You may have checked out our round up of black movers and shakers in the Midwest before, but with no shortage of talent in the Midwest right now, we couldn’t help but add a few more to this list.
From software to agtech to medical devices, startups are finding their feet right here in Middle America. Many at the helm of these budding businesses are black entrepreneurs putting their innovative stamp on the future, and pushing forward to receive the level of funding their white counterparts are given.
Without further ado, here are 26 black entrepreneurs who are making moves in the Midwest and disrupting the status quo.
SoLo Funds Co-Founder/CEO
Los Angeles, California (Founded in Ohio)
For Ohio native Travis Holoway, the idea for the online lending platform, SoLo Funds, was born naturally from situations both him and his co-founder Rodney Williams experienced right at home in the Midwest. Early on in their professional careers, both would receive requests for basic, small dollar loans from friends and family members, but could not find a suitable resource to send them to.
So the former financial advisor and his friend of 13 years created one. With their no interest, peer-to-peer lending concept, they’re making small dollar loans accessible for everyone at the tap of a button.
With about three years under their belt, the company and the Black entrepreneurs behind it have seen early success and support across the country. Both Travis and SoLo Funds were recently selected into the Endeavor network, and closed a $10 million fund with participation from ACME Capital, Techstars, and Endeavor Catalyst earlier this year.
For decades, core elements of insurance underwriting have been left unchanged, operating on risk assumptions without data to back it up. With his co-founder Glenn Hilber, Paul Ford set out to change that in 2015 by launching underwriting and risk management SaaS platform, Traffk.
The cloud-based AI solution collates data feeds from carriers and stakeholders and puts it to work to improve accuracy, manage risk, realize market growth and create appropriate solutions for the massive global insurance industry.
Serial Entrepreneur and Founder
Kela Ivonye has earned his veteran status as a prominent entrepreneur in the Midwest. As the co-founder of Mailhaven (now acquired by Luxer One) and founder of Arrow Food Couriers, he’s applied his tech expertise and interest in spatial theory and science to create and impact various businesses.
While simultaneously working a new business venture, Kela plans to use his platform and experience as Amplify’s entrepreneur in residence to advocate for Black and other diverse founders in the Louisville area.
BrainStem University Founder/CEO
Growing up, Ricky Mason led a sports-driven childhood without access to robotics or other tech related activities of interest. Through BrainSTEM, he seeks to change that for students, giving them opportunities and exposure to a digital gamified learning environment.
The program meets students wherever they are. Parents, schools, and community organizations can enroll students or add STEM programs in their schools or after-school programs.
To combat the challenges of Covid-19, Ricky and BrainSTEM launched their virtual learning program last summer. 30 students participated in an 8-week summer camp that introduced them to coding and computer engineering. As things progress, the training program plans to launch hybrid scenarios with a mix of in-person and virtual events.
Acumen Media Co-Founder/President
Camron Brown started the sports entertainment platform, Acumen Media, to change the way fans consume sports while giving athletes complete control over their brand. Acumen allows the user to have a fully engaging experience with others on the platform and the athlete can charge the users to directly view their content. It’s a 1-1 or subscription based model, similar to LinkedIn but strictly for sports.
Still early on in the platform’s development, Brown was selected as a start-up founder in gener8tor’s Accelerator Program in October last year.
Cleveland native Rachel Angel worked as a pharmacist for several years before switching gears in 2018 to help place young adults with employers in Columbus and Cleveland through her free online platform, Peerro. The service helps reduce hiring time and acquisition costs for companies by allowing them to interview qualified candidates directly from the platform.
The startup was added to CincyTech’s portfolio last July, and has matched 150 students with employers since its launch. Working since she was 14 and living on her own since 16, Rachel says one of her main goals is to help make sure at-risk youth graduate directly from high school into a job, if they’re not planning to go to college, to avoid the pitfalls facing unemployed youth.
With a collegiate and international basketball career under his belt, Mac Wilkinson combined his fitness drive and passion for giving back to create the social fundraising platform and fitness tracker app, Moolathon.
Moolathon works in two ways: individuals can create fundraising campaigns for whatever cause they want and family and friends can pledge money based on each mile the fundraiser runs, while groups, such as nonprofit organizations, can create virtual 5Ks through the platform and encourage people to run them virtually.
Mac and his startup are moving fast, having first pitched the idea in 2018, testing the product in 2019, and winning a coveted Vogt award in the same year. The app is now available for download via the App Store and can be used on both iOS and Android.
Anastasia S. Tarpeh-Ellis
With work-from-home on the rise, keeping track of everyday to-dos and an overflowing list of work-related tasks is becoming more and more stressful. Anastasia is working to mitigate this problem with Bosa, a team optimization tool that automates finding and completing tasks.
The app is a Google Chrome extension that works inside of the tools you use, and streamlines them in one place to help you and your team stay on track. Like an additional layer on top of the many tools you use specifically focused on productivity.
The product is still in its early stages, but you can sign up to receive early access on Bosa’s website.
While relaxation was hard to achieve in 2020, Tanisha Robinson and her CBD beverage startup, W*nder are looking for redemption in 2021 to help everyone find calmness in a fresh new year.
