To help make starting up easier, AXA have created the AXA Startup Angel competition to give two worthy businesses the funding and support they need to get the best possible start in their new business ventures.

Alongside £25,000 funding to get their business off the ground and business insurance in their first year from AXA, the two winners will receive mentoring and support from the AXA Startup Angels: Holly Tucker MBE of Not On The High Street; Ian and Henry, co-founders of BOSH!; and Raphael Sofoluke, founder of the UK Black Business Show and the UK Black Business Week.

Here, Raphael speaks to AXA about his startup business journey and reveals why he’s backing AXA Startup Angel to find the UK’s next business success story.


Hi Raphael! Can you start by giving us a quick rundown of who you are and what you do?

I’m Raphael Sofoluke and I’m the founder and visionary behind the UK Black Business Show. It’s the biggest business show in the UK and Europe for black business owners and professionals. This year I’m expanding on the success of the UK Black Business Show, so we’re launching the first ever UK Black Business Week for black entrepreneurs, professionals and allies of the black community. I’m very passionate about diversity and inclusion in all forms.


Can you describe what led to the creation of the UK Black Business Show? How did the idea first come about?

So I was working on an exhibition in my previous role. It was a huge exhibition, huge banks and financial companies would exhibit and thousands of people attended. And it dawned on me that there was nothing like this for the black community. The feedback from my peers was that they didn’t have a space to connect with like-minded black entrepreneurs and professionals. And not only that, but the events I attended also lacked diversity, whether that was on the speaker panels, the audiences or the businesses exhibiting. So I wanted to change that, and I created the UK Black Business Show to inspire and connect black business owners and professionals.


Was there a moment when you knew this was going to be really successful?

Each year has doubled in size, both in terms of exhibitors and attendees. So 2017 we had 25 exhibitors and 500 attendees. The second year we doubled, so we had 57 exhibitors and 1500 attendees. And in 2019 we had 110 exhibitors and 2500 attendees. Then in 2019 I was invited to attend Downing Street and the show was featured on the BBC and ITV, so I was still juggling it with my work at that time but I knew then that it had legs to grow.


When you’re managing a business as a side hustle and you have a full-time job as well, how do you juggle that?

It’s manic. I can’t say I was juggling it amazingly well to be honest. It was tough. A lot of hard work and sleepless nights. I was doing 9 to 5 at work then probably doing 6pm to 1am on the UK Black Business Show, then getting up and going to work again.

One thing I can say to entrepreneurs is that a lot of people are so quick to quit their day job as soon as they start their business. But for me, working in my job actually helped me to develop my own show outside of work. So if you’re working in an industry but building your own business in a similar industry, it can be even better than going full time with your business. All the experts who are in that industry are there to learn from. Don’t feel you have to jump too quickly. Learn from as many people as you can.


Can you talk a bit about the importance of creating a space for yourself and others in business? How do you build a brand?

I think some of the best entrepreneurs have created spaces out of frustration, and turning frustration into inspiration. The UK Black Business Show was born out of that. The inability to network with other black professionals. People like Jan Koum from Whatsapp as well, he was frustrated about not being able to message well.

When it comes to building a brand, it’s about being authentic. Authenticity is key. That not only relates to your business but to your personal branding. Whether it’s a business or a person, people can sense authenticity. So it’s important that your brand portrays that when you’re starting up.


So do you think the idea of ‘fake it until you make it’ is a myth?

I think when we’re talking about things like imposter syndrome, there’s definitely something in that where you can fake it until you make it. So realising when you go into rooms that you deserve to be there. Whatever your job title is. If it’s Head of Marketing, that’s what you are. Realise that. So in terms of that I think you can fake it until you make it to help you get over your imposter syndrome. But I think being genuine and authentic when you start up, and growing naturally in time is good.


How important is it for entrepreneurs to have a solid network and contact base? Can you talk a little about the importance of collaboration?

