Gori Yahaya, Founder & CEO, UpSkill Digital
As a serial entrepreneur and CEO of UpSkill Digital, Gori Yahaya is a trailblazer in the realm of digital education and inclusion. Over the past decade, Gori has crafted and executed award-winning digital learning and social impact initiatives for renowned entities like Google, BT, Walmart, and HSBC. Gori’s journey has been punctuated by recognition, including a place among the Sunday Times’ 100 Fastest Growing Private Businesses, a grant from Beyoncé’s BEYGood foundation, and the prestigious Scale-Up Entrepreneur of the Year award. These achievements stand as testaments to our unwavering commitment and lasting impact.
My journey is fairly eclectic through startups I’ve founded, including a digital social dining app in New York, SportStylist, an online platform for sports enthusiasts, and StyleTAG, an image recognition e-commerce software. My latest venture, UpSkill Digital, has been a remarkable success story. We began with Google as our first major client and evolved into a global network of 390 coaches, delivering programs across 34 countries, and training over 685,000 individuals, all while achieving 80% – 100% YoY growth even during the pandemic.
Our commitment to scalability has been pivotal to our growth. We’ve maintained our quality and impact while expanding our reach, earning recognition as one of the Sunday Times 100 Fastest Growing Private Businesses and receiving support from Beyoncé’s BEYGood foundation and Google’s Black Founders Fund. Winning the title of Scale Up Entrepreneur of the Year reflects our unwavering dedication to transforming digital education.
UpSkill Digital is not just a company; it’s a force for change in digital education and inclusion. We champion diversity, inclusivity, and equity, collaborating with leading companies to promote digital upskilling and equitable access to education. Our programs, endorsed by repeat clients like Google, Microsoft, Walmart, and HSBC, prioritise engaging and practical learning experiences.
Beyond the business, my passion extends to mentoring young black individuals, speaking at conferences, and fostering initiatives like the Black Voices Fund and Google Mentoring Black Business programs. UpSkill Academy, under my guidance, empowers underrepresented individuals with skills and certifications for thriving in the tech industry. Together, we are shaping a more inclusive and digitally empowered future.
Tell us about the founding of UpSkill Digital
UpSkill Digital’s inception in 2015 was fuelled by my commitment to tackle the widening tech skills gap and boost confidence in using digital tools. I observed widespread tech intimidation despite its vital role in business and personal growth, prompting my mission to create a network of skilled digital experts.
We also recognised the disproportionate impact of the skills gap on marginalised communities, shifting our focus to Equity & Inclusion (DEI) training. Diverse workplaces, we believed, were key to success. As a bootstrapped venture, we prioritised cost-effective, high-quality training.
Our journey started with a clear call to address the digital skills gap, affecting both the workforce and communities. With nearly half the workforce lacking crucial digital skills, we aimed to empower individuals to contribute to business growth and secure their careers.
We also saw how unequal access to training and technology exacerbated socioeconomic disparities. This drove our determination to offer innovative learning experiences that promote fairness in workplaces, level the playing field for marginalised groups, and spark positive societal change.
Despite the challenges of being bootstrapped, it has been a journey and I’ve needed to stay true to myself to be committed to this vision and the path to a digitally inclusive future.
What have been the biggest challenges in scaling and how have you overcome them?
Building a robust operational model was a crucial challenge for us as a bootstrapped company. Self-funding and scaling up required a model that could adapt to unexpected challenges. The pandemic accelerated this need as we shifted from in-person to virtual training and introduced new products, necessitating a more flexible financial model for agility and resilience.
Another significant hurdle was attracting and retaining talent during our growth. Scaling put pressure on our hiring process, prompting us to revamp it with rigorous testing, refined job descriptions, and comprehensive candidate feedback. We were also determined to maintain our company culture as we expanded, which led to the implementation of an open-door policy and ensuring that I, as the founder and CEO, remained accessible throughout the organisation.
Additionally, we faced economic uncertainties, including the recent economic crisis, rising living costs, and hiring freezes in the tech industry, which had a substantial impact on our clients. However, our commitment to supporting underserved communities and fostering positive societal impact remained steadfast throughout these challenges.
What have been the pivotal moments in the journey and how did you lay the way for these?
Several pivotal moments have marked UpSkill Digital’s journey, each carefully paved to drive growth and positive impact. In response to the pandemic, we made a critical shift towards becoming more tech-product-led. This strategic move allowed us to fuel revenue growth while staying true to our core social impact mission. Investment in a Learning Experience Platform (LXP) and mentoring expertise empowered us to tailor programs and provide individual support, ultimately enabling positive social change at scale.
Governmental programs played a significant role in our journey. The UpSkill Academy, supported by the UK Government National Skills Fund, was a game-changer. It targeted marginalized communities and equipped over 700 learners with skills, resulting in over 200 placements in prestigious companies like Microsoft, Sequoia, and Google.
Collaboration with industry giants such as Google, Microsoft, Walmart, and HSBC not only secured repeat business but also validated UpSkill Digital’s impact and expanded our reach.
Lastly, our journey has been punctuated by well-deserved recognition, including a place among the Sunday Times’ 100 Fastest Growing Private Businesses, a grant from Beyoncé’s BEYGood foundation, and the prestigious Scale-Up Entrepreneur of the Year award. These achievements stand as testaments to our unwavering commitment and lasting impact.
What does the future hold for you?
My vision for UpSkill Digital is to broaden our global reach and impact, especially in underserved communities. We’re dedicated to expanding our tech-driven training programs and forging new partnerships worldwide. Our Learning Experience Platform (LXP) will remain at the forefront of our efforts, continually evolving to provide personalized learning experiences and harness data-driven insights to maximize our social impact.
Deepening our collaborations with leading companies is another key goal. We’ll work closely with these partners to address their digital skills needs and contribute to building more inclusive workplaces.
Ultimately, I aspire for UpSkill Digital to be the foremost solution that reimagines workplace learning through human-centred engagements. By combining our training expertise with our tech-driven platform, we aim to become the go-to choice for tech & inclusion training in the workplace, furthering our mission to empower individuals and drive positive change
Do you have any advice for future founders in your field?
My advice to future founders in our field is succinct but essential: Embrace lifelong learning, nurturing curiosity and adaptability to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of digital education and inclusion. Prioritize building strong relationships, and forging meaningful connections with clients, partners, and stakeholders, as they can expand your network and open doors to opportunities. Stay agile and adaptable, prepared to pivot when needed, and embrace change as the industry evolves. Always keep your focus on the positive social impact your work can create, making it the driving force behind your endeavors. Lastly, surround yourself with a talented and passionate team that shares your vision and values, as they will play a pivotal role in your journey.
On a closing note, what’s the best business book you’ve read?
I wish I made more time to read, but one of my favourite books is ‘Powerful,’ by Patty Mccord, Chief HR at Netflix. She has a fascinating take and transparent view on culture at such a fast-growing company. One of my most-liked quotes in the book is “You’re a team, not a family.” That may sound controversial, but for me, there’s a big difference between a team and a family: teams change regularly and are optimized to win at all times, while families strive to stick together no matter what.