Tanisha isn’t new to the startup game. As the first CEO of Brewdog, she knows what people are looking for when it comes to beverages. “1 in 7 Americans are already using CBD, so I started W*nder to make the process easier and more effective.” As an avid CBD fan, Tanisha set out to create the best tasting, and functioning, CBD-infused beverage in the Midwest.
The brand has since expanded to western Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Indianapolis, with another four or five markets launching in the first half of 2021. W*nder is also closing a “simple agreement for future equity” round of investment soon and will go for a Series A round to help fund the expansion.
Chris Powell is the Chief Executive Officer of Talmetrix, a leading Cincinnati-based employee feedback and talent analytics firm.
Originally founded by Chris Ostoich, Talmetrix was formed as BlackBookHR in 2009. It developed software to help companies capture employee feedback and translate it into usable data around employee engagement, retention, productivity, innovation and culture.
Through its cloud-based technology platform and advisory services, Talmetrix provides comprehensive talent insight solutions through a variety of organizational, talent and life-cycle surveys. In addition, the company offers research and analytics solutions encompassing talent data integration, mining, reporting, and analysis.
Yaw Aning is truly a serial entrepreneur: he has helped fuel not one, but three startups in his tenure. Aning’s latest venture is heading the shipment tracking platform, Malomo, which looks to increase repeat purchases and reduce customer support tickets for ecommerce brands. The company is currently integrated with Shopify, and other major U.S. carriers including the United States Postal Service, UPS, Fedex and DHL.
Prior to launch, the Indianapolis-based company raised $600,000 in a pre-seed funding round led by High Alpha Capital and Hyde Park Venture Partners, with participation from One Click Ventures founders Randy Stocklin and Angie Stocklin, and Formstack founder and local investor Ade Olonoh.
Aning previously co-led digital product company Sticksnleaves, which launched more than 100 web and mobile apps, and credits clients ranging from startups to large companies like Rolls-Royce.
Demetrius Gray & Jermaine Watkins
Weathercheck Inc. Founders
Demetrius Gray and Jermaine Watkins have been making headlines for a while now as the co-founders of the only company in the country that can monitor the weather specific to an address or premise, Weathercheck.
The Louisville-based tech company’s one-of-a-kind algorithm uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to monitor the weather 24/7/365. The platform then automatically notifies the owner when damaging weather has occurred, delivering a detailed report with meteorological data to support a valid insurance claim.
Weathercheck has received national recognition from major players including being the first Kentucky-based company to be selected for the highly-competitive Y Combinator Accelerator last year, and the inaugural Google for Startups Accelerator for Black Founders just this month.
The Home Team Founder/CEO
After running a moving company for several years, Rodney Walton and his partner David Marsili realized something was missing. Customers didn’t just want to move their belongings from Point A to Point B, they wanted people to help with tasks such as packing, loading, and unloading while staying within their budgets.
The two put their heads together and created The Home Team in 2016. Through the platform, customers can find people who will provide moving and household services including anything from lifting heavy yard clippings to moving into dorms.
The Endeavor Scale Up 2020 company was an instant hit upon launch, with the platform helping more than 5,000 customers in a short time. While offering support to the customer, the company is also doing its part to help the community, by providing 1,000 jobs and counting for college students.
Rodney Williams is no stranger to being a man of “firsts.” In fact, Williams was the first entrepreneur from Cincinnati to join Endeavor’s global network back in 2018. Prior to that, he had left a lucrative corporate job in 2012 to launch the tech company that led him to become an Endeavor Entrepreneur, LISNR. The proprietary software uses sound to transmit data and improve connectivity between electronic devices with speakers or a microphone.
LISNR’s technology also caters to communities of color and low-income communities that may not have access to the latest technology advancements that are dictating the way payments are made.
In an effort to continue creating opportunities for minority groups, Williams launched his second venture, the peer-to-peer lending platform SoloFunds, in 2018. Motivated by his own experience, Williams ensured the platform would work to redistribute wealth back into communities by changing the way people can borrow, repay, and make money.
Halo App CEO
Taylor Simpson’s innovative side has been flourishing since he was young, having worked on several small projects before attending college. He entered the Indy tech scene with three previous ventures, but has garnered the spotlight as the CEO of peer-to-peer marketplace lending platform, Halo App.
The platform works to redefine what it means to be free by using proprietary technology to evaluate the financial health and trustworthiness of users’ outside of the credit system.
As the pandemic continues to create stress for small businesses, Halo App has partnered with the Indy Chamber to help financially-strained small business owners keep employees and customers safe while reopening, providing short-term loans up to $1,000 for personal protective equipment and other necessary improvements.
Entrepreneurs aim to solve a problem, and the problem Nick Turner sought to fix hit close to home. Turner, who went from being homeless to earning a full scholarship to Indiana University, launched the safe marketplace platform, DeliverEnd, after one of his best friends was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight while attempting to sell his iPhone 5 in 2017.
The app eliminates threats of crime by erasing in-person exchanges for transactions on marketplace platforms (Craigslist, Facebook, etc.). The service offers video chat, hiding locations, escrowed payments, and drivers (similar to Uber/Lyft) to pick up and deliver the item.
