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Activism & Action Our Voices

Emily Does The Hustle

Her Story in Black–A photo project featuring 150 black women entrepreneurs


Just over seven years ago, Emily Mills found herself up late, angsting about juggling what felt like “a zillion balls.” She posted a picture of herself on Facebook working in the boardroom of her then-employer. The premise of her post: She was driven, always hustling, but she had reached a point of exhaustion.

Ping. Ping. Ping.

Almost immediately several women in her personal network responded both on her Facebook wall and in her inbox, saying they were wide awake and feeling like they, too, were on a never-ending hustle.

“I was a bit surprised by the amount of conversation I was having at that hour of the morning,” she says, with a laugh. “And the conversation just continued so, I just kind of said, alright, fine, why don’t we get a bunch of us together – let’s talk about what we’re doing, how we can best support each other, maybe what we can learn from each other? How can we balance it all a bit better?”

From that, How She Hustles was born, a network that has grown to include more than 5,000 diverse women who (by their own definition) hustle. The network includes women ranging from teachers and academics to media personalities, corporate professionals and entrepreneurs. Mills says she started her enterprise without any clear business plan or five-year prospectus to achieve goals. Her entrepreneurial venture simply caught fire from that late-night Facebook confession.

Mills continued to cultivate the network through unique online and offline experiences such as brunches, after-work socials, pop-up shops spotlighting women of colour small-business owners and panel discussions. Paramount for Mills was creating an environment that would be welcoming to all women and not just those with a corporate title and corner office, which tended to be the clientele of the many well-established women’s networking events she had experienced. Those events, she says, “just weren’t working” for her. The energy was not as warm or congenial as she would have liked, and she wanted to flip the model on its head.

To make her events welcoming to all women, she put an intentional focus on younger, digitally savvy, diverse women and women of colour who had different priorities, lived experiences, journeys and concerns than more typical executive types.

“There are not a lot of spaces where you are going to have Brown and Black women driving and leading an event, yet there are women who may not reflect them who can participate and join the conversation,” she explains. “That takes a lot of courage I think.”

She also kept the cost affordable. There is no fee to join the network and admission to individual events ranges from $20 to $50.

Her strategy worked. The first brunch drew 50 women, and in the seven years since, all but one event has sold out. And those events typically draw 150 to 400 women. Mills built her network predominantly on word of mouth, social media and authentic engagement with other women and has yet to spend a dollar on paid advertising or PR that might have garnered media publicity.

Entrepreneur Michelle Berry, 46, was an early joiner. The owner of Shelley’s Catering & Special Events connected with Mills via Facebook six years ago after seeing a post announcing Mills’ engagement. She ended up not only catering Mills’ wedding, but also several How She Hustles events. “For someone who was leery of women friendship, the How She Hustles network has made me more open to sisterhood,” says Berry, “that there are truly awesome people in the world who are rooting for you.”

From Mills’ recommendations and networking in How She Hustles, Berry’s client roster has expanded to include top corporate clients such as CBC, Women in Film and Television and the City of Toronto’s Identify & Impact Youth Awards.

Mills injects energy and excitement into the How She Hustles network by making each event unique. Each event is held at a different venue –Tract9 creative media space, Wind Up Caribbean restaurant (now closed) and North York Central Library to name a few.

Says Mills: “I think it’s a wonderful way to show different venues and establishments in the city that there’s actually a whole different demographic you may not be connecting with. It’s also a very impactful way of taking up space.” In fact, everything Mills does is intentional. “I’ve been very mindful to make sure that every single How She Hustles event really puts women first. So, if I’ve got a budget to pay for an AV technician, yup, I’m going to be negotiating with the venue and saying, ‘no we’re not using your standard corporate AV supplier. I want to bring in a young woman of colour who is a freelancer and she’s going to run the boards.’”

The most recent How She Hustles endeavour was Her Story in Black, an idea Mills put together after recognizing a noticeable void amidst the Canada 150 celebrations: the voices and stories of Black women in Toronto. She came up with the idea of creating a photo series reminiscent of high-end magazine spreads she had seen in Essence, Ebony and Vogue, featuring 150 diverse Black women excelling in their field.

In passing, Mills made mention of the project to a management executive at the CBC, where she works full-time in media communications. Her initiative piqued immediate interest, and the project ballooned into a one-hour documentary that aired on CBC as well as several television and radio segments about some of the women – ranging from a DJ to a neuroscientist – and culminated with a Black History Month event in the atrium of CBC’s Toronto offices that brought together 400 women. The 400 took a selfie that was retweeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Mills was thrilled with the project’s impact. Women wrote to tell her that, until then, no one had ever invited them to public speak in their field of expertise, but after the project they had received multiple requests. She heard from mothers, sisters, grandmothers, daughters, even men, about how the project led to new conversations and opportunities for them.

At a private screening of the documentary for the women featured in Her Story in Black, Mills asked attendees to write on two sticky notes: their ask and their give. Mills then prompted some women to share what they wrote, understanding that for women (including herself) asking for help is often difficult. One shared her journey of entrepreneurship, the obstacles she had faced raising capital, as well as the personal challenges she had experienced losing loved ones along the way. Tears flowed from her eyes. When she finished her story, two others raised their hands. One woman offered her expertise in writing sponsorship proposals and grant applications. Another offered a cheque for $1,000 – no strings attached.

“I wonder how many networking events in the city would allow for people to stand up and be that vulnerable,” ponders Mills. “And how many events would create a space in the city where that demographic of women could even have that conversation?”

Ebti Nabag, one of the photographers who worked on Her Story in Black and has documented several How She Hustles events, says what Mills has built is rooted in sisterhood. “It’s just so heartwarming to see a large number of women attend and take over a space and make it their own because the energy is so positive, they just feed off each other,” says Nabag. “There are moments when you’re laughing, moments when you’re networking and then there are moments where your eyes are getting watery and teary because someone is sharing a personal story.”

And creating opportunities for such experiences is exactly what motivates Mills to continue to build the network, while juggling a career and being a mother to two young children. She has no plans to turn her business into more than a sideline venture; rather, her goal is to nurture a community of women and connect people in meaningful ways.

“This isn’t a full-time enterprise for me – I have a full-time job, it’s no secret. But I do think that there’s something – there’s a texture there. There’s a very specific calling to create spaces online or at events where women of colour and diverse women in this city can connect.”

Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

Black Foodie Turns The Table



It was meant to be a night out of fun dining with the ladies to celebrate Eden Hagos’ 25th birthday. But when she and her friends were ignored and disrespected at a local restaurant, Hagos, a longtime foodie, began to think about how the food industry treats Black people, and how Black-owned restaurants are regarded. And that eventually led her to launch Black Foodie, a blog spotlighting “the best of African, Caribbean and Southern cuisine and foodie experiences” through a Black lens.

On her 26th birthday, Hagos wrote about the incident that inspired Black Foodie’s creation — the blog post went viral. But the degree of online hate it generated shocked her – derogatory comments about her race, gender, looks. “People are telling me, oh Black people don’t tip,  Black people are bad customers, they don’t deserve good service,” recalls Hagos. “They proved exactly why we need this community – living proof that I could screenshot. It’s not even like you could try to say, ‘Oh, this is what you perceived.’ It’s real, and it’s literal, and you can feel that hate.”

For Hagos, the hate not only solidified her belief in the need for Black Foodie but strengthened her resolve to make it successful. In just over a year, she has built up 11,000 followers on Instagram, attracting readers from across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and several countries in Africa. Initially investing her own funds – the low-cost is part of the reason why she started with a website – she has since secured a couple of small business grants, including $1,500 from the School of Social Entrepreneurs Ontario’s Hook It Up program. She expanded from a website featuring recipes and restaurant reviews to a multi-pronged company that sells merchandise, offers brand and social media services to restaurants and hosts foodie meet-ups and events to generate revenue. In the future, once she’s grown her audience, she aims to sell advertising.

Black Foodie’s signature event, Injera and Chill – a play off the popular saying ‘Netflix and Chill’ – celebrates the classic Ethiopian bread injera that Hagos ate growing up. She started it in the fall of 2015 as a pop-up event in Toronto and drew about 50 people, predominantly Millennial Black foodies, to learn about and enjoy a traditional Ethiopian meal and coffee ceremony. Hagos then took the event on the road, organizing meet-ups for fans of Black Foodie in London, England and Atlanta, Georgia. Back in Toronto, she stepped up the summer 2016 event, expanding the celebration of food to a showcase of East African culture with a DJ, entrepreneurs showing their products and filmmaker Messay Getahun premiering the trailer for his movie, An Ethiopian Love. She charged $35 a ticket, and it attracted 150 guests.

Hagos, who was born in Windsor, Ont., credits her love for food to her parents, who immigrated to Canada from Eritrea, then a part of Ethiopia. Her father owned one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in Windsor. When she was growing up, she remembers him often cooking, which is significant, she explains, since in many Ethiopian households men don’t cook. Her parents knew the struggles of entrepreneurship firsthand and, like many immigrant parents stressed the importance of education. She attended both Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and York University in Toronto, graduating with a degree in sociology. She had planned on going to grad school in the U.S. but when she didn’t have the money or see a career path that appealed to her, her desire for “freedom” pulled her toward entrepreneurship.

She applied for and won a spot in Studio Y, an eight-month fellowship program for innovative thinkers run out of one of Toronto’s leading entrepreneurial spaces, MaRS Discovery District. She says her thinking around education and diversity helped get her in the door. What she appreciated most about Studio Y was the opportunity to earn a stipend while developing and testing ideas. Early on, she considered creating a line of Ethiopian spices; by the time she left, she was on the verge of launching Black Foodie.

“I was encouraged by many of the staff and other fellows to dream big – nothing seemed out of grasp to that group and it was very inspiring to be in a community that valued this,” says Hagos. That said, she was often left thinking, “There are so many other people like me, why aren’t we in here?” She yearned to see more people of diverse backgrounds, as well as more conversations around her entrepreneurial mission to target her own demographic, solve problems within her community and be successful at it.

In the summer of 2015, Hagos attended a pitch competition for Black tech entrepreneurs in New Orleans, Louisiana, connected to the Essence music festival. Being in a room full of powerful, Black investors proved inspiring. Though she wasn’t ready to pitch her company then, the event made her see that the start-up world was not just for white men. She also realized that for her company to grow, she had to think beyond the borders of Toronto and even Canada. She sees more opportunities for Black-owned businesses catering to Black people to thrive abroad. Sheer numbers for one:  In the U.S., for example, there are more than 37,000,000 Black people as of 2010 Census stats; Canada has just a fraction of that.

She also sees opportunity in Black Foodie’s appeal to women. Some 70 per cent of her readership – as well as the vast majority of her contributors – are women who identify as belonging to the African diaspora. “It’s crazy to me because we’re the ones cooking. But when you see the ones who are celebrated, it’s usually men. In the Black food world, it’s usually men who are hosting these events.” She also points out that popular images of Black women and food are often associated with racist depictions rooted in an African American context, such as the nanny. “I’m a Black woman, so, of course, I’m drawn to stories of people who I can relate to and I think they’re also drawn to me.”

Indeed, special events coordinator Eden Zeweldi agreed to work with the company, without even knowing how much she’d be paid. She has since planned five events in collaboration with Hagos. “[Eden’s] passion and her excitement for it gave me so much energy,” Zeweldi says. “I could actually be part of a movement that would bring food that my mother makes into the limelight.” Food stylist and photographer If Ogbue also saw the opportunity to work on Black Foodie as “a breath of fresh air.” She sees huge potential in the Black Foodie brand and envisions it evolving into a web series or television show in the future.

That’s exactly where Hagos hopes Black Foodie will be in five years. She would like to develop several Black Foodie branded shows; spearhead a huge Black Foodie festival that brings together chefs, food writers and foodies; and publish a cookbook, perhaps the first of many. Still, Hagos is careful not to get ahead of herself. The key now is that Black Foodie is sparking an important conversation, both outside and within Black communities. “My goal is not just to teach other people that we exist,” she says. “I’m interested in encouraging this conversation to happen amongst each other. Some of the things we talk about in food, you can only understand if you’re a person of colour. It’s kind of like an inside joke, and I don’t always want to be trying to explain that inside joke to other people.”



One of Eden’s favourite things to make around the holidays is sweet potato pie. Here’s her recipe. Give it a try.



Sweet Potato Pie 


  • 1/3 cup of brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup of condensed sweet milk
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 stick butter
  • 2 large spoons cinnamon
  • 1 spoon Vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp of lemon juice
  • 2 large spoonfuls of cinnamon
  • 1/2 spoon ginger
  • 1/2 spoon allspice
  • 1/2 spoon nutmeg
  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • Brown sugar paste:
  • 8 Spoons brown sugar
  • 4 spoons Butter
  • 2 Unbaked pie shells

Brown Sugar Paste 

  1. Mix brown sugar and butter together to form a thick paste
  2. Spread half of the paste onto unbaked pie shell and bake for ten mins or until it forms a caramelized layer (don’t let the shell get brown)
  3. Let it pie shell cool as the filling is prepared


  1. Bake sweet potatoes (or boil) until they become very tender
  2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into small pieces
  3. In a bowl blend the sweet potatoes, milk and condensed milk
  4. Add all of the remaining ingredients sweet potato mixture and blend until it has a creamy consistency then place the half the filling into pie shell and bake for 40 mins on 350.

This recipe will make two pies. Or you can use the remaining filling to prepare a sweet potato casserole, topping the mix with marshmallows and baking for the same amount of time.


Related Articles:

Activism & Action Systems

Why We Need Diverse Approaches to Startup Incubation (Hint: One Size Does Not Fit All)


I wear many hats. Journalist. Editor. Instructor. Youth and community program facilitator. Entrepreneur. Of all the titles, it’s the last one that I feel the most conflicted about claiming. Entrepreneurial certainly describes my spirit and journey: Thirteen years ago I incorporated a company, which my business partner and I have been running ever since; I have spearheaded several grassroots community initiatives and programs; and for the last two and a half years, I have been fully self-employed, meaning I pitch and land myself work or I don’t eat.

However, when I think entrepreneur—perhaps because of the magazines and books I’ve read, podcasts I’ve listened to, and representations I’ve seen on the topic—I largely think of a world to which I don’t belong. That world is rich with incubators, accelerators, networking mixers, co-working spaces, venture capitalists, angel investors, and Dragons’ Den-style pitch competitions. It’s not a world I was ever a part of (more on that here). Now, as I’ve aged out of the under 29 demographic and realize many others experience similar challenges to mine, I find myself wondering what it will take to bring more young women of colour in Ontario into that entrepreneurial world.

In November 2015, Ontario announced a $27 million investment in youth entrepreneurship as part of its larger $250 million Youth Jobs Strategy. The initiative includes a youth business accelerator program, which provides training to youth starting technology-based enterprises; a youth investment accelerator fund to provide financial and business skills training for startups; and campus-linked accelerators to help colleges and universities provide entrepreneurship resources for students and youth in their regions. The government is partnering on this project with the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), a regional network of 90 centres across Ontario that provide in-person and online advice, funding, resources, and programs for people who want to start and grow successful businesses.

Much more than when I was starting out, the idea of “youth entrepreneurship” is catching on like wildfire. I am excited about this. But, from my own experiences, and those of people in my networks, I know that to ensure that these government-funded initiatives are inclusive, welcoming, and accessible—specifically for racialized women—it will take more than just dollars and cents. To find out what it will take for the government-funded startup space to serve racialized women better, I spoke to several young women entrepreneurs, the same ones from part one of this article, as well as women behind innovative entrepreneur-serving initiatives.

