Ola Laniyan-Amoako was already a busy mum, newly appointed deputy head teacher and part-time author. So why did she set up her own publishing company? Mark Williams finds out
By her own admission, there have been times in the past when Ola Laniyan-Amoako has felt “absolutely knackered”.
Not only was she a mother with a young son, wife to IT consultant Kofi and deputy head of a primary school in Basildon, she is also an author who launched her own business, Urbantopia, a publishing company with a difference.
“Fitting it all in can be tough,” she confesses. “My writing and business admin tasks usually get done at night. On Friday and Saturday nights, usually after 11pm, when I’ve spent time with my son and he’s long gone to bed, I’ll work until 5am.”
In early 2009, first Ola launched Ruben’s World, a website that allows parents to personalise Ola’s children’s books by incorporating their own photographs and names. As she explains, the idea was to better engage young readers. Although the target audience is different, her intention with Urbantopia is the same.
Ola grew up in north-west London. She and older sister Kemi were raised by their Nigerian mother, a nurse who worked at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.
Schooled in Kilburn, Ola went on to study psychology at the University of Birmingham, later gaining a masters degree. She harboured ambitions to teach, and so completed a postgraduate certificate in education.
“I’ve always loved writing,” she enthuses. “I was eight when I started making up stories… I’d draw pictures and invent characters. Reading is wonderful – it enables children to escape, to dream and develop aspirations. Yet even as a child I realised that culturally I couldn’t relate to any of the characters in the books I read at school. There were no stories about black kids growing up on council estates.”
By the time she became a ‘rookie’ teacher working in Hackney some 15 years later, little had changed. “Black and ethnic minority children still struggled to identify with their school literature – they weren’t catered for. If teenagers can’t find books they can relate to, then they won’t read, which affects their writing skills, too.
“That’s why I set up Urbantopia, to address under-representation and encourage black and ethnic minority kids to read more books and perhaps write their own fiction. My work aims to provide a voice that resonates with the culture and real-life experiences of urban black and ethnic minority children and teenagers.”
Ola’s first teen book, Leon – Spit on the Mic is an inspiring tale of a 15-year-old with dreams of becoming a rap star. It’s set in Lisson Green, the inner London council estate where Ola grew up. Her second novel, Rianna –The Tearful Dancer, is about a young girl living with a physically abusive father.
Ola has also published a novel for “20-something women” called Metamorphosis.
Setting up her own business hasn’t proved difficult for Ola. “To be honest, finding out how the publishing industry functions has been harder – it has its own cycles and conventions.”
She found start-up tips online and sought advice from her sister, owner-manager of a London-based lettings agent. She agrees that schoolchildren should be taught about running a business. “They should at least know the option exists for everyone – it isn’t exclusive.”
She used her own money to fund her business, while being resourceful enabled her to minimise costs. “For example, I found an illustrator through Graduate Talent Pool, which enables young people to gain work experience.”
Ola believes that being motivated purely by money can lead to disappointment and it’s better to do something you enjoy first and foremost. So what about her long-term goals? “I started small – deliberately – and I plan to publish four books in my first year. After that? We’ll see. Hopefully, the business will grow, but I’ve no plans to move outside of its niche. It’s a unique publishing business.
“I love teaching and always give it 100%, but someday I hope to earn my living from my business and my writing. Hopefully, my books will be adapted for TV – that’s the dream,” she concludes.
This case study was first published in March 2010. Since then, Ola has published four books.
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