'Become the unicorn in the room': Alumna partners with U of T to launch 100 Black-owned startups by 2025

Melisa Ellis

Melisa Ellis, a U of T alumna and founder of non-profit social and technology enterprise Nobellum, says she wants to empower underrepresented students in entrepreneurship and STEM subjects, while giving a lift to Black businesses overall (photo supplied)

Melisa Ellis (BA UTSC 2015), a University of Toronto graduate and 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 start-ups by 2025.

“I know first-hand what it’s like to be the only Black person working at a tech company,” says Ellis, whose mission to empower underrepresented students in entrepreneurship and STEM subjects 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 accelerators The BRIDGE and The Hub – together with the Black Founders Network and the broader U of T Entrepreneurship community – to deliver training, mentorship and incubation programs for aspiring entrepreneurs across U of T who identify as Black.

Nobellum has pledged $60,000 to create an accelerator fund, which will be matched by the University of Toronto’s True Blue Fund for a total investment of $120,000 to help participants advance their business ideas and future-proof their careers.

Malcolm Wright
Malcolm Wright, a U of T Scarborough graduate and director of operations at Nobellum, says the partnership will help create pathways to a more diverse and inclusive tech industry (photo supplied)

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, 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,” Wright says.

“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.”

Where tech meets non-tech 

The journey to founding Nobellum began during Ellis’s undergrad at U of T Scarborough. She says her U of T experience gave her valuable transferrable skills in project co-ordination, 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,” says Ellis.

Beginning this spring, Nobellum’s Innovathon Workshop series – led by U of T faculty and diverse business leaders, and 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. 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.

The event 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 (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,” says Wright. “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.”

Looking forward, the Nobellum team is inviting participation from across U of T and will meet with students who are interested in learning how they can participate in the upcoming Innovathon series. 

An overview session is scheduled for Feb. 26, with opening remarks from Professor Wisdom Tettey, U of T vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough.

Future programming is slated for U of T Entrepreneurship Week, which runs March 7 to 11.

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,” says Ellis.

“That’s why Nobellum is for me,” adds Kathryn Lawrence, brand director at Nobellum. “This really is where tech meets non-tech.” 

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