Ensuring Access

The word access comes up again and again in my conversations about what government-sponsored programs must consider when setting up initiatives to help young women of colour entrepreneurs. Doina Oncel, founder of hEr VOLUTION, a non-profit that aims to increase access to innovative education and employment services for young women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), says it’s important for these programs to listen to what young women need. To create hEr VOLUTION’s hv Think Tank Accelerator, which launched this past summer, Oncel drew on her own expertise having worked in social services, as well as her own experiences launching a business while living in a shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. The four-month program, funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, is geared towards young women 15 to 26 years old who are interested in entrepreneurship and face barriers. For example, they may be in conflict with the law or new to Canada or from a low-income household. Topics covered include public speaking, financial literacy, marketing, and business planning. “[Having] worked with this demographic, I understood that they have a lot of great ideas, they just don’t know where to go [for help],” Oncel says. “When it comes to entrepreneurship learning, you have a lot of programs available in the city, but in the ‘priority neighbourhoods,’ there aren’t a lot of programs.”

Aisha Addo, 24, is the founder of the Power to Girls foundation, a non-profit she started at 17 to “empower Afro-diaspora girls in the Greater Toronto Area and abroad,” and most recently, DriveHER, a ride-sharing service that’s like Uber but focused on providing safe rides for women. She points out that because so few programs are offered outside of the downtown core, barriers to access can include things like not having transit fare or the lengthy travel time to get to an accelerator or incubator. She also criticizes many existing programs for not doing enough outreach within priority communities. It’s one thing to have programs available, but the work doesn’t end there. It’s important to ensure that access isn’t limited to a privileged few, especially when government funds and a social justice mandate are at play. “If the people that are actually going to benefit from the program do not know about the program, you’re not really doing anyone a service,” says Addo.

Kristel Manes, director of Innovation Centre at Innovation Guelph, has spent the last three years researching the experiences of women entrepreneurs in southwestern Ontario. The research led to the creation of The Rhyze Project, a women’s entrepreneurship program that focuses on building self-esteem and self-confidence as well as the development of a soon-to-be-released training tool that will better equip mentors to serve clientele at business and innovation centres. She says outreach can be difficult and is a “never-ending job,” but advises other innovation centres to follow her lead. She says Innovation Guelph connects with the community in genuine ways at all levels ranging from sitting on several organizational boards to being present at libraries, community centres, and cultural events. Still, she admits it’s “hard work trying to get to everybody.”

Beyond outreach, making accelerators more accessible means making more options available that consider the varied experiences of young entrepreneurs, Addo says. For example, many accelerators she has come across require a full-time commitment, something she hasn’t been able to make due to her job. Or too often, incubators focus on developing tech businesses, like Ontario’s youth accelerator business program. “What happens if I’m not doing tech?” she asks.

Increasing accessibility also means having women of colour represented among the facilitators, programmers, and administrators of these initiatives. Lamoi, a 33-year-old spoken word artist and founder of Signature of a Mango jewellery from Brampton, Ont., says the number-one way to ensure engagement from women of colour is to have them at the helm of creating and delivering the programs. “We have a whole different life experience, even if we don’t all come from the same place,” she says. “The experience of non-white women is so completely different and especially now at a time of extreme racial tension and micro-aggressions.”

Creating Safe, Supportive Spaces

It’s this sentiment—that representation matters in incubation spaces—that Chivon John saw manifest when she founded Secrets of a Side Hustler (SOSH). It’s an organization that supports people who start and grow businesses while working full-time, a type of entrepreneurship increasingly popular among young people, according to Julia Dean CEO of Futurpreneur (formerly Canadian Youth Business Foundation). John says that about 90 per cent of the audience at her events are women of colour. She did not intend that when she started out, but she’s very proud her organization has drawn out this demographic. She attributes it to the fact that other women of colour likely gravitate to what they identify with. Someone who looks like them and may share a similar story is a rare occurrence in traditional entrepreneurial spaces. “I’ll go to lots of events and I don’t see as much of the diversity,” says John. When she recently travelled to Hangzhou, China, as one of 30 Canadian delegates selected to take part in the annual G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance Summit, she was the only woman of colour in the group. “There’s lots of great things that happen within the city, but it’s disappointing when you go and you don’t see somebody that looks like you,” she says.

Lack of representation led 27-year-old Alicia Bunyan-Sampson to create the Gyalcast Academy, a new six-week workshop series for young Black women who identify as creatives or entrepreneurs and live in one of Toronto’s underserved or “priority” neighbourhoods. She says it was imperative to build a space that acknowledges the layered experience of being a Black woman, and she grew “tired of waiting for a white guy who doesn’t understand us anyway to make it.”

From what she has seen, most entrepreneurial spaces are not created with women of colour in mind. She is often left thinking, “How are you running a community program for young entrepreneurs and not offering free tokens or food or child care? Why do I have to navigate through sexism and racism in a space that you claim is for me? Why is this space/resource adding more stress to my already stressful life with these unrealistic expectations of me?”

These are all factors she considered when building Gyalcast, a program that combines skill-building and mentorship with a self-care component. The world does not encourage Black women to be soft with themselves, Bunyan-Sampson explains. As someone who struggles with the application of self-care in her own life, she felt it was essential to include it within the program.

