On October 7, U of T Entrepreneurship hosted a launch event for the Black Founders Network (BFN) a program meant to help Black founders launch, fund, and scale their start-ups. 

The launch event included panel discussions from highly accomplished Black entrepreneurs and investors, along with an inspirational speech from guest speaker Michael Seibel, the managing director of the start-up accelerator Y Combinator.

Built by and for the Black community

The concept of the BFN came about in response to barriers faced by Black entrepreneurs that have come into the spotlight over the last two years. 

“The BFN is an intentional, consultative response built with and for the Black community,” wrote Manager of the BFN Efosa Obano and Director of U of T Entrepreneurship Jon French in an email to The Varsity. The pair also explained that the BFN follows recommendations from the Anti-Black Racism Task Force at U of T, such as providing funding structure and advancement opportunities, promoting Black-inclusive spaces, and providing anti-Black racism training to members of the university. 

The BFN is also modelled after a community-centred approach. Participants have access to mentorship opportunities in many forms, including one-on-one peer discussions and advice from experienced entrepreneurs and investors. “With a commitment to allyship and sponsorship, we will ensure that the BFN opens doors and connects participants with relevant business leaders, investors, and potential customers,” Obano and French wrote. 

One of the BFN launch event panellists, Melisa Ellis, talked about the importance of developing programs like the BFN. “Having programs like these on campus not only encourages us to start solution [focused] approaches, but it also allows us to focus on the root problem, which is financial literacy [and the] socioeconomic development of our communities,” she said.

Overall, Obano and French hope that the BFN will help dismantle the structural barriers that Black entrepreneurs and founders face. They recognize that it will take time to “fill the top of the funnel” by educating, empowering, and providing funding and opportunities for aspiring and experienced entrepreneurs to grow their ideas and businesses. “We expect that the BFN will drive a significant increase in the number of Black-led start-ups that emerge from the U of T community,” Obano and French wrote.

Insights from panelists

The event opened with a panel of entrepreneurs who shared their journeys and what their companies do. Panellists included Jeffrey Fasegha, Elsie Amoako, and Ellis. 

Fasegha is a Rotman alum and the founder of Fyyne, a service that connects hair artists with technology and support to help them grow their businesses. Growing up in small towns across North America, Fasegha struggled to find a barber that could cut his hair and wanted to create a solution for Black people going through similar struggles.

Amoako is the founder and chief executive officer of Mommy Monitor. They created a maternal health care application that provides access to support and services along with maternal health education. 

Ellis, a UTSC alum, founded Nobellum, a service that provides a directory of Black-owned businesses to help keep money circulating within the community for longer. During the panel, Ellis explained that when a Black person gets paid, the dollar only stays within the Black community for six hours on average, while in other communities, it usually stays for up to 28 days. 

In a separate interview with The Varsity, Ellis explained that the directory does not only direct people to everyday services such as hairstyling and personal care, but also services that are integral for founders and start-ups, such as legal clinics and accountants.

A wealth of advice and experience

The launch event was a gold mine of entrepreneurial advice and insight, provided by investors and founders alike. 

During the investor panel, a participant asked a question on how to close the financial gap that Black entrepreneurs face because they are often underfunded and struggle to find funding. Melissa Allen, the chief operating officer of Bay Mills Investment Group, urged founders to embrace rejection and put themselves out there. 

“Each time you do go into [a] new meeting, your pitch is going to get stronger,” she said. “The entrepreneurship journey, whether you’re starting a fund or whether you know you are starting a company, [can] be very lonely and very difficult, but also really fun.”

Seibel, the keynote speaker, gave some hard-hitting advice. He encouraged founders to be willing to put in hard work over a long period of time before they would see any results.

“There are too many people out there that look like they’re succeeding quickly. There are too many dishonest press stories about things that look like they happen fast. But when you dig under the surface, you realize that this should take a long time,” Seibel said.

He also emphasized the importance of taking the advice that you know you should take, and making sure that you are staying disciplined to complete the tasks that you know you need to complete as a founder. It is important to talk to your users, keep track of important metrics, and take care of yourself, urged Seibal. “I would argue that genius in the context of business and start-ups is far more… about discipline than intelligence,” he said.

The BFN is open to anyone interested in supporting Black entrepreneurship, including investors, entrepreneurs, corporations, and community networks.