“You can become the unicorn in the room”: Meet the U of T Scarborough alumni advancing Black excellence in entrepreneurship and tech
University of Toronto Scarborough graduate Melisa Ellis (BA 2015), founder of the non-profit social and technology enterprise Nobellum, is joining forces with U of T to help launch at least 100 Black-owned startups by 2025.
“I know firsthand what it’s like to be the only Black person working at a tech company,” said Ellis, whose mission to empower underrepresented students in entrepreneurship and STEM also aims to uplift the Black business community at large.
“When you’re in the market to hire Black talent, or give business to Black vendors, you realize there aren’t enough Black entrepreneurs and professionals working in the tech space today. This is why we are partnering with U of T: to build an ecosystem of support and funding for Black students who are just getting started in the business world.”
Over the next five years, Nobellum will collaborate with U of T Scarborough’s campus-linked accelerators The BRIDGE and The Hub—together with the Black Founders Network and the broader University of Toronto Entrepreneurship community—to deliver training, mentorship, and incubation programs for aspiring entrepreneurs across U of T who identify as Black. Nobellum has pledged CAD$60,000 to create an accelerator fund, which will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the University of Toronto’s True Blue Fund, for a total investment of CAD$120,000 to help participants advance their business ideas and future-proof their careers.
The goal is not only to equip Black students with transferrable skills and knowledge, but also to forge and amplify pathways towards a more diverse and inclusive tech industry for Black entrepreneurs nationwide, says Malcolm Wright (BA 2015; pictured), a fellow U of T Scarborough graduate and director of operations at Nobellum.
“Often we’re scared to ask questions or make mistakes, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship. But if we don’t ask questions, and we don’t embrace changes in technology, then our community—the Black community in particular—will be left behind. Through the partnership with U of T Scarborough, we are giving youth an opportunity to find their voice, to be part of the decision-making table, and to be mentored in such a way that strengthens their position in society,” Wright said.
Where tech meets non-tech
The journey to founding Nobellum began with Ellis earning her BA (a specialization in history with a minor in African studies) at U of T Scarborough, where she also worked and volunteered in many capacities on campus. Ellis says the holistic U of T experience taught her valuable transferrable skills in project coordination, communication, and leadership—all of which buoyed her confidence to pivot and pursue software engineering after graduation.
“I was beginning to see that it doesn’t matter what industry you go into: tech is coming. Whether you’re in law, accounting, you name it. Managers will be asking, ‘How good are you with databases? How good are you with SQL?’ By adding tech to your skill set, you’re training to become a leader across different departments. You can become the unicorn in the room,” Ellis said.
Beginning in spring 2022, Nobellum’s Innovathon Workshop series, delivered in partnership with U of T Scarborough for students in any academic program and year of study who identify as Black, will equip participants with foundational training in business, technology, and entrepreneurship led by U of T faculty and diverse business leaders. Students will go on to compete in the Innovation Pitch Competition—“a remix version of a hackathon,” as Ellis describes it—where successful teams exit the competition with an action plan, and with seed funding from the Nobellum True Blue Accelerator Fund, to help them transform their idea into an actual business. This kicks off a year-long incubation period known as the Innovator Bridging Program, which provides students with unprecedented access to mentorship and resources within the tri-campus U of T Entrepreneurship network as well as through the Nobel Hub: Nobellum’s online directory of essential business service providers (e.g. legal, tech, marketing, accounting, etc.) from the Black community.
“With this system, not only are we supporting innovators, but we’re also taking an intentional approach to socioeconomic development. Being able to have more representation from Black businesses helps us point people in the right direction, which is all about circulating wealth within our target community,” Wright said.
Looking forward, the Nobellum team is pleased to invite participation across U of T and meet with students who are interested in learning how they can join the upcoming Innovathan series. Registration is now open for the overview session on February 26, with opening remarks from Prof. Wisdom Tettey, Principal of the University of Toronto Scarborough. Future programming is slated for U of T Entrepreneurship Week (March 7–11, 2022).
Ellis emphasizes that all students who identify as Black can benefit from the partnership between Nobellum and U of T, no matter how much experience they already have with business and entrepreneurship.
“My recommendation to all students is to take something you’re passionate about and pair it with tech. Just keep trying different things and you will find your fit. Connect, connect, connect,” Ellis said.
“That’s why Nobellum is for me,” added Kathryn Lawrence, Brand Director at Nobellum. “This really is where tech meets non-tech.”