Onyeka Obiocha is a man who loves what he does. He introduces himself with a handshake as Ony, and his relaxed demeanor and easy smile belie a highly motivated spirit. When asked about his role at Dwight Hall, his own ventures, or his thoughts on Yale’s entrepreneurship community, his eyes light up, and in conversation, he shows a deep commitment towards improving the world around him and helping others do the same.
Obiocha came to Dwight Hall as a young but experienced social entrepreneur. His interest in social entrepreneurship began at the age of ten, when he spent a year living in his parents’ native Nigeria. Over the course of that year, he saw what it was like to live in extreme poverty, and realized how lucky he was to have grown up in the United States. He had always been interested in business, but he says that seeing his malnourished first cousins “struck a nerve,” and after that, his focus shifted towards making a positive social impact.
As an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, Obiocha worked with a small social entrepreneurship program that consulted for Special Olympics International. As the only undergraduate on a team of four, he had to learn fast, but he says that the experience prepared him “to achieve at a high level.” Later in college, he started a business that he describes as “Amazon Smile before Amazon Smile,” and although he doubts that he ran it well, he says that it gave him valuable experience that he later used in a corporate social responsibility role at a startup.
Obiocha’s current venture started three years ago when his business partner, Vishal Patel, approached him with an idea for a socially responsible coffee shop. Obiocha originally doubted the idea because the coffee shop space is so crowded, but when he realized that a niche existed in the market for a coffee shop with “the DNA of morality embedded” in its ethos, he started working with Patel. Today, the Happiness Lab at the corner of State and Chapel serves as a coffee shop and incubator for businesses and community programs alike.
At Yale, Obiocha’s role spans many different areas. A typical day starts at the Center for Business and Environment (CBEY), a SOM/FES joint venture, and continues on to InnovateHealth Yale, a health-focused social entrepreneurship program run out of the School of Public Health. He then ends up at Dwight Hall, helping students who want to start social ventures or who are interested in social enterprise.
Obiocha sees his role at Dwight Hall as a connector between students who have ideas and the resources at Yale and in New Haven that can help make those ideas a reality. To this end, he currently spends much of his time working on the Social Innovation Lab (SIL), a new Dwight Hall program launching in January. Obiocha sees the SIL as a complement to existing Yale entrepreneurial programs like the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s Venture Creation Program and Summer Fellowship, since the SIL will work with earlier-stage ventures. His goal with the SIL is to give budding social entrepreneurs the tools they need to succeed and make a difference in their communities, and he says that the SIL will work with anyone with “the passion and drive and the desire to see change.”
Although Obiocha is someone for whom entrepreneurship has been deeply influential, his primary advice for prospective entrepreneurs is to not do it. Obiocha says that every entrepreneur should do a gut check, since “this is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.” However, if they still want to work on their venture, he advises them to “listen to as many people as you can,” even if they worry about people stealing their idea. He believes that the best thing that a prospective entrepreneur can do is to get their idea in front of as many people as possible and just listen, and after that, he says that entrepreneurs should “build something that people want to interact with.”
Obiocha says that students at Yale should take advantage of the brilliant people all around them, particularly faculty and staff. From Peter Boyd, the executive-in-residence at the Center for Business and the Environment, to Jennifer McFadden and Kyle Jensen, professors at the School of Management, Obiocha would tell Yale students to talk to the faculty, since “there’s so much expertise at the faculty level.”
At the end of the day, Obiocha’s mission is to build an ecosystem around social entrepreneurship. He cites the work that Cass Walker has done at the Center for Business and the Environment for getting this movement off the ground, and he wants every Yale student to have access to the resources they need to make a difference, because “when we’re talking about social ventures, we want people who have been directly affected by a lot of these hardships to be the people who come in and solve the problems.” He acknowledges that much work has yet to be done, but as with everything else he does, Obiocha is optimistic.
“We’re trying to do some crazy things here, and we want a lot of people to be a part of it.”