Kanya King CBE: Restoring the balance

In the Spring 2019 issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Stephen White spoke to one of the most formiddable and influential women in entrepreneurship

Now in its 23rd year, the annual MOBO (music of black origin) Awards has made household names of the likes of Stormzy, Emeli Sandé, Skepta and Ms Dynamite, simultaneously mainstreaming genres such as soul, RnB, urban and grime.

It’s part of a remarkable evolution that can be traced back to the exploits of one woman – Kanya King – who founded the Awards back in 1996.

Many business owners succeed by tapping into trends, but back then Kanya was creating something totally new. Through a blur of cool Britannia, she saw she saw a void in the music industry’s representation of certain forms in popular music at a time when the winners’ rostrum at the BRIT Awards was conspicuously indie-white.

While it was no time to talk about race and gender inequality, “there was a gradual realisation growing up of being surrounded by artists who were immensely talented but frustrated by the lack of awareness of their creativity,” Kanya says.

Initially ostracised for her ideas, Kanya organised and booked the inaugural MOBO Awards in just six weeks, even re-mortgaging her house to support TV production. It was a huge success that has led to the MOBOs becoming a regular fixture on the global A-lister’s calendar. But with no background or education in enterprise, how did she manage it?

Kanya explains: “There is a saying: ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’, and that very much rings true. The biggest challenge I faced was having no network in a completely new industry, which was daunting. Not having anyone with business experience to turn to for advice can be very isolating and lonely. In running a business, it is important to have people to share experiences with without feeling judged,” she says.

“It was tough to handle, but I prevailed; however difficult it was for me, it was nothing compared to what my parents had to go through.”

Early challenges

The youngest of nine, Kanya’s turbulent childhood in Kilburn, north London, shines a light on the mindset of an individual who would go on to become one of the UK’s leading business figures.

Her Ghanaian father, whose strong African accent attracted racist comments, died when Kanya was just 13, leaving her Irish mother struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Working to support the household finances gave Kanya “the inner drive and motivation to overcome the precarious life that being an entrepreneur can be.”

“I did not want the same rollercoaster for my own life,” Kanya says, but tougher tests were to come when, following the birth of her son, she was forced to drop out of school. What would make lesser individuals crumble only galvanised 16-year-old Kanya, who had been told by her careers adviser that she “might make manager at the local Sainsbury’s one day.” Unburdened by expectation, her ambition flourished, and Kanya went to Goldsmiths College to study English literature.

“I had enormous responsibilities at a young age so had to make different choices from my peers. At university, most students stayed in halls of residence, had fun and built friendships, whereas I had to rush home after lectures to pick up my son. I ended up getting kicked out of because I was not attending enough lectures. The combination of studying and holding a job took its toll.”

Hard work pays off

It was while working as a TV researcher and organising reggae and RnB gigs in London, that Kanya began to start thinking more seriously about creating an organisation that would define her career.

“We used to sit around my friend’s kitchen table and bounce ideas around. When you believe in something wholeheartedly, you use every opportunity to research and refine how you can make it work,” she remembers.

“I unknowingly met the MD of an ITV network at Highbury (Arsenal Football Club’s stadium at the time); I couldn’t resist telling him that I had this great TV idea. He asked me to send in a proposal and I immediately followed this up. A week later I was in a meeting with the head of entertainment pitching the show.”

Cultural evolution

The pitch was a success, as were the subsequent 22 years of the Awards’ history. But the MOBOs’ recognition for black and minority ethnic artistic talent today sends a message of inclusivity which surpasses commercial success.

“At the heart of the philosophy of MOBO lies the idea that music and creativity are powerful expressions of identity, capable of transcending racial and cultural division – an effective tool for social activism. I wanted to inspire others to step beyond what the world expects of them to pursue their own dreams and ambitions. I wanted every young person from every community, family, city to have an equal chance to progress in life.”

This ethic also informs Kanya’s outlook as an entrepreneur.

 

“Changing the status quo is an economic imperative because diversity is among the most important predictors of increased revenue and profitability. The drive for lasting impact should come from the entrepreneurial community.

“Business leaders need to stay ahead of the curve to survive. Agility is the ability to escape traps in the market by foreseeing how the landscape will be changed by new entrants. With new waves of start-ups coming in, the average lifespan of companies has dropped dramatically, so to still be around and relevant over two decades later is something we are not complacent about.”

The making of a business icon

Success has brought Kanya numerous academic titles, and she was named one of London’s Most Influential People by the London Evening Standard in 2011, among other accolades, but only an MBE put an end to her mother asking when Kanya would “get a proper job”. The MOBOs’ founder is more down to earth in identifying her breakthrough moment.

“[It] was when I realised that actually there is no right time to launch a business. It will happen when you make it happen regardless of the climate you are in and obstacles in your life.

“I have created most opportunities for myself having been unsuccessful in getting a job in the creative industries. Like a lot of jobs, it is dependent on who you know rather than what you know. Therefore, venturing out on my own and becoming entrepreneurial seemed like the only option to getting on.

“When I launched the MOBO Awards, I was told that there was not an audience for such an event, that the music industry would not get behind it, no-one would support it and that I was wasting my time and energy. I shut out all the noise and detractors and launched the concept at the Ministry of Sound with many artists supporting the concept, and said we needed the MOBOs to readdress the imbalance in music.

“We have some major plans to elevate our brand to a higher level and wider base by working with the top global companies out there. We want to leverage our intellectual property and focus on expanding our market via licensing our brand in different markets and segments. Licensing is one of the fastest and most powerful ways to expand the business working with partners for win-win opportunities. As to me personally doing this will free up my time and allow me to focus on my strengths, bring in more opportunities and leverage the brand. Exciting times overall!”

Lessons for future entrepreneurs

Aware of how the digital revolution has brought down the costs of setting up in business, Kanya says that more needs to be done to develop educational pathways so that our young entrepreneurial talent gets a chance to grow.

“I strongly believe in internships to gain business experience, financial education in schools and mentoring – things that will help young entrepreneurs. I have recently joined the New Entrepreneurs Foundation (NEF) in an advisory role which is doing just this. It is a not-for-profit organisation that runs development programmes for aspiring entrepreneurs, designed to support the next generation of UK entrepreneurs building new businesses.

“The programmes have several components including paid work placements, learning and development workshops, coaching, mentorships and a speaker series. As of now, NEF has developed nearly 200 entrepreneurial ventures of which over 60 remain active and with more than £10 million investment raised and over 600 jobs created,” she says.

Thinking back to the early careers advice she received, Kanya’s intrinsic self-belief and work ethic led her to succeed despite her formative years in education, not because of them, and this has turned her into a business role model in the purest sense. Her experiences are passed on in talks at schools and colleges, where she gives youngsters the supportive messages she never had.

“I started from humble beginnings with practically no guidance, financial or otherwise, yet have managed to build a global brand by being very driven and persistent, overcoming numerous challenges along the way. If I am a role model for female entrepreneurs, it is something I am proud of.”

Kanya advises: “Never lose faith in what you are doing – if you believe in something wholeheartedly, put all the necessary energy into it and stick to it until you either reach your goal or find out that you may want to pursue a different path. You need to know when to call it quits and when to double down and separate emotion and logic. Be passionate about the bigger picture and not about the little details.”

“Self-confidence is one of the most important elements for women entrepreneurs: stay positive and try to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances. Don’t be afraid of challenges and invest in personal growth and dreams.”

You can view the full, digital version of the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine here.