Kela Ivonye’s story is all about connections – finding them, building them and nurturing them.
As an international student from Nigeria, the connections he found with UofL faculty, staff and fellow students led him down a path of entrepreneurship and activism. His drive to build connections in the business world resulted in the creation of multiple successful startups.
Now, Ivonye ’12, ’15 is using his skills and success to nurture others. His latest venture is Protégé, a nonprofit to support Black entrepreneurs. The 20-week learning experience matches founders with mentors called super founders and asks those super founders to contribute at least $20,000 to their mentees’ ideas.
“I knew that in venture capital, Black founders get like 2% or 4% of ventures, and that’s just ridiculous. It’s so tiny,” he said. “So I thought, ‘wait, why don’t we have a mentorship program where we’re getting these founders and connecting them with other founders who have done this before – who can really give back to help these new founders build wealth? As we build wealth we can solve some of this problem.”
Ivonye’s first foray into entrepreneurship began with holiday gifts of gaming consoles when he was growing up in Nigeria.
“My uncles bought me Game Boys the same Christmas, and so I ended up with three Game Boys,” he said. “I was 12, so I took them to boarding school and I rented them out.”
He saw an opportunity and he took it – and that attitude has repeated throughout his entire career. While earning his master’s degree in urban planning, Ivonye worked at a local restaurant and told his manager that adding delivery would increase the customer base. From that idea grew his first successful startup, Arrow Food Couriers.
Ivonye used his undergraduate background in geographic information system (GIS) software and a connection with a UofL law student to help him map out super-localized food delivery and create a viable business plan. They also recruited eight Speed School of Engineering students to create an app for a capstone project.
Eventually, Tapingo purchased the contracts Arrow Food Couriers established with multiple local businesses. Ivonye’s next big idea was Mailhaven, a smart-mailbox company that tracked and secured packages for customers. Mailhaven was acquired by technology company Luxer One in 2019.
Through his efforts, Ivonye continued to grow his network, although it was a struggle at times.
“Even at my second company, even though I had an acquisition, it was still hard raising money,” he said. “Me being a Black guy, my network was not as big. I had to fight to get my network.”
Building that network gave him the experience he needed to help support others. Through Protégé, his connections have become the connections of other Black founders.
Ivonye’s drive to better the Black community also grew through connections he found at UofL. While he thinks the university has room to improve when it comes to diversity matters, he said UofL provided a safe space for him and others to protest after the death of Trayvon Martin. At one of those protests, he met Mordean Taylor-Archer, the former vice provost for diversity and international affairs, with whom he shared his story and goals. Taylor-Archer offered him a diversity scholarship – partially funded from her own pocket – that allowed him to continue his education. Ivonye was also inspired by a former College of Arts and Sciences dean, the late Blaine Hudson.
“UofL created an atmosphere where it allowed you to try,” he said.
Taylor-Archer was not the only one to see a spark in Ivonye.
“He’s one of the most tenacious humans I’ve ever met,” said Natalia Bishop, UofL’s director of innovation and entrepreneurship. “His mentality is always ‘how am I paving the way’ and that’s not super common sometimes.”
Bishop and Ivonye are both entrepreneurs in residence with Amplify Louisville, a state-funded organization that supports startups. With similar backgrounds – both are immigrants; Bishop is from Colombia – they found themselves with parallel goals to increase entrepreneurship opportunities in their adopted home of Louisville. While Ivonye centers on Black entrepreneurs and Bishop focuses on Latinx and female entrepreneurs, they provide their mentorship and expertise to anyone with an idea who needs help to get it off the ground.
“It’s great work that is driving real change, and the change that is happening is quantifiable,” Bishop said. “One of the things that is most difficult is how you leverage your personal resources for others and how you pull others up.”
That’s an area in which Ivonye excels, Bishop said.
“Kela brings value to all his relationships,” she said. “He’s not afraid to make that introduction for you, to make sure you’re putting yourself out there. He will make sure you’re in a position to execute what it is that you say you’re going to execute.”
Ivonye’s introductions through Protégé have been directly responsible for matching seven founders with their super founder mentors, resulting in over $1 million in direct investments so far. Additionally, those founders have used what their mentors taught them to go out and raise an additional $38.5 million in seed funding.
He has also been working his own business relationships to provide Protégé with funding to pass that support along to the entrepreneurs.
“We’re pairing these people up with good mentors, I’m meeting with them, we’re helping them out there and we’re seeing success,” he said. “My own mentor decided to anchor a $1 million fund for me so when we accept you into the program and a mentor invests, Protégé can also invest.”
Investing and connecting both lead to doing, Ivonye believes, and that’s how he plans to boost his community, city and beyond.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve had people tell me ‘You have to do something about it,’’ he said. “So that’s what I say: You cannot speak about it. You have to do something about it.”