Janelle Scott-Johnson, a 24-year-old creative photographer and solopreneur who participated in the academy, says she found the self-care component especially effective. It’s something that was absent from a mainstream campus-linked accelerator she previously attended. Participants have time to speak openly about any negative issues they are facing, she explains, and share tips on how to navigate them through things like meditating or keeping a journal. It’s something women of colour need, Scott-Johnson says. “There are not a lot of spaces like that where you can actually talk about things that are bothering you and have a room full of people that won’t judge and will teach you ways to care for you and your mental and your physical [well-being].”

Gyalcast was an “amazing space” that Scott-Johnson felt she belonged in. “I feel like the people who started that up, they can relate to the participants,” she says. “They are women of colour, they are Black, they’ve been in my position trying to start up, and they provided the key things we need.”

This was intentional in the program’s design. “We need to create our own spaces to ensure they are safe,” Bunyan-Sampson says. “Spaces organized by people that look like you are important, and it’s something not a lot of people talk about.”

Moving Forward

When I look around my networks, I see no shortage of young women of colour with entrepreneurial ideas, spirit, and passion. Many of them have already started one or more businesses. What I do see is a shortage of capital, resources, support systems, and opportunities for growth and sustainability. Ontario is putting resources into youth entrepreneurship, and even women entrepreneurs, with the Women Entrepreneurs Ontario Collective, which is putting forth recommendations on how the province’s economy can be strengthened through strategy focused on women entrepreneurship and innovation.

But it’s important not to overlook systemic racism and implicit bias, and their impacts on the startup space, by taking a one-size-fits-all approach to entrepreneurship. It’s also important to remember that it’s not as simple as throwing funding at underserved communities. As Scott-Johnson cautions, ingenuity is easy to detect. Organizations chasing after funding dollars and setting up programs in communities that facilitators don’t know well simply doesn’t work. “It’s hella obvious when someone’s heart is in it and when it’s not,” she says.

Though the research is non-existent on young racialized entrepreneurs in Canada, we can combine anecdotal accounts with studies from the United States to arrive at some conclusions about possible solutions to this complex problem.

The large incubation spaces that are currently receiving serious money to help enterprises scale up need to improve outreach and access to underrepresented groups such as young women of colour. The key to this is increasing the number of women of colour in leadership roles within these organizations and structures. Remember, representation matters.

At the same time, the government needs to consider allocating funds to support the work that’s already being done by organizations such as Secrets of a Side Hustler and Gyalcast Academy, which are already effectively engaging this demographic. Ontario seems to be doing a little bit of this with its Strategic Community Entrepreneurship Projects program, which offers funding, resources, and training to people 15 to 29 years old starting a business through partnerships with community organizations. Some have specific service mandates, such as the Bimaaji’owin Anonidiwin project in Thunder Bay focused on Aboriginal youth, or the Vulnerable Somali Youth Entrepreneurship Program in Toronto’s Etobicoke area. It’s this type of demographic-specific approach that is more prevalent in the U.S.

Work also needs to be done to bridge the gap between small and large startup spaces. Manes told me that part of Innovation Guelph’s outreach strategy involves being known amongst referral sources, mainly professional services for small business owners (lawyers, accountants, insurance providers). Why not have grassroots, community-specific incubation spaces partner with larger accelerators and incubators and referring participants, sharing resources, and exchanging knowledge?

Emily Mills, founder of How She Hustles, a network of 5,000-plus diverse, social media–savvy women who “hustle,” however they define that word, is positive that there is much to be gained on both sides. A serial connector of people, Mills is interested in figuring out a way to create a meeting of the minds, a space where an older white professional woman can meet with a young racialized entrepreneur and learn from each other. Young women may yearn to understand the business world, she says, while older women may benefit from diversifying their network to remain relevant, find talent, and develop new ways of doing business. “There is a benefit if those two worlds can come together.”

Related Reading: “Not Your Incubator’s Entrepreneur (And That’s Your Loss)” by Priya Ramanujam


Our Voices Systems

Not Your Incubator's Entrepreneur (And That's Your Loss)


