The phrase “ecosystem of innovation” is widely used to define clusters of corporations, startups, and academics driving new developments in products and services in a given area. Even if all of these entities exist in a space, they are not necessarily connected and work toward the success of disparate pieces rather than that of the whole.
However, sometimes a region will get it right. By encouraging diversity of thought, common threads will be sewn to form tight-knit nets of audiences who otherwise stem from varying skill sets, backgrounds and priorities. No single voice is the loudest, as perspectives from large corporations to startups, individuals to groups, and experts to newcomers are listened to – all of these factors need to be connected and executed upon to successfully cultivate an ecosystem of innovation.
Cincinnati’s Black Tech Week is a clear example of how a region can leverage all of the right players to execute something truly relevant that continues to ripple – and should not be ignored. As a single event that captured all the aspects of culture, community and commerce that Cincinnati embodies, as Cincinnati looks to the future, building upon the foundational success that Black Tech Week established is critical. While this includes a continuation of Black Tech Week for years to come, the region should challenge itself to pull in other programming grounded in diverse perspectives, technological expertise and community building.
The multi-day series of events garnered attendance from around the globe, connecting all key touchpoints in an ecosystem, ranging from panel discussions and comedy shows to career fairs and sporting events. Formerly a flagship event housed in Miami, Black Tech Week was officially moved to Cincinnati due to the tenacity and vision of Lightship Foundation’s Candice Mathews Brackeen. As a testament to Brackeen’s leadership, Mayor Aftab Purveal officially named July 21st as Lightship Capital Day and formally recognized her in front of a full audience at Music Hall.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard – the keynote speaker of the event was none other than the GOAT herself, Serena Williams. She set the tone for a week full of inspiring programming and conversations about hurdles that founders face in the VC space.
Along with Williams as the keynote, there was a plethora of other speakers who offered their perspectives on their road to success, the importance of celebrating and building the Black entrepreneurial community, exploring new technology, and on how to navigate common barriers faced by founders today. Some powerful themes emerged as leaders from companies like P&G, Kroger and AWS, venture capitalists from Austin, New York City, and Cincinnati, and diverse founders spanning across a multitude of industries shared their perspectives:
Importance of Inclusion and Building Community
As a builder of multiple innovative communities, including co-founding Code Fever, Black Tech Week, Tribe Cowork and Urban Innovation Lab, Felecia Hatcher kicked off the week during the Passing the Torch Opening Ceremony on how we can help each other grow rather than focus on our own success. She stated that oftentimes in business, we talk about who gets a “piece of the pie” – instead, we should think about how we can eat from the garden, not the pie – the pie will ultimately run out, but the garden lends itself to growing through seeds planted for others.
This is not always the case in competitive industries like venture capital where an air of “winner take all” tends to permeate the industry. Taking a more inclusive approach to building – rather than solely producing and working for one’s personal gain – was not only a fresh perspective, but an enabler of a positive economic ripple effect as networks strengthen and founders build together rather than in silos.
Kimberly Bryan echoed this sentiment – when asked to envision what 2050 looks like, she illustrated a future that doesn’t perpetuate the patriarchal standards in place today and the winner-takes-all attitude, but shifts the focus to creating a win-win society.
As the founder and CEO of Black Girls Code and Ascend Ventures, Bryan knows a thing or two about building. As a graduate of Vanderbilt in Engineering and then entering the STEM field, she noticed a gap in Black women in the space, one she began to fill by founding Black Girls Code in 2011. Now an international organization, Black Girls Code is building the future workforce of female STEM leaders by educating girls as young as 7 years old in critical technical skills and thinking.
When asked how women can get a seat at the table, she challenges why we should just vye for a seat.
With girls as young as 7 years old already learning to code, building diverse, thriving communities has never been more critical, especially with the emergence, adoption and application of Web3 technology. Dawn Dickson-Akpoghene, founder of PopCom, spoke on the Women in Web3 panel and gave advice on how to do this successfully. Dawn is a Techstars alum and a pioneer/early adopter in the crypto and blockchain space – in fact, she was the first female founder to raise over $1M in secure token funding. She made NFTs feel a little bit more “real,” stating that to assign value to the digital art, it’s best to pair this with something tangible/in real life, such as an experience, discount, or product. She brought this concept to life with Cincinnati’s DisruptArt group and worked with them and Knxtti to host the first-of-its kind event to dispense physical and digital NFTs via PopCom’s vending machines, selling out the pieces within one hour.
Side note – if NFTs sound daunting and overly technical, Bandwagon Founder and CEO Harold Hughes walked a group of session attendees through downloading a mobile wallet and claiming a Black Tech Week NFT in less than 30 minutes. As a result, 30 attendees walked away with claimed NFTs.
Black Tech Week showed many local leaders why Cincinnati powering this event is critical to not only the city, but to the conversation it engenders. Pulling in diverse perspectives with a lens of technology established a forum of learning and knowledge transfer, while also bubbling up important topics that society oftentimes otherwise overlooks. For David Ponraj, CEO of Economic Impact Catalyst “the convening power of Cincinnati to host an event like Black Tech Week…elevates an important conversation about equity and access in Technology.”
