Executive Director, DMZ & CEO, DMZ Ventures
Black Innovation Programs Lead, DMZ
The DMZ’s Black Innovation Fellowship program provides high-impact, high-intensity, and highly-customized programs to help Black founders validate, build, and scale their tech startups.
Underrepresented communities continue to face barriers in accessing lucrative entrepreneurship opportunities created by Canada’s burgeoning technology-driven innovation sector. Black entrepreneurs in particular encounter steep challenges when starting and growing a business —from accessing seed capital to having fewer publicly-recognized role models.
This is why DMZ, Ryerson University’s business incubator, joined forces with a community of founding partners — including Dream Maker Ventures, Shopify, BMO, and the Canadian Women’s Foundation— to develop the Black Innovation Fellowship (BIF) in 2019. The first-in-Canada fellowship program provides tech startups led by Black entrepreneurs with the support of a top university-based incubator network, plus additional programming, mentorship, events, and connections to industry, capital, and an alumni network.
After seeing considerable success from the first year of the Fellowship program, DMZ recognized the need to develop more tailored programming for Black founders and created a Bootcamp program for early-stage founders, as well as the Launchpad program for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Creating an environment where founders can thrive
“Black Canadians have among the lowest participation rate and are among the lowest paid in tech occupations in Canada,” says Abdullah Snobar, Executive Director of the DMZ and CEO of DMZ Ventures. “There’s clearly a gap that needs to be addressed. There’s also an unconscious bias toward Black founders when they’re meeting with venture capitalists (VCs), partners, and customers, and that needs to change.”
The DMZ created BIF to break this perpetual cycle of inequality. “The program is very much in line with what we currently do at the DMZ, which is helping build early-stage and existing tech companies,” says Snobar. “It’s about leveraging our existing core programs to help give access. That’s the key word here: access.”
The Black Innovation Programs — from its Launchpad and Bootcamp to its more advanced Incubator and Accelerator — give Black tech founders access to best-in-class programming, high-calibre mentors, and the right connections to industry and capital.
“To participate, startups should have at least one full-time founder who identifies as Black and a business idea that solves a compelling problem using technology,” says Gbemi Akande, Black Innovation Programs Lead of the DMZ Accelerator. “We also look for their coachability and willingness to be collaborative.”
Moving from challenges to opportunities
Founder & CEO, Beam.city
Despite regularly attending angel investor meetings and business networking events, Zeze Peters, a serial entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Beam.city — a company that provides an all-in-one ad automation and AI optimization platform — wasn’t getting any traction. “People would pre-emptively dismiss me before learning a single thing about my company or my background,” he says.
Founder & CEO, Lagatos
“As Black entrepreneurs, we have the same issues as other entrepreneurs, but we have these additional layers, too,” says Farah Brunache, a BIF participant and the founder and CEO of Lagatos, a company that increases internet access via a web browser that turns computers into servers. “One of my biggest challenges as a Black entrepreneur is being over-mentored and under-funded,” she says.
BIF helps Black founders overcome these challenges. “I’ve had a great experience with the BIF program, and I attribute a lot of that to the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EiRs),” says Brunache. EiRs are subject matter experts who advise participants on sales process, revenue growth, product design, pitch coaching, and more.
Co-Founder & CEO, FitDrive
Participants also benefit from connections to investors and extensive resources. “We consulted with the Professionals-in-Residence on multiple occasions,” says Edgar Brown, co-founder and CEO of FitDrive, an app designed for personal trainers and fitness business owners. “This was super helpful to help us think about intellectual property, founders’ agreements, filing business taxes, and more.”
The importance of funding and supporting Black tech entrepreneurs
BIF participants are seeing tangible results. Brunache went through 13 product iterations and now has paying customers. “Since we joined the DMZ, our team has grown 60% and our revenue rate has grown a few hundred percent,” says Peters. “For our team, we’ve experienced 20% month-over-month growth while in the program,” says Brown.
Supporting Black founders is an essential initiative that needs to continue. “You’re getting unique attempts at solving familiar and unfamiliar problems that have extremely high potential of really disrupting industries,” says Peters.
“We’re a huge part of the global population, which means that we’re not all the same,” notes Brunache. “It’s a huge marketing opportunity of people who aren’t being addressed directly and there are entrepreneurs who have unique insights into these markets. Supporting Black entrepreneurs is essentially supporting everyone in the world.”
Breaking Barriers in the Tech Industry
Black entrepreneurs face disproportionate barriers to business success, such as lack of access to mentorship, learning opportunities, and capital and implicit or unconscious bias when meeting with VCs, partners, and customers.
According to the survey, Black entrepreneurs say their biggest challenges are marketing (51%), networking and learning opportunities (51%), and finance (48%).
In 2018, only 1% of VC dollars went to Black founders, while Black women-backed ventures received a mere 0.2% of all VC funding.
How are DMZ’s Black Innovations Programs making a difference?
Recognizing that there was a gap in support specifically for Black founders, DMZ launched the Black Innovation Programs. It intends to make an impact and see growth in the number of tech companies that are owned by Black entrepreneurs.
The program’s goal is to equip Black founders and aspiring entrepreneurs with the skills and tools needed to thrive, regardless of their stage of growth. DMZ offers hands-on programming, support, and mentorship in areas of sales, product, tech, marketing, hiring, business strategy, CEO leadership, training, and so much more.
DMZ works to help foster a diverse and inclusive Canadian innovation ecosystem. If we continue to ignore the blind spots where racism exists in tech and don’t make conscious intentions to create equitable opportunities for underrepresented founders, our economy will suffer long-lasting effects.