Networking and collaboration is key, whether you’re an entrepreneur or a working professional. And one thing to remember when networking is not just to think about yourself. It needs to be two ways. So when you look at relationships, it’s two people helping each other out. When it gets to a point in a relationship where one person is giving so much more than the other, they start to feel a way and sometimes that relationship can break down. So it’s important to realise that when you’re networking and collaborating.

And a great quote is ‘No man is an island’. As humans, we can’t do everything by ourselves. No one ever got to the top by themselves. So networking and collaboration is 100% key.


The UK Black Business Show brings people together to learn from each other and connect. How did the pandemic affect people’s ability to connect and what do you think the future looks like for businesses as a result?

Every business has felt the impact of the pandemic. Networking and the technology around us has certainly jumped forward a few years because of the pandemic – software like Zoom, Teams and Hangouts which people didn’t really use to the same extent are really thriving at the moment. However, it's important not to disregard the importance of face to face interaction and meetings. There are stats about business meetings having higher close rates when they’re done in person. With the UK Black Business Show, we moved our show to 2021, not because we couldn’t deliver in 2020, but because certain aspects of the show we wanted to deliver in person and we could not replicate this.


As a result of the pandemic, do you think there will be more and more people starting their own businesses and going it alone?

I would say so, yes. There are many people I’ve spoken to over the course of the pandemic who said that, as tragic as these events have been, it really propelled them to do the things they should have done a long time ago. I have a friend who said they wanted to start a photography business for so long and they put it off because they didn’t know how to start a photography business, or thought it wasn’t possible to support their kids and family from it. And now he’s taking a chance on that. And more people will take that path too. Many people will have lost their jobs or their businesses to the pandemic, so I do think people will use this as an opportunity to start something new. To go down a new path.

I think a lot of people are moving towards a hybrid approach. In the future I think we’ll utilise both digital and face to face, because there’s been a lot of success with that. There have been a lot of successful events during the year, so digital will be added into a lot more marketing plans as well as events moving forward.


Do you think we’ll see new types of businesses starting up as a result of the pandemic?

100%. I think during the last recession quite a lot of businesses started up that are hugely successful now. So I do see that as a result of this pandemic there will be a number of businesses that have been created. Especially new digital businesses that will help us to continue to connect with one another.


What are you looking for in the entries to the Startup Angel competition? What would stand out in a submission?

I’m looking for unique ideas. I want to see what problem people are solving. What’s the pain point that you’re looking to solve within your industry? How are you going to disrupt your industry? I’m a creative thinker so I’m looking to see creative ideas. So it doesn’t have to be the finished article, but the basis of something that can have an impact in your community.


Do you think people need to have a fully formed business plan or marketing plan, or is it more about having a spark of an idea or some energy?

It just has to be an idea. I remember that I didn’t have it together at first. I didn’t have a fully formed idea or vision when I started. In fact I remember there were huge holes in my plan that I didn’t know about at first. But luckily there were people around me who were able to help me fill those holes. I knew the sales part, I knew the marketing, but I didn’t know the operations, so I had an operations manager to help. And if they weren’t there and that didn’t happen, maybe it would have been a huge failure. It could have been like Fyre Fest! Looked amazing, the branding was great, but then they turned up and people were like ‘oh my gosh’. But having the basis is important and having that structure from the beginning is important.


When it comes to mentoring, what type of mentor are you? What do you want people to come away with after a mentoring session with you?

I think I’m someone who’ll help you make sure you hit your goals. I’ll hold you accountable. But I’m also a big thinker, so I’ll push you to think outside of your comfort zone. But think creatively and think outside of the box.

And what I would like them to take away from my session with them is that anything is possible.


Business funding made easier with AXA Startup Angel

At AXA, we're committed to helping small businesses achieve their full potential. That's why we created the AXA Startup Angel competition, which helps support two new businesses every year with £25,000 funding, mentoring from business experts and business insurance too, so we can help set you up for success.


AXA brings you Startup Angel in partnership with Heart. Hear from the other AXA Startup Angels here: