Black tech entrepreneur event series celebrates diverse perspectives and future leaders

A new events series is giving Black Albertan tech entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their businesses to investors and connect with peers in the industry.

Innovate Calgary, the innovation company and business incubator of the University of Calgary, started the Black Founders in Tech series in November. Its first event saw seven Black tech leaders pitch 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 of a series of events that will run into 2023.

Some of the company founders taking part said a Black-focused event is both an important symbolic and celebratory move. They also said the event series provides a platform for them to showcase their businesses and what makes their contributions to the industry unique.

“We listened to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] founders, and they said, ‘We want to be celebrated and 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 applied to take part in the first Black Founders in Tech event.

Creating a more inclusive innovation industry

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

“More than anything we realized there were 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 there’s a place for them was the biggest thing.”

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

“A journey of a diverse entrepreneur is a little bit different, especially when you’re first- or second-generation. A key component is that you’re not necessarily having the relationships in the ecosystem. And you might not have that uncle or dad or that person to write you your first check,” he said.

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

Founders who got to compete and pitch their ideas said the event was as much about connecting with the Black tech community, and championing it, as it is about prizes and the potential for wooing investors.

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

“Just to see what other BIPOC people are doing in the city is something that you’re not privy to, so it was an awesome experience and definitely scary because it’s like ‘These are my people’, but it was amazing,” she said .

‘Representation definitely matters’

Paye said event participants were paired up with mentors before the pitch, along with a coach who helped them prepare to present to a packed audience.

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

She said the event series is also about giving young, up-and-coming tech leaders a platform to aim for 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 pitch competition, selling his company PrePad, which reduces well pad planning times for oil and gas producers via a drilling and completions simulator, challenging in-house software solutions used by many producers.

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

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

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

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

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

November’s was the first in a series of events that will showcase the works and ideas of BIPOC and rural tech founders from across the province.

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

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