Before recent increased DEI efforts led companies to directly partner with schools, many HBCU students struggled to find job opportunities that aligned with their career goals. It's an experience that Bilal Issifou knows well — after finding himself at an internship he wasn't passionate about, the North Carolina A&T alumnus launched his tech-based start-up Unchained Inc., which has helped hundreds of HBCU students and graduates get jobs and internships at Fortune 500 companies.
Native to Togo, West Africa, Issifou came to the U.S. at age 5. His parents instilled hard work and education in him at an early age, which prompted him to pursue pre-law in undergrad. Being on campus helped him hone in on his networking, communication and interpersonal skills, which Issifou says was "critical to his success as an entrepreneur."
After starting Kingdom of Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of school-aged children in Greensboro, North Carolina, Issifou decided he wanted to further uplift Black students by creating a professional web platform that pairs HBCU students and graduates with companies that align with their interests and experience.
From dreams to reality
Unchained Inc. has seen significant success since its founding in 2019, but getting the idea off the ground had its challenges. After struggling to find a website developer, Issifou decided to start an Instagram account to spread the word about his business until the site launched.
"As a pre-law student, I knew nothing about tech and starting a website. I would talk about my business idea, but no one wanted to invest in something they couldn't see," he says. "Unfortunately, many website developers were out of my budget, so I had to get resourceful. I started an Instagram page with business, resume, and professional development tips and built a following."
Issifou credits his Instagram page with connecting him to his current Chief Technology Officer Nasir Jones, who ultimately ended up launching the Unchained Inc. website on Juneteenth 2020. The platform allows users to build their own profiles, add badges and connect with different companies.
Since the website launched, Unchained Inc. has amassed over 10,000 users, 2.2 million website clicks, 6,000 app downloads and 30 HBCUs represented. Issifou now has 4 other professionals on his team and a group of advisory board members, including Percy Miller, also known as rapper "Master P."
The power of networking
Prior to starting his own business, Issifou interned at the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Goldman Sachs. Knowing he wanted to one day be an entrepreneur, Issifou studied the other professionals at Goldman and used whatever free time he had to perfect his pitch.
"I made it an effort to pitch my business to just about anyone who would listen. Anytime I connected with a managing director or another business professional on a zoom call, I would pitch Unchained and get feedback so I could refine my skills," he says. "By the end of the summer, I had a perfect pitch to the point where my managing director told me 'You're young, you have ample time to work at a company. Why don't you try this out.' That was my sign to take a different route."
With the newfound inspiration from his managing director, Issifou turned down a full-time offer with Goldman Sachs to pursue entrepreneurship. The connections he's made through networking, in addition to emails, cold calls and LinkedIn, have helped him garner 20 company clients to date.
"I don't do business, I am business"
Issifou looks forward to growing his business and garnering more support in the near future.
"My goal is for Unchained Inc. to become a global platform/access point for diverse candidates across the world through strategic partnerships and consistent initiatives around diversity, equity, and inclusion," he says.
He advises that other POC entrepreneurs remember to not only be their biggest critic, but also be their biggest advocate.
"Dream without limits and execute without hesitation. No one in this world is actually limiting our ability, but ourselves. Because if you can't picture yourself in a certain position or role, it'll never happen. It's all about being intentional. I tell people all the time "I don't do business, I am business." Because, though the business may be the physical product, it's a concept that you created."
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter