In January 2022, Onyeka (Ony) Obiocha stepped into a new role as Executive Director at CTNext. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Ony about why he’s a great fit for the job and his future goals.
NAN PRICE: How has your experience helped prepare you to step into this new role?
ONYEKA OBIOCHA: This job is all the things I really love. I remember many moons ago, writing myself a wish list of things I wanted in the next organization I worked for and CTNext checks off all the boxes.
Being able to operate at this level in my home state with individuals and organizations that I’ve come to honor, value, look up to, and fight the fight with is a beautiful opportunity. Plus, the team at CTNext includes some effective and caring people.
From starting my first startup at the University of Connecticut to working at a startup in Hartford to helping launch Breakfast Lunch & Dinner to launching A Happy Like social enterprise coffee roasting company to building out the entrepreneurial ecosystem at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale University to what I’m doing now, looking back, all my prior experience gave me the ability and confidence to execute at a high level. Overall, I’m fortunate and glad to be here.
NAN: What impact are you hoping to make in this new role?
ONY: Over the past five years, CTNext has done an incredible job in supporting and securing our region’s economic drivers, primarily in the Innovation Place regions: Hartford – insurance, Stamford – financial technologies, New London/Groton – blue tech/green tech, and New Haven – biotech.
It’s been incredible to see the growth and the cultivation and the intentionality that’s gone into these core economic drivers. My goal is to continue that work. And, as a continuation of that work, I see us developing what I would call “rings” outside of those primary sectors.
What does it mean for these ecosystems to be robust and to be effective? It needs to be dynamic and it needs to be diverse. For example, we have InsurTech in Hartford. CTNext, the ecosystem, and the state of Connecticut will always support that. But then what other actors are there, especially in Hartford?
The creative economy in Hartford is one of the most vibrant, underutilized and, quite frankly, underappreciated resources in the state. What does it mean to support the creative economy in different ways and across the state? I’m looking forward to providing resources for entrepreneurs to then take this and build it in their own way.
In terms of the impact I hope to make, I’m looking at how we can provide a continuum of care for sectors outside of those we’ve been supporting for so long. I think if we can do that well with an entrepreneurial focus, we’ll be where we need—and having that all steeped in servant leadership and values-based entrepreneurship and not just entrepreneurship for entrepreneurship’s sake. I think all those things are coming into mind as we’re looking at developing the next stage.
NAN: As you were mentioning the different Innovation Places I just thought of the word “silos.” Are you working to bridge some of those?
ONY: Absolutely. That’s very high on our priority list. Because of the work I did in Hartford and the work I was simultaneously doing at Yale, I have an interesting perspective on both ecosystems in a way I don’t think a lot of people do.
One of the goals is to provide an opportunity to break community silos and establish a more cohesive entrepreneurial ecosystem across the state—but also continue to leverage and acknowledge the unique assets in each geography. Being able to do both of those would be really exciting. And it’s something we’re being intentional in building out.
NAN: What’s first on your agenda and what’s next for CTNext?
ONY: First on my agenda is Innovation Places. It’s our flagship program and it’s a big reason why CTNext is here. I’m working with the staff to take a step back and look at all our programs in general and say: red light, yellow light, green light. What do we love about this? What do we want to continue? What are some things we want to edit and change? And what are some things we want to remove?
So, we’ll be doing a kind of internal audit looking back on the past five years and bringing some true measure and evaluation to it to see if we’re doing the things we said we were trying to do. We’re trying to get that done in the next six months before the new fiscal year so we can be effective and catalytic in how we plan to use the next round of money from the state.
Up next, I want CTNext to be an organization that’s as dynamic and nimble as the entrepreneurs who we hope to serve. Having been on the other side of CTNext for so long, I understand completely how people might view even a quasi-government organization as being sluggish and not meeting the needs of entrepreneurs and innovators, who are really the builders and creators we hope to empower.
Over the next six months, one year, 18 months, three to five years, I’m excited to do the work at the entrepreneurial level, grassroots level, and entrepreneurial ecosystem level in a way that aligns everything. A lot of what we’re going to do will be informed by entrepreneurs and, if they see themselves in the process, they will also see themselves in the wider mission and vision of our organization. It’s that ability to capture hearts and minds that I’m excited to lean into.
We need to have a shared vision, a shared mission across ecosystems. I always say, I want only want to work with people who are willing to fail with me. And I want to give people grace and latitude to do that. If we can come together, have some big and small experiments, see what Connecticut needs, and continue to build and iterate much like entrepreneurs do, I think we’ll be in a very good space.