U of T’s Convocation Hall played host to over 200 entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, students and community supporters, all gathered to recognize the Black Founders Network (BFN), which celebrated its one-year anniversary and inaugural BFN Accelerate cohort graduation on October 18.
“One of the things I loved most about this cohort was their willingness to learn, and I can see the pride in their growth on their faces today,” said Rhonda McEwen, president and vice-chancellor of Victoria University at the University of Toronto, in her opening address. “You took this journey, and you took the chance to come along with the BFN and we are very proud of what you have all accomplished.”
At the event, 11 Black-led startups presented to a panel of investor judges, which included Alisha Golden, investments lead at Techstars, Craig Wellington, executive director of the Black Opportunity Fund and Tiffany Callender, chief executive officer of FACE Coalition.
Five ventures split $45,000 in prizes, which were awarded to the top BFN Accelerate cohort startups who took to the stage after a four-month entrepreneurial bootcamp. The program also included access to $50,000 in startup services funding for all participating startups and programming tailored to the lived experiences of successful Black entrepreneurs. This year’s Top Venture Awards went to Reeddi, first-place prize; Fyyne, first runner-up; HDAX Therapeutics, second runner-up; Woo Your Boo, Cohort’s Choice Award; and Elev, People’s Choice Award.
“What brought me to the BFN was the community of like-minded founders all working to build amazing things,” said Olugbenga Olubanjo, founder of Reeddi. “The community is designed to help us grow, find solutions to challenges, and meet our desired outcomes. What I loved most was learning from the experts who were engaged with us through BFN Accelerate.”
The evening also featured a panel discussion moderated by Edgar Brown, growth marketer, coach and longtime BFN supporter, in conversation with trailblazing Black founders Tefari Bailey, chief executive officer of Hutsy Financial and Claudette McGowan, chief executive officer of Protexxa. The two founders shared their inspirational success stories and offered candid advice to the next generation of Black innovators.
The BFN was launched by U of T Entrepreneurship in October 2021 following nine months of consultations with more than 100 Black-entrepreneurs and 50 Black community organizations and is part of a larger institutional response to the recommendations in the Anti-Black Racism Taskforce’s final report.
Its mission is to create an inclusive community for Black entrepreneurs at all stages of their journey – from ideation to scaleup – and support them as they launch, fund and scale impactful businesses. The network is built on a foundation of community support and allyship, with a vision of a thriving community of Black founders and their startups; from every industry and every stage.
“We are overwhelmed with gratitude for all the community support BFN has received in its first year,” shared Efosa Obano, program manager for the Black Founders Network. “Everything we have achieved together in such a short time validates the need for what we are building. It’s only year one, and I’m very excited for what is to come.”
Since launching, the BFN has hosted and supported more than 30 mission-aligned events, engaged with over 50 mentors and advisors, and received support from 20+ community and corporate organizations. Plus, the network has received more than 2,000 registrations from current and aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, students, alumni, staff, faculty and organizations looking to join and support the Black community.
At the event, KPMG was introduced as a Black Founders Network corporate supporter. Their support will provide grants to early-stage Black founders through the True Blue BFN Smart Start Grants – powered by KPMG.
“Through our relationship with the BFN, we hope to not only dismantle systematic barriers to corporate support for Black founders, but also, to be a resource for these entrepreneurs who are starting their journey,” shared Alison Rose, executive sponsor of KPMG in Canada’s Black Professionals Network and partner and actuary at the firm.
“A key focus for the year ahead is building on our momentum to grow and better support the ecosystem by launching our digital community platform,” said Obano. “We also aim to build out the two additional BFN pillars (Core and Scale) to support founders at those stages of their journey. This work will be made possible by strong support from new partners like KPMG, and future sponsors who we continue to seek out.”
BFN Accelerate startups to watch
Part of a cohort of strong, Black-led startups, these are some ventures to watch in the year ahead:
Co-founded by U of T alumnus Anu Oladele, Afterdata AI enables organizations to become literate about their own data by helping them access, connect and explore existing datasets in easy and interactive ways. The AI startup recently raised $250,000 CAD in funding from a US based VC firm, with a focus on growing their customer base.
Founded by U of T alumna and social entrepreneur Rae Massop, Aworie provides convenient, affordable, and accessible mental health services for marginalized Canadians. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto. With quickly growing revenues, the healthcare startup recently crossed the 500-customer mark and boasts an impressive 88% retention rate.
Blair + Jack
The skincare startup was launched by Dr. Bimpe Ayeni, a board-certified plastic surgeon and U of T lecturer in the department of surgery in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. She co-founded Blair + Jack to address common skincare problems experienced by men and simplify the process of having physician-formulated skincare delivered without a prescription. The startup recently won the Ella Express Pitch Contest and got onto the shelves of Black Owned Toronto at Scarborough Town Centre.
Co-founded by U of T alumni Melisa Ellis, Malcolm Wright and Kathryn Lawrence, NobelHub connects startups and existing businesses with the most essential services they need to grow and scale their ventures. Initially focused on the Black community, it is a one-stop-shop that offers services such as legal, accounting, marketing, technology development and business planning. The platform is currently in pilot mode with over 60 entrepreneurs and 70 vendors using the platform for their business needs.
Launched by U of T alumnus Chevon Riley, NORM provides natural cosmetics to individuals wanting an alternative to synthetic products with harmful ingredients. The organic skincare startup wants customers to know exactly what they put on their body, so it handcrafts its almond balm with only natural ingredients, tailoring its formula for those with dry or sensitive skin. NORM recently won the UTSC Hub Pitch Competition with a $5,000 CAD Prize.
Founded by Jean Marie Uwabeza, Yuko AI provides accurate and efficient AI-powered software solution to help dermatology clinics communicate, triage and manage skin health issues more effectively online. The SaaS startup took home the Next AI Top Startup Award at Startupfest in Montreal this past July.