Kelauni Jasmyn and Sean Sebastian. Photo by Jonathan Brown of Black Tech Nation Ventures.

Kelauni Jasmyn wants you to know that “there is such a thing as Black innovation … it’s just not valued the same way as white ideas are.”

She’s hoping to change this inequity — which she has observed in Pittsburgh’s technology and investment landscape since moving here from Chicago in 2016 — with Black Tech Nation Ventures (BTNV), a new $50 million fund looking to back early-stage startups with Black founders at the helm.

Jasmyn, who serves as a general partner for BTNV, says that she’s been considering a venture capital firm for Black techies for some time, but only started to work on the fund in earnest back in October 2020. Following the police killing of George Floyd last summer, she says, investors finally started to perk up their ears, wishing to make her fund a reality. 

“Once I saw the venture world saying, ‘okay let’s pay attention to Black people,’ the momentum was amazing,” Jasmyn says. “Unfortunately, it took a murder in broad daylight to wake people up.”

As offers poured in, Jasmyn says she quickly contacted her longtime mentor Sean Sebastian, a partner with Strip District-based Birchmere Ventures, an early-stage fund focused on community-driven commerce, web and mobile startups. The two ultimately launched the fund with David Motley, managing partner and co-founder of BlueTree Venture Fund, a Pine Township-based venture capital firm focused on early-stage medical technologies, software and high-tech instrumentation companies.

So far, Black Tech Nation Ventures has secured funding from seven investors, but the fund is not at liberty to disclose the names of those companies at this time. Jasmyn says all of the funders are “recognizable institutional names that most households would know.”

The fund will begin making investments in mid-2021 and will be looking to back between 20 and 30 companies. These startups don’t need to be tech companies, per se, but they need to have a solid tech component. BTNV is particularly interested in business-to-business, business-to-consumer and software-as-a-service firms, but is industry agnostic. 

Companies that BTNV decides to invest in should be early-stage startups, meaning they are taking on pre-seed (usually under $250,000), seed (usually under $2 million), or Series A (usually between $2 million and $15 million) funding rounds. Jasmyn expects one-quarter to one-third of those investments will be in Pittsburgh-based startups, but the fund has a national focus. 

For each investment, there is a five-year investment cycle with a term of up to 10 years, but Jasmyn says it’s obviously preferable for companies to exit through an acquisition or initial public offering on the stock market sooner than that.

Four years ago, Jasmyn launched an organization called Black Tech Nation, which has helped more than 650 tech professionals, entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and enthusiasts with networking, securing investments and landing jobs. 

It’s important to note, though, that Black Tech Nation is not affiliated with BTNV in a material way — the two entities are not legally connected. Still, they are sister companies, and Jasmyn says that the fund is a great on-ramp for her fellow Black unicorns, creating investment opportunities that didn’t exist before.

“You can fill in the gaps to where your ideas become a reality and we just send you across the street to pitch,” Jasmyn explains. “And even if we say no, we don’t just say no and make you walk away. We point you to people [that can] help you. You can always come back to us and pitch again.” 

Courtney Linder is senior news editor at Popular Mechanics magazine and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. In her spare time, she freelances for news organizations in her hometown of Pittsburgh, with a focus on technology. When she's not writing, she's probably reading something spooky or blasting Nirvana. She lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her partner and her black cat.