony is currently the Social Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment and InnovateHealth Yale. There, he is working to help connect students with entrepreneurial resources at Yale, accelerate social and environmental entrepreneurship across campus, and develop opportunities for community engagement.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Ony about the importance of community building and what it means to be a social entrepreneur.
NP: Congratulations on being recognized in the latest 40 Under 40. Connecticut Magazine referred to as a “social entrepreneur.” What does that identity mean to you?
OO: To me social entrepreneurship means leveraging business practices to create a positive, material social impact. If you ask 10 people that same question you’ll probably get 12 different answers, but that’s the definition I go by.
NP: You were noted as being one of the people at the forefront of the concept of forming bonds among people living in a community in Hartford.
OO: As much I appreciate Connecticut Magazine for such praise, I can’t claim myself, or Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, has been on the forefront of the community building movement in Hartford.
If anything, Breakfast Lunch & Dinner has been successful by building on the work that was done before our time—everyone from Hartford Denim Company holding bazaars at their Arbor Street location in 2014; Hartford Party Starters Union bringing Janelle Monae and Andrew W.K to Hartford in 2010; to Tim and Linda Wolfe hosting independent sold out shows in Bushnell Park decades ago.
For years, individuals and organizations in Hartford have been providing opportunities for people to form bonds through fun events. Where Breakfast Lunch & Dinner differs from our predecessors is through our ability to activate these bonds for a common goal. We believe if you get people in the same space (social engagement), you can create tighter community bonds (social cohesion), tighter community bonds will lead to individuals working together to better their community (collective action), resulting in social, economic, and sustainable community development.
My favorite example of this is BiciCo—working with Justin Eichenlaub, we helped grow Hartford Slow Roll, a biweekly organized bike ride around Hartford. Once people started to create bonds around biking they wanted more resources to pursue this hobby.
At the time there was no bike shop in Hartford, so Breakfast Lunch & Dinner developed BiciCo, a community bike shop built to fit the unique needs of Hartford bikers. From there, we reached out to the Center for Latino Progress (CLP) to use the empty retail space on the first floor as the physical location for BiciCo and for CLP to serve as the long-term community partner. In a span of less than two years we went from a couple people riding bikes around downtown Hartford, to raising over $9,000 and BiciCo becoming a thriving community resource
NP: What would you say is your strongest contribution to Breakfast Lunch & Dinner?
OO: It’s a tie between my ability to incorporate various viewpoints when creating a plan of action and my ability to incorporate a funny gif into any Slack conversation.
NP: How are you working to build those kinds of communities now that you’re in New Haven?
OO: During my time as a small business owner in New Haven I spoke with countless individuals who wanted to work with Yale but didn’t know how to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth. When I was hired at Yale I was ready to flip tables and make a case for the importance of working with the people who make this city great. But, when I got to Yale I was shocked by the number of students, faculty, and staff who genuinely wanted to use Yale resources to work with people in the community but just didn’t know where in to begin. After seeing the opportunities from both sides, I now work to build formal and informal connections between the two communities.
Outside of my job I’m on the Board of Cityseed, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide access to fresh, local food for all New Haven residents. The success of the KNOW GOOD Market taught me how effective food is in bringing people together, so Cityseed allows me to deploy those lessons learned into the New Haven community.
NP: Let’s talk about your startup experience prior to Yale University and Breakfast Lunch & Dinner.
OO: Prior to Yale and Breakfast Lunch & Dinner I was the co-founder of A Happy Life and the Happiness Lab along with Vishal Patel. A Happy Life was a coffee roasting company in Wallingford, CT that invested 100% of net profits into the communities where we sourced our coffee. The Happiness Lab was a coffee shop and community space in downtown New Haven that was recognized by the National Retail Federation as a retail outlet that exemplified excellence in careers, community, and innovation.
During my time at the University of Connecticut, I helped launch a startup tech company, but my time building A Happy Life and the Happiness Lab taught me a lot about resilience, passion, and the importance of listening—three attributes all entrepreneurs need to be successful.
NP: Do you have any advice for anyone who is launching a social entrepreneurship startup?
OO: The first thing I would say to anyone interested in launching a social enterprise is: Don’t do it. The startup culture has been romanticized to the point where few people truly understand the amount of grueling work it takes to even make the first dollar, much more grow a viable business imbued in social responsibility.
If the person is hardheaded enough to push forward, then I would say just listen. Listen to everyone, solicit advice from your 9-year-old cousin and 90-year-old grandma. Every perspective should be valued and taken into account; it doesn’t all have to be implemented, but it should be heard. If you listen to your customer and build something they would pay money for you have a business.
NP: What’s next?
OO: Nothing is really next; I’m just trying to do what I’ve been doing but better. Continue to listen, continue to learn, and continue to do the work I’m meant to do.
To learn more about Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, read our interview with Co-Founder Jeff Devereux: Hartford-Based Social Enterprise Startup Committed to Community