Share this article:

As part of their efforts to address the underrepresentation of women and people of color in tech, Michigan Central and Newlab announced today the launch of the Founder Fellowship Program. The program is designed to support startups with minority and female founders while also advancing diversity and inclusiveness across Detroit’s emerging technology ecosystem.

The Founder Fellowship program is backed by the Michigan Central Equitable Ecosystem Fund, a $500,000 initiative designed to create a landscape where all founders have an equal chance to shape the future of tech and to ensure that pathways to the jobs, resources and opportunity are accessible to people from all backgrounds. The Equitable Ecosystem is supported by Michigan Central’s public-private partnership with the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan through the Michigan Strategic Fund. “At Michigan Central, startups, the community and industry are coming together to solve some of the world’s biggest mobility challenges, and not just physical mobility but social, as well. A key pillar of our vision is ensuring our community is diverse and inclusive — both crucial elements for fostering innovation and driving real change in the tech ecosystem,” said Joshua Sirefman, CEO of Michigan Central. “We know the startup journey is challenging and that there are distinct hurdles along the way, especially for founders from underrepresented communities. This program is a key step in removing some of those barriers to help innovation thrive.”

Newlab at Michigan Central officially opened in April 2023, and already half of its 47 startups have at least one founder who is either a woman, African-American or Latinx, three backgrounds that have historically been underrepresented in the world of tech.

“The statistics speak volumes: Women, Black and Latinx founders receive only a fraction of the venture capital funding compared to their white male counterparts,” said Katie Soven, head of membership for Newlab at Michigan Central. “These underrepresented communities are confronted with systemic challenges that have not been adequately addressed by the traditional tech startup space. Though 50 percent is a good start, more must be done to help shrink the gap by helping more founders not only enter the ecosystem but thrive in it. At Newlab, we are committed to dismantling these barriers and fostering an inclusive community that empowers all entrepreneurs to succeed.”

For the fellowship, underrepresented communities cover race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, culture and economic experience.

Michigan Central and Newlab will select leaders from startups in the fields of mobility, energy and materials. The program will provide the fellows with one year of membership in Newlab at Michigan Central, a financial award of $30,000, and connections to a broader community of founders to help them grow their companies. The program will also connect Fellows to potential investors, customers, partners, mentors and talent who fit the needs and growth stage of each company. Founders will also have access to Newlab at Michigan Central’s facilities, which include dedicated workspace and on-site prototyping and robotics labs.

Fellows will also benefit from entrepreneurial programming, including a series of workshops to strengthen their pitching skills and advisory sessions focused on navigating regulatory challenges, commercial deal-structuring, product-market fit, climate impact analysis, growth marketing, strategic partnerships, hiring and more. These sessions will equip fellows with the skills needed to grow early-stage tech companies, with an extra focus on the opportunities and challenges underrepresented founders face. Newlab at Michigan Central will also provide access to a thriving community of entrepreneurs and inventors, and encourage founders to support one another via networking opportunities and events. Each founder will also be matched with a mentor who can provide individualized support. Newlab at Michigan Central will also connect founders with institutional and strategic investors to provide office hours and pitch feedback sessions.

To learn more about the Founder Fellowship, including updates on when and how to apply, as well as the Equitable Ecosystems Fund, go to FOUNDER FELLOWSHIP: DETROIT

Creating opportunity, equitably

The Michigan Central Equitable Ecosystem Fund helps technology entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds succeed. In addition to the Founder Fellowship program, the Fund also supports two additional programs tied to Michigan Central’s goal of promoting diversity and inclusiveness, the Community Builders in Residence program and the Builders & Backers Fall Idea Accelerator. “Team Michigan is committed to investing in diverse innovation ecosystems that ensure we’re opening the door for anyone who works hard and wants to start a business or create positive change in their own communities to know that they can in our state,” said Quentin Messer Jr., CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and president of the Michigan Strategic Fund Board. “We’re proud to support the efforts of Michigan Central and Newlab in partnering with others across the ecosystem to create more opportunities through the new Founder Fellowship Program. Here in Michigan, we recognize that our diversity is our strength, and that is why we’re working to make sure the broadest universe of innovators and tech disruptors can see themselves Making it Big in Michigan.”

As part of the Community Builders in Residence program, Newlab at Michigan Central hired two community builders in residence (CBIRs) to ensure that its ecosystem is diverse, equitable and inclusive; and that underrepresented founders and their companies have access to the capital, expertise, infrastructure, network and other critical support necessary to make their ventures successful. The CBIRs — Johnnie Turnage, who is focused on Black founders, and Meagan Ward, focused on female founders — are developing programming and hosting events, such as Black Tech Saturdays, to expand representation within the ecosystem and support underrepresented founders with connections and resources. Black Tech Saturdays is a popular community initiative hosted at Michigan Central that began with just five people in a conference room and has now swelled to include nearly 500 tech founders, entrepreneurs, tech-savvy individuals, job seekers, resource providers and eager residents ready to dive into the world of technology. Michigan Central plans to expand the CBIR program to include a Latinx CBIR in 2024.

Michigan Central also partnered with Builders & Backers and Heartland Forward to support their Fall Idea Accelerator. Builders & Backers is a bootcamp for founders who are at the idea stage that helps them test their ideas through a $5,000 pebble grant. Upon completion of the program, Michigan Central will help connect these founders with local resources and programs to help launch their businesses. In the past, 53% of their founders have been women and 57% have been Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). Applications closed last week, and winners will be notified in the near future.