A self-described “recovering attorney”, Leigh-Ann Buchanan has practised law in Miami for seven and a half years. She focuses on complex criminal litigation including white-collar defence, business disputes and audit malpractice.
Leigh-Ann is more than just a lawyer. Her real passion lies in innovation and inclusion. She wanted to do something impactful in her community without abandoning her skill set as an attorney. So in 2016, she made the transition to the startup and innovation sector, and Venture Café was born.
Venture Café is a “for-mission” non-profit. The company focuses on how to create a hub for inclusion and innovation in South Florida. Venture Café doesn’t only focus on technological innovation (which is where many similar centres concentrate). Focus is preferably on creating forward-thinking solutions in a variety of industries.
Leigh-Ann was born and raised in Canada to Jamaican parents. She split her time between the two countries, briefly attending primary school in Jamaica and spending summers on the island. Her Jamaican heritage had a massive influence on her life. She recalls that even while attending an HBCU (Historically Black College and University), she spent more time with the Jamaican students than Americans.
Her undergraduate degree in International Relations led her to pursue studies in France and Switzerland with the United Nations. Leigh-Ann credits her travel opportunities and experiences of other people and cultures for building her skills as a leader today.
Inspired by the Jamaican motto “Out Of Many, One People”, Leigh-Ann focused Venture Café on using the values of accessibility, inclusion, diversity and community. She did this to create a more inclusive innovation community in South Florida.
Leigh-Ann has always been inspired by “out of the box” programmes. The programmes created by Google and Facebook which show gaps in the community that are not being filled by government and civil society. Miami is over 50% immigrant and exceptionally culturally diverse. Leigh-Ann wanted to create an innovation space that was more inclusive of ethnic and racial diversity. She also wanted all socioeconomic backgrounds represented.
The company hosts a series of “Thursday Night Gatherings” which has seen over 17000 people from all different backgrounds convening. Venture Café has also hosted over 600 educational breakout sessions completely free of charge. They work with local organizations, as well as investment funds and tech startups, amassing over 350 partners in their almost two years of existence.
Leigh-Ann With A Focus
Leigh-Ann’s real passion project is the NYAH Project. Coined from the Swahili word for “purpose”, the Nyah Project assists high school students of colour in developing their potential through transformative experiences overseas.
While talking one day to a family friend who brought American students to Ghana for study-abroad programmes, Leigh-Ann was stirred to offer the same transformative experiences to her students. She asked: “Why can’t my students have these same experiences? Why should they be deprived of opportunities because they don’t have money?”
The programme is open to students in grades 10-12 with at least a 3.0 average. The student must also have demonstrated leadership in their school and community. The programme is entirely free and offers a fellowship which includes a 10-day trip to another country.
Since launching in 2014, the programme has taken 35 fellows overseas. They visited countries such as Costa Rica, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and London. And the programme boasts an excellent success rate: 100% of the Nyah Fellows go to college, and 90% win scholarships.
The staff in the programme are 100% voluntary. As such, the project is not an everyday after-school programme itself. It partners with existing community programmes to provide an enrichment layer for students. The finalists in the project participate in a leadership workshop. They also do an experiential learning programme in the summer, and the 10-day journey abroad. The project also offers a weekend workshop to Grade 12 students to give them scholarship and post-graduation advice.
The Nyah project started with its first cohort of 6 students. Leigh-Ann recalls how difficult it was to secure travel documents and arrangements for one student who was in foster care. That same student is now finishing his third year at Syracuse University in New York on a full scholarship. Within that first cohort, there are students on full scholarships to Mount Holyoke College. They also received awards to Florida International University, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida.
The Venture Café team is still tiny – it’s a two-person operation. So right now, Leigh-Ann is not looking to expand outside of the US just yet. However, she recognizes that a lot of innovation concentrates on Latin America rather than the Caribbean. Because of this, she’s the first to jump on partnership opportunities with Caribbean countries. She has also taken one of her Nyah fellows to Jamaica to share his experiences with other aspiring Jamaican youth.