The Innovator

‘Cultural Worker’ Ashara Ekundayo champions entrepreneurial access and equity.

By Brenda Gillen

Publish Date: January 30, 2014

Ashara Ekundayo

As part of her work, Ekundayo convenes conversations and creative
programming that explore new models of economic sustainability.
Photo: Bethany Hines.

Ashara Ekundayo (B.A. speech communication ’94, B.A. African American studies ’94) could be described in many ways. Catalyst. Consultant. Producer. Project Manager. Curator. Artist. High School Dropout. Teenage Mom.

“I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life that by some people’s definition would be indicators that I should have failed,” Ekundayo says.

But instead of failing, she persevered, succeeding as a parent, as a college student and as a professional.

“My success allowed me to take a lot of risks that other people were not willing to take,” Ekundayo says. “I am a very curious person, and I have tried a lot of different things that have had significant impact.”

At MSU Denver, Ekundayo participated in the African American Leadership Institute, a program that at the time was housed in the Department of Business. During a presentation to the institute, Lauren Casteel spoke about foundations and philanthropy. Ekundayo realized she still had much to learn and asked Casteel for a summer internship. Casteel, who now is vice president of philanthropic partnerships for The Denver Foundation, hadn’t planned to have an intern, but she respected Ekundayo’s initiative and met with her.

“By the end of that conversation it was very clear to me that it not only would lead to offering her something to meet her needs, but that she would also bring something to us, and that this was going to be a mutually beneficial relationship. And that has continued to be true throughout these many years,” Casteel says.

Ekundayo says Casteel’s influence was significant and credits the many mentors she had at MSU Denver with supporting her during her undergraduate career. But years before she came to the University, she already knew what she wanted to do.

“My exposure to arts and culture started at birth. I grew up in Detroit with my single mother, who sent my sister and me to New York City for the summer, where my father and his other family lived. I was taught to understand the value of arts and culture through field trips and artsy evenings at the ballet, symphony and museums. I remember being in a gallery with my father and asked, ‘Who is the person who gets to decide what art gets hung on the wall?’ He said, ‘That’s the curator,’ and I said, ‘That is what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be the person who decides what art gets displayed.’”

Over the years, Ekundayo has played the role of curator (and more) in a variety of ways. In Denver, she founded BluBlak Media Consulting, the Pan African Arts Society and co-founded Blue and Yellow Logic. She was founding producer of the Denver Pan African Film Festival and Café Nuba, a spoken word and music showcase, out of which grew the award-winning performance poetry event Slam Nuba. She was a fellow with Green for All, based in Oakland, Calif., and cofounded The GrowHaus, a nonprofit indoor farm in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

In October 2011 she co-founded Impact Hub Oakland, one of 40-plus international member-based Impact Hub centers that serve as office and event space for social entrepreneurs. In February, Ekundayo, who serves as Impact Hub Oakland’s chief creative officer, will open Omi Arts, a visual and sound gallery inside Impact Hub Oakland that will feature one-person performances, exhibitions and lectures.

As part of her work, Ekundayo convenes conversations and creative programming that explore new models of economic sustainability. She is a champion of access and equity because she sees that the same groups of people who have been denied access to entrepreneurship also struggle to gain access to fresh, organic, locally sourced food and to science, technology, engineering, arts and math curricula in the public schools.

“I consider myself a cultural worker,” Ekundayo says. “I wouldn’t be able to execute my work right now as a chief creative officer had I not had all of those years as a community organizer, as a founder of an art and cultural change nonprofit, an HIV educator and a curator. I get to leverage all of the things that I have learned in my professional journey, and I get to be teacher and student at the same time.

“This work is spiritual work,” she adds. “This work is the work of heart and of soul.”

She says she’s humbled and surprised at being named the 2014 recipient of the MSU Denver Letters, Arts and Sciences Dean’s Award for alumni achievement. Ekundayo left Denver three years ago and didn’t realize anyone was paying attention to her work in California.

Casteel has been watching her progress with pride. She says Ekundayo’s fearlessness has inspired her. “It’s important to remember that Ashara’s contribution is far from complete,” Casteel says.

Part of Ekundayo’s contribution is her work with youth. She recently spent the day with a group of honor students who were visiting the San Francisco Bay Area from Denver’s Manual High School, Ekundayo’s alma mater.

“They were visiting revolutionary innovators who had graduated from that high school. I was just so humbled and so honored that they had planned a trip and that it involved seeing me,” Ekundayo says.