A few years back, I found myself on an auditorium stage at Toronto’s elite MaRS Discovery District looking out at a room full of professionals who were gathered to discuss how to encourage youth entrepreneurship in Ontario. I was 29, the co-founder, co-publisher, and editor of a magazine, and had already done dozens of speaking engagements. But when the host introduced the other speakers, I suddenly clammed up. They seemed way more sophisticated, accomplished, and deserving of the title “entrepreneur,” at least in the way it was being defined at this conference. They spoke about turning profits, full stop. Here I was, then just short of a decade in business, still struggling to secure enough revenue to print and distribute Urbanology Magazine, the quarterly publication I co-founded.
Somehow, I quelled my nerves enough to tell honest stories of my entrepreneurial journey, which was very different from the others. I talked about learning everything about business and entrepreneurship through trial and error; never really having a “business plan”; of driving overnight to New York and having to freshen up in the lobbies of fancy hotels before conducting high-profile celebrity interviews, then driving right back to Toronto because we couldn’t afford to keep the rental van a day longer, let alone stay in a hotel room. I even told the audience about the time a patron—an older, white man—approached our vendor booth at a hip-hop show, asked us if we funded our publication with “drug money,” and brushed off my response.
When the moderator opened the floor to questions, I had another opportunity to discover how very different my entrepreneurial journey was. A woman asked if my team had ever tapped into accelerators or incubators or approached any venture capitalists for support.
Huh? What? Come again.
My answer was short: no. But I did qualify it by explaining that we had no idea those types of opportunities existed. That may have been our fault. Where did we get off starting a business without researching the resources available to us? But as racialized people in our early 20s and coming from one of Toronto’s “priority” neighbourhoods, my business partner and I would not have seen ourselves as the ideal candidates for such support. Remember the question about the drug money?
To this day, that woman’s question plays over and over in my mind. Why hadn’t we been able to access the support of incubators, accelerators, and all the other fancy programs that had clearly benefited the other entrepreneurs on stage? Why hadn’t my many young peers who had started businesses tried to access them either? Why didn’t we think they were available to us?
This was the answer I came up with: Depending on where you live and what your lived experience is, you have access to certain stuff or you don’t. And if you don’t, you go about your life, not really considering “that stuff” as an option. You just run with your entrepreneurial spirit, trying to set everything up, doing the best you can.
But that brought me to this question: How do young women of colour entrepreneurs chart their journeys? Research from Canadian academic institutions, incubators, or government is of little help because it largely does not exist. Though Canada is an incredibly diverse country with more than 200 ethnic groups represented in its population, the specific experience of women of colour entrepreneurs remains uncharted terrain. By not acknowledging that the experience of a white woman entrepreneur may be different than that of a non-white woman, it effectively erases very real experiences.
To begin to understand my journey, and those of other young women of colour entrepreneurs, I sought them out and asked questions. Some I know well; others I know through my various networks. Some are side hustlers, nurturing a business alongside a family, a full or part-time job, or both; others are solopreneurs. Their businesses range from for-profit and non-profit to social enterprises and creative ventures. I don’t claim that their stories (or mine) represent the journey of all young women of colour entrepreneurs. We are not a monolith. Let that sink in. Factors like ethnicity, nationality, race, language, physical ability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic position—and the intersections of all those—matter. The type of business you start also matters. For example, I decided to publish a magazine, one of the toughest challenges anyone can take on in these times of crumbling media empires. Nonetheless, these women gave voice to entrepreneurial experiences that deeply resonated with me, echoing aspects of my own overwhelming roller coaster ride—ripe with joy, rewards, self-growth, frustration, anger, pain, sadness, and hopelessness.
But let me start with the passion.
Publishing a magazine is a continuous struggle. Honestly, what keeps me going is the type of content we have been able to create, and the voices we have been able to amplify. What keeps me motivated has nothing to do with profit margins or sales projections. It has everything to do with filling a void we saw within Canadian magazines and essentially making a small difference by bringing new voices and perspectives to the world.
Asia Clarke, the 27-year-old creative director and founder of Wild Moon Jewelry, told me that a similar passion drives her. As an arts entrepreneur, she says that making an income from something she pours her soul into “is a very fulfilling feeling.” And that having others appreciate or be inspired by her work is “really empowering.”
Clarke took environmental studies at York University, focusing on international development and sustainable development. While in university, she embarked on a spiritual journey—her academic interests, jewellery making, and starting her business became part of carving out her own identity. It was about “cementing my place in the world as a Black feminist,” she says.
Her business has taken her to places such as Trinidad, Dominica, and most recently, Ghana, where she facilitates jewellery making and entrepreneurship workshops for women who are former sex workers seeking new forms of income. Having a degree certainly helps, but she says it’s her entrepreneurial experience that shows employers her capability. “Having your own initiative, something that you can show others you really care deeply about, that you’re passionate about, really brings so much more opportunities your way,” says Clarke.
My own entrepreneurial venture has certainly opened doors for me. Though Urbanology has never paid my bills per se, it has led to jobs, teaching opportunities, paid speaking engagements, and freelance gigs.
And then come the challenges.
Clarke and I are from the same underserved Malvern neighbourhood in Toronto and confronted many of the same challenges on our entrepreneurial journeys. For years, she self-funded her handmade eco-friendly jewellery line while working part-time and attending school before landing her first grants from CUE, ArtReach, and the Ontario Arts Council. Clarke explains that in the traditional jewellery industry, families are often in it for decades, unlike her own experience. “Me, as a young woman of colour, daughter of Caribbean immigrants who really struggled to get a foot into Canada, I didn’t have those opportunities, or those support systems,” she says. She points out that being able to obtain a university education while living rent-free at home with her family enabled her to direct the money she made at a part-time job towards Wild Moon’s expenses—two privileges she had that other young women of colour entrepreneurs may not.
The challenge of securing startup funding is a reoccurring theme that comes up in my discussions with other young women. A recent report on the state of Black women entrepreneurship in the United States indicates that like all women, Black women face barriers such as a lack of startup capital, resources, and loans; gender discrimination; and children and family obligations. However, the report finds that these barriers for Black women “are compounded by the influence of race on social, human and financial capital.” This is despite the fact that “Black women entrepreneurs are among the fastest growing groups of women-owned businesses in the country with more than 1.5 million Black women business owners in the U.S.” according to Carla Harris, chair of the National Women’s Business Council, which co-commissioned the report. Despite the dearth of research available on Black women—or any women of colour—in Canada, anecdotal evidence would indicate similar challenges exist north of the border. As Clarke tells it, often intergenerational capital isn’t available to women of colour, making the concept of borrowing from friends and family less likely.
Lamoi, the 33-year-old founder of Signature of a Mango jewellery and spoken word artist living in Brampton, Ont., started out “later in life,” which left her on the sidelines of accessing funding and programming geared at entrepreneurs 29 and under. When she gave birth to her daughter in 2014, she quit her job to pursue a desire she had for many years: to work for herself. She decided to focus on building her business and developing her art, while being a stay-at-home mom. Although she says she has a “village” of people who help with her daughter, some members of her extended family have not been supportive of her entrepreneurial ventures, often urging her to return to a 9-to-5 job and “be part of the system.” Venturing into entrepreneurship can be powerful, she says, but without the support and startup cash to make it through, becoming profitable can be near impossible. “That’s why a lot of our businesses end up failing,” she says, referring to women of colour. “Not many people are in jobs where they can save up and quit their jobs, take care of their families, and start a business.”
There have been other challenges too. For Lamoi, managing her time and balancing motherhood with growing two small businesses has been tough. As daycare is expensive, she sends her daughter only once a week and she’s found it difficult to find reliable childcare at night when most of her spoken word gigs are booked.
Aisha Addo, 24-year-old founder of the Power to Girls foundation, a non-profit she started at 17 to “empower Afro-diaspora girls in the Greater Toronto Area and abroad,” and most recently, DriveHER, a ride sharing service like Uber but with a focus on providing safe rides for women, says she often feels like she faces a triple barrier: being a woman that’s young and racialized. Because of the latter two factors, she says potential investors in DriveHER have challenged her being a suitable choice as the face of the company. “As much as we encourage young people to dream big, when it comes to actually pushing them and investing in them, people are always hesitant,” says Addo, adding this reticence compounds for youth of colour. “Investing in people of colour is imperative, just for society in itself to thrive. The lack of these opportunities go on to create a whole lot of other social issues.”
Addo hit the nail on the head. In order to raise capital for DriveHER, Addo is utilizing crowdfunding, one of the recommendations put forth in the Black Women Entrepreneurs report. Twenty-one days into the campaign, her innovative venture has raised just $1,824 of her $25,000 goal. What gives? Ensuring that the startup ecosystem is welcoming, accessible, and inclusive—particularly to communities who are vastly underrepresented in it—is imperative. There is no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit and talent. Helping those entrepreneurs get a proper start so they can realize the full potential of their businesses, which, in turn, would strengthen their families and communities, requires making fundamental changes to the startup ecosystem. In part two of this article, coming later this month, I speak to women who are creating welcoming, safe, and supportive spaces and find out how they’re working to launch women entrepreneurs of colour, as well as hear about the mounds of work left to do.
Additional Reading

