A number of prominent technology and other corporate leaders have rallied together in the past week to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand Ryerson University’s Black Innovation Fellowship (BIF). The program, which is well on its way to reach its $1-million goal, offers funding, resources and mentorship to early-stage Black entrepreneurs in Canada.
The fellowship is part of Ryerson’s DMZ incubator program and has helped fund 10 Black-founded startups in the past year, including FiTDrive, Daya Lens and Trebble FM. BIF’s expansion is one of several recent efforts underway to address systemic racism in Canadian business.
Earlier this week, tech and innovation leaders also launched the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism (CILAR) to connect more Black, Indigenous and people of colour to the innovation sector. Abdullah Snobar, executive director of DMZ, is a founding member, as are other leaders such as Mary Ann Yule, president and CEO of HP Canada, and Rola Dagher, president of Cisco Canada.
Half a dozen prominent tech leaders and entrepreneurs have contributed to BIF’s expansion since the $1-million goal was announced on June 23, including Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein and his wife, entrepreneur Lindsay Taub; and entrepreneur Michael Hyatt and his wife, lawyer Vanessa Luna Hyatt. Ryerson University will match all major donations to a total of $500,000.
“The long-term goal is to support hundreds of Black entrepreneurs, and to see more Black-owned businesses launch and thrive all across the country,” Mr. Finkelstein told The Globe and Mail, adding that he and Ms. Taub contributed to BIF because they felt it was their responsibility to level the playing field for Black entrepreneurs and to encourage other leaders to do the same.
“COVID-19 has disproportionately affected underrepresented and Black businesses in Canada. This is just one more barrier on top of an already long list of them,” Mr. Finkelstein said.
Jordan Banks, president of Rogers Sports & Media, says he wanted to ensure that his financial commitment would go toward “providing meaningful, tangible support” to Black founders.
The fellowship has announced that it plans to identify and support 30 new Black founders by May, 2021.
“This means more Black entrepreneurs will have access to seed capital, investor connections and guidance from influential mentors,” Mr. Banks said.
The program is meant to fill a void within the tech ecosystem, said Isaac Olowolafe, general partner at Dream Maker Ventures and one of the founding partners of BIF, alongside Shopify, Bank of Montreal and the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“High level, we typically don’t see large-scale tech companies owned by Black founders,” he added.
A 2015 survey conducted by the City of Toronto and Black in Canada, a platform that spotlights the successes of Black Canadians, found there were only about 2,000 Black-owned businesses of significant scale in the country. Of all industries, Mr. Olowolafe said he estimates that the tech industry likely has the lowest rate of Black founders.
He said the surge of funding that came in the first week after announcing BIF’s expansion was not surprising. So far, the fellowship has raised more than $400,000 of its $1-million goal.
The program, Mr. Olowolafe said, was designed to “show to the mainstream donors and investors that this was going to be a program that would test the times ... and that was going to have great impact.”
Mr. Snobar who heads Ryerson’s DMZ program and is the CEO of DMZ Ventures, a for-profit venture capital company, said that the immediate support “wasn’t a surprise, but not an expectation.”
“I think the Black Lives Matter movement has brought a lot of very important conversations to forefront, and I think a lot of organizations across the country are looking at more meaningful ways to support the Black community, as opposed to just doing sponsorships for grants and scholarships,” he said.
Tech entrepreneur Mr. Hyatt told The Globe that, especially given recent events, he and his wife, Vanessa, wanted to align themselves with something that was “actionable.”
“It takes a village to create a company,” he said, adding that he knows it’s going to be a long haul to balance out the lack of Black representation in the tech world.
“It’s a time of action,” Mr. Hyatt said. “This is not going to get solved overnight, but it’s going to get there. “It’s going to take some years, but you have to start somewhere right?”
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