Charlene Austin: “It’s about telling your community’s story and making it visible”

Arts & Culture alumna Charlene Austin shares her journey and story on her business Okra agency
Profile picture of alumna Charlene Austin during Africa day festival

Charlene graduated in 2006 from Algemene Cultuurwetenschappen (Arts & Culture Studies) and pursued a master in Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship. Her international experience in Milan sparked curiosity and a desire for an international career. Charlene: “I discovered I wasn’t afraid of the ‘big scary world’."

Her career took unexpected turns, starting with working as a PR Assistant at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. When she returned to the Netherlands, her path ventured into the advertising world, working for top clients such as Heineken, Albert Heijn and Adidas. Charlene, however, soon realised she was the happiest at the Arts & Design Museum. In 2018, she became Head Marketing & Communications at Soho House Amsterdam. Here she met her current business partner, Keesje Heldoorn, leading to the creation of Okra Agency.

In 2020 you co-founded Okra agency. Did you always have a dream of running your own business?

“When I was young, I always had this idea of ‘when I grow up, I want to be an agent or do something with African diaspora artists.’ But I never knew exactly what that would look like. Throughout my studies and my career, my interest in artists always remained present.

When my friend and colleague at Soho House, Keesje, asked if I wanted to help her with a PR assignment it surprised me quite a bit, because I had never thought of starting a project with her. But Keesje knew my passion for the African diaspora artists. This gave me the courage to try entrepreneurship. Because I didn’t have to do it alone.”

Okra agency is an independent communications agency operating in the fields of art, design, architecture, and cultural enterprise. How do you see the role of Okra Agency in the creative industry?

“The thing we’ve noticed is that creatives can be great at creating their own online community, but POC creatives do not always get picked up by the mainstream media. We want to use our knowledge and experience with established media to create visibility for creatives of color, who would normally not invest in that kind of exposure themselves. 

On top of that, Keesje and I are both POC (person of colour), so it really feels like we’re telling the story of our own community, our own people. That makes the mission of Okra agency an important one to us.”

If you would have to pick one project you are most proud of, which one would that be? 

“There are so many to choose from. I can still remember the amazing feeling we got when we brought in our first paying client, a gallery in New York. But also, our first big client in Ghana, that was a euphoria moment too. And when I see one of our clients in a big or international publication, it always makes me feel proud. In the beginning of April, we were featured in Parool. Just opening the newspaper and realising oh my gosh, this article has two whole pages dedicated to us!”

Looking at the future, where will Okra agency be in 5 years from now?

“I’ve always said that I want Okra agency to be the international go-to agency for inspiration about POC creativity. So, in five years’ time, we will be THE source for publications in art and design projects from POC creatives in Europe. I’d love us to be the go-to source for the United States as well, but then you really need to be there. You need to be on the continent, and to have continuous interactions with the people over there. That will be something to achieve in 10 years’ time.”

If you look back at your study programmes in Arts & Culture, what is the most important lesson that you learned and take with you in your daily work?

“That we can all be critical thinkers. I remember I had an amazing professor, Prof. Arjo Klamer, who taught us to not just write down what we found interesting about an article, but to take critical standpoints on a certain topic and develop our own opinion about it. It now helps me look at the bigger picture and to think in terms of context. 

What advice would you give to someone who would like to work in the creative industry?

“I would advise you to start looking for internships, summer jobs or junior positions in the areas that you are interested in, while you are still enrolled in university. Also, try to go abroad. Use that period to explore and try new things. 

When you finish university, do not expect a high-paying job right away. Invest in a traineeship or internship to gain work experience in the career field of your interest. I believe that work experience will be the first seed you plant in your career.

Finally, it is worthwhile to invest in networking. Look for positions that are interesting to you, then look up the people who are fulfilling those positions. Reach out to them and say, ‘I love what you do’ and ‘I would love to learn more about what your day looks like’. Try to be open and honest about figuring out where you want to go and finding out what you want to become. That is exactly how I filled my days when I was in between jobs. I cycled through the city and had different conversations with people. Just look for a way that works for you.”

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