Members of the Black community face barriers in accessing lucrative entrepreneurship opportunities created by Canada’s 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 - creating business support for Black-owned tech start-ups crucial to closing the opportunity gap.
At a first glance, it seems Toronto’s diversity is well represented in the tech industry. According to a 2020 report by the organizations Talent X and the Black Professionals in Tech Network, tech workers in the GTA and southwestern Ontario reported that 50 per cent of their colleagues are white, 43 per cent are visible minorities, and 7 per cent are Indigenous. However, Black Torontonians are not proportionately represented in terms of those who identify as a visible minority in tech.
A 2016 study by the Brookfield Institute found that only 2.6 per cent of tech workers in Canada were Black and that Black tech employees were the lowest paid. Black Canadians make up 3.5 per cent of the overall population and 7.5 per cent of the Toronto population, according to the 2016 census. As these numbers highlight, the importance of helping to bring Black entrepreneurs to the forefront has never been greater.
The Collision Conference took over Toronto from June 20 to 23, 2022, with over 35,000 attendees from 130 different countries, and featured over 1,500 start-ups, 197 of which are led by people from under-represented communities. What was a key highlight for myself and others was the number of Black entrepreneurs and leaders that were on hand for this event. This was a great chance for many attendees to learn from those that understand the challenges of achieving success in the tech industry; as a black professional.
Here are some of the standout key speakers from the Black community who are leading the transformation of the tech industry in Canada and beyond, that stood out most to me at the conference:
Wesley Hall – Founder & Chairman KSSHoldCo
Wes is the co-founder and chairman of KSSHoldCo. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and is a Dragon on CBC's Dragon's Den. The Globe & Mail has called him one of the nation’s “most influential powerbrokers,” and Canadian Business magazine named him one of the “most powerful business people” in 2016. Wes has become the face of hope and opportunity for millions of people in the Black community.
Anie Akpe – Founder, African Women in Tech
Anie is the founder of African Women In Tech (AWIT), an Africa-based organization that assists girls and women with education and mentorship to succeed in the technology industry. She is also the founder of IBOM and of Inova8tiv magazine, the latter spotlights under-represented players in tech. Anie is also an advocate for diversity and inclusion within the tech industry. In her previous role as VP, Mortgage Operations at Municipal Credit Union, Anie managed a $950 million dollar portfolio.
Marlon Thompson – Founder & CEO Future Capital
Marlon is the founder and CEO of Future Capital. The company is focused on developing a new, more diverse cohort of start-up investors at the angel, syndicate and LP levels. Marlon has spent the last few years building a more diverse start-up and innovation ecosystem by coaching and connecting newcomers, women, LGBTQ+ and other communities underrepresented in North America’s capital markets.
Kelly Burton, PHD – Co-Founder & CEO at Black Innovation Alliance
Kelly is the CEO of Black Innovation Alliance, a US-based coalition of ecosystem leaders increasing Black access to the innovation economy. Kelly is the CEO of Founders of Color, helping entrepreneurs of colour to scale their businesses. She also serves as a mentor for numerous entrepreneur communities including SXSW Pitch, Praxis Labs and Echoing Green. She is also a LinkedIn super-user with more than 70,000 followers.
Tope Awotona – Founder & CEO, Calendly
Tope is the founder and CEO of Calendly, a scheduling automation company bringing individuals, teams and enterprises together across the meeting lifecycle. Tope is also on the board of directors at Salesloft. Tope holds a degree in Management Information Systems from the University of Georgia. He is the recipient of the 2021 Atlanta Business Chronicle Most Admired CEO Award and 2019 Comparably Best CEOs award.
Even though 1.2 million Canadians identify as Black, a Black in Canada survey found only 2,000 Black-owned businesses of significant scale. The problem goes beyond our borders. In a U.S. study in 2018, only 1 per cent of venture-backed founders were Black. According to the same survey, Black entrepreneurs say their biggest challenges are marketing, networking and learning opportunities, and finance.
The Toronto Region, one of the most diverse places in the world, views its diversity as a strength and tool to ensure people can achieve success; no matter their cultural background.
In addition to the 18 universities and colleges across the region that ensure businesses have access to an incredible and growing talent pool, we also have a wide range of programs to support Black-owned businesses as they scale up in our communities. These programs provide mentorship, connections to industry, capital and an alumni network to support growth. Here are just a few of the programs available to businesses today:
Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP): This program is a partnership between the Government of Canada, Black-led business organizations, and financial institutions. The BEP is supported by an investment of up to $221 million over four years to support Black Canadian business owners and entrepreneurs.
Toronto Metropolitan University Digital Media Zone (DMZ) - Black Innovation Program: This is a first-in-Canada program that will provide startups led by Black entrepreneurs with programming support from the DMZ at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Sheridan College – Black Mentorship Inc.: This mentoring program connects Black youths, professionals, and entrepreneurs at different stages of personal and professional growth with experienced mentors. Its one thing to attract talent, but here in the Toronto Region, companies also have an easier time retaining talent because of our excellent quality of life and inclusive society.
At Collision 2022, many Black entrepreneurs and leaders shared their stories of achieving success in the tech industry; while also highlighting that the entrepreneurial and innovation space is not the most equitable, especially when it comes to Black entrepreneurs.
While close to a quarter of Canadians identify as visible minorities, only one in eight small and medium-sized businesses is owned by one. Across every sector, role models are key. In the tech community, we often think of using all available resources, and we should also be thinking of using all available people. As such a diverse country, we need to leverage the strength and power of that diversity.
Collision 2022 was a great reminder that an individual from any walk of life can be successful; with the right people, resources and support behind them. It’s important to continue to have the conversations around diversity, no matter how challenging they can be. That’s what makes the next Collision in 2023 in Toronto from June 26 to 29, 2023 a must-attend event!
To learn and be a part of Collision 2023, visit their website (click here)