Brothers Jolli and Tony Odele recently stumbled on a business idea that altered their life path: helping people recycle their old phones and electronics.
Jolli, 25, and Tony, 28, both residents of Iowa City, said their business, Ovolve, is a link between people with broken or unwanted electronics and businesses that refurbish those items across the globe. They said Ovolve started as a side project while they were studying medicine in college and became a business about a year ago.
Jolli said he saw Ovolve as an opportunity to reinvent himself and fill a need in the community, and Tony said he was intrigued by his brother's idea. Jolli said the concept started small but gradually led to a "huge order" that forced him to research the idea more in depth.
"We started our own thing after that," Jolli said.
Both brothers attended a discussion Monday in Iowa City led by U.S. Congressmen Dave Loebsack and Eric Swalwell that focused on challenges young people face when starting businesses. Swalwell is a Democrat representing California's 15th Congressional District, while Loebsack is a Democrat representing Iowa's Second Congressional District.
Swalwell is also chairperson of the Future Forum — a group of young, Democrat members of the U.S. House that seeks information from millennials about issues affecting them. He said Iowa City was among 19 cities Future Forum has visited across the nation.
The event took place at MERGE, an innovation space and partnership between Iowa City Area Development Group, the University of Iowa and the city of Iowa City. The conversation drew several young, Iowa City-based entrepreneurs and others. It focused on topics ranging from trouble accessing loans to barriers students with U.S. Visas face to getting involved with start-ups.
Swalwell said after the event that the conversation nationally has focused on student-loan debt as the "No. 1 concern" among young people, including entrepreneurs seeking funding to start businesses.
Tony Odele, left, and his brother, Jolli Odele, recently started a business aimed at helping people recycle electronics and attended a discussion of challenges millennials face starting businesses in Iowa City on Monday in Iowa City (Photo: Holly Hines/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
"It holds them back in almost every big decision that you make as a young person," he said.
Swalwell said Future Forum aims to use millennials' ideas to guide legislative change in areas such as refinancing student-loan debt and adjusting how much interest those with student-loan debt can deduct on their taxes.
Swalwell said the conversation in Iowa City sparked ideas for helping young entrepreneurs access capital through banks with responsible lending practices. He said the conversation also raised suggestions about reforming immigration in the U.S. to help newcomers take part in business opportunities.
Jolli and Tony said after the event that they are both paying off student loans, which left them with no collateral and led to difficulties approaching lenders as they started Ovolve. They said they persevered by "bootstrapping," or making the most of available resources, such as private funding through a network of supporters.
But Tony said not all recent graduates have access to support, and many cannot pursue the careers they want immediately.
Tony and Jolli said it was encouraging to see lawmakers reaching out for policy ideas.
"I think it was great for them to come and talk to us and see what we needed," Tony said.