Built by Founders, for Founders
When asked about what Black Tech Week will look like in 10 years, Candice responded that it will look however the people at that time want it to look. Concepts from Black Tech Week programming didn’t solely come from those who planned the event, it was an event curated by the people for the people.
Speakers and spaces were designed to arm Black founders with strategies for navigating the tumultuous VC landscape. As a major hub for connecting and catalyzing startup innovation in the Cincinnati region, Cintrifuse transformed its headquarters at Union Hall into the Inc. Founder House, hosting multiple speaker and networking sessions, filling its 38,000 square foot co-working space with a buzz around social equity, the critical ability to not be deterred by the word “no,” and how detrimental it is to refer to Black entrepreneurs and innovators as the “minority”. Putting its money where its mouth is, Black Tech Week partnered with Endeavor to implement a founder/VC matching process to ensure meaningful connections were made, where founders could also speak directly with VCs with complimentary investment thesis and focus areas.
Top venture firms focused on investing in diverse founders and building outside of just the coasts drew crowds looking for advice from investors on how to navigate today’s tumultuous economy and how to leverage their tenacious resilience as a competitive advantage.
One VC speaker was Margaret Ntambi of Rare Breeds ventures, who stated that “there are amazing entrepreneurs everywhere with great ideas, building dope companies, building products to serve communities that many traditional VCs do not understand.” Her advice to founders was that to navigate today’s current economic turndown, they have to have “CURT” in their life: Capital efficiency, Unit economics, Revenue generation, and Traction. Building on the sentiment that founders don’t need to reside in New York or California to succeed, Black Tech Week hosted a session about Investing Outside the Coasts, touting cities like Atlanta and conferences like Black Tech Week in Cincinnati as thriving examples of how building community connections is critical to venture success. George Azih – who started his company in a Starbucks and has since raised millions of dollars and manages more than 400 employees – spoke to the value of being in the right conversations. Doing more for rising founders is a personal goal of his, and he is a prime example as to how communities can thrive with exceptional founders like him who believe in building up others:
Serena Williams: Getting Back Up, Go and Grow, Storytelling
The week culminated with a keynote Q&A session between Candice Mathews Brackeen and Serena Williams, a session that filled Music Hall’s ballroom to the brim as audience members listened to Williams speak about her journey as an investor who ultimately started her own fund, as well as advice for Black founders and aspiring entrepreneurs.
While becoming a professional athlete by age 14 and winning the most Grand Slam titles of any man or woman in history don’t sound like typical VC career path trajectory, Williams admits that her VC journey actually started when she was just in 4th grade as she and her sister, Venus, used to buy and resell donuts for a small profit. After growing up and watching her mom make dresses and later taking classes in fashion school, she entered entrepreneurism and launched her own clothing line, “S by Serena” (she donned a brand new S by Serena dress during her session at Black Tech Week).
Amidst her success as an athlete and business owner, she started her investing career first as an Angel investor, learning from each new investment, and found that she was drawn to helping and shaping companies while ensuring that they were hiring diverse talent. Feeling energized by the startup space and surrounding herself with others to push her, she eventually launched Serena Ventures – her own venture capital fund – and started fundraising. Her fund thesis focuses on companies that impact the “everyday lives of everyday people,” with verticals such as FinTech, Femtech, Web3/crypto, and investments in African-based countries.
Fundraising presented challenges and surprises (which, after hearing her speak and watching her as an athlete, it’s difficult to picture Williams feeling nervous or defeated in anything). She spoke about needing to make a lot of connections and calls at the onset of fundraising, and that the hardest part was getting someone to believe in writing the first check. As previously stated, Williams was moved by the lack of diversification in where money flowed upon hearing that 98% of funding in the VC space went to white male founders.
She delivered sound pieces of advice to the crowd, translating VC to experience playing sports and threading into the overall Black Tech Week theme of building and supporting your community. So many obstacles exist within society’s inequitable structures, and every founder that spoke throughout the week has heard “no” along their journey.
“You have to be able to get back up,” says Williams. “Whether it’s hearing no in the meeting or losing a match on the court, you have to start building the “muscle” of being able to exercise that and continue on.”
And sometimes, the word “no” isn’t the only adversity that founders face. When speaking about the current market conditions and how founders can navigate macroeconomic influences, Williams told the room that “you have to have skin of brick” and “continue to go and grow”:
During the session, Williams commended the conference as an opportunity to positively influence and inspire others.“It’s important for me to share my story and to champion [others],” she said. “Anytime there’s an opportunity to be an inspiration to someone, it’s important to me.”
She touted storytelling as a powerful community builder, and that those next to you in the room can be the biggest sources of inspiration and success – something that has been echoed throughout the entire conference.
“I hope everyone leaves today thinking, I’m going to help someone out,” said Williams.