Activism & Action Featured

Queer to their Boots

Black and white photo of founder, Niko Kacey, a queer, asian fashion footwear designer
NiK Kacy is the Creator and Executive Producer of Equality Fashion. Week, the 1st LGBTQ+focused Fashion Week in LA, as well as the Founder and President of NiK Kacy Footwear. Photo: Kacy Footwear website.
Toronto’s Kensington Market has long been the landing site of many of the migrant groups that help make the city one of the world’s most vibrantly multicultural. On a Sunday in May, the funky market threw out the welcome mat to pioneers of a different kind—six innovative fashion companies producing lines that defy gender stereotypes. Women belonging to the LGBTQ community as well as fans of gender-neutral attire eagerly flocked into a pop-up retail store in the Supermarket restaurant to browse a rack of masculine-cut dress shirts from Kirrin Finch. A queer teen accompanied by her mom cracked a wide smile as she tried on a pair of NiK Kacy’s agender desert boots. It’s clear that both she and her mom are delighted to finally find footwear suited to the daughter’s taste. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re identifying as a man or a woman, cis or trans,” says 41-year-old NiK Kacy, founder of the self-named shoe line that puts an androgynizing twist on men’s wingtip shoes and is made for feet ranging from a petite 3.5 in women’s to size 14 in men’s. “If you want to dress up and you want to wear a high heel, you should be able to. If you want to wear a wingtip, you should be able to,” says Kacy. Kacy, a transman who identifies as masculine of centre/gender fluid and uses the pronoun they, flew in from Los Angeles to participate in the two-day Superbutch event, which included a fashion show the night before, pop-up retail shop and a panel discussion on what it means to identify—or not—as butch. Organized by musician/model Dinah Thorpe, production manager Heather Blom, academic Zoe Newman, and fashion designer Jack Jackson, Superbutch threw a spotlight on a growing number of local and international clothing lines catering to a vastly underserved market of LGBTQ people looking for designers who understand their identities and body types. As shown in a recent street fashion spread in The New York Times in which men donned hot pink blazers adorned in flowers and paired with shorts, people beyond the LGBQT community appear to be looking for fashion that messes with the gender binary. “When I got here, I was running a few minutes late and there were already customers waiting to see my shoes, so that was awesome,” says Kacy, who sported blue jeans, a button-down grey and white pinstripe with sleeves rolled to the elbows, a two-tone grey scarf, and a pair of their own wingtips to match.  