In 2019, Nick Turner and DeliverEnd received nominations for the Rising Entrepreneur and New Tech Startup of the Year awards at the Indiana Techpoint’s Mira awards.
Lynn Houston and Condrad Daniels
HJI Supply Chain Solutions CEO and President
The Houston family may be known for their basketball accolades in Louisville, but in the broader business landscape, the Houstons are known for leading the now powerhouse industrial company, HJI Supply Chain Solutions.
After a few shifts in business along the way, HJI now stands as a warehousing and logistics leader with strong family ties. After Alice Houston stepped down as President in 2016, the couple elevated their son-in-law, Condrad Daniels, to help lead operations before announcing their daughter, Lynn Houston Moore, as the new CEO just this month.
“I’m honored to have the unique opportunity to continue our family’s legacy at HJI,” said Lynn. “We have big plans for the future, and I am thrilled to be working with an outstanding management team to further advance HJI’s industry leadership and community engagement.”
Walle Mafolasire and Tayo Ademuyiwa, M.D.
After several instances of wanting to give money during the collection at church, but not having cash on hand, Walle Mafolasire decided to rectify the situation by starting a mobile app for church donations with some friends, including co-founder and physician, Dr. Tayo Ademuyiwa. A few years later, Givelify was born.
The app gives churches and nonprofits the opportunity to connect and gain donations from supporters on one simple platform. As of 2018, the free, mobile giving app had seen $1 billion in donations to over 40,000 places of worship.
Mo Sloan founded EZ-Chow to offer more access to restaurants without the pain of some delivery services. The company creates custom ordering applications that integrate seamlessly into a restaurant’s point of sale system, and brand look and feel. The software has provided integrated solutions for restaurant partners regionally, nationally and beyond.
Earlier this year, the Scale Up 2020 company finished a fundraising round exceeding their goal of $1 million, and prior to Covid-19, users had reported a 26% increase in online takeout and delivery sales since utilizing their custom apps, Now, EZ-Chow’s platform is more important than ever.
Jeremiah Chapman is what some would consider an entrepreneurial scientist, as the University of Louisville chemical engineering grad has always sought to help brands become more sustainable. While working on turning old frying oil from on-campus restaurants into biodiesel that could fuel on campus shuttles, he found that the same process could be used to extend the oil in the kitchen as well.
Enter FreshFry, a safe way to extend the life of frying oil in commercial kitchens, using only plant-based components. A one-of-a-kind rectangular-shaped pod built with recycled plant-based materials is placed in a fryer’s hot oil right after what would normally be its last use. The heat activates the materials inside the pod to start suctioning out all impurities. The pod is left in the fryer overnight, and is then squeezed to remove impurities and thrown away in the morning.
Chapman has been honored for his innovation like Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 in 2015 and as an Endeavor Scale Up Entrepreneur in 2019, and the company was most recently the first to be backed by Lightship Capital’s historic $50 million fund for underrepresented entrepreneurs, completing a $3.25 million equity round of financing.
After experiencing the challenges of recruiting and hiring qualified workers firsthand, Darrian Mikell saw an opportunity to streamline the process and create a more pleasant interview experience for companies with large hiring rates.
Enter the recruiting tech platform, Qualifi. Joining forces with his younger brother and two other co-founders, Darrian established Qualifi in 2019, focusing on the phone interview portion of the hiring process. The platform improves efficiency by allowing recruiters to record and send custom screening interviews to job candidates. In fact, in its first year, Qualifi proved to decrease initial phone interview processes from one week to less than a day.
It’s Dawn Dickson’s strong will and no-fear approach that has led to her and the smart vending retail company, PopCom’s incredible success. The software company, which launched in 2017, builds software for the self-service retail industry using artificial intelligence, face recognition, and more. Its smart vending kiosks allow brands to engage with customers, sell more products and understand sales metrics.
Dawn’s innovative tech isn’t all she has to show for. She became the first Black founder in history to raise the highest secure token offering (STO) crowdfunding round from the general public. Her company PopCom was able to raise $1.07 million in capital from more than 2,117 investors. The funding phenom did it again this year, raising $1.3 million in capital exclusively from crowdfunding investors in just 47 days.
Dr. Kwane Watson
Kare Mobile Founder/CEO
With over 20 years of experience practicing dentistry, Dr. Kwane Watson combined his work as a doctor with his eye for innovation to launch the comprehensive mobile dental service, Kare Mobile. What began as an app connecting patients to dentists three years ago, has now evolved into compact mobile dental units that bring treatments to patients using a licensed model and increasing access to those with fewer options to proper oral health care.
Watson’s creativity doesn’t stop there. Kare Mobile has also developed a radiation-resistant personal protective equipment jacket called S.A.M. that was designed for providers working in the vans to wear in lieu of lead aprons when getting x-rays..
The early-stage company is currently seeking $1 million in seed funding, after winning a Vogt Award earlier this year, which honors innovative startups and inspiring entrepreneurship with $25,000 in non-dilutive grant funding.