Ryerson’s DMZ to expand programming for Black entrepreneurs

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With support from leading Canadian innovators, the DMZ Black Innovation Fellowship program will pave pathways to success for Black-led startups in Canada.

TORONTO, June 23, 2020 /CNW/ – The DMZ Black Innovation Fellowship (BIF), a program dedicated to providing Black tech founders with more equitable entrepreneurial opportunities, announced a $1 million program expansion as the initiative moves into its second year. 

L-R (top row): Abdullah Snobar (Executive Director, DMZ and CEO of DMZ Ventures) Gbemisola Akande (Program Lead, DMZ) Isaac Olowolafe Jr. (Founder of Dream Maker Ventures Inc. and BIF Founding Partner) and Mohamed Lachemi (President, Ryerson University); (bottom row): Alexandra McCalla (Co-founder of AirMatrix) Harley Finkelstein (COO, Shopify) Lindsay Taub (Entrepreneur) and Newton Asare (Venture Partner of Dream Maker Ventures) (CNW Group/Ryerson’s DMZ Ventures)

A new commitment comes from Ottawa-based couple Harley Finkelstein, COO, Shopify and entrepreneur Lindsay Taub, combined with a promise from Ryerson University to match new major donations of up to $500K. 

The $1M funding goal announced today will enhance programming initiatives and ensure BIF has the capacity to immerse more Black founders in a space that meets their unique needs, and help break down barriers for business growth. BIF aims to serve more than five times the number of startups currently in the program in the next year. 

A first-of-its-kind program in Canada, DMZ’s BIF launched in May 2019 in partnership with Dream Maker VenturesShopifyBMO, and Canadian Women’s Foundation to strengthen Black entrepreneurship and advocate for race equity, which had long been missing in the tech startup ecosystem. DMZ worked with early-stage Black startups to create an environment where founders could thrive, with access to best-in-class programming, high-calibre mentors and the right connections to industry and capital. To date, 10 companies have been accepted into the program, including five companies with Black woman-identified founders. Some of these companies include: FiTDriveDayaLensTrebbleBeam.city, and AirMatrix

“We really appreciate that the Black Innovation Fellowship is not separate – it is seamlessly integrated into the DMZ. We do not need separate programs, we just need space held for us,” said Alexandra McCalla, Co-founder of DMZ startup, AirMatrix. “There is so much history here (Black people in tech). There may only be two Black people in your office, but it’s really important for you to take the time to think about how their experiences are different from yours.”

“It’s remarkable to see the impact of the Black Innovation Fellowship in its first year,” said Abdullah Snobar, Executive Director, DMZ and CEO, DMZ Ventures“This additional support will allow us to keep the momentum going for BIF. We look forward to unlocking more opportunities for early-stage Black startups, and we encourage tech leaders to join us in fighting for underrepresented founders’ rights within Canada’s startup landscape.”

Donors Harley Finkelstein and Lindsay Taub are optimistic that more Canadian tech leaders will climb on board to support the Black Innovation Fellowship. “Lindsay and I care deeply about entrepreneurs because we are entrepreneurs ourselves. But not every entrepreneur starts from the same place, with the same opportunities. There are so many barriers along the way for underrepresented entrepreneurs — that’s why they’re underrepresented,” said Finkelstein. “What we love about this program is that it helps to level the playing field for Black tech founders by providing them with more equitable entrepreneurship opportunities, the kind of opportunities Lindsay and I have had, like mentors, capital, and connections. There’s much more to do, but our hope is that this expansion will be a good start to enable more Black voices across Canada’s tech community. We’re calling on all Canadian leaders and investors to join us.”

According to Isaac Olowolafe Jr., Founder of Dream Maker Ventures Inc., and BIF Founding Partner, the next iteration of the program will eliminate impediments to success for founders who face heightened barriers to business growth, and will give startups the support needed to extend financial runways. “Historically, the startup landscape has not treated minority businesses equally. BIF will change that – it allows more Black entrepreneurs to get a foot in the door, and will ultimately help close the gap.”

The announcement aligns with other initiatives that BIF is working on within the ecosystem, including a coalition of innovation leaders currently being incubated at MaRS, says Snobar. “We’re optimistic that multi-faceted programs across the ecosystem will help steer Canada’s innovation economy in the right direction, and work towards ensuring every Canadian has equal opportunity, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.”

For more information about BIF and how to get involved, please contact Gbemisola AkandeProgram Lead, DMZ at gbemiakande@ryerson.ca