Breaking Down Barriers for Black Entrepreneurs in Canada

Diverse 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 fewer publicly recognized role models. These challenges can be multiple and magnified for Black immigrants and women.

Ryerson University, in collaboration with philanthropist and founder of Dream Maker Ventures Inc. Isaac Olowolafe Jr., is aiming to address these challenges through the creation of the Black Innovation Fellowship (BIF), a first of its kind initiative in Canada. The BIF will support Black entrepreneur-led startups by providing support and mentorship from successful Black professionals, technologists and startup founders, and connect them to wider networks, including the innovation community, alumni and investors. One of those investors—Isaac Olowolafe Jr.—has founded the only venture capital fund in Canada led by a team of Black investors and focused on startups led by diverse founders. The Black Innovation Fellowship is slated to launch in early 2019.

“As a son of African immigrants, my parents constantly stressed the importance of learning and collaboration – the education I received in this city has always inspired me to pay it forward,” said Olowolafe Jr. “Creating the Black Innovation Fellowship with Ryerson felt like another great way to uplift the next generation of entrepreneurs. Tech is moving Toronto forward, so this program will not only help get Black founders’ foot in the door, but also assist them in building something great that can create job opportunities and provide economic empowerment to the community. To help ensure the long-term success of the entrepreneurs, I also created Dream Maker Ventures to invest in founders of colour, accelerating their businesses.”

A 2016 U.S.-based study found that the economy is losing out on nine million jobs and $300 billion in collective income because of the bias faced by businesses with founders from racialized communities. In the tech startup sector, only one per cent of venture-backed companies have a Black founder and two per cent of the venture investors identify as Black.

“Startup incubators are a magnet for industry influencers, investors and high potential companies,” said Richard Lachman, director, Zone Learning at Ryerson University. “But Canada needs to close the diversity gap in these spaces. This program will shine a spotlight on the need to change the face of entrepreneurship in Canada.”

The Black Innovation Fellowship was made possible through Olowolafe Jr.’s lead gift of $200,000, and he is working alongside Ryerson to raise another $800,000, for a total fund of $1,000,000, to launch and run the program.

Ryerson is home to 10 Zones, including the DMZ, which was named the top university-based incubator in the world in 2018 by global ranking agency UBI Global. The Zones provide incubation and acceleration programs for emerging entrepreneurs from across sectors, and connect them with an array of benefits, such as work and meeting space in the heart of downtown Toronto; competitions and awards that can unlock new partnerships and funds; and the backing of a supportive community of peers, experts and staff.

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