As a successful owner of two businesses already, Gori Yahaya founded UpSkill Digital in 2015. He had identified an unmet demand for expert-led training in fundamental digital skills to assist individuals looking to retrain and remain relevant in a fast-changing jobs market. 

“It wasn’t my job but I really loved the idea and got really excited by what technology could do”

Gori’s insight originated in his own struggles to acquire these skills. He experienced significant frustration while attempting to learn how to build a website and found the available learning resources for digital skills lacking. Gori ended up teaching himself,  whilst working for a digital marketing agency.

Yet he found that most people feel intimidated by the idea of learning digital skills on their own. With only limited resources available at the time in 2010, Gori started to imagine the potential of a tech training organisation distinct from existing ones. 

“The whole concept of getting somebody to teach you digital skills in a way that can help you feel confident in tech, I was just fascinated by it. I thought it was a great area and I couldn’t see many people playing in that market”

The early years involved just Gori and an apprentice without a formal mode of operation, reaching out to as many people as possible to recruit trainers and get clients on board. 

The first breakthrough for UpSkill Digital arrived through grit and persistence when he forged a partnership with Google. This alliance saw the birth of one of Google’s pioneering CSR initiatives centred around digital training. As momentum built, Gori began rolling out training programmes across various organisations, simultaneously assembling his own dedicated team and platform.

Growing a technology start-up came with challenges.

“As you can imagine with any startup moving to a scaleup, there’s always growing pains. In terms of the talent, capabilities, and experience you need to get you to the next level. In the early years, there were very few networks that gave you access to talent. I did often struggle with getting those that had experience in growing and scaling products like ours”

“As we started to grow, my team grew, we built a system around talent management which allowed us to source and deploy trainers globally at scale, and we built content that was relevant and up to date with the changing world of technology” 

Initially, people mistook Gori’s model as a sort of coding academy. But its focus on the in-demand digital skills – led by a team of expert coaches – is what enabled it to uplift people through its work. 

“You could be stacking shelves in a supermarket and after learning tech skills such as e-commerce operations, you could transition into the role of an online inventory coordinator and earn a higher salary”

Upskill Digital now operates in 34 countries and has trained over 630,000 people worldwide. His team of expert coaches has grown to over 390. Gori regrets not searching for more support programmes when he was building networks overseas.

“We’ve been on some trade missions with London and Partners who offer a lot. The REACH mission helped us open doors that we never would have thought possible in such a short space of time. Although we already had a handful of US clients, this mission enabled us to begin conversations with major players such as Wells Fargo and Comcast, and secure major contracts delivering Inclusion and Leadership programmes with US giants, Walmart. But the Department of International Trade, for example, we haven’t been involved in any of their programmes and I wish we had” 

Upskill Digital has recently expanded into the US, landing one of their largest contracts with Walmart. Outside of the US, the African market presents them with an enormous opportunity as they run large CSR training programmes across the continent.

Building UpSkill Digital’s platform presented additional roadblocks. 

“One of the biggest barriers to growth was understanding whether we were going to buy or build the right learning platform.” Adding that the space that currently exists to learn about digital platforms is “pretty uninspiring.” “There was a lack of flexibility in the market of learning platforms.” 

Despite the size of UpSkill Digital today, it remains fully bootstrapped with no debt or external investment. This has allowed Gori the freedom to set the direction of the company, growing in a way that ensured his core values were upheld in all aspects of the business. However, this didn’t come without challenges. 

“It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you don’t have that pressure from investors but it’s a curse because you do need that guidance. I had to rely on informal advisory to help us get to where we need to get to”

Gori’s experience of growing UpSkill Digital – and two startups before it – made the importance of strong networks clear. 

“I had been through some pretty challenging experiences, more specifically as a black founder, to try and raise funding or to have the networks around me to make me feel confident in my ability to scale. Beyond my thinking, and my ambition and expertise, you do need networks to help open doors for you” 

Looking to the future, Gori is now prioritising profitability and investment in new projects, requiring him to assess the quality of his model, staff, and leadership to improve UpSkill Digital’s investment potential. Strong talent is necessary for attracting investment, but growing to attract more talent without investment is also a challenge.

Moreover, Gori continues to refine UpSkill Digital’s current model and aims to “deepen our footprint in the markets we play in – the UK, across Africa and the US.”

Challenging economic conditions and the recent recovery from the pandemic have continued to impact UpSkill Digital’s clients and its own bottom line. However, these conditions have only made Gori double down on the foundational values of UpSkill Digital. 

“In times of crisis, this is an important time as ever, to ensure that we are creating a fair and equal society and supporting those that need it. The roles that are most at risk of redundancy or automation – tedious roles – you typically see people from marginalised communities in those roles”

Gori’s belief in the role and responsibilities of companies in our society remains unchanged since his pitch to Google eight years ago. 

“We bang that drum pretty hard. It’s not just about profits, it’s about truly supporting and uplifting the communities you sell to, helping them keep up to the pace of change in society” 

Gori believes that continuous training during one’s employment can enhance the likelihood of securing different roles in the future. This ongoing education ensures individuals are well-prepared with the necessary skills to navigate various career hurdles throughout their lives.

“We put pressure on organisations to understand that they don’t just have a responsibility but have the ability and the resources to be able to do that”

Training improves workers’ confidence in the future and reduces the spending companies would need to make on recruitment due to higher staff retention. Training helps to address growing problems for companies like staff retention while improving productivity and people’s ability to adapt. This can lead them into new roles within their companies or elsewhere. Gori emphasises the win-win nature of his model. 

UpSkill Digital’s success demonstrates the impact of creating and refining a unique business model. Gori has shown that it is possible to properly integrate socially responsible values into operations in order to improve outcomes. With no intention of slowing down, UpSkill Digital intends to reach 1 million people by 2025 and continue growing its partnerships worldwide. 

“In times of crisis, this is an important time as ever, to ensure that we are creating a fair and equal society and supporting those that need it. The roles that are most at risk of redundancy or automation - tedious roles - you typically see people from marginalised communities in those roles.”

Gori Yahaya, CEO, Upskill Digital