Young Change Makers: Why and How Okezue Bell of The Knowledge Society Is Helping To Change Our World
Make more friends. Once you have friends, it also becomes difficult to make new ones, but growing your network is crucial to your success. I personally use LinkedIn super often, which helps me get more opportunities, and connect with people who connect me with the people that I want to talk to, which is great!
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Okezue Bell.
Okezue Bell is a budding youth researcher and alum of The Knowledge Society (TKS) with interests in human-computer interactions/interfaces (HCIs) and bio-sciences. He is currently doing research at Harvard (Mass General Hospital) and MIT (Media Lab) in the neuroscience and machine learning spaces, working on developing and implementing innovations to medical systems, such as prosthetics. Previous to this, he worked on a project with Microsoft Research and American College of Radiology to deploy a respiratory disease diagnosis pipeline across 20 US hospitals, and is currently developing an equitable banking startup called Fidutam.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
For sure! Honestly, I had quite the normal immigrant upbringing. My mom is from Nigeria, my dad is from the states, I have 3 older siblings, and I live in the suburbia of Pennsylvania. My family has always valued education, high grades, etc., but unlike my other siblings, who followed career paths — surgeon, engineering, finance — I’ve always liked a lot of everything, and had trouble deciding what I wanted to do. My mom and dad are engineers by trade, and so they encouraged me to code. I got into FoxPro, Bash, and Python; I was too impatient to start with scratch. I also did a lot of other things that I enjoyed: violin, chess, etc., extracurriculars/hobbies that I still regularly engage with!
Honestly, I had a lot of fun! Also, I read a lot when I was younger.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Yes — joining my first science fair was when I knew that I really loved the sciences. I remember it was called the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Sciences — I still do it now -, and it was my first time engineering and presenting a project. I remember I gave a 10-minute talk where I spoke super fast and had to present like 30 word filled slides about how I used the Arduino to monitor my health or something. I ended up getting some awards, which served as positive reinforcement for me.
Another great moment was when I joined The Knowledge Society (TKS), in high school, it’s a human accelerator program for ambitious teenagers. I really got some newfound exposure in the program and began to start working on a whole bunch of things. TKS really helped to remove my fear and catapult me. Instead of handing you opportunities or teaching you how to code, they teach you mindsets and how to navigate professional spaces, and get opportunities yourself, which I took full advantage of. Not going to lie, most of the things on my bio came after I joined the program, because I used the mindsets and exposure that they gave me, and I put them into action and scored opportunities for myself!
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think that making a difference is creating something that can influence or help other people. For example, I’m working on a startup to help bank the unbanked. This could mean that I could help finance hundreds, to thousands, to millions of immigrants, people of color, and those with median household income of under $30,000 to finance themselves. That’s an example of working towards and making an impact!
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
For sure, I’m currently working on my startup, Fidutam. In the US, there’s a huge issue in terms of equitability in big banks. Oftentimes, they prioritize their white, VIP customers, and people of color and immigrants are up to 5 times more likely to not have bank accounts or access to financial services. This makes up over 50 million individuals across North America and even more in Europe that are experiencing an economic cutoff. Fidutam is developing a platform that offers an interoperable financial ecosystem that is inexpensive, available to all, and secure. We increase accessibility by removing hidden fees, integrating blockchain/crypto, and better international rates. Security breaches, discrimination, and usage issues in traditional banks are increasing and decentralized finance is becoming more popular. After witnessing the many socio economic problems that come with the evolution of the financial landscape, we hope that Fidutam will help ensure the financial posterity for millions, if not billions, across the world.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My friends and startup partners Aksh and Wisdom are immigrants and children of immigrants, respectively. We were initially developing virtual cards, but pivoted when we — all relating in being first generation immigrants — discussed the racial landscape of North America and Europe and how it affects black and brown people. Then I learned about Aksh’s experience immigrating from India and his family’s troubles setting up their economics (banking, finances, etc), and I realized that things were a huge opportunity and a massive pain point that I was passionate about implementing.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I think for me, I’ve always had a “go get it” personality, whether it be in competition or just life in general. If you want to do something, just do it; realize that there’s very minimal risk in putting yourself out there. You have two options: say no, keep going, and finally succeed, or never try, and fail. To do so, you need to have people around you telling you to go! Let others know about your motivations and support you; it’s an asset. For me, I found that in TKS, friends, and more, for others, it could be myriad things.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
My major step was, of course, coming up with an idea, and identifying some competitions in which I could participate so that I’d be forced to develop a working proof-of-concept to develop into a full blown organization or startup. The second one was making sure I had a team of like minded individuals that I’d want to work with. First, I found a friend (Wisdom), and then I found a Stanford university student who was super smart and I vibed with (Aksh). If you’re trying to develop a startup or a project, those are the first two things I’d recommend doing — you can worry about advisors, money, etc. later!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Basically, we were looking for funding sources and ended up interacting with a silicon valley accelerator. We initially thought this was an actual program, but it later turned out to be a scam! We had several calls, and they were apparently going to invest a six figure deal in us, and the guy on the phone was so excited that we were young. Then we found out that he had to pay them $50k before we could get a $700k investment, which makes no sense. What’s odd is that it turns out the program was quite well known across California, but it seems as though they haven’t had many concrete deals, so I’m still confused as to what’s going on with them. Anyway, we pulled out of that “deal”, but we did end up learning a lot about who to trust and to always consult your parents first before chatting or working with VCs that aren’t well known and other investors!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Joining that accelerator! I believe that youth founders can sometimes get caught up in the web of raising money, because our increased exposure to technology makes building an MVP and other tasks much faster. We joined because they had the coveted “silicon valley” title, and promised large investments if you were accepted. After that experience, I realized that getting funding is just one piece of the puzzle for a startup. Sometimes, you can bootstrap, and sometimes, you don’t even need that much funding to take your project off the ground. I think having a subsistence mindset, when you only seek what you need, when building a startup is so important. The only thing you really should have, or need, excess of is knowledge.