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Black entrepreneurs hit the road for 'inspirational' tech competition

The StartupBus participants are traveling from Harlem to New Orleans while developing a product to help improve the financial health of black Americans.

One of the buses in the StartupBus competition

One of the buses in the StartupBus competition this year was exclusively for black entrepreneurs. Photo Credit: Todd Maisel

A group of black entrepreneurs have five days to develop a product to improve the financial health of their communities.

The 30 entrepreneurs are participating in the “StartupBus” competition, which has budding entrepreneurs build a tech product during a road trip to a selected city. 

For the first time since the competition launched in 2010, one of the eight buses was exclusively for black participants from New York City, Baltimore, Detroit and other cities. That bus left Harlem Wednesday afternoon headed for New Orleans, where the finals will take place on July 28.

“It’s really inspirational,” said Sky Davis, a 30-year-old Harlem native and one of the entrepreneurs on the bus. “It’s just so rare to feel the solidarity of creating. Most times I go to hackathons, I’m the only black woman.”

Daryl Holman Jr., 26, agreed that the bus fosters a sense of fellowship that is hard to come by in the tech space.

"In terms of tech entrepreneurship, that scene is very white," said Holman, a South Bronx resident. "Being able to meet other black entrepreneurs from all over the country, it makes you feel at home ... You get to see other people experiencing the same struggles as you."

The participants split themselves into groups of four or five Wednesday based on their skill sets and ideas for a product designed to help the financial situation of black Americans. They were then tasked with pitching their plans to mentors, who were also riding on the bus and will be helping the teams narrow down their ideas to make an effective product. 

The mentors are all people of color working at JPMorgan Chase, which is sponsoring the group.

The goal of the mentors is to provide the participants with “access, content, feedback and insight,” which are not always available to minority entrepreneurs, said Sekou Kaalund, the head of Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways, an initiative to expand economic opportunity for black people.

“This competition aligns with our long-term goal to drive inclusive growth by empowering more people in the black community to further their education, grow their careers and build wealth,” Kaalund said in a statement. 

Competitor Mike Allen, 33, of Harlem said he's used to working alone on app projects but was enjoying the camaraderie found on the bus.

"I'm ready just to be a team player," Allen said. "I'm ready to help problem solve."

The ideas the teams pitched Wednesday included “a financial health app” designed to help people between the ages 18 and 34 curb their spending habits, an app to help young people learn how to invest and an app to match businesses with investors.

During the trip to New Orleans, the bus will stop in multiple cities, where the participants will hear from speakers and get professional trainings. They will refine their products along the way and in New Orleans, the teams will make their final pitches to a group of investors and company executives.

Six teams will be in the final round and one team will be selected as the winner.


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