After years in real estate brokerage & development, I got into the VC space to fund tech companies because I saw the potential in Toronto to develop into the next Silicon Valley. As I studied and became familiar with it, I realized there was an obvious lack of diversity in the tech space, which I knew I had to address.
As a child, I had always been taught the importance of learning & collaboration. Collaborating with Toronto Metropolitan University to create the Black Innovation Fellowship (Now Black Innovation Programs – BIP); a program which would help uplift the next generation of Black entrepreneurs by providing the right environment for growth, traction, mentoring & networking, seemed a great way to pay it forward.
Through BIP, the VC industry got exposure to the Black talent that exists in the tech space and it was time to give Black founders the scalability & sustainability that would give them the legs to make it to the finish line. That's when I launched BKR Capital along with my business partner Lise.
Being seasoned investors, we recognized a great opportunity for outsized returns by investing in Black-led tech companies in addition to the chance of further participating to the economic empowerment and creation of role models that will motivate an entire community. For us it was a win-win situation where money is made while helping entrepreneurs build innovative solutions that benefit us all.
The past year at BKR Capital has been an incredible journey of personal and professional learnings, a few of which we wanted to share:
LESSON 1 - “WHAT’S IN A NAME?” - EVERYTHING I SAY
We formally launched in 2021 as Black Innovation Capital (after a whole lot of brainstorming over a fitting name). Though we loved the name and it reflected our investment thesis, it created a lot of confusion. We were constantly mistaken as part of DMZ’s Black Innovation Programs; who are our partners but a completely separate entity.
We realized the importance of having a clear brand identity early on; because that’s what your name is - your identity. So, we decided to rebrand ourselves to BKR Capital in honour of the memory of Abu BaKaRi II, the 14-century Malian Emperor who sailed from his kingdom to the Americas in 1311. Naming ourselves after one of the earliest examples of technology and innovation coming from Black cultures helped us in external re-affirmation of our commitment towards supporting driven Black entrepreneurs.
The name change helped us distinct out as the first institutionally backed Black-led venture fund in Canada. Post this, the brand grew and received validation from external sources in the form of press mentions, awards, invitations to events & conferences and social media following. The change of our name and logo helped us to clearly communicate what we stood for, our values and our thinking. The people and the brand became synonymous.
LESSON 2 - BE INTENTIONAL TOWARDS FULFILLING YOUR PURPOSE
Lise and I knew that our purpose of starting BKR Capital was to be a part of the solution designed to contribute to the economic empowerment for a population not receiving the funding they should, and help them create wealth which could hopefully be reinvested in the community. But a purpose without a clearly defined path and intentional actions is like a vague dream.
If we wanted to support high impact founders, we needed to have a presence in strategic locations with reach to every province in Canada. With our headquarters in Ontario where over 50% of Black Canadians live, we eventually expanded to Quebec with an office in Montreal. Quebec accounts for approximately a third of Canada’s total Black population, and increasing our presence there helped us strengthen our linkages with Black entrepreneurs from the Francophone community. Finally, we hired an associate based out of Alberta to cover the activities of BKR on the Western side of Canada.
We forged strong relationships with other key actors in the ecosystem. For instance, our collaboration with DMZ’s Black Innovation Programs and the HEC Montreal Entrepreneurial Base who have committed to provide access to quality mentors to our founders. We worked tirelessly to put in place an amazing support network consisting of key members of the venture capital ecosystem and strategic partners who are there to both support us and the startups we invest in.
Our goal is not only to bring more diversity from a portfolio perspective but also on the investment side. For this, the plans for the BKR VC Fellowship are on its last leg of finalization where we have already identified the first cohort of fellows.
With our humble beginning of a team consisting of two people, we slowly but surely spread our wings to hire more vision aligned, talented and smart people into our fold who would be as committed to the purpose of BKR as we are. We still need to grow and learn, but we are happy with the process and work achieved to date.
LESSON 3 - YOU CANNOT PLEASE EVERYONE
When we set out to launch BKR Capital, all pumped up to take up a cause we whole heartedly believed in, we didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be turn down people from our own community. Rationally, Lise and I knew that we could not invest in every good founder that pitched to us. Thesis-fit and strong potential for outperformance were and continue to be the key metrics by which a startup is evaluated for investment by us. And both of us have enough experience and practice at having difficult conversations. What we didn’t fathom was how personal it would feel when a group of people, whom you so deeply identify with, is involved.
We met so many talented founders in the last year whom we truly believed in but had to turn down for different reasons. But as a venture capital firm, it would be unfair to fund founders who do not match our investment philosophy or who are not yet ready to meet the demands of this funding path. So we had to learn that however painful it might be, you have to take difficult decisions which might not go down well with everyone.
FROM HERE TO MAKING DIVERSITY A NORM
The journey at BKR in the past year has not been linear, but a willingness to course-correct and change our path is what helped us move forward. Looking back at the achievements and learning of the past year, I know that the years ahead are going to be equally enriching. What’s important is to take the learnings of the past to design a better future. A future where we make diversity the norm, giving Black-led businesses a level playing field and make our current strategy no longer relevant. Then we will know we have achieved what we set out for.
Thanks to our Co-Founder & General Partner, Isaac Jr Olowolafe, for writing this piece.