Vancouver’s Black tech leaders are creating local change

Historical policy decisions have resulted in a small local Black community, but it seeks to have a big impact.

On the red carpet at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2017, Issa Rae – actor and Hollywood showrunner – declared, “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” That sentiment is not dissimilar to the ethos of Vancouver’s Black tech community.

“One of the things I have always had an appreciation for is how supportive the Black community is,” says Marlon Thompson, founder of Future Capital, which brings community, education, and access to venture capital for underrepresented populations. “I think we have a shared history that leads to unwavering support of one another and really propping up each other's stories and successes, and really celebrating the progress, or in some cases the resilience, of our brothers and sisters.”

Metro Vancouver, though diverse, is not known for its Black population. Statistics Canada puts the number of Black individuals 1.6 percent in 2021 (up from 1 percent in 2016’s census). Yet, the region didn’t always have such a lack of Black representation.

In 1858, Sir James Douglas, the half-Black first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia, invited members of San Francisco’s Black community to move north in anticipation of the gold rush. Approximately 800 people did just that as a means to escape the racism and dehumanization they were experiencing in the United States. This invitation, however, did not live up to its word, as Douglas’ promise of land ownership and voting rights didn’t come to fruition. Instead, the Black community experienced many of the same issues it had prior to coming to the land that would soon become Canada.

The community settled around Hogan’s Alley, where it remained until the City drove individuals out as part of “slum clearing” policies. Bureaucrats marked the area for demolition, eventually creating the Georgia viaduct in its place. Immigration policies also played a role in the reduction of Black migrants to Vancouver, as both the City and Canada had similar laws and discretionary powers that prevented “undesirables” from entering the country.

While Metro Vancouver’s Black population is still small, it is growing. But that means that the city needs to be a place where Black people can thrive.

By creating year-round programming for kids and teens that seeks to reduce systemic barriers for Black participation in tech, Anthonia Ogundele, founder of Ethos Lab, turns Black History Month on its head. “[The idea of] Black futures is so important because I'm really interested in where we're going and ensuring that the future includes us,” she tells Vancouver Tech Journal. “[In tech], what is the opportunity to tap into the Black imagination and project a future that not only includes us, [but] includes everybody? I'm really interested in tapping into a future state that honours and respects Black history.”

These Black futures are represented by the youth that Ogundele and Ethos Lab work with every day. Their STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, Math) programming seeks to engage young people early in their lives to provide them with not only the skills and knowledge to work in these industries, but also to help build the community and confidence required to succeed. While Ethos Lab’s programming is for youth of all backgrounds, the space is designed to centre the Black experience in order to make it truly inclusive.

What Ogundele is doing is addressing a problem Pasima Sule identifies as a leaky pipeline. Sule is the Executive Director of the Black Women Business Network Canada (BWBN Canada), an organization that seeks to address the factors that act as barriers to the economic and professional success of Black women in the country, with the goal of creating lasting generational impact.

“[The tech] pipeline is leaky from pre-K,” she says. “Some of the reasons why you don't see a lot of representation from pre-K to Grade 12 is that the interest-generating opportunities are not there in our community. Access to clubs like [Ethos Lab] were non-existent. Black Girls Code and Black Boys Code are forming talent that is going to fill the tech entrepreneurship spaces in the years to come.”

BWBN Canada conducted a research project on the barriers facing Black women and girls from entering Western Canada’s tech ecosystem. The study found that not only are Black people underrepresented in the tech sector compared to the overall population, the gap widens for Black women. Many factors contribute to these numbers, creating a systemic problem: income inequality, education funding in low-income areas, the use of jargon that creates barriers, pay inequities, workplace culture, unconscious bias, and a lack of mentors, among others.

“It's not that Black people don't have ideas,” Sule says of these difficulties. “It's not that they don't have potential. [It’s that] too many barriers prevented them from getting into a space where they can innovate – where they can have ideas, test ideas.”

The widespread issues that Ogundele and Sule are seeking to address differ from the ones Thompson wants to tackle. Data from Crunchbase in 2022 showed that Black founders in the U.S. received only 1 percent of venture capital, down from 1.3 percent in 2021, but in line with trends from the past several years. This problem presents two possible solutions. One, to try to convince a predominately white, male industry that Black-founded companies are worthy of their investment. Or two, to change what the investors look like. Thompson opted for the latter.

Future Capital seeks to equip people who are underrepresented in tech and venture capital with skills in financial literacy and leadership, as well as industry knowledge to make informed decisions about investing as a means to generate wealth. As Thompson puts it, “We're trying to create a room that looks like the rest of the country and we're trying to do that at scale. The opportunities that are missed when we don't fund a diverse set of founders with a diversity of perspectives are vast, and I don’t think we even know what we’re missing out on.”

Another barrier Sule says the Black community experiences is the lack of social capital and networks that enable success. Reitium co-founder Michael Moll experienced this when he moved to Vancouver from Kenya on a scholarship to UBC’s Sauder School of Business. Living on the west side of Vancouver and being interested in tech was isolating, he said, because of the lack of people who looked like him, including mentors and success stories.

Reitium is a real estate investing startup based on fractional investing that operates on the blockchain. It closed a $2.3 million seed round in 2022. The company, Moll says, was inspired by the 75-year-old mother of one of his co-founders, who wanted to pool her money with her friends to invest in real estate. For as little as $100, people can access a market that is beyond reach for many, including many immigrants — such as Black communities — who lack generational wealth.

While Vancouver may not have a large Black population, it does have leaders in the tech industry who are committed to addressing the systemic issues that prevent Black participation. That includes those helping secure the early-age STEAM pipeline like Ogundele, or execs like Sule, who are researching and creating social capital within the Black community. Thompson and Future capital are addressing the investment problem from the top down, while Moll is an ambassador who’s helping people that don't use technology because they don't think it's for them.

One thing is for sure: Vancouver’s future Black tech industry has no shortage of role models.

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