Editor’s Note: This post is part of a project on LGBT women business owners. Read more here.
For 30-year-old entrepreneur Maureen Erokwu, a picture is worth far more than 1,000 words — high-quality photographs are the very foundation of her venture.
She’s the founder of Vosmap in New York City, a Google-backed firm that photographs the interiors of businesses big and small, then uploads them to the tech giant’s Street View mapping service. This imagery allows potential customers of restaurants, shops and many other businesses to take virtual, 360-degree tours of these establishments before visiting in person to have a meal or buy a jacket.
Though Vosmap has been up and running for less than four years, Erokwu has already won competitions and awards for her work, including being named Google’s first Top-Performing Company in New York. And that work transcends mere functionality; Erokwu’s photography has also appeared in publications like People Magazine and promotional materials for organizations like GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy group.
Not bad for someone whose journey to business ownership began with a round of layoffs.
That story begins just north of Manhattan, in the Bronx where she grew up. A tech enthusiast since childhood, she had always wanted to find practical, business-oriented applications for her interests — much to the chagrin of her rather traditional family. “You’re expected to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer [in our culture], but I’ve always been a bit of a black sheep.”
After earning her Associate’s degree in business administration in 2004 from the State University of New York at Delhi, and her Bachelor’s degree from SUNY Oneonta in 2006, she secured a job at a medical hair-restoration firm in Florida.
But in May of 2010, she lost that job amid staff cuts. “Most people were really thrown off,” she recalled. “Me? In that moment, I was trying to decide what I was going to do with my life.”
Ultimately, Erokwu turned that defeat into an opportunity to explore photography and, through her new hobby, found inspiration, motivation and even a previously undiscovered wealth of inner patience. It wasn’t long before she began contemplating ways of turning those developing skills into a steady career.
Mere months after being laid off, Erokwu moved herself back to New York City, in a bid to capitalize on both her lifelong interest in tech and newfound love of photography. In 2011, she brought Vosmap into existence — after a great deal of hard work, that is — and found herself on the fast track to success when Google partnered with the firm in October of that year. The rest, as they say, is (browser) history.
Erokwu now uses her position as a thriving tech entrepreneur to serve as a vocal champion for other women in her field, often collaborating with Lesbians Who Tech, an active community of LGBT female techies. “If I have a platform or space to speak about it, I’m going to take advantage,” she says of her advocacy work.
Some of her motivation comes from personal experience. She had difficulties herself finding role models who resembled her during her startup journey. “Being a woman [in tech] is lonely. Then add being an African-American woman? And an ‘out’ woman? It’s really lonely,” she says, noting that the biases of some colleagues certainly didn’t help.
Erokwu also feels strongly that increasing the visibility of women, people of color and members of the LGBT community in tech is crucial to solving the industry’s significant representation issues. “There’s something about seeing those people now that makes you feel ready to take over the world,” she says.
At least, that’s what she plans to do. Vosmap is evolving, with rebranding and expansion efforts on the horizon. “I want to be able to make an impact not just in the U.S., but anywhere Google Maps exists,” she says.
She also plans to continue serving as a visible presence for up-and-coming women in tech. For any future female techies who might be reading this, Erokwu has several bits of advice: Take risks, work hard, identify your market early and remember that the path to success is often ugly.
“I wish I’d had more people telling me that, because you won’t be an exception — you’re a rule,” she says. “But once you go through it, then you blossom.”