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Celebrating Chicago’s Black Tech Innovators: ‘Leverage the Digital World’

Vince Williams (top left), Dr. Danielle James (top right), Shawn Hill (bottom left), Nathan Pelzer (bottom right)

The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in partnership with the Chicago Chapter of the National Black MBA Association recently hosted the virtual panel “Celebrating Chicago’s Black Tech Innovators.”

Moderated by Vince Williams, the president and CEO of the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council, three Black entrepreneurs opened up about their journeys and discussed opportunities for those looking to break into the space.

For panelist Shawn Hill, partner at the venture fund Moderne Ventures, he came to investing from a background in sales, operation, and business development. “I learned every position I could so that when the door came open at some point to move up, I didn’t want anyone to tell me no,” Hill said.

Booth alum Nathan Pelzer, MBA ’15, didn’t initially consider entrepreneurship. He first worked in consulting, then in the healthcare space, before founding his own digital health company, Clinify. “If I had set out to be an entrepreneur coming out of undergrad, I don’t know that I’d be here,” he said. “You should always have a strategic vision but try and stay as tactical as possible. Get as many experiences as you can as possible, and eventually you’ll find that alignment.”

Dr. Danielle James began her virtual events logistics company, HUX Made Productions, in response to kids being unable to tour Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) due to the pandemic. For her, entrepreneurship is about making positive change. “I’ve always known I want to give back,” she explained, “because someone got me to where I am right now.” HUX Made Productions has toured 45 HBCUs and has expanded to include graduations and webinars, among other events.

The panelists discussed the climate surrounding minorities in the entrepreneurial and investing spaces. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, Pelzer said, “Today I tell a lot of aspiring investors to get into the space. There’s never been a better time to do it. People are looking at their team page and they need someone who looks different.” He went on to say, “Even if you’re the token on the page, just be the token on the page. It may feel wrong, but just do it.” It’s a good time to be Black in finance, he said. “Now is the time.”

Pelzer agreed. “I think the onus is on us entrepreneurs or folks who are looking to become entrepreneurs to take advantage. As Shawn [Hill] said, Now is the time… There’s a spotlight being shown on the gaps, whether it’s funding, venture capital, finance, or entrepreneurship.”

All three of the panelists were emphatic on building and using one’s network. “Use your network as much as possible,” advised Hill, who saw the virtual environment due to the pandemic as an opportunity: “What COVID-19 has allowed people to do is meet people they wouldn’t normally meet… Leverage the digital world.”

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