Startup Spotlight: Founder of Personify looks to make the world a better place

Chuks Onwuneme’s path to Seattle is a long and inspiring one. At the age of 16, he walked the streets of Lagos, Nigeria to raise funds to study computer science, later earning an engineering scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington. After graduate school, he landed a gig at Nokia in Dallas, working there for a number of years before the mobile phone giant decided to close down the R&D office.

At that juncture, Onwuneme was given a choice: Relocate to Nokia’s offices in Silicon Valley or Finland or take a buyout and leave the company.

He left, and hasn’t looked back since. Now, the 32-year-old has landed in Seattle — a city he came to love after multiple visits hanging with friends and members of the startup community– where he’s working at GameHouse and building Personify in his spare time.

Driven by his humble beginnings in Nigeria, Onwuneme is attempting to create an easier way for people to give back to people in need in the communities in which they live. The company is taking wraps off the service today, and we chatted with Onwuneme for the latest installment of Startup Spotlight.

The entrepreneur certainly has a big mission

“I want to see a better world, free of conflicts, where people understand and relate well with each other,” Onwuneme said. “I’d like to see hungry people all over the world not just fed, but given the tools to learn how to feed themselves. I’d like to see peace on earth. I’d like to see more understanding among peoples of different backgrounds. What more to reach this goal than focusing on the common things that make us human? That’s honestly my true passion, and I feel like I am one of the lucky few to have come out from my background and been given this awesome opportunity to use what I have done and learned — i.e. technology and the world as my backdrop — to make the world a better place.”

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We are building a marketplace where people use their smartphones to easily discover how to volunteer and do good anywhere they are — for free. It’s like Meetup.com for social good.”

Inspiration hit us when: “As newlyweds on Christmas morning in 2006, my wife and I woke up and decided to spend the day volunteering at a hospital in the north Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas. After several hours calling around to inquire where we could be of service, we couldn’t find a single hospital to tell us how we could volunteer. Sadly, we didn’t that day. I thought there could be a better and easier way to create and find opportunities to be of service, especially when inspiration hits you “at the moment.” I spent 9 years at Nokia as an engineer, building the incredibly successful Symbian OS with a global army of engineers. My work at Nokia took me all over the world, and in interacting with people from everywhere, I realized the problem I had on Christmas day 2006 was an issue that had global implications. Implications for personal satisfaction, as well as world peace. I realized that the work we did at Nokia had connected well over 1 billion people with mobile devices, and I thought we could use this same technology to solve the initial problem I had, while at the same time enabling an environment where people could have fun while doing good.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Currently bootstrapped, but will be seeking funding soon. In my opinion, if an entrepreneur cannot take risks himself (by investing his/her hard earned cash), he has no reason to ask others to take risks in his or her venture.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “If it’s secret, we can’t give it out, right? But it has to do with world domination. Really. We understand the world and cultures. I was conceived in Dublin, Ireland … born in Nigeria (which makes me African), grew up in Texas (which makes me a bonafide Texan) and now live in Seattle (too early to be called a Seattleite). My Finnish co-founder lives in Helsinki and previously lived in the United States and all over Europe. Our UX designer is Irish to the core, and lives in Dublin. And I almost forgot our animation engineer who is Brazilian, and lives in San Paulo. Did I mention that we are going for world domination?”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “The public demo we did at 2012 SxSW in Austin, and giving CNN exclusive rights to preview the app during SxSW.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Initially developing in Ruby on Rails –just because we are hackers, and wanted to learn the magic behind RoR!”

Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “All four have great strengths, but if we had to choose only one, it’s no doubt Bill Gates. He is the ultimate philanthropist. On our death beds, we’d love to know that we could give it all up for a better world.”

Our world domination strategy starts when: “People start to feel guilty that they could have done more of the little things that add up to creating a better world.”

Rivals should fear us because: “We are simple and humble folks from yonder –the world can relate with us. We are building a simple app with an incredibly useful and impactful significance to the world.

We are truly unique because: “We are real humans who truly believe the world can be a better place. We can convince anyone in the world to think about doing good right now.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “Getting the app built already! We’ve talked about it for so long, pitched at several events, and now people can see what it’s all about.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Just do it, get out of your silo and talk to as many people as possible. Unless you’re inventing a chip made of air, please share what you are working on with the right people who can help you.

Startup Spotlight is an occasional look at a Seattle area startup company. Have an interesting new venture you want spotlighted in GeekWire? Fill out the questions above, send  photos of the founder(s) and company logo to tips@geekwire.com. Past profiles can be found here.

  • Vanessa

    Interesting!  I will definitely check it out

  • http://twitter.com/vkippes Victor Kippes

    Congrat’s Chuks!  Great writeup and I wish you the best. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/megadad08 Sterling Hawkins

    Great job Chuks!  Been excited to finally check out Personify!  Let me know if I can help in anyway!  Godpseed.  –Sterling

  • http://twitter.com/ChikaUwazie The Naija Careerist

    Love to see fellow Nigerians deominating the tech scene kudos : ) 

  • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

    Nice work, Chuks.  Great to hear you’ve finally made the move to Seattle!  

  • Emenence1

    i was told “I live in a dream world” and here u are trying to expanding my world of love,and ya in seattle,washington-go on man!!-do the dang thing man!!the world called earth needs this so bad!!this is great!!

  • Bona Udeze

    The creation of Personify and its introduction to the public
    is the tonic and inspiration most independent minds have been longing for all this while. Their myriads of questions are now answered. The
    founder, Chuks with his brainchild – Personify – encourages us to ask ourselves
    if we’re one of those who make things happen, watch things happen or those who do
    not know what is happening. Personify, unarguably is a semblance of radio station of one’s life
    aspirations and dreams, only those who tune in listens. It’s like the flow of river of the mind, just follow
    the channel and it will lead you to the desired place with abundance of water
    and fertile land – fulfillment of your life ambition. Now, I believe I can fly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/selenestrattonmcclure Selene Stratton McClure

    Great article, I hope your fledgling’s flight is successful, we support your tremendous and selfless effort to make a difference. The McClures.

  • http://www.facebook.com/axm0035 Amaechi Felix Madueke

    Congrats now & in future endeavors to you & your team..

  • Shami

    Very inspiring!