NSF I-Corps Hub Mid-Atlantic Region, Partners Host Black Founders in I-Corps Event

The NSF I-Corps Hub Mid-Atlantic Region and its partners co-hosted the second annual  Black Founders in I-Corps event on February 5, 2024, at Morgan State University.

Held in collaboration with Morgan State University, the University of Baltimore, Bowie State University, Coppin State University, TEDCO, the University System of Maryland (USM), and UM Ventures, the event celebrated Black entrepreneurs in Maryland who have participated in the Hub I-Corps program.

Attendees were welcomed by Ray Dizon, associate director of the Office of Technology Transfer at Morgan State University, who introduced event emcee Oluwakayode (Kay) Jasanya, a Morgan State University 2017 Innovation Fellow and 2023 regional and I-Corps Next participant.

Dan Kunitz, director of the NSF I-Corps Mid-Atlantic Hub and executive director of the Maryland Innovation Extension, then shared high-level remarks about I-Corps and its impact. 

Next, the event was headlined by keynote speaker Ken Bethea, chief operating officer of UpShots LLC.

A Black Founders in I-Corps discussion panel moderated by Qyana M. Stewart, CEO of GlobalForce Tech Consulting LLC, followed, including: Jen Fry, founder and CEO of JenFryTalks and Coordle; Kwabena “Koby” Okrah, founder and CEO of Alirtify; Travis Kevin, president of The Extraordinary Library; Bria Johnson, founder of Girls’ Haven; Anthony Watters, CEO of More Watter Co.; and Tonee Lawson, founder and executive director, The Be. Org.

Lindsay Ryan, executive director of economic development for the University System of Maryland, cited three takeaways from the event:

  • Community is Key
    You can't do it alone. Your business success and mental wellness benefit from community. I-Corps helps you meet people. If someone says you should meet someone, meet them! There is a reason. Share your passion to find those people. As you build that team and community, be mindful to include people with diverse perspectives. As you build, think about how your business will impact the community as well.

  • I-Corps Helps Validate Your Idea, for Real
    Not with your grandma, not with your friends. Your idea doesn't matter until you get at least 40 interviews. It may be humbling. You might think your customer needs the equivalent of a Louis Vuitton, but they may need a flip flip, which can then be improved and scaled. Follow your passion, but be ready to fall out of love with your solution. You can't do the business the way you want to do the business; you have to do it the way the business will work. Continue customer discovery after I-Corps, too! Keep developing the vision. See things others don't see in order to solve problems that others can't.

  • And one piece of advice for entrepreneurs but also those who serve them: not everyone has friends and family who can or will contribute to getting their business off the ground.

The event concluded by introducing resource providers for Black entrepreneurs, including I-Corps mentors, GEM, TEDCO, and Maryland Innovation Extension schools Bowie State University, Coppin State University, University of Baltimore, UMD, and Morgan State University.

Participant networking followed.

The event organizing committee included: Lindsay Ryan; Elizabeth Mazhari, investment and DEI advisor, TEDCO; Alla McCoy, director of startup support, UMD; David Steele, Hub coordinator, NSF I-Corps Mid-Atlantic Region and program manager, UMD I-Corps; Jainaba Ceesay, UMD I-Corps instructor and program manager, Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech); Alexa Morris, programs and marketing manager, Office of Technology Transfer, Morgan State University, and Ray Dizon.

Visit the Hub Black Founders in I-Corps event page for profiles of Black I-Corps participants.