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Mass Innovation Nights event highlights black tech founders

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Mass Innovation Nights event highlights black tech founders
At Mass Innovation Nights in Grove Hall, Black Girls Nutrition was represented by (l-r) Katia Powell, founder and CEO; Tangela Kindell, digital marketing strategist; and Béthy Diakabana, software engineer. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Katia Powell, a self-described “nutrition geek” with a background in biology and health policy, saw a problem in existing nutrition and dieting programs that failed to address cultural issues for women of color. So she founded Black Girls Nutrition, a digital health company that guides and connects those who want to improve their diet without sacrificing culture and food traditions. “Lose the weight, not your roots” is the company’s tagline.

Kristen Ransom, CEO and founder of IncluDe, formed her software development company with a mission to use her expertise in human factors engineering to provide minority- and women-owned businesses with digital design and usability analysis services. Formed in 2015, the company’s client list includes Social Good Marketing, Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen and OneUnited Bank.

Author: Sandra LarsonMass Innovation Nights exhibitor Kristen Ransom, founder and CEO of IncluDe software development and digital design agency, had some extra support at her table from 2-year-old son Pierce and husband Brandon Ransom.

On the Web

Mass Innovation Nights: http://mass.innov…, @MassInno

Greater Grove Hall Main Streets: www.greatergroveh…, @greatgrovehall

Video: “Diversity in tech: Voices of change”: http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/editorpicks/diversity-in-tech-makinde-adeagbo/vi-BBp5oYS?refvid=BBp5rrO

Both Black Girls Nutrition and IncluDe were among the 14 local black-owned technology and innovation companies showcasing new products and services at last week’s Mass Innovation Nights product launch and networking event in Grove Hall.

Since 2009, Mass Innovation Nights events around Greater Boston and Eastern Massachusetts have enabled some 1,000 companies to showcase new products, with the in-person exposure amplified exponentially through social media.

“It’s not just an event — it’s actually a month-long marketing program that we do for the companies,” said MIN Founder Bobbie Carlton, who also is founder of Carlton PR and Marketing. Extending the impact through social media is a key component, she said, noting that social media posts before, during and after the events, compounded, reach more than a million people each month.

The June 14 event, sponsored by Greater Grove Hall Main Streets and held at the Thelma D. Burns Building on Warren Street, was MIN’s 99th — and its first to focus specifically on African American and African tech company founders.

Enthusiasm ran high as nearly 250 attendees — community members, entrepreneurs and business experts — crisscrossed the room to browse and share business information and to sample food from small businesses that operate out of the Dorchester food incubator CommonWealth Kitchen.

The nonstop buzz of greetings and networking continued even through the speaking program, which included pitches by selected businesses and self-introductions by featured business experts — all of them people of color — as well as brief remarks from sponsors and state and city officials.

Mayor Marty Walsh noted that the technology sector’s income and wealth potential is key to addressing income inequality in Boston.

“Bringing technology and entrepreneurship together helps us foster economic inclusion and equality and helps bridge the wage and ethnicity gaps,” Walsh said. “To be and continue to be an inclusive, global city, we have to make sure innovation and technology is not just happening in one part of our city, but in all parts of our city.”

Greater Grove Hall Main Streets Executive Director Edward Gaskin spoke of meeting high school students who showed interest and accomplishment in computer game creation, but had not thought of channeling that into forming their own companies. They had the technology skillset, he said, but not the entrepreneurship mindset.

Speaking to the Banner after the event, Gaskin expanded on the “digital divide” problem which he defined not as a gap between those who have and don’t have access, but between those who consume technology and those who produce it.

“All of our kids consume all types of social media. We all use technology. But [in our community] we’re not producing it. So how can we find ways to become producers?” he said. “If you’re in Kendall Square, in every coffee shop you run into someone with an idea for a company they can take public and make money on — but in Roxbury or Dorchester there’s not as much of that same mindset. So how do you create the expectation?”

There’s a lot at stake here, Gaskin emphasized.

“We won’t be able to revitalize the Greater Grove Hall area with just retail commerce. People will need higher paying jobs than what retail typically pays in order to be able to afford to stay in the area,” Gaskin said. “Fostering technology start-ups has been a successful strategy used to revitalize urban areas and old manufacturing plants and even towns. This strategy could work in Grove Hall, as we have the available commercial space.”

Bringing MIN to the neighborhood was a good first step, he said, serving to raise the visibility of those community members who already are founding businesses, and of the black experts in the room.

The “expert corner” included Derrick Duplessy of the Duplessy Foundation; Winston Henderson of Sankofa, Inc; Glynn Lloyd of Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation; Beth Williams of Roxbury Technology Corp; Marv Jones of Kinergy Power; Walter Callender of Práctico Innovation; and Nia Evans of Boston Ujima Project.

The five companies chosen through advance online voting to present a short pitch onstage were FABLabs For America, Pulse 24/7, Kids In Tech, Donii and UZURI. In addition, OCC Youth Unleashed, a student-run nonprofit based at Wentworth Institute of Technology, was featured in a “student startup spotlight.”

More than a year of planning preceded the MIN event. Gaskin began visualizing it after attending many tech business showcases in places like Boston’s Seaport District, Cambridge’s Kendall Square and the Route 128 corridor. Seeing few faces of color at these events, he decided it was time to host one in Grove Hall and to ensure that it drew entrepreneurs and attendees from Roxbury and Dorchester communities.

Gaskin said he worked to promote the event as youth-friendly and urged parents to bring their kids, which some did.

MIN events are free to exhibitors and attendees, but they require paying sponsors. Gaskin made a point to thank the local sponsors that helped his Main Streets organization afford the $5,000 sponsorship fee: The Boston Foundation, Eastern Bank, Boston Private Bank, One United Bank, Dorchester Bay EDC, Quincy Geneva CDC and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

The next Mass Innovation Nights event is July 12 at the Museum of Science.