Ideas Born of Frustration

Kacy, who previously worked as a senior interactive producer/project manager for an in-house creative agency at Google, had zero fashion experience when they started their line. Their idea was born from the frustration of never being able to find masculine-looking shoes that fit properly. In mid-2014, after quitting Google and recovering from surgery to transition, Kacy travelled throughout Europe, visiting factories and attending international shoe fairs seeking a manufacturer. People didn’t want to give them “the time of day” though. Kacy’s lack of fashion experience was only half the battle. “The way I present myself is masculine presenting, trans, gender queer, and they don’t know what to do with me,” Kacy says. “The shoe industry is very traditional, very archaic. They’re mostly older, European men who have been in the industry for generations.” They simply didn’t understand Kacy’s vision. “No I don’t want a man’s shoe in a woman’s size,” Kacy would think. “I want to get rid of that whole mentality.” Eventually Kacy found a shoe factory in Portugal to make prototypes. They then launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2015 to raise money for production. The effort attracted 267 backers from around the world who pledged $47,542—160 per cent of the original goal. The first collection featured what Kacy calls “masculine-of-centre” wingtip shoes and derby boots. The second collection will feature “feminine-of-centre” high heels.  

Opportunities Ripe For Picking

Kacy says the queer fashion scene is begging for new entrepreneurs to enter the market. In the last few years, a number of apparel lines have taken advantage of the void to launch and, recently, another gender-neutral footwear company called Matriarch used Kickstarter to raise startup funds. While that competition would be cause for concern for some, Kacy feels differently. “I’m just excited that we’re having more options. Competition is healthy because it inspires us to do better and it inspires more people to do more things like this. We’re so underrepresented.” Like-minded entrepreneurs such as Laura Moffat and Kelly Sanders Moffat are helping to build a welcoming, close-knit community. Last February, the Brooklyn-based couple ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch the debut collection of Kirrin Finch, a menswear-inspired line designed for women and genderqueers who want to sport a dapper look. “I don’t feel like there’s this secretive, competitive nature,” says Laura of the LGBTQ fashion community. “NiK [Kacy] has been an amazing supporter for us and now we try to be supportive to new businesses that are joining. If we can be better together, then it can only benefit everybody as opposed to being petty and scrambling for opportunity.” Neither of the Moffats have a fashion background—Laura used to work in marketing, Kelly as a teacher. Like Kacy, they launched their business out of frustration. Both were drawn to menswear, but were never able to get the right fit buying off the rack. Their own line of eco-conscious fashion (button-ups and T-shirts made from recycled plastics) are designed to accommodate a woman’s bust, hip, height, and arm length. The pieces range in price from US$45 to $145. Queer Fashion Show2

Toronto Superbutch Fashion Show

A Need For Mentors

To gain mentorship from seasoned fashion-industry professionals, the Moffats joined the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator. Living in one of the leading fashion cities of the world provides daily inspiration and is what Laura calls “super energizing.” Sourcing buttons and fabrics is often just a subway ride away and they can get their shirts manufactured locally. What’s lacking, though, is queer-specific resources. “There [are] no queer-based incubators or accelerators that I know of, or any associations that, from a financial perspective, support us,” Laura says. It’s a gap that the organizers of the Superbutch fashion event and retail pop-up says needs to be filled. Jack Jackson, who identifies as non-binary trans and uses the pronoun they, launched the Toronto-based bowtie line alljackedup in 2014, but has yet to find a mentor to guide the venture into its next stage of growth. While Jackson did tap into events like a three-day entrepreneur/startup hackathon to soak up knowledge from “brilliant” minds, something was always missing. “These events don’t cater to what we’re trying to do,” Jackson says. “It’s difficult to promote yourself at the best of times, but when you’re trying to speak to someone who doesn’t have an understanding of our community like we do, it makes it really difficult.” The wider fashion community appears to be catching on to androgynous wear, which is starting to appear on runways and in major retail outlets like Zara. Jackson says this is “amazing” for breaking down the gender binary, but it needs to be recognized as more than a passing trend. Permanent options must be made available for people like Jackson, who “just don’t fit into mainstream stuff.” Laura agrees. “It’s not really about trends. We would have worn these clothes five years ago, and we’ll probably wear the same clothes five years from now.” Jackson encourages consumers to pay attention to the smaller startups that the big designer brands and retailers are borrowing inspiration from. “I think more support needs to be given to the designers who are from that world, who understand what the community needs, rather than to major corporations.” Kacy wants to see businesses like NiK Kacy, Kirrin Finch, and alljackedup become a viable part of the mainstream fashion industry. “I would love for one day, it to be no longer a queer business,” Kacy says. “One day, hopefully, it’s just going to be a business.”    
Featured Our Voices

Gashanti Unity: Creating Things That Don’t Exist


Muna Ali cut her entrepreneurial teeth before she even started grade school, “playing business” at the side of the road near her grandmother’s house in her birth city of Hargeysa, Somaliland. She identified her “market” of school children, recognizing what they needed (like candy, for example) and positioned herself strategically at the junction they all had to pass to get home to ensure traffic to her store. Though her store may have been make-believe, her budding entrepreneurial spirit was real.

