ise Birikundavyi has enormous experience when it comes to financing. She happens to be one of the few Black women working at the top echelons of the finance industry in Canada.
Raised in Montreal but from Burundi, Birikundavyi has seen her career journey take her to Argentina, China, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and back to Toronto, Canada. Her career has mainly centered on social entrepreneurship and impact investing.
Today, she is the principal & fund manager for Black Innovation Capital, a $10 million VC fund that invests in Black-led tech start-ups, backed by BDC Capital, and launched in June 2021, according to Women of Influence. She is the first Black female to lead an institutionally backed VC fund in Canada.
It all began when she was 18 years old and took a trip to Burundi for the first time. She saw at first hard poverty, civil unrest and a lack of access to education. What was also troubling for her was the fact that there were not many small businesses.
“When I talked with people about their entrepreneurship ideas, they would always say, ‘you should start one,’ or ‘you should do it.’ And I kept thinking, I don’t live here, why don’t you do it? I realized that an unintended consequence of humanitarian aid was that it was weakening the entrepreneurial spirit,” she told Women of Influence.
However, it was in Argentina that she fell in love with social entrepreneurship. She found the book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein and also read books about microfinance. She found social entrepreneurship as real entrepreneurship as it helps create role models in societies, build capacities as well as make money. She steered her career into impacting lives after a friend started talking to her about it.
“A good friend started talking to me about impact investing, and I began to meet with a group of women bankers in Montreal organizing regular events to talk about what it was and exploring how we could develop it in Canada,” she said.
Birikundavyi decided to focus on emerging markets. As a first step, she went to do MBA in Shanghai. She subsequently moved to Africa, settling in Ghana. While in the West African nation, she worked supporting Engineers Without Borders, Canada.
“We found a community there and it was a beautiful experience. We then spent three years in Côte d’Ivoire, a country located on the south coast of West Africa, where I was managing an edtech fund for the Jacobs Foundation,” she added.
Her works in Africa influenced her decision to co-found Black Innovation Capital. She started it with Isaac Olowolafe, a Nigerian entrepreneur. The fund works with a population that is not receiving venture backing as it should.
“The fund was about economic empowerment, working with a population that is not receiving the funding it should, and wanting to help them create wealth that can be reinvested in the community. For us, it’s not about one community versus another, it’s about the greater participation of all communities in the VC space. It’s about diversity and inclusion and everyone contributing to a better system,” she explained.
Birikundavyi said her goal is to build successful Black-led tech businesses, deliver returns to investors, and increase the diversity in the venture capital ecosystem. Overall, her goal is to ensure diversity, she added.
“Any business we invest in must be Black-led — that’s at least 25% of ownership or executive management — and an early-stage tech company. We expect the teams will come from various backgrounds because within Black communities you tend to see many different backgrounds and perspectives,” she said.