It’s probably no surprise to you that the tech community likes to party. We know this from putting on our own shindig, the Mira Awards. One local tech party in particular is backed with a big purpose—including a venture fund and pitch competition to support minority entrepreneurs.
“It is important that we not only change the color of tech entrepreneurship, but also the face and color of those who fund tech entrepreneurship,” says Kelli Jones, co-founder of Pardi Gras Ball, Be Nimble, and Disrupt Indy, just to name a few of her entrepreneurial outputs. If you know Kelli, you know she has dedicated an immense amount of time and energy into building Indy’s tech scene as a place where people of color with ideas and innovations can thrive.
“When myself and my co-founder Jeff Williams founded Be Nimble, our vision was always about creating generational wealth and removing barriers to access. We chose tech as our vehicle because it breeds creativity, innovation, and ideas,” says Kelli.
On Saturday, February 23, the doors will open at the JW Marriott for the 3rd Annual Pardi Gras Ball, an annual fundraiser that has raised nearly $100,000 to help fund K-12 coding programs. Kelli and her team at Be Nimble have grown this event since the beginning, with funding going to create programs like Tech Kings, an exploratory program built to help close the racial diversity gap in STEM.
At this year’s fundraiser, the organizers are looking to take their mission of diversity and inclusion in tech even further.
Data shows that the issues Kelli sees in her local community are likely true across the nation. In 2018, the demographics of the venture capital industry showed the field is dominated by white, Caucasian men at a total of 70 percent (Equal Ventures Report).
“I’m a double minority—a woman and black—so I know the inherent bias that exists being a black woman launching a business,” says Kelli.
That’s in part why the Pardi Gras Ball will launch the Black Hatch Fund, a fund and pre-accelerator program to help minority founders “hatch” new tech-enabled businesses, at this year’s event.
“By launching the new fund, we have an opportunity to directly work with founders that look like us and give them the access they need to succeed: capital, funder diversity, and network,” says Kelli. “We’ve built amazing partnerships over the last three years, and can’t wait to put those partnerships to work for the next generation of black tech entrepreneurs.”
On Thursday, February 21, the Black Hatch Fund and Pardi Gras Ball will host “Pitch Pardi,” an inaugural pitch competition where ten founders will compete for cash investment and admission to the Black Hatch Fund pre-accelerator program. The pre-accelerator will help prepare new tech companies for investment and scale through a series of workshops and access to entrepreneurs and investors.
Three winners from the pitch competition will be announced from the Pardi Gras Ball stage on Saturday, February 23. The judging panel includes Deputy Mayor of Economic Development Angela Smith Jones, IEDC VP of Small Business and Entrepreneurship Aaron Vigil-Martinez, the Central Indiana Women Business Center’s Business Ownership Initiative Director Jacqueline Troy, and Intellectual Property/Patent Attorney Angela Freeman of Barnes & Thornburg. The Grand Prize winner will receive $5,000, and all contestants will receive access to entrepreneurial services worth over $10,000.
An impressive roster of ten minority-owned tech and tech-enabled businesses have been selected to compete in the first annual pitch competition, including:
- AwayZone – Latoya Johnson, Founder/CEO
- Blackberry Blends – Lamont Lankford & Michael Harsley, Co-Founders
- Cash Swap – Nigel Riggins and Ben Diallo, Co-Founders
- Cheer Impact – Nicka
Ghoston& Stephanie Williams, Co-Founders
- Chuqlab – Cornelius George, Co-Founder/CEO
- DeliverEnd – Nick Turner, Founder/CEO
- Eat Here Indy – Bradley Houser, Founder/CEO
- Educate Me League – Blake Nathan, Founder/CEO
Qualifi– Darrian Mikell & Devyn Mikell, Co-Founders
- Strength in Om – Shavonne Holton, Founder/CEO
We asked a few Pitch Pardi entrepreneurs to share more about the companies they are building and their thoughts on capital and access to it.
AwayZone founder Latoya Johnson became an entrepreneur when she couldn’t find an answer to a problem that she experienced frequently. Her company created a travel app that provides efficient connection between business owners and service providers of culturally specific goods and services to consumers who are seeking those items.
“To date, we have made strides towards completing a minimal viable product that we will begin beta testing March 4. We have ten businesses that have signed up to participate in the test. Following their critique and additional development, we will be ready to go-to-market mid-March,” says Latoya. After the Pitch Pardi event, she plans to continue her crowdfunding campaign to finance app development and infrastructure.
When it comes to capital, Latoya shares that the primary challenge has been connecting with an early stage investor who believes in her mission. “According to a TechCrunch article, ‘U.S. female-founded startups have raised just 2.2 percent of venture capital investment in 2018.’ That number was even lower for women of color and I am a part of the demographic that remains unfunded, despite my efforts to get support. However, my team and I are optimistic that our market base will respond enthusiastically when we release the app,” she says.
“At first, the biggest challenge for launching the business was finding a software developer to partner with and help build out the solutions. We now have a couple amazing people that we’re excited to build with,” says Darrian. “The next challenge we foresee is fundraising, but I believe we have a compelling business and a great team to scale this business.”
CashSwap, co-founded by Nigel Riggins and Ben Diallo, is reinventing the currency exchange market by connecting international travelers directly to the currencies they need. Based in Indianapolis, CashSwap seeks to change the currency exchange landscape that has typically been reserved for large banks and companies like Travelex. When comparing to similar peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb and Uber, CashSwap similarly connects travelers to exchange currencies and save money at the same time.
“Being selected to participate in the Black Hatch Fund and Pitch Pardi has helped change the trajectory of our business, for the positive,” says Ben. “It has enabled us to hone our pitching skills, as well as provide us with vital information regarding market research and market validation.”
When asked about what success could be seen from this event and new fund, Kelli relates it to the foundational why that drives her work.
As a culture, we (minority communities) over-index in consumption, but not necessarily in creation. Where there is creation there is ownership. Whether it’s training youth in coding, helping people of color transition into tech careers, or launching our own fund and accelerator to help entrepreneurs of color succeed, we are willing to do the work it takes to make sure we remove every barrier that prevents access to opportunities for communities of color,” says Kelli.
For more information on the Black Hatch Fund, visit the new website at https://www.blackhatchfund.tech/ or join the fun and attend the Pitch Pardi or the Pardi Gras Ball to show your support for our growing and rapidly-emerging tech community.