Entrepreneurship

Black tech entrepreneur event series celebrates diverse perspectives and future leaders

A new series of events gives Black Albertan tech entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their businesses to investors and network with industry peers.

Innovate Calgary, the University of Calgary’s innovation company and business incubator, launched the Black Founders in Tech series in November. At its first event, seven black tech leaders pitched their ideas to a packed crowd of investors and peers, with competitors pitching for cash prizes and business support to help advance their companies.

It was the first in a series of events that will last until 2023.

Some of the company founders who participated said the black-centric event was an important symbolic and celebratory move. They also said the event series provides them with a platform to showcase their business and what makes their contribution to the industry unique.

“We listened to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] founders, and they said, “We want to be celebrated, not just be a corner of the innovation ecosystem,” said Jerome Morgan, senior innovation manager at Innovate Calgary.

Morgan said more than 22 people from across the province signed up to participate in the first Black Founders in Tech event.

Creating a more inclusive innovation industry

Proposals for the event came from founders of companies focused on oil and gas, construction, housing, as well as the world of sports and fundraising companies.

“More than anything, we realized that there are more founders in the ecosystem that we didn’t know about, and it’s about how we support them,” Morgan said.

“When you do inclusive innovation, it’s a better future for everyone, and people feeling like there’s a place for them is the biggest thing.”

Morgan said it’s also important to recognize the challenges BIPOC business owners face that other company founders may not have to think about.

“The journey of being a diversified entrepreneur is a little different, especially when you are first or second generation. The key component is that you don’t necessarily have relationships in the ecosystem. And maybe you don’t have that uncle or dad or that person to write your first check,” he said.

Jerome Morgan of Innovate Calgary says celebrating and highlighting black-owned businesses in a meaningful way is exciting and important work. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Founders who had to compete and pitch their ideas said the event was about connecting with and advocating for the Black tech community, as well as the rewards and potential to attract investors.

“It was really nice to be in a room full of peers.” It was great to be in a space with people who see you for who you are and understand the same limitations you all have in the industry,” said Ange Paye, co-founder of software company Voto, an engagement platform focused on charitable giving for businesses that want to to run campaigns together with charities.

“Just seeing what other BIPOC people are doing in the city is something you’re not familiar with, so it was a great experience and definitely scary because it’s like, ‘These are my people,’ but it was amazing,” she said.

‘Representation is definitely important’

Paie said event participants were paired with mentors before the pitch, along with a coach to help them prepare to pitch to the packed crowd.

“It really shows how many of us are here and how many of us want to make a difference,” Paye said.

She said the event series also aims to give young, up-and-coming tech leaders a platform to aspire to in the future, as well as a valuable networking opportunity to share experiences, relationships and ideas with other leaders and potential investors of all ages and races.

Sean Hervo placed third in the competition, selling his company PrePad, which reduces well planning time for oil and gas producers through drilling and completion simulators, challenging the in-house software solutions used by many producers.

“Representation is definitely important,” Hervo said. “I don’t think about it that much, but if I can inspire a young kid who looks like me and who now believes they can be an entrepreneur or a co-founder, then that’s fantastic.”

Shawn Hervo was a finalist in the first Black Founders in Tech event and says representation is important for current and future leaders in the sector. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Hervo said the competition was “affirming and rewarding” and allowed him to make greater connections with the investor community.

“U [the] industry doesn’t have that many colorful faces in one room, and it was pretty cool. You could feel the love and energy inside. We were high-fiving and cheering each other on.”

Other successful proposals included a digital platform called Road Aider that connects people in need of roadside assistance with service providers, along with an app called Elev that makes renting easier for students, helping them find a home and build credit scores by paying rent on time.

November was the first in a series of events that will showcase the work and ideas of BIPOC and rural technology founders from across the province.

The founders of BIPOC will be the focus of the second event in the new year.

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