Overlooking the heart of Downtown Toronto at Yonge-Dundas Square, the DMZ is a world-leading incubator for tech start-ups based in Ryerson University and is committed to providing a space for entrepreneurs to focus on scaling their business. From networking and investment opportunities to being placed in a community of like-minded individuals, the incubator connects founders with tailored support to meet them where they are.
For Black entrepreneurs, gaining support to merge a higher purpose with their venture to challenge social issues can be difficult. The DMZ’s new Social Impact stream, powered by the Black Innovation Program (BIP) and Unilever Canada, aims to change that narrative.
“One of our values is our 'founders first' mentality, so it’s more about helping the founders succeed than all the business metrics,” says Janey Buzugbe, the Black Innovation Programs and Partnerships Head.
As Canada’s first program dedicated to empowering Black entrepreneurs, the BIP has assisted over 590 Black-identifying founders across various levels in their entrepreneurial journey. Buzugbe says it was important for the DMZ to expand its resources with a Social Impact stream based on a rise in consumers opting for ethical brands. The 2021 Deloitte Global Millennial survey pinpoints respondents as value-driven, where millennials believe the goal of businesses should centre people and society. Alongside a strong market, a rich talent pool exists in those looking to imprint a legacy of social change.
“When we started supporting Black founders specifically, we noticed a lot of it is focused on community and social benefits,” explains Buzugbe. “So there was ever so much more that rising need to support founders who were in the social impact space, and it was just a question of time and capacity.”
Though established in 2019, the BIP has already positioned Black entrepreneurs in residence to reach a global stage. Buzugbe relates the success of SmartTerm, an IT company that facilitates online learning for educators and has currently assisted over 30,000 users across 13 different countries.
SmartTerm started out in Jamaica, and with the help of the DMZ has now incorporated its business in Canada, expanded into the North American market and is eyeing a global rollout.
Andie.Work, a digital platform that helps small businesses deliver rapid service experiences to their customers has also seen prosperity after being accepted into the incubator. Companies use Andie.Work to let their customers check wait times in the store, join a virtual queue and become notified when it's their turn alongside other features. They can then leverage data surrounding foot traffic and consumer behaviours within their stores to drive business decisions.
Buzugbe explains the resources offered by the BIP have catapulted Andie.Work to process and provide over 1 million real-time wait time predictions covering locations in the U.S and Canada, as well as aiding to recruit 24 small business clients.
Generally, founders are supported in the BIP through a wide range of resources; introductions to funders dedicated to Black-led ventures, partnership and pilot opportunities, and access to marketing and PR support. The new program will be designed around similar pillars, she says, to ensure companies will be set up for the same trajectory of success.
The Social Impact stream’s first session will run for a six-month duration with 15 selected Black-led social ventures, beginning in September and lasting until March 2022. The companies will experience part-time programming to ensure flexibility for participants. Buzugbe explains the new program will expand on current resources offered through the BIP including but not limited to expert-led workshops, peer-to-peer as well as mentorship sessions, and exclusive community events. Dedicating a stream specific to Black-led social enterprises will enable the BIP to go beyond tech ventures and cater to the unique challenges faced by those also involved in the social impact sphere.
The program will be delivered in partnership with Unilever Canada, an industry-leading retailer and consumer goods company, home to household names such as Dove, Axe, Vaseline, and Ben & Jerry’s. The enterprise shelves products ranging from Beauty & Home Care to Food and Refreshments gaining sales across 190+ countries, and has generated over $50.7 billion last year.
“Unilever Canada focuses on sustainable, inclusive and purposeful business practices. So it made really great sense to have this partnership in delivering this new stream. Participants can also expect to receive hands-on support in areas like marketing. Marketing as a social entrepreneur is very different, selling specifically for social enterprises is also nuanced with things like design thinking, obtaining financing, raising capital and business law.”
The Social Impact stream will also be customized to introduce a demo day event for members, a first for the BIP. Buzugbe explains founders will be granted the opportunity to pitch their business to a panel of judges to secure one of many grant funding prizes to advance company growth. Up to $35,000 in grant funding will be distributed to participants in the first session, with up to $70,000 designated over two sessions of the program through the Unilever Canada collaboration.
Criteria for social ventures to be accepted into the stream consists of businesses solving a compelling issue that impacts Canadians, being tech-based or tech-enabled with the intention to scale, and at least 50% of ownership apportioned to Black founders. The full eligibility criteria can be found at dmz.to/socialimpact/ with a deadline for applications to be submitted by August 31st, 2021.
As an entrepreneur herself, Buzugbe hopes the new Social Impact stream will leave a profound legacy, one that builds a foundation for Black entrepreneurs to create change internationally.
“It's not a lack of talent or ability, but more around having to secure funding opportunities. It's about access - mentorship, learning and capital. So our vision for our Black Innovation programs and our new stream really is to make this impact. So to see big growth in the number of companies that are owned by Black entrepreneurs, that can help break this perpetual cycle of inequity whereby the end of the program if we’ve supported 30 new companies and they're scaling and they're continuing to impact our community in a positive way, that is success for us.”