One of Pittsburgh’s fastest-growing venture capital firms just made its first investment. It’s the sign of promise to come for a bellwether of Pittsburgh tech.
Black Tech Nation Ventures (BTNV) announced last week that it had raised its first close benchmark of $25 million as it advances toward the $50 million goal for its initial fund. After launching late in 2020, the firm is significantly closer to advancing its mission of funding early-stage founders from underrepresented backgrounds.
The news of the raise, which culminated in a celebration at PNC Park Wednesday night, enables the young firm to start putting that money toward early-stage companies now and continuing into 2022 as BTNV continues to close in on its total goal.
First up to get BTNV support: Cleveland-based education tech startup BlendEd. Founded in the spring of 2020 by David Boone and Jeff McClellan, BlendEd makes a software platform where college professors can more easily build courses and share them with students online to increase engagement.
Boone, who is the company’s CEO, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in computer science and went on to work at Microsoft. But for all the resources those opportunities offered, Boone told Technical.ly, his family’s homelessness while he was in high school and his experience in his local school system made him see the differences access to money, teaching tools and other supplies could make in one’s education. So during the pandemic, he decided to quit his job and launch BlendEd in the hopes of advancing equity in educational resources.
“There’s never been a better time to level the playing field, and there’s never been more energy into innovating in this space than right now,” Boone said.
A bit of networking amid his search for a mentor led him to BTNV General Partner David Motley, who Boone didn’t even know was starting a fund. Later on, he pitched BlendEd to Motley and fellow BTNV partners Kelauni Jasmyn and Sean Sebastian.
“In the first meeting I had with them I just remember saying, ‘Look, you all don’t even have to fund me — just let me know how I can help because I think this is really important that a fund like this exists,'” he said.
But Jasmyn and the others did want to fund him. While the idea does matter to an extent in a business pitch, it “isn’t really the most important part,” she said. “It’s more the founder and the charisma, and [David] fit the profile of the type of founder I want to support.”
BTNV and BlendEd did not disclose the amount of the investment, but Boone said that the new funding will allow his team to scale up their operations, further improve the software platform, hiring and customer acquisition. He also mentioned that the company is in the process of putting together a professor advisory board to seek input and advice on the software development process, and that anyone interested should reach out.
Jasmyn is looking to accelerate growth at BTNV, too. She and her team plan to field a much higher volume of pitches and get started announcing new investments within the first quarter of 2022, with more to come throughout the rest of the year. She’s also focused on reaching the next $25 million in the fund as quickly as possible (though achieving the first half in less than a year is an impressive feat on its own, she noted).
She added that her commitment to BTNV goes hand in hand with her leadership at Black Tech Nation, the nonprofit community building arm of the organization.
“The fund absolutely benefits from the community and the community absolutely benefits from the fund,” Jasmyn said. As both continue to grow next year, she’ll be hiring for the organization, as she moves into more of a leadership role than one focused on day-to-day responsibilities.
More than anything, Jasmyn is excited to see the fruits of the firm’s labor in this first investment and those who helped support it. Even the Pittsburgh Pirates had a hand in bringing BTNV to its first $25 million, she said. (The full list of LPs has not been released.) Seeing Boone talking about his vision to the launch party’s audience last week brought renewed faith in the community support she’s found here.
“All those people in that room in some way have been instrumental to my story, and started this entire ecosystem in Pittsburgh. And then to see now my first investment in front of those same people was such a full-circle moment for me,” she said. “And I think that it’s only the beginning.”Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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