With tech incubators bringing investment and inspiration, Black entrepreneurs feel they can ‘change the world’

It wasn’t much time, but Emmanuel Akindele made the most of his three minutes in the spotlight. 

Along with six other tech entrepreneurs, Akindele recently stood in front of a crowd of 200 people and a panel of judges to pitch his business while the clock ticked down.

“It’s difficult, but it’s reflective of what it’s like as an entrepreneur,” said Akindele, who co-founded a mental health app called Blue Guardian. “You often have a very short period of time to tell the story of why people should care about what you are building.”

At stake was $20,000 in funding in the contest held on April 20 by the DMZ, a tech company incubator at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).

The contest was part of the DMZ’s Black Innovation Summit, an event to promote the organization’s Black Innovation Programs (BIP). 

With venture capital funding plunging and Black founders historically facing greater challenges than other groups in raising money, several incubator programs in Canada are trying to help Black tech entrepreneurs survive the start-up phase. 

The objective of BIP is to nurture and grow Black-owned tech companies, helping them hone their ideas, find mentors, and connect with investors.

According to recent surveys by the government and the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce, poor access to capital and the lack of advisors or a business network are key factors holding back Black business owners in all sectors. 

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The BIP was created in 2019 by DMZ, which says the program was Canada’s first such effort focused on Black tech entrepreneurs.

“There’s a huge need for programs like this,” said Tina Mbachu, a senior program leader with DMZ.   

On top of the structured help with business development, Mbachu says bringing Black entrepreneurs together can lead to a powerful feeling of community for founders who may have previously felt isolated.

“I can relate to their life stories, I can relate to the challenges and we can pull solutions from each other.”

A young Black woman with long black hair, wearing a black sweater smiles standing in front of a banner with the DMZ logo.

Tina Mbachu, a senior program leader with DMZ’s Black Innovation Programs, says there’s a huge need for incubators to help nurture tech entrepreneurs from the Black community. (Heather Waldron/CBC)

Since the DMZ began its program for Black tech founders, similar efforts have followed.     

Innovate Calgary, which is part of the University of Calgary, ran a contest to help raise the profile of Black tech entrepreneurs last year, and one for BIPOC women in tech this spring. The finalists in both competitions received business support from experts.

Also last year, the Edmonton based non-profit Black Business Ventures Association (BBVA) started a 12-week accelerator program for Black-led tech startups based in the Prairies and British Columbia. 

Investment an issue for many Black-owned businesses

The problems faced by Black tech founders also being faced by other business owners in the Black community.

Support for Black businesses surged as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

But recent reports about venture capital show that while poor market conditions in 2022 led to a 36 per cent drop in overall venture investment, Black entrepreneurs saw financing fall by 45 per cent.

According to market research firm Crunchbase, between 2017 and 2022 Black founders never received more than 1.3 per cent of U.S. venture funding, even in 2021, a record year for venture capital overall.   

Investment program the Black Opportunity Fund (BOF) was created in 2020 to help Black business owners in Canada raise money and address the inequity in accessing capital. 

The BOF also supports mentorship and incubator programs in partnership with the Canadian Black Chamber of  Commerce. 

In 2021 the University of Toronto created the Black Founders Network to provide “allyship, mentorship and sponsorship” for Black student founders there, in “every industry and at every stage.”

A Black man wearing a cream coloured sweater, thin gold necklace and diamond stud earrings smiles at the camera.

Marc Lafleur, who sold TruLocal, his online subscription service for meat products, for nearly $17 million, was recently at the Black Innovation Summit to share the story of his success and take questions from the audience. (Heather Waldron/CBC)

Sharing success stories 

Marc Lafleur, the former CEO of TruLocal, was at the Black Innovation Summit to share the story of his success and take questions from the audience. 

Lafleur co-founded the online subscription service for meat products in 2016, and sold it in December of 2022 for almost $17 million.

He agrees that entrepreneurs who are Black have a difficult time raising money for their businesses, in part because there aren’t a lot of Black investors. 

“At the end of the day, the VC industry has been known to be, you know, pale, stale and male. And you know, traditionally people are going to invest in people that they can relate to,” said Lafleur.

While he believes that hearing “no” can help strengthen the resolve of Black business owners, Lafleur also says he wishes there was something like the Black Innovation Programs when he was starting TruLocal.

Lafleur, who had two businesses fail before his third succeeded, also says it’s essential to celebrate role models with events like the summit.

“If we can show and highlight more success stories from black founders that have done it, then it’s going to inspire more youth today that are Black to get into business.”

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Getting small companies to think big

At the Black Innovation Summit, Akindele, the 22-year-old entrepreneur with the mental health app Blue Guardian, ended up taking 1st place in the pitch contest.

This week, he launched the app aimed at helping teenagers, for now available only on iPhones. 

Using artificial intelligence, Blue Guardian analyzes a phone user’s text messages and chats inside social media apps, monitoring language patterns for signs of depression. If needed, it provides users with resources to help learn more about their symptoms and seek help.

A tall Black man stands in front of banner that says DMZ,  holding up a giant cheque for $20 000.  He won the money for his business.

Emmanuel Akindele poses with the cheque he received for placing first in the pitch contest at the Black Innovation Summit in April. The 22-year-old launched his mental health app aimed at helping teenagers this week. (Heather Waldron/CBC)

Akindele and a partner have been working on the app for three years, cobbling together funding from their alma mater, Western University, and a grant program to hire students for short term work.

He says the prize money from DMZ is a “game changer” that will help make the launch a success.

Another game changer? The support that came with entering DMZ’s six-month incubator program in 2021.   

Akindele says successful entrepreneurs he met through DMZ inspired him to think bigger than just making a difference for mental health in Canada. 

“Now, my vision is we can just go ahead and change the world.”

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