Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Ed Gaskin, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, kicks off the evening's presentations by advocating for exposing young people to entrepreneurship.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh talks about the importance of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in all corners of the city, and overcoming issues like income inequality and racism.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

De’Vante Mathurin of OCC Youth Unleashed pitches the youth-led nonprofit, which created an app to boost youth engagement in community centers and other programs. The venture received support from Wentworth Institute of Technology's Accelerate program, and was selected to participate in this summer's session of the MassChallenge Boston startup accelerator.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Donalyn Stephenson, president and CEO of FABLabs For America, touts the technologies that can be created and businesses nurtured with the help of fabrication workshops.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Michael Kayemba, CEO of Uzuri Health & Beauty, explains his company's plan to change how healthcare is delivered in African countries. The goal is to create a network of health and beauty centers, where people could, say, get a haircut and see a primary care doctor in the same visit. The hope is that by combining hair and beauty salons---which are trusted, popular community spaces---with doctor's offices, people will be more likely to get the care they need. "We want to bring healthcare where the people are," Kayemba says.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Andy Jacques attended the nearby Boston Latin Academy. He's a co-founder of Pulse 24/7, which provides software to help small businesses manage operations like payments and marketing.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Angie Janssen is founder and CEO of Donii, a nonprofit that works with charities to connect donors with local people who need exactly what they're donating. "Right now, if anyone donates something in our city, there's an 80 percent chance [it ends up] sold somewhere, usually overseas," she says.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Olu Ibrahim is the founder and CEO of Kids in Tech, which creates after-school programs that teach children ages 8 to 14 about technology. She's a former middle school teacher, and her interest in tech goes back to tinkering with computers with her father when she was 7 years old.

Photo by Jeff Engel

Mass Innovation Nights

Mass Innovation Nights

Nam Pham, the assistant secretary of business development and international trade in Gov. Charlie Baker's administration, touts the strength of the Massachusetts entrepreneurial community.

Photo by Jeff Engel

When Ed Gaskin visited a high school class in Boston where students—many of them people of color—were writing code to create video games, he asked them if they had ever considered becoming an entrepreneur. Each student said no, he says.

Gaskin is the executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, a nonprofit economic development organization focused on Grove Hall, a small Boston neighborhood located between the city’s Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods. The area’s residents are predominantly African-Americans and other people of color.

Gaskin says his experience at the high school demonstrates that even when young people of color learn the skill sets that could eventually land them a well-paying job in the growing technology industry, they might not be considering the option of starting their own company.

“It was also a mindset issue,” Gaskin says.

He views entrepreneurship as a pathway to higher-paying jobs. And if Grove Hall natives build businesses there, buy homes there, and make other investments in the area, it can lift the neighborhood and help remedy issues like gentrification, he says.

One of the ways Gaskin aims to foster entrepreneurship among the youth in his community is by exposing them to entrepreneurs of color. That’s partly why his organization sponsored an event Wednesday night in Grove Hall in partnership with Mass Innovation Nights, which holds monthly gatherings to promote local early-stage companies. This event showcased more than a dozen businesses and nonprofits co-founded by Africans or African-Americans. (See photo slideshow above.)

“I thought it would be important for them to see role models,” Gaskin says, referring to the students in attendance.

The audience of about 220 people included local students, as well as business leaders, investors, and politicians, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and several state representatives.

The ventures on display included a Web-based application that aims to help young women of color lose weight and connect with other dieters; a company that creates websites for minority-owned businesses and other small firms; a video game developer; and a nonprofit that creates after-school programs teaching children ages 8 to 14 about technology. After a period of networking, six of the businesses and nonprofits gave short pitches on stage: OCC Youth UnleashedFABLabs for America, Uzuri Health & Beauty, Pulse 24/7, Donii, and Kids in Tech.

Typically, local startup demo events are held in places like Kendall Square or Boston’s Seaport district, and the attendees and presenters are mostly white. (That’s not always the case, of course—see Xconomy’s coverage of a 2015 event held in Roxbury, called Pitch in the City, for example.)

It was difficult finding enough local small businesses with black founders to fill this event, Gaskin says. But he was proud of the diverse group that the event assembled, and he says he’d like to hold more of these kinds of gatherings.

“I don’t need Kendall Square to notice, I just need my people in this area to know” that tech entrepreneurship is a viable option, Gaskin says.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com