An inclusive community where Black entrepreneurs can tap into various resources to nurture and boost their businesses has launched at the University of Toronto.

The goal of the Black Founders Network is to support entrepreneurs at all stages of their journey – from those just starting out, to those needing help scaling up their business.

Efosa Obano (UTSC BBA 2018), the network’s program manager, says a main priority is to connect Black entrepreneurs to the resources, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities needed to increase the number of successful Black-owned startups across the country.

During the network’s initial consultations with the Black community – many of whom were U of T students or alumni – they found that many Black entrepreneurs were facing challenges stemming from lack of inclusion and representation in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“A lot of people felt uncomfortable when they were trying to build something, but the people who were supposed to help them couldn’t relate to their lived experiences and wanted them to build something different,” says Obano.

He also points to a recent report that shows as many as 76 percent of Black entrepreneurs surveyed in Canada say they thought their race made it harder to succeed as entrepreneurs.

It’s the notion of pulling others up as you climb the ladder. That’s how you truly thrive as a community.

During these initial consultations, it also became clear there was a lack of awareness about existing opportunities and resources at U of T to support their business.

He says the same can be said on the national level. When the federal government launched the Canadian Emergency Business Account in March 2020 to support business owners who were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 70 percent of Black-owned businesses missed out on the grants. He adds that less than two percent of all the venture capital raised in North America went to Black-owned companies, and as recently as 2018, only two of the 300 grants that the federal government offered went to Black-owned businesses.

Based on feedback from these initial consultations, Obano says it was clear that things could be better and there was an opportunity for Black entrepreneurs to create a uniting space. Built by and for the Black community, he says the BFN is engaging founders, investors, allies, and other partners with a desire to advance Black entrepreneurship.

The network, which launched this fall through U of T Entrepreneurship, aims to celebrate Black excellence in entrepreneurship, while also being centred around allyship.

“As part of the University’s strategy to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in confronting anti-Black racism, the Black Founders Network provides a much-needed space for Black founders to learn, grow, and thrive as successful entrepreneurs,” says Christine Allen, associate vice president and Vice-Provost of Strategic Initiatives 

“At the core of its values, BFN will foster allyship, mentorship and sponsorship to nurture and celebrate Black excellence in entrepreneurship.”

There are three main pillars that make up the functioning of the network: CoreAccelerate and Scale.

Black Founders Network
Supporters of the Black Founders Network were consulted during the development of the initiative. 

Core is for starters – those interested in entrepreneurship and looking to learn more as they begin their journey. Through the network, these entrepreneurs can apply for grants of up to $5,000 and access programs that can help them learn how to build a strong team, validate their ideas with target users and draft business plans.

For Accelerate, the network will support entrepreneurs whose ideas are ready to grow and meet the needs of their target market. This cohort-based program is the most structured of the BFN offerings and these entrepreneurs can apply for awards up to $25,000 plus other funds to cover legal and financial startup expenses. They will also get support with product development, value chain partnerships and revenue generation.

At the Scale level, the network will support entrepreneurs whose businesses are already generating revenue but want to scale in order to be sustainable. Up to $50,000 in BFN funding will be available for such companies, in addition to seed investments from the network’s Black-focused investment partners. Startups here will receive dedicated hands-on support, workspace, and mentorship to increase their profitability and market share.

Applications for some of these network elements are expected to open in the new year. Meanwhile, Obano says they are actively looking for more founders and creators to join the network.  

The network was built in consultation with over 100 Black founders and 50 partners earlier this year, while 533 people registered for the launch event on Oct. 7. Since then, they have held five events focused on community building. Obano hopes to get at least 1,000 founders and creators involved in the network annually, including a strong cohort of advisors and community partners. The group also wants to create a directory of Black-owned services and business leaders.

“My ideal story would be to have someone who started in the first stream, go through all the three levels, create their own successful company, and then be able to mentor an aspiring entrepreneur that’s coming in,” he says.  

“It’s the notion of pulling others up as you climb the ladder. That’s how you truly thrive as a community.”