Black in Tech: Startup advice from Black founders who made it

Black in Tech: Startup advice from Black founders who made it

Finding lasting success in Canada’s technology sector is hard. It’s even harder if you’re Black.

The standard advice leaders usually dole out to industry newcomers — hustle, work hard and innovate — isn’t always that helpful for racialized Canadians. It’s not possible to out-hustle racism in the workplace, out-innovate discrimination while raising, or out-run “culture fit” if the culture of a company was never meant to reflect the real world outside of it.

The lack of widespread diversity in Canada’s growing tech industry is confusing considering that it’s been shown, time and time again that diversity leads to better business outcomes. Yet barriers persist. As Amoye Henry, co-founder of the startup Pitch Better, wrote in tech publication BetaKit last summer, “[f]or minority founders, in particular Black Canadian women, their businesses are deemed uninvestable due to a host of preconceived notions. To put it bluntly, the investment industry is historically racist and misogynist.”

For Black Canadians and other visible minorities, success can sometimes seem like a dream that can never be fully realized. In honour of Black History Month we’ve assembled a group of innovators to share lessons learned from their entrepreneurial journey and advice for those who follow in their footsteps.

 

Do you have any advice for BIPOC entrepreneurs who want to succeed in Canada’s tech sector?

“People of colour have always been oppressed. We’ve always had to work harder. We’ve always had to go above and beyond. Our entire lives, we’ve had to deal with this type of stuff, which means that I truly believe that we are better equipped to deal with the challenges of being an entrepreneur because we’re being told ‘no’ to all the time. My advice is to understand that and use your challenges and your adversity you’ve dealt with in life to prepare you better than someone who might have had that silver spoon.”

–Marc Lafleur, co-founder of truLOCAL

Kitchener-based startup recently acquired for $16.8M

“There is a growing community here in Canada of Black people in technology and in entrepreneurship. There are some great networks, so get plugged into that. The second is that there are many successful, excited entrepreneurs and investors in Canada. There are some very good, sincere people who may not necessarily be from our community, but are going to see your brilliance and work with you no matter what and open doors for you. Because there’s going to be quite a few people that won’t, keep going to find those people — you only need a few.”

–Alexandra McCalla, co-founder of AirMatrix

Toronto-based drone startup with angel-backed investment

 

What are your thoughts on quitting your day job to turn your hobby or passion project into a business?

“The question is are you willing to spend the money on this hobby or passion to potentially make money down the road? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then I would say the next step is to check the market. Is it something you can do better than anybody else? Is there a reason people need this? Sometimes you just need something to make you happy and it doesn’t have to make money. Sometimes you start flipping that and try to make money and you’ll start to resent it.”

–Marc Lafleur, co-founder of truLOCAL

Kitchener-based startup recently acquired for $16.8M

“If you love something, if you’re passionate about something, then absolutely go for it, because this is what keeps you going when the road is bumpy.

–Diana Olusanmi, CEO of Future Fertility

Toronto-based fertility startup currently raising

“You want to make sure to keep in mind that 95 per cent of businesses fail, so it’s good to have a safety net. Have a couple of months of savings so that if things don’t turn revenue positive you’ll be alright. You won’t panic and you won’t have to sell your left kidney.”

–Anthony Morgan, founder of Science Everywhere and Freestyle Social

Toronto-based Edtech startup

 

What advice would you give to Black and BIPOC entrepreneurs who want to launch their own business?

Surround yourself with a team of people who are always willing to learn and grow. As you’re starting, you’re going to be pivoting so much. The requirements and the skill sets you need is going to be constantly changing.”

–Alexandra McCalla, co-founder of AirMatrix

Toronto-based drone startup with angel-backed investment

“Find money. I have noticed that there is sometimes a pool of funding for BIPOC and it seems to have grown after Black Lives Matter. There are a lot of  grants available but many people don’t know they exist.”

–Anthony Morgan, founder of Science Everywhere and Freestyle Social

Toronto-based edtech startup

 

Networking is an important part of gaining traction, meeting investors, etc. How can BIPOC entrepreneurs who don’t have those old-school networks or friends connect with others?

“Before COVID, I would say just go to places that you’ll know where they will be and say ‘hi’. During the pandemic, I recommend going to similar online events being hosted online by incubators, accelerators that are often open to the public. Go to places where the people you want to meet will be and don’t be shy.”

–Anthony Morgan, founder of Science Everywhere and Freestyle Social

Toronto-based edtech startup

“I’ve made my biggest connections through LinkedIn. I have met with executives from Amazon. I have talked to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. completely through LinkedIn. And, I think especially now with everyone in the home, I would argue that it might be easier to meet people now.”

–Marc Lafleur, co-founder of truLOCAL

Kitchener-based startup recently acquired for $16.8M

 

Any misconceptions people should know before launching a business?

It’s not enough to have a good idea. There is so much more work and persistence and other things that are related to creating a product. There is a huge difference between the idea of an invention and an actual product.

–Diana Olusanmi, CEO of Future Fertility

Toronto-based fertility startup currently raising

You have to just get in and do the work every day. It’s not glamorous at all. I’ve done everything from filing receipts for the company, filing taxes, making decks, handling the logistics of shipping.”

–Alexandra McCalla, co-founder of AirMatrix

Toronto-based drone startup with angel-backed investment

“Expect a lot of things to go wrong. No one’s road to success is paved in gold. You should expect a lot of problems, because when you expect these things you won’t panic when they rear their ugly head. I find keeping that mindset helps me remain calm.”

–Anthony Morgan, founder of Science Everywhere and Freestyle Social

Toronto-based edtech startup

 

Is there a point during your entrepreneurial journey when one should realize it’s time to throw in the towel?

“One skill I’ve learned that has been super valuable is the art of the pivot. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re constantly figuring where to throw in the towel and where not to.

–Anthony Morgan, founder of Science Everywhere and Freestyle Social

Toronto-based edtech startup

“Of course, every entrepreneur goes into debt, but if you’re not able to see any sort of financial relief to the point where you’re going to have to declare bankruptcy, it’s time. Or, if you see what’s happening to your personal finances and you’re also not getting traction and your product is already out, that’s probably the time to call it quits. If you’re going into debt over a product that’s already out and isn’t getting traction, it might be a bad idea.”

–Marc Lafleur, co-founder of truLOCAL

Kitchener-based startup recently acquired for $16.8M

 

In your opinion, what skill is the most important one to have in your arsenal?

“Problem solving. Your personality, your determination, your ability to think and maneuver with the changing times, that is so important. But for me, the number one thing that I think any entrepreneur needs over anything else is the ability for people to be a sponge and learn and then pivot and adapt to the situation.”

–Marc Lafleur, co-founder of truLOCAL

Kitchener-based startup recently acquired for $16.8M

“The ability to listen. A mistake that some people make is that they think they can just pull it off completely alone. You may know something very, very well but you have to be humble enough to know that you can’t do it completely alone.”

–Diana Olusanmi, CEO of Future Fertility

Toronto-based fertility startup currently raising

“Self-awareness is so important. If you’re not aware of how your actions have consequences, negative or positive, how can you adapt?”

–Anthony Morgan, founder of Science Everywhere and Freestyle Social

Toronto-based edtech startup

 

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