Why Are There So Few Black Entrepreneurs in Canadian Tech?

This story is adapted from the February 29, 2020 episode of the RBC Disruptors podcast, hosted by John Stackhouse.

In 1837, Thornton Blackburn, an escaped slave from the United States, launched Toronto’s first taxi company, “The City,” and turned it into a thriving enterprise that generated a small fortune for Blackburn and his wife, Lucie. The Blackburns became philanthropists and champions of public education in Toronto. Yet, they have all but been forgotten to history. Nearly 200 years later, most Canadians would be pressed to cite the Blackburns or name a single Black entrepreneur. Even though 1.2 million Canadians identify as Black, representing 3.5% of the population, a Black in Canada survey found only 2,000 Black-owned businesses of significant scale. (The problem goes beyond our borders. In 2018, a U.S. study found just 1% of venture-backed founders were Black.)

Among those trying to actively address this problem are Isaac Olowalafe Jr., a Toronto real estate investor, and Abdullah Snobar, executive director of Ryerson University’s DMZ start-up zone. In 2017 they launched the $1-million Black Innovation Fellowship to provide entrepreneurs with access to networks, seed capital, and business partners. 

According to the same Black in Canada survey, Black entrepreneurs say their biggest challenges are marketing, networking and learning opportunities, and finance. Isaac says the tech sector is perhaps the best opportunity for support, given its rapid growth and concentration in major cities like Toronto. 

At the root of all of these challenges, Abdullah stresses one word: access. “[The Black Innovation Fund] allows us to be laser focused on bringing Black entrepreneurs to the forefront; a community that has much less representation in this space, a community that has huge potential, but a community that has less of an ability to associate with the tech community at large,” Abdullah says. “There is little to no access for the Black community in Toronto and Canada to be able to leverage this kind of space because there aren’t enough role models to look towards.”

As a real estate investor Isaac had his eye on places like New York City and San Francisco, where tech and real estate are closely intertwined. But he decided that it was important to help change and build the future of the tech space in Toronto. “I started hearing talk of building diversity a lot within the tech space, but within the tech ecosystem I still saw a lack of visible minorities,” Isaac says. “Instead of complaining about it, I met with Abdullah and talked about how we could bring tech and diversity together. That’s how the idea for the Black Innovation Fellowship came about. Shopify and the Canadian Women’s Foundation came on board and helped launched this program. So far there has been a great response from the community and the tech ecosystem as a whole.”

Now one of the challenges for Abdullah and Isaac is ensuring that the opportunities available through DMZ and the Black Innovation Fund are getting to the people who need is across the country—those who aren’t involved in the university system or have the opportunity to go to the DMZ in Toronto. As a start, they have partnered with different municipalities and rural communities across the country to host workshops and share messaging about the resources available. “But this is a bigger problem than just DMZ,” Abdullah says. “This is something we all have to come at collectively. What we’re trying to prove here within Toronto is that there is a real problem. We know that there are challenges for Black entrepreneurs, and even more for Black female entrepreneurs. We are trying to define what the limitations might be for people. We live in a massive country, so geography will always be a challenge for us, but we want to get into at-risk communities. We’re running programming with high schools in marginalized communities. We’re not just looking for top performing schools. We don’t believe that’s a sign of success. We want to find people with the mindset to perform and develop and become a successful entrepreneur.” 

While Isaac and Abudllah welcome other companies to replicate their diversity efforts, they insist that creating opportunities for Black entrepreneurs is an ongoing, intentional process and not a one-off campaign. “Diversity is when you’re invited to the dance, inclusion is saying come to the floor and actually dance,” Abdullah says. “Corporations and banks really need to offer not just diversity but inclusion. Inclusion helps the economy as a whole. There are a lot of stats out there about how inclusion helps the longevity of a business. If businesses truly take that strategy on, opportunities will be created.”

“We shouldn’t depend on one group or a few groups to roll out the entire program for [Black entrepreneurs] to be able to engage in this space,” Isaac says. “There is a fundamental responsibility to professionalize these things. People need to understand this is important, it needs to become part of how companies do things and not just one-off. When you do that, you send a signal to people from all walks of life that they have a place and are included, that there is room for them to participate. It should be a probable opportunity to grow and scale and succeed.”

Within the next five years, Isaac hopes that there is no need for them to continue to label the program the “Black” Innovation Fellowship. “I hope that you just walk into any tech incubator and you see the citizens that live in the city that are represented in those incubators.”

“We want people to understand how they can be active participants in the entrepreneur and startup world,” Abdullah says. “Startups need to realize the kinds of investments they need to make in people in terms of getting them to grow their own potential within an organization. Companies need to look beyond the scope of typical hires of higher educated people and look at people who have potential and can learn quickly and are incredibly passionate. We need to preserve Canadian talent and make sure that people are looking at this as a place to be.”

The opportunity for the country is enormous. While close to a quarter of Canadians identify as visible minorities, only one in eight small and medium-sized businesses is owned by one. Across every sector, role models are key. In the tech community, we often think of using all available resources, and we should also be thinking of using all available people. As such a diverse country we need to leverage the strength and power of that diversity.

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