Two intrepid visionaries are fine-tuning a time-tested success formula to help career-focused Black tech professionals and youth contribute their talents to Canada's vibrant technology sector.

This article was originally published on Discover & Learn.

As Canada weathers its most recent economic downturn, experts are looking optimistically to the technology sector as the engine of recovery. Two entrepreneurial Black professionals are working to ensure that Black tech talent is equitably represented in our technology-driven future.

Evidence of strength in Canada’s tech sector is compelling. The Innovation Economy Council—a coalition of innovation hubs including DMZ and MaRS—says over the last 10 years computer systems design has created three times as many jobs as Ontario’s automotive industries. The Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship says the tech sector generates 7.1% of Canada’s GDP. The Toronto Star says 11 Canadian companies are in the Global Cleantech 100. And experts expect, as the economy rebounds, that technology will produce the proverbial ‘rising tide that floats all boats.’

But Lekan Olawoye and Tamar Huggins Grant say that Black tech professionals’ careers journeys are rarely smooth sailing adventures. Data from a 2016 study shows that only 2.6% of the Canadian tech workforce are Black and they are the lowest paid. Employment portal, Indeed, found that 32% of its survey respondents felt discriminated against in the workplace. So Olawoye and Huggins Grant launched separate companies designed to address these issues substantively.

Creating Career Opportunities for Black Tech Professionals

“Traditional outreach to visible minorities has not benefitted Black professionals. Inclusion works when decision-makers understand the specific social burdens Black people bear, value available talent, and offer genuine opportunities,” says Olawoye, Founder and CEO of the Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN).

Born of Canadian parents, Olawoye came to Canada from Nigeria at 8-years old with his widowed mother, and grew up in Rexdale. After his master’s degree at the University of Toronto, Olawoye worked in social services, government and the innovation sector before launching his company in 2017. “BPTN creates opportunities for Black tech talent by building their networks, facilitating executive sponsorship, and promoting learning and development. Canada’s tech companies come to BPTN for support in Black talent recruitment, brand promotion, and retention.”

BPTN—a network of 30 professionals across Canada and the United States—creates interfaces between tech leaders and Black professionals: Executive Networks expand relationship circles, Masterclasses promote brand visibility, Leadership Conversation Circles build familiarity with the Black experience, Talent Acquisition and Roundtables share insights and best practices.

Educating Students for Tech Success

Huggins Grant, founded Tech Spark—Canada’s first technology and design school committed to empowering Black youth and women through tech education—in 2015. She says Tech Spark’s mission became clear the moment she discovered that women make up only 23% of graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM disciplines) and Black women make up 2.9%.

“Black youth and women must acquire the skills required to compete in a technological society,” says Huggins Grant who, at 16-years-old discovered her passion for technology by coding, with her friends, on her father’s hand-built computer. She parlayed studies in Advertising at Centennial College into a corporate career and various entrepreneurial ventures culminating with Tech Spark. “Technology, entrepreneurship and financial literacy will help Black youth and women ride the wave of success today, as creators and innovators, into the future.”

Building a Pipeline to the Tech Sector

With a core team of 10 professionals, Huggins Grant is building a pipeline of Black tech talent to feed the newly responsive technology ecosystem Olawoye is pioneering. Tech Spark launched the process by conducting youth-centered workshops and March Break camps in coding, gaming and UX design. Today, Tech Spark collaborates with school boards and teachers in Durham, Toronto, Peel, and Ottawa, engaging students through a culturally relevant, mentorship-focused curriculum featuring entrepreneurship and technology. The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) strengthens Tech Spark’s strategy by making financial literacy accessible to young people.

On the Horizon

Olawoye says he values the many Black professionals BPTN has helped into executive roles. And BPTN recently announced, in partnership with RBC, the launch of Canada’s largest network of early-career Black tech professionals.

Huggins Grant looks forward to expanding Tech Spark to reach 70,000 students and 2000 teachers nationally, while exploring innovations in virtual reality to enhance learning and student engagement. Meanwhile, The Toronto Star reports that Canadian enrolment in STEM disciplines is growing faster than all other post-secondary programs. STEM-related science and technology jobs made up 34% of the workforce in 2018 which is up from 28% in 2000. And the trend continues.

“Success requires preparation and opportunity,” Huggins Grant says, “Envisioning a brighter Black tech future is a critical first step towards achieving it.”

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Garth Hardie, a communications strategist, has edited Contrast newspaper and WORD Magazine.

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