CINCINNATI — Candice Matthews Brackeen has spent most of her career working to make greater Cincinnati a more inviting and thriving place for tech entrepreneurs and startups.

That mission took another giant step forward Monday with the start of Black Tech Week in downtown.

What You Need To Know

  • For the first time, Black Tech Week is taking place in Cincinnati

  • The annual technology conference brings together a diverse group of innovators, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists

  • The five-day event features panels, discussions, even a job fair

  • Tennis great and business woman Serena Williams is this year's keynote speaker

Over the next five days, a collection of innovative minds, influencers and thought leaders of color will come together for a series of panel discussions, seminars, even a job fair focused on emerging technologies and startups. There are also several mixers and networking events planned as well, such as Monday night’s opening ceremony in the ballroom at Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine.

This year’s keynote speaker is tennis star-turned-business woman Serena Williams.

“For the last seven years, Black Tech Week has been hard at work, ecosystem-building for Black tech communities across the U.S. Relocating to Cincinnati means expanding our national network of founders, talent and investors,” said Matthews Brackeen, CEO and founder of Lightship Foundation. “We’re so proud of our 2022 conference calendar––and the opportunity to bring this innovative session lineup to our community.” 

Lightship Foundation is the Cincinnati-based economic development firm focused on supporting the growth of tech-driven startup businesses led by women and FOCs (founders of color).

The logo for 2022 Black Tech Week. The event is in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the first time.
The logo for 2022 Black Tech Week. The event is in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the first time.

Since 2017, Lightship Foundation has guided over 200 companies led by women, minorities, and those representing the LGBTIQ and disabled communities to more than $120 million in venture funding.

In March, the organization completed a deal to purchase Black Tech Week, the long-running conference focused on improving diversity in the startup and tech spaces through a mixture of networking, professional and educational opportunities.

Black Tech Week is an inclusion-focused festival that brings together the founders of startups, corporations to have conversations with entrepreneurs and students. The goal is to turn those conversations and networking into a new business opportunity, or perhaps a financial investment.

Over the course of the week, there will be more than 60 sessions at several sites in downtown Cincinnati. There will be dozens of presentations and displays from tech influencers and key players in the minority innovation ecosystem. Topics will range from the latest in technology developments to the lifecycle of a startup to fundraising and navigating the venture landscape. 

They’ll also discuss best practices for hiring in the innovation sector amid the Great Resignation.

Featured speakers include Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code and Arlan Hamilton, who created Hire Runner and Backstage Capital. Another speaker, Janeen Uzzell, leads the National Black Society of Engineers.

Those taking part could also sign up for so–called “VC office hours” where startup founders could meet with potential investors or venture capitalist firms. There’s also a pop-up career fair.

Williams will deliver her keynote speech Thursday afternoon. While she may be most famous for her historic work on the tennis court, the record-setting athlete has spent the past few years honing her craft in corporate boardrooms as well. She’s the managing partner of Serena Ventures, a heavy hitter in areas like e-commerce and FinTech, an insider term used to describe new financial technologies such as Blockchain. 

Williams said earlier this month that she looked forward to joining a “strong community of talent” in Cincinnati for the week-long conference.

“Black Tech Week is a movement,” she said, describing the event as a way to “support… the success of ecosystems being built by Black founders.” Those founders are the people who will impact the “future of technology.”

Building a more inclusive and innovative startup ecosystem

Matthews Brackeen is a self-described nerd, so she’s happy to see “thousands of Black techies throughout the Midwest” coming to Cincinnati to geek out on technology alongside her. But she knows the conference is a lot more than laptops and augmented reality tools. 

It’s about giving people a seat at the table.

In recent years, Lightship and other startups organizations like Cincinnati-based Cintrifuse and Cincy Tech have worked to promote diversity. But there’s still a long way to go. 

Nationally, less than 1% of all venture capital goes to Black-led companies. Those numbers are “just as abysmal” for other “minority groups” and women overall, Matthews Brackeen said.

Matthews Brackeen experienced those struggles firsthand while trying to get her first company off the ground in 2014.

The University of Cincinnati grad was still a young mother at the time she was trying to land funding for Hello Parent, an app designed to help parents better connect with their children’s teachers. But she ended up landing a few meetings and ended up securing the funding for the project, too. 

A person works on a laptop at Union Hall in Cincinnati's OTR neighborhood. Union Hall is home to Cintrifuse, a nonprofit aimed at building Cincinnati's startup culture. (Casey Weldon/Spectrum News 1)
A person works on a laptop at Union Hall in Cincinnati's OTR neighborhood. Union Hall is home to Cintrifuse, a nonprofit aimed at building Cincinnati's startup culture. (Casey Weldon/Spectrum News 1)

But she was “one of the lucky ones,” Matthews Brackeen said. She was one of the few women of color in the tech field in Cincinnati. In fact, one of the few people of color period regardless of gender, she said.

“It’s lonely being the ‘only,’ so I wanted to do something about that,” she added.

Just a few months after getting the funding for her app, she formed the Cincinnati Chapter of the Black Founders Network. 

The group of a dozen or so local entrepreneurs met monthly to connect with one another, exchange ideas and connections, or attend major tech events, such as CES, South by Southwest and Afro Tech, another inclusion-focused technology conference. 

But Black Tech Week has long been one of the go-tos since it started.

Prior to Lightship’s purchase of the conference, Black Tech Week always took place in Miami, Fla. But Matthews Brackeen and her partners, which include her husband, Brian, moved the conference to Cincinnati to continue to market the city, and more broadly the state of Ohio, as supportive hubs for minority innovation.

Lightship also rebranded the conference to showcase the minority entrepreneurship focused economic development work taking place in Cincinnati and across the state of Ohio.

In recent years, Matthews Brackeen and Lightship have worked to leverage local corporate partners and community networks to develop the Cincinnati Innovation District (CID) to bring technology and venture leaders from all over the world to the state.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, director of InnovateOhio, stated in March the goal is to make Ohio the most innovative, entrepreneurial state in the Midwest — and to do that, the state must attract the “talent needed to support a growing and economically diverse business sector."

“The Cincinnati Innovation District is on the forefront of building the workforce of the future, creating opportunity for Ohioans in the local community, and the Lightship team has been a dynamic leader in promoting a tech landscape that highlights the great things happening in this region,” he added.

At the time of the sale of Black Tech Week to Lightship, first-term Mayor Aftab Pureval noted his desire for Cincinnati to be a “place where remarkable entrepreneurs of color feel supported and seen.” He credited Matthews Brackeen and her team for working to turn that wish into a reality.

By design, Black Tech Week is taking place the same week as the Cincinnati Music Festival, one of the oldest and largest events in the country. The festival attracts a diverse audience of more than 70,000 visitors to the city every year. It has an annual economic impact of more than $107 million.

Jill P. Meyer, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, called the conference a “huge win for the community.” It’s a way to introduce “cutting-edge entrepreneurs to our Future City.” 

She added that Cincinnati is “waiting to welcome them, invest in them, and show them a place where they can build” their business. 

She thanked Matthews Brackeen for her leadership, referring to her as a “singular force in ensuring the world knows that Cincinnati is the place where diverse tech talent will succeed and thrive.”