In 2019, Dominic Lau, a partner at Ripple Enterprises, a Toronto-based VC firm, was looking for ways to help startup founders and VCs from underrepresented groups. His answer was the RippleX Fellowship Program, aimed at teaching and mentoring graduate and undergraduate students aiming for entrepreneurship or breaking into the VC industry. To this end, there must be 50% gender diversity and a minimum of 90% ethnic diversity in each cohort.
Since its inception, the program has evolved while staying true to its mission of serving underrepresented students. For example, it recently refined its admissions process to make the system more equitable. And last year, RippleX started a separate fund for startups launched by students, as well as other founders not in the program. “DEI is really in our DNA,” said Nazuk Thakkar, program manager, who is also an associate at Ripple Ventures.
A cohort with two tracks
The RippleX Fellowship Program is open to undergraduate and graduate students in North America and runs three times a year during the school semester with two tracks: one focused on entrepreneurship, the other on becoming a VC. The remote program, open to 25 students in each cohort, includes bi-weekly discussions, expert workshops, and hands-on projects. For aspiring founders, topics include topics such as product-market fit and the basics of term sheets. Those who want to become VCs learn how to evaluate a startup and how to break into the industry, among other things.
There is also a free public course that is open to everyone, including those who are not students or who are located outside of North America.
A new fund
In 2022, the fellowship launched the Fellow Fund, a separate fund that invests $25,000 to $50,000 in some student startups, depending on the stage of the company. It is also open to new and underrepresented founders who are not in the program. Fifty percent of investments go to founders who identify with underrepresented groups.
So far, the fund has made two investments in startups launched by entrepreneurs who have taken the public course: Artemiswhich develops a data modeling tool for business, and Give up waitingwhich has a platform that helps doctors with daily tasks, aimed at reducing burnout.
Fine-tune the application process
Over the past year, the program has also refined the process for reviewing applicants. For example, a four-person assessment team, all alums, consists only of people of color, with 50% gender diversity. Plus, reviewers don’t look at schools or GPAs. And they ensure that every applicant is screened by every team member at a different step in the process.
With a total of more than 1,000 students in the 13 cohorts offered so far, there is an 80% ethnic diversity and 50% gender diversity, according to Thakkar. The program has also helped disadvantaged founders raise about $50 million in VC funding and place 50 students from underserved backgrounds in VC roles, she says.
Thakkar attended a cohort in 2021 while a student at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, determined to break into venture capital. In addition to helping run the fellowship program, she is now also a VC at Ripple Ventures.