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Empowering Founders with Black Founders Network
Systemic barriers have long since withheld Black-led businesses from reaching their fullest potential. Only a staggering 2% of North American venture funding went to Black-owned companies. 

That’s why Black Founders Network (BFN), supported by University of Toronto Entrepreneurship, had to find other ways to circumvent these entrepreneurial hurdles. And we at Co.Lab were more than happy to help in this mission. 

The result? A new cohort of Black entrepreneurs equipped with working MVPs, deeper product development knowledge and real team experience. Not only are they ready to build their startups from the ground up, they are geared up to fiercely disrupt the market.
Laying the Foundation
At BFN, creating a culture of Black excellence is the goal. With the support of partners ranging from Canada’s government and its largest private sector companies, BFN plans to achieve this by 'providing the right mix of capital, community and capacity building for Black founders at every stage’ — in hopes of levelling the field for Black entrepreneurs. 

Incidentally, these are all things that we at Co.Lab have already been working towards on the product side, graduating over 1200+ students from across 60+ countries in the past three years. Teaming up to provide a transformative learning experience tailored for startup founders made a lot of sense. 
Program Architecture
At Co.Lab, our usual product strategy, product management, and product development initiatives span a comprehensive range of topics — all approached through experiential, project-based learning methods. We believe that students learn the best when exposed to real-world variables, unlike in controlled, theoretical environments where important nuances are lost.

The curriculum for our flagship program delves into the essentials of product management, including practical aspects like market and user research, product documentation, and research synthesis. We ensure a holistic learning experience through weekly assignments, mentorship interactive workshops, and opportunities for mentorship and peer-to-peer learning. And the most valuable aspect of our program is this having product management learners put into specially-curated teams alongside software engineers and designers. 

This unique blend has notably benefited the founders from the Black Founders Network. As first-time founders, the path to building software is difficult. Not only do you need to know the key skills of what to build, how to prioritise, how to speak to customers … you also need a team. Building a team is a skill in it’s own - you’ll have to source, interview, vet and onboard the right people. At Co.Lab, these are the core tenets we focused on solving for the BFN founders. 
Sefunmi Osinaike (middle), Co.Lab's Co-Founder, together with BFN Smart Start Awards winners
selection committee last May 2023. Credit: BFN Facebook Page
Exploring the Co.Lab Journey and the Learning Outcomes
When customising the learning experience for BFN students, our primary goal was to ensure that every participant had a healthy balance of tackling real-world challenges around building product… but also had relevant guardrails to feel safe. 

“It really did give what I was asking for as a founder, which was I was simply looking for a team to help me build a project. And I wasn’t really sure how to go about looking for developers or a designer per se.

I really think it gave me that almost sandbox environment to work on the product I wanted to work on, while also picking up a lot on learning how to be a product manager and learning about how to manage the team, and how to be able to manage those relationships with them as the product manager, and those inter-team relations.”  – Odosa, BFN Founder

Staying true to our experiential learning model, we also wanted to provide a cross-functional, learn-by-doing experience, taking into consideration the unique circumstance of entrepreneurs who do not always have the luxury of time.

“There’s a lot of PM courses and videos out there but you don’t really get it until you do it and I think that Co.Lab did a really great job at like curating this space” – Faizah , BFN Founder

We made the program valuable by condensing important product learnings into meticulously prepared and digestible pieces, all while retaining the collaborative nature of the program as well as forcing accountability in their own learnings. Further, we established fast feedback loops with their pre-vetted mentors, who themselves are active Product Managers in different industries. This allowed them to retrospectively gauge their learnings and iterate their product into something not only feasible, but profitable.

“Each week we were learning a lot of really new, really valuable skills that were helping us to revisit the stuff we had in place and had done well, and helped us to see the gaps we needed to fill” – Keziah, BFN Founder

At the end of the program, founders were able to immerse themselves in real-world situations from the journey of company building. On the hard skills side of things, they learned how to work effectively in cross-functional teams with engineers and designers. They learned how to conduct customer research, write stories, prioritise features, and speak to users. On the soft-skills side of things, they learned how to lead and negotiate, realising that these are key skills that make entrepreneurs shine. A huge part of that is recognizing the value of each of one’s team members and giving them the tools and opportunities to drive value for the team as a whole. 

“Realising how important a designer is, it would be my one big learning … I wasn’t really sure what designers did, I do have a technical background but we didn’t have designers in my day … working with Rebecca was really great, I wish I could hire her”  – Giga, BFN Founder
The Road Forward
Co.Lab’s partnership with the Black Founders Network (BFN) underscores the importance of providing value-driven and impactful education.

Not only were we able to help these BFN founders learn product strategy and product management, we also helped them build out their initial teams and MVPs. And there were definitely additional outcomes, including Faizah Balogun who won the BFN Smart Start Top Venture Award with the MVP they had built through Co.Lab. 

By melding Co.Lab's comprehensive learning approach with BFN's mission to support underrepresented entrepreneurs, this partnership has successfully equipped a new generation of Black founders who are not only business creators but also competent leaders. We are super excited to have been part of this initiative, and we can’t wait to be part of more founder’s paths to success.

Have questions, or want to set something similar up within your organization?
Get in touch with Helen Huang, Co-Founder at Co.Lab, at
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