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This Blogger Couldn’t Find Stock Images of People of Color. Now She’s Changing the Faces of Stock Photography

Meet the company that is bringing people of color to the forefront of the stock photography industry, one shutter click at a time.

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BY Sarah Jackson - 08 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

For Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi, the back to back shooting deaths of two African American men in July 2016 were wake-up calls--giving them the final impetus to start a business that they say could, at least in part, help right some of the wrongs they have seen in their own lives: namely, online imagery that favors heterosexual white people.

The result is Tonl, pronounced "tonal" and referring to a person's skin tone, a Seattle-based stock photography company that specializes in diverse imagery. The goal, say Okonkwo and Kissi, is to give people of color greater representation online, as well as to provide web creators images that they say reflect a truer picture of the world.

"We really just saw an opportunity to change the narrative of imagery through those unfortunate circumstances," Kissi says.

It's a "worthwhile idea" that's "well executed," says Phil Libin, the co-founder of Evernote and an Inc. 2018 Rising Stars judge. It's also perfectly of this moment. In the age of Black Lives Matter and diversity ratings in the workplace, the idea of helping people broadcast more diverse imagery seems well timed.

Already, the founders say they're having an impact. After launching in August of 2017 and being in business for just five months, Tonl took in nearly $47,000 in revenue. Okonkwo and Kissi say that number is expected to more than triple in 2018 thanks to recent partnerships with companies like Popsugar, Sundial Brands, and even Google for a series of photos featuring Chromebook laptops.

Changing Views

The idea for TONL came to Okonkwo after she had difficulty finding photos of women of color for her blog, the Sorority Secrets. Though she ran the idea by Kissi, whom she met in early 2016, nothing materialized. He is a photographer and co-founder of the New York-based creative agency Street Etiquette. And Okonkwo's blog ate up just some of her time; she was also juggling a job in medical sales and a party-planning service, both of which she still does today.

Then, around seven months later, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were both shot by police officers, reignited the idea. And the two entrepreneurs got to work.

One of Kissi's mentors, Andy Comer, says he remembers the first time Kissi and Okonkwo told him about their plans for Tonl. "That's one of those ideas where it's like, 'Why hasn't anyone thought of that yet?'" says Comer, who is vice president of marketing and creative services at Tommy Bahama. "The fact that they're sort of introducing a corrective to the representational side is amazing, but I'm equally excited about the fact that they're doing stock photography that's actually artful and beautiful, and I think there's a need for that too."

The company groups its photos into eight categories based on their content: taste, technology, today, tone, tradition, travel, trend, and trust. Customers can purchase photos for $20 each a la carte or they can opt in to one of Tonl's three monthly subscription plans, which cost as much as $105 per month for 75 images. The founders report just 39 subscribers, but the number of a la carte users is unknown. The company also works with about seven contractors who do everything from snap pictures to manage customer sales and marketing.

Growing Pains

It's still early days for Tonl, which must compete with industry giants like Shutterstock and Getty Images. "Our biggest challenge is always going to be getting the word out, especially with those household names," says Okonkwo.

Even so, the wind is shifting. People are searching online for more for inclusive terms, from "African-American" to "disability." In the first quarter of this year, Kissi notes that those terms have popped up in more than 10,000 searches on Google, and Tonl consistently appears on the first results page of searches for "diverse stock photography." The company has also launched initiatives like Tonl Live, which showcases photographers' live-event photos.

Okonkwo and Kissi expect to gain even more traction--and to hopefully quit their day jobs sometime soon. "We really want to become the image standard of what diversity looks like," Kissi says.

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