At a time when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is front and center and topics such as the role of policing are subject to much-needed scrutiny, as two individuals passionately committed to social change, we believe it is important to also broaden the discussion to include economic opportunity.
According to the most recent census, approximately 1.2 million Canadians self-identify as Black. Yet a 2015 survey, conducted for Black in Canada, found that there were only 2,000 Black-owned businesses of any significant scale across the country. Moreover, it is quite likely, in these days of COVID-19 economic contraction, that the number today is smaller still.
The lack of opportunity for racialized individuals is particularly acute in the tech sector. Much attention has been paid to Silicon Valley and the fact that only about 3% of the tech workforce there is Black. In Canada, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, only 2.6% of Canada’s 935,000 tech workers are Black.
We need to focus on where we can do better – fostering and nurturing Black entrepreneurship.
The reality is that Canadian tech start-ups and their venture capital and angel capital partners are overwhelmingly male and white. To the extent there has been participation by individuals of color, it has typically been members of Canada’s East- and South-Asian community.
Laudable efforts to rectify the gender imbalance are underway. But it is also imperative to advance the interests of Black Canadians, male and female.
There is no question that the tech sector is, and will remain, an engine of economic growth and job creation for the foreseeable future. The real question is how we get Black Canadians not only participating in the sector in greater numbers, but gaining access to the capital necessary to create and grow new sector entrants. This, in turn, will have a ripple effect in terms of Black-to-Black mentorship and helping build community pride and cohesiveness.
We believe there are several important avenues available to accomplish this.
One is Dream Maker’s Diversity Fund, founded by one of us (Isaac) and where Jay, a global expert in diversity inclusion and emerging tech investment, serves as a senior Advisory Board member.
Dream Maker’s Diversity Fund is Canada’s first Black-led Venture Capital (VC) Fund. Its mission is to #ChangeTheNarrative by increasing access to capital for those previously underserved, including individuals of colour, women, LGBTQ+, immigrants and refugees.
It is purposely a for-profit VC, one that believes that if opportunities are presented to Black entrepreneurs and other under-served (and under-estimated) communities, success, including economic success, will follow.
Studies show that diversity brings more creativity to enterprises – and unique perspectives. This is especially true in the tech sector, including cutting edge AI applications. For example, early facial recognition applications, initially deemed successful by their developers, failed to consider racial traits and differences. A racialized team would have likely avoided such a costly and project-delaying error.
Another available avenue is the Black Innovation Fellowship (BIF), a partnership between Ryerson – DMZ, one of Canada’s leading tech incubators and accelerators, and Dream Maker Ventures. Supported by strong strategic partners, including Shopify, BMO and The Canadian Women’s Foundation, start-ups led by Black entrepreneurs will be provided with the strengthening support of a top university-based incubator network, as well as additional programming, mentorship, events, and connections to industry, capital and an alumni network, to support their success and growth.
Over the course of this fast-paced program, selected teams will work closely with dedicated, experienced industry experts and mentors in an embedded environment and will have access to growth and digital experts; sector connections; programming, including relevant workshops and conferences; workspaces; and accommodations, including affordable housing in downtown Toronto.
The Black Innovation Fellowship program, much like the Diversity Fund, is by design ambitious. The goal is to have 50 Black-led businesses up and running in the next few years. These individuals would in turn serve as role models and mentors for aspiring members of the community, creating a virtuous cycle of success.
We sometimes forget that Toronto is ranked #3 among North America’s top technology hubs, behind only the Bay area, including San Jose, and Greater Seattle. And that Canada as a whole has several such centers, including Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa-Kanata, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver.
We would be wise to engage all available talent in this highly competitive sector. And, in these days of heightened concern for the position of Black Canadians in society, it is especially important that we fully integrate that community into the fastest growing and most promising avenue of economic advancement.