First 11 startups in Black Founders Network program introduced at U of T event

Professor Rhonda McEwen, a member of the Black Founders Network leadership council, speaks during a recent kick-off event at ONRamp for the BFN Accelerate program (photo by Duane Cole)

The inaugural cohort of a University of Toronto program to support Black entrepreneurs was introduced last week at an in-person event on the St. George campus.

The kick-off event – hosted by the Black Founders Network (BFN) and U of T Entrepreneurship – welcomed 11 early-stage startups to BFN Accelerate, a three-month, cohort-based accelerator that’s open to companies from the U of T community with at least one Black-identifying founder.

It was the first large scale event in more than two years to be hosted at ONRamp, the university’s co-working and collaboration space for startups. 

“Selecting the cohort was difficult, with many exciting startups being built in our community,” said Efosa Obano, program manager of the Black Founders Network. 

“It will hopefully be the first of many, and we are really inspired by this special group. We are also grateful to the BFN community of mentors, advisers and investors who will be helping us take them to the next level.”

The Black Founders Network, introduced by U of T Entrepreneurship last fall, aims to celebrate Black excellence in entrepreneurship and is built on a foundation of community support and allyship. Its mission is to create a community of Black entrepreneurs at all stages of their journey – from ideation to scaleup – and support them as they launch, fund and scale impactful businesses.

BFN Accelerate is the first of the network’s three main pillars (Core, Accelerate and Scale) to be set in motion.

From left to right: Anu Oladele, Rae Massop and Bimpe Ayeni (photos by Duane Cole)

“This is a major step forward in our execution of the Black Founders Network – part of a larger institutional response to the recommendations in the Anti-Black Racism Taskforce’s final report,” said Jon French, director of U of T Entrepreneurship.

The inaugural 2022 BFN Accelerate cohort comprises a variety of early-stage companies bringing innovative solutions to industries ranging from clean tech and drug discovery to beauty and wellness.

Led by U of T alumnus Anu Oladele, AfterData AI enables organizations to better understand their own data by helping them to access, connect and explore existing data sets in easy and interactive ways. Oladele, who completed his master's degree in information systems at U of T, worked in data architecture and enterprise information management for a decade before launching his company.

Another startup in the cohort, Aworie Health, was founded by U of T alumna and social entrepreneur Rae Massop, who holds a master’s degree in social work from the university. Her company provides convenient, affordable, and accessible mental health services for marginalized Canadians.

Dr. Bimpe Ayeni, a board-certified plastic surgeon and U of T lecturer in the department of surgery in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, founded Blair + Jack with her husband Ade Ajayi. The skincare startup, which formulates its products to address common skincare problems experienced by men, aims to simplify the process of having physician-formulated skincare delivered without a prescription.

"I didn't understand the magnitude of this program until seeing everything that happened at last week's launch event: brilliant people, solid networks, generous humans. I'm thankful to the BFN community for making all of this happen,” said Ayeni.

Over the next three months, Oladele, Massop, Ayeni and their eight fellow cohort members will undergo a first-of-its-kind program that is tailored to the lived experience of the most successful Black entrepreneurs. The key outcomes of which include increased effectiveness of each startup in meeting their customers’ needs, a boost in user growth, more revenue generation and new key-value chain partnerships.

The BFN Accelerate Selection Committee from left to right: Jon French, Elsie Amoako, Craig Wellington, Efosa Obano, Gwyn Chapman and Ruth Mengitsu (photo courtesy of Efosa Obano)

Designed to complement other accelerator programs and opportunities within the U of T Entrepreneurship community across the three campuses, BFN Accelerate provides Black-led startups with access to a network of peers and mentors, resources, education and support with venture funding.

More than 70 Black-led startups were part of the initial applicant pool, which included a competitive selection process featuring in-person presentation and interviews led by the BFN selection committee.  In the end, 11 successful applicants were chosen to join the inaugural cohort with a commitment from the larger BFN community to support all applicants however possible.

The launch event, which doubled as the orientation session for the cohort, concluded when founders presented their business pitches to an audience of BFN supporters, investors, community partners and mentors.

The three-month program will culminate with a Venture Demo Day in the fall when the 11 startups will share their progress and pitch once again to an audience of investors, business leaders and university leaders.

Rhonda McEwen, the outgoing U of T Mississauga vice-principal, academic and dean who was recently appointed president and vice-chancellor of Victoria University in the University of Toronto, is a member of the leadership council which governs the BFN.

She shared words of encouragement and support to the cohort after they showcased their businesses.

“It is an honour to serve on the inaugural BFN Leadership Council, along with UTSC Principal Wisdom Tettey,” McEwen said at the event. “As you begin your journeys through BFN Accelerate, you will have the highest levels of leadership at the university doing our best to support you.”

View the 2022 BFN Accelerate cohort

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