25 Mar 2020

Black Tech Masters Series and Black New Venture Competition: MBA Students Innovate for Diversity, Inclusion, and Entrepreneurship

The winning teams of the Black New Venture Competition.

by Shona Simkin

The last weekend of February was the culmination of aspiration and hard work for two second year MBA students as well as for 20 black tech entrepreneurs. The Black Tech Masters Series and Black New Venture Competition were conceived by Tyler Simpson (MBA 2020) and Kimberly Foster (MBA 2020) as an independent project that grew into a major initiative to open up the resources of Harvard Business School and engage deeply on issues of diversity, inclusion, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Simpson and Foster are going into tech and finance, respectively, after graduating, and were seeking ways to confront the dismal statistics for black people in these fields; black entrepreneurs receive less than one percent of VC funding. “There is no shortage of innovative ideas and lucrative ventures from black founders,” said Foster. “We wanted to bring opportunity to people who are not within the Harvard community—if you’re here, the door is already open in so many ways. How do we open up some of these resources to black entrepreneurs across the country?”

Brainstorming and meeting with professors and advisors led Simpson and Foster to come up with a day of tech and entrepreneurship programming followed by a competition for black tech entrepreneurs, bookending the annual African American Student Union (AASU) conference. All three events, the Black Tech Masters Series, the AASU 47th Annual H. Naylor Fitzhugh Conference, and the Black New Venture Competition were combined under one umbrella event: Uncharted Weekend: Black Visionary Leadership and Redefining What’s Possible.

Friday’s Black Tech Masters Series featured a lineup of leaders including Jewel Burks Solomon, the head of Google for Startups; HBS Senior Lecturer Jeff Bussgang; and Damien Hooper-Campbell, Ebay’s chief diversity officer. With topics such as how to finance your venture, building a sustainable business model, assembling a winning team, and marketing in the digital age, the day aimed to equip early-stage black entrepreneurs with new skills and resources to help them better navigate the tech and venture spaces, and to ultimately find opportunities to scale their startups.

For Pierre Laguerre, founder and CEO of Fleeting, the Masters Series was a life changing experience. “Being exposed to such black excellence, seeing what young black entrepreneurs are up to, gave me hope. As a people we are doing some amazing things; it's just going to take the world a while to recognize it,” said Laguerre. “Events like this help create the message and show the world that there are a lot of black entrepreneurs out there building great businesses. It was an honor to be part of that experience.”

The Black New Venture Competition awarded $175,000 in total prize money. “Thanks to our partners, General Catalyst, Google for Startups, and Khosla Ventures, this is the largest pitch competition for black founders in the country,” said Foster. “We hoped to get 100 applications from black entrepreneurs, and ended up with 300,” said Simpson. Those 300 were narrowed down to 20, who traveled to campus for a kickoff reception at MassChallenge and the Masters Series prior to pitching their ventures on Friday evening.

Five finalists competed for the funding pool: Coverr, an online financial services provider customized for gig economy workers; Fleeting, a marketplace that provides trucking companies with a pool of vetted, on-demand drivers; Kliit Health, a digital health company connecting multicultural women with 24/7 access to sexual and reproductive health services; TracFlo, an online platform that allows contractors to track, approve, and manage change orders in one place; and Please Assist Me, all-in-one home management app connecting users with a dedicated personal assistant. The five finalists pitched to the more than 500 AASU conference attendees on Saturday, and at the end of the day, the winners were announced. Kliit Health won $25,000, and TracFlo, Coverr, and Fleeting were each awarded $50,000.

Khalid David, founder and CEO of TracFlo, found the weekend to be validating, uplifting, and foundational. “As a person of color it’s sometimes hard to discern whether the challenges you face are because you're an entrepreneur and doing something new, or whether it’s because you’re a black entrepreneur. To walk into a space where my blackness was not part of the conversation allowed me to not second guess myself. That experience was important to see, it was important to experience, and it was important to represent to the world,” said David. “This moment is forever etched in time—we'll forever be a part of the legacy of Harvard, of black entrepreneurs, and of these companies. There's something about creating history in black history month that was powerful—it resonated and made ripples beyond the people who were in the room that day. And for that I'm forever grateful.”

“Creating and executing the Black Tech Master Series and Black New Venture Competition has been the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve ever experienced in my professional career, with my admittance into HBS serving as a very close second,” said Simpson. “People came from all over the country to participate in the weekend and left with connections, learnings, and skills that will enable them to reach new heights.”

“Both Tyler and I believe it is extremely important for the Harvard Business School community to be a major contributor in narrowing the investment gap and igniting pathways to success for Black entrepreneurs” said Foster. “As we look to the future, we are determined to make sure that this year’s Black New Venture Competition and Black Tech Master Series are the first of many more to come. These initiatives have been so powerful in advancing the discussion of diversity in tech and entrepreneurship as well as connecting talent to opportunity in these sectors. We’ve heard countless stories of attendees and founders securing funding, building partnerships, and fostering fruitful business relationships as a result of our events. We’re honored to be the convening force, connecting key players in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

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