Photo caption: From left to right, Shamier Anderson, Sheldon James, and Stephan James.
Photo courtesy of Sheldon James.
The transition of a bootstrapping entrepreneur in a non-tech business to the world of tech and venture capital funding is not common. But Sheldon James has it going for him with the support from his well-connected celebrity actor brothers Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Shamier Anderson (Wynonna Earp), who also launched The Black Academy in 2020 after successfully running the non-profit B.L.A.C.K Canada (Building a Legacy in Acting, Cinema + Knowledge) since 2016. Together, they have what it takes to make it big in the space of venture capital by launching the largest and first ever Canadian Black-owned Bay Mills Diversity Fund created for underserved BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) entrepreneurs.
The Edge spoke to James on his reasons for launching the fund, the biggest challenges he surmounted in entering a new space with his brothers, and his thoughts on leadership.
What was your motivation for starting Bay Mills Diversity Fund, a VC fund focused on BIPOC founders?
I think the motivation behind starting it was a personal need. I was an entrepreneur in the cannabis space—and it wasn’t a tech business—but I was wanting to really get myself out there, and I felt like there were too many roadblocks. I felt like I should get some support and resources, and they weren’t existent.
We look at the current situation right now for BIPOC—and I’ll put it in the context of Black people because I’m Black—it’s entirely difficult for us to network. Exactly what we’re trying to dispel is [the] narrative that these networks don’t exist within our community. [In] BIPOC communities, these resources aren’t [used in] ways as it has been in others. It came out of a personal need for [my] wanting to be able to get equitable access to these resources.
What were the biggest challenges faced by you and your brothers as you entered the funding space?
[The biggest challenges] we faced as many other new and emergent managers face [was] the problem of having this [proven] track record that would enable us to raise significant amounts of money. It’s been very difficult proving to people that not only we are worth it or that we’re capable, but that these entrepreneurs that we’re investing in are entirely capable as well.
Aside from that, the only other challenge that I’d say that we face is straight up discrimination. It was crazy really to see the amount of people who would kind of throw flack our way. [They thought] that we’re here to make a buck. It’s not about that. This fund is a 10-year-long fund. It’s not about just impact, it’s an offshoot. There’s real economic value here that’s being missed.
There’s really a big problem of being misunderstood. [But] as Jeff Bezos always said, “You have to be willing to be misunderstood to innovate.” I’m willing to be misunderstood, and that’s the same thing with my brothers. We [are] stronger because of it.
As a leader, what qualities do you espouse?
I learned a lot of what I’ve learned from the military. I served in the military for about six years here in Canada. In my capacity, we were always taught to never pass a fault. At the end of the day, if there’s a problem or there’s something that we’re not deciding to address because it’s too difficult to address, we’re going to run into further problems. We never went that far in the military. I follow that on a day-to-day basis. Everything I do, every decision that I make, whether [it’s] an investment, or hiring a new team member, or networking, I always make sure that I never pass a fault. I never ever miss an opportunity to vet a deal. I never miss an opportunity to be a better person. I also never miss an opportunity to meet a person who might be important for me or my business.
How was it pivoting from cannabis production and entrepreneurship to VC-backing biological and mental health technology, private educational businesses, and financial and real estate technologies through the Fund?
I don’t feel it’s been very challenging. I think that the community that’s around veteran innovation is very supportive of what we’re doing. I do feel I did have a lapse of knowledge anyways, in terms of raising a fund and creating a fund. We definitely have had mentors and leaders in the space come in and guide us along the right path. Our venture fund is organized in a market standard way. There’s nothing different about this venture fund apart from any other venture fund here in our country.
It’s not necessarily a world that we’ve been in, but we are well versed in a variety of different places and a variety of worlds. Having studied things as odd as welding [and] aviation, and just broadening my perspectives and understanding sort of who I am and where I best fit in this world, I’m really able to add a lot of value to a team that comes to us with an idea to create a business or an opportunity to invest and open the door to several different opportunities.
One of the investment criteria of the fund is “innovative business model solving an important problem.” Can you expand a little bit on the thinking behind that?
These innovative business problems that we’re looking at, it could really be a simple problem, but [a] really innovative solution. We’re looking at really targeting companies that are doing things that haven’t been done before, like we are. We’re Canada’s first and trying to be Canada’s largest venture fund for BIPOC entrepreneurs. It’s super near and dear to us to be first to market. We encourage the entrepreneurs that we work with to do the same thing and to be innovative in a variety of different ways. They may come to us with a pre-packaged deal, something that’s great, or they may approach us with something that’s really good and it’s doing great numbers, but we can improve upon the model by doing a variety of different things.
Arslan Ahmed | Staff Writer