Chicago startup showcase highlights African-American entrepreneurs

By Kara Voght

When Chicago startup showcase Technori invites entrepreneurs to present at its monthly showcase, the demographics of that group roughly match the demographics of Chicago: half men, half women, and a third minority. Technori’s February showcase, however, featured a different composition of founders: they were all African-American entrepreneurs.

On February 28, Technori hosted five African-American entrepreneurs in the Chase Bank Auditorium at 10 South Dearborn St. in Chicago. The founders pitched their business to a 300-person audience. The evening—which also featured a keynote address from Emile Cambry Jr., founder of tech innovation center Blue 1647, and an introduction to Shamari Walker, a high schooler from Hammond, Indiana, who developed his own software company—celebrated minority entrepreneurship on the last day of Black History Month.

February’s themed event owed its origin to the culmination of a number of diversity and inclusion developments across Chicago’s tech scene. Blue 1647, which connects Chicago’s underrepresented populations with tech opportunities, will soon expand its offerings into a new arts-and-tech space in Pilsen. Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers, who oversaw the development of a $100 million fund aimed at local and minority entrepreneurs late last year, recently came on Technori’s radio show to talk about the fund’s continued development.

While Technori CEO Scott Kitun had first thought to draw attention to the city’s vibrant African-American tech community back in July, Black History Month, in February, offered the right moment.

“I’ve got everyone’s attention,” Kitun said. “It’s a good time to do it.”

The evening’s audience, composed of roughly half regular attendees and half predominantly African-American first-timers, offered an opportunity to intermingle tech communities who may not usually encounter one another.

“That’s an opportunity for a conversation to take place that’s never happened before,” Kitun said.

For the entrepreneurs pitching their businesses, the evening offered a chance to challenge stereotypes. Shaniqua Davis, founder of Noirefy, an app that connects minority job seekers with a network of mentors, said people are often surprised to learn she spent her entire career working in technology.

“To be able to get in front of a huge audience and say,” Davis said, “’This is my company, this is what I’ve developed,’ starts to reshape what technology looks like.”

Donna Beasley, founder of KaZoom, an online platform that publishes multicultural children’s books, said she’s excited to serve as a role model for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“I think it’s really important for younger people who come to see that we do have a presence in tech,” Beasley said, “and that it’s possible for them to get involved and to consider tech as a career.”

While Kitun said he’s excited to draw attention to the African-American tech community, he imagines a future in which they’re no longer necessary.

“It’s great that we can do dedicated events, but I don’t want to be doing that long-term,” Kitun said. “I think a good community should be able to represent itself equally.”

Davis echoed Kitun’s aspiration, noting what a community that can independently celebrate diverse founders means for her.

“Then, you get to the point where that whole ‘wow’ factor is gone,” Davis said.

Photo at top: Emile Cambry Jr., Founder and CEO of Blue 1647, delivers keynote address at Technori’s February 2017 showcase. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)