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Of course! My parents, mentors at TKS and other programs, and friends were super helpful throughout the process. During the last school year, my science teachers would help me in competitions and/or research, or help me get all of the work early if I had to miss school for some conference or the like. That type of support, as small as it sounds, is life-changing, and allows you to focus on what’s important and not give yourself unnecessary stress.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I remember that there was one time where I was talking about my journey as a young individual in entrepreneurship, and some of the prejudices I faced as a person of color in the space, and I got several emails after the speech and conference. One in particular was from a high school senior who said he had just gotten into his top college and that the work I had been doing changed his life, because it inspired him to get into academic research, and that I was the reason he got into his first lab. My talks did something that I never imagined: putting myself and my work and my experiences out there didn’t just benefit myself and my network, but it also benefited others, which was such a gratifying feeling.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are a lot of problems I’m personally trying to solve, but I think the biggest thing would be to stop making age/educational status a limitation. There are so many programs I see that are great opportunities, and several young people that I know personally that would fit the build for it, but when you go to apply, they say “oh sorry, this is only for graduates”, or “sorry, we expect you to drop out of school”, or “sorry, this program won’t make sense for you at your age”. Of course, there are instances in which the target demographic is of a certain age, but if there is enough interest, passion, and even experience on the side of the young applicant, then why not take a chance on them? Why tell them to wait or create prerequisites for applicants that exclude them? (grants and funding programs, I’m looking at you). It’s already difficult for young people to get into academia, but it’s even more difficult for young people to participate in independent research and build solutions of things that they’re passionate about because government, local administration, and even society as a whole hasn’t changed their conception of youth, and therefore no systems are built to cultivate their ideas. Oftentimes, the best ideas don’t even come from incumbents of a space, it comes from non-expert outsiders. Elon Musk is not a neuroscientist, yet he leads one of the biggest BCI/neural implant companies in the world. If we all want disruptive impacts, we can’t look at the learned;the Ph.D.s, the experts, those who have been in space for 10–20+ years, they’re smart, but often make predictive, incremental changes. The exponential improvement comes from the future, and as cliche as it sounds, the future is young people. So when it comes to things like climate change, engineering and healthcare problems, or trying to raise money for a startup, support young people in their endeavors, and I promise you it will pay dividends!
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Don’t focus on money! I think this one goes without saying. Money solves a lot of problems and it of course has high value, but it shouldn’t be your main focus. Your focus should be the product you’re building and the problem that you’re solving. Focus on money too much, and you’ll end up joining a random “Silicon Valley” scam accelerator like we did! If you build a functional and desirable product, money will come.
- Create something that you can connect with, or that you’re truly passionate about! Before Fidutam transitioned to equitable banking, we were working on developing payment security and virtual cards, but only because we saw a market opportunity there, not because we actually deeply cared about the problem. Though we had some success in that area, our growth was exponential, as we weren’t progressing quickly because we weren’t interested in the problem!
- The tech is not the product, the solution is! Too often, tech founders get so wrapped in the engineering, the wiring, the programming, and forget that they’re building a product to solve a problem. Don’t worry about packing too many flashy things into your product. Oftentimes, the best, most beautiful and useful solutions are the simplest ones. Get deep into the problem you care about, not the types of technology you want to use to solve it. Once you deeply understand a problem, you’ll already know what’s needed to solve it, and then you just need to figure out how to build it, and keep on iterating. This honestly goes for any project or startup.
- Have friends. Sometimes, building a project or a startup feels so exclusive that it’s hard to let anyone in, but having someone in your corner to help you out is so important. For example, Wisdom and my mom have helped me so much throughout my journey from making sure I have a proper balance with school and other extracurriculars, to really helping to stress test Fidutam’s product.
- Make more friends. Once you have friends, it also becomes difficult to make new ones, but growing your network is crucial to your success. I personally use LinkedIn super often, which helps me get more opportunities, and connect with people who connect me with the people that I want to talk to, which is great!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
For me, it’s really fulfilling and opens the door for a lot of serendipity (luck, essentially). For example, the first space I got into from a professional standpoint was actually the climate tech industry, where I focused primarily on cellular agriculture, which is a process by which we can take small biopsies from animals and use their cells to produce animal products more sustainably. I got into Perfect Day (where I am still an advisor and founder of the Gen Z Panel), and started out as an intern in their sister company, the Urgent Company, which I initially did not expect. Then, a little bit later, I was asked to join their Council with Leonardo DiCaprio, and a bunch of awesome health and sustainability experts! I was shocked, that all because I went with the flow, such an amazing opportunity floated into my horizon. It just goes to show you what can happen when you trust the process, and try your best to make a positive impact. You meet people, you learn, you can have awesome experiences, but most importantly you spend your time working on things that can help other people.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dr. Peter Diamandis for sure. He represents such an important era of innovation and entrepreneurship, and many of his futurist frameworks and beliefs I personally identify with and am inspired by. I can only imagine the breadth of things we’d talk about over a good meal!
(also, Serena Williams, tennis GOAT, would be my other choice, for what I think the be obvious reasons. She’s one of the greatest of all time in women’s tennis, a powerful person of color, and someone who uses her platform in a diversity of ways, growing her circle of competence outside of athletics)
How can our readers follow you online?
I am @okezuebell on Medium, Twitter, and Instagram, and you can also visit my website: https://okezuebell.com.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for having me!
Young Change Makers: Why and How Okezue Bell of The Knowledge Society Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.