Melisa Ellis, a U of T alumna and founder of non-profit social and technology enterprise Nobellum, speaks about the importance of economic empowerment in the Black community and why she's helping build and support a pipeline of Black innovators and Black-owned businesses in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM).

Did you know that, according to a 2019 Brookfield Institute report, only 2.6% of tech workers in Canada are Black? When Melisa Ellis, a young Black woman in tech and U of T Scarborough alumna, was looking to hire Black talent for projects, she had difficulty finding an available pool of African-Canadian vendors, entrepreneurs, and professionals.

So Melisa set out to build a non-profit social and technology platform called Nobellum to offer much-needed support and a funding ecosystem to help Black students like herself get started in the business world.

"I couldn't find Black business service providers," she lamented. "My accountant ended up being Indian, and so was my lawyer. So I realized I was operating in a fractured ecosystem. Nobellum was brought out of some of those struggles."

Having started out as a history student, Melissa transitioned over to the world of project management and later to the world of IT. She trained as a software engineer at Sheridan College and now works as a software engineer primarily on web and mobile.

"Just being in this space, I often find that if I'm not surrounded by a bunch of men, then I'm definitely the only woman or the only Black person in the room. So it led to me wanting to see different ways of creating a space for Black people in tech and entrepreneurship to thrive," she shared.

Her company has a mandate to launch at least 100 Black-owned startups in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) by 2025. The vision is to create an innovative and safe space where tech and non-tech Black youth have the opportunity to meet, connect and collaborate at the nexus of technology and entrepreneurship.

However, doing this requires a robust mentoring, training, and funding mechanism. Through the Innovator Bridging Program (IBP), a series of workshops are facilitated to train, mentor, and incubate aspiring entrepreneurs. Access to these workshops, delivered by partner institutions and grassroots community organizers, is earned through an upcoming Innovathon where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas.

This coming Saturday, July 9, 2022, Nobellum Innovator Program will launch its two-day Innovathon. Ten teams of emerging entrepreneurs will have the chance to pitch their business concepts for a chance to receive funding from an available pool of $40,000.

Winners of the Innovathon will benefit from the IBP series of workshops, which will teach them how to grow their ideas into viable businesses. Participants will learn the essentials of entrepreneurship, and sessions will include sections on business planning, marketing, technology, commercialization and professional development.

The five-year initiative comprises a collaboration between Nobellum and U of T Scarborough’s entrepreneurship community and its campus-linked accelerators, The BRIDGE and The Hub. The university's Black Founders Network, which has a mandate to help create more Black-led businesses, also provides valuable mentorship.

Nobellum's support network also extends to a community of accelerators from Trent University, EDGE at Sheridan College and the Centre for Social Innovation. Other partners offering mentorship include Dell, CIBC and Alterna Savings.

About economic empowerment

At the heart of Nobellum's concept is economic empowerment within the Black community.

The program was inspired by the concept of "Powernomics" outlined in a series of books by Dr. Claud Anderson. Essentially, the idea is to increase the number of times dollars are circulated within the Black community before it leaves. Anderson demonstrated that, unlike other ethnicities such as Asian, Hispanic and Jewish communities, where dollars are circulated as much as 18 times, it was a struggle to witness dollars fully circulating even once in the Black community.

"So I started looking at how I could design an ecosystem that would solve that problem," said Melisa.

The Nobel-Hub app is a digital ecosystem of Black-owned businesses. It's a rich resource that brings together talented Black service providers such as marketing professionals, lawyers, accountants, and more.

"What they do on the platform is provide services, support and mentorship to the cohorts in our program," Melisa explained. "We want to teach youth to be innovative and get into the tech space."

As part of this weekend's Innovathon, the top team winners will automatically be enrolled in Nobellum's 9-month IBP training program. They will have the opportunity to use the prize money to feed resources back into the network of Black service providers in the Nobel-Hub app.

"In this model, we are intentionally circulating dollars. So this year, that $40,000 gets injected into the ecosystem. While these innovators are using that money to grow their business, it's also going right back into the hands of Black-owned businesses on the platform offering the essential services they need to grow their business," Melisa highlights.

Are you interested in attending the Innovathon on July 9 and 10, 2022, at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus? Please RSVP to secure your seat and enjoy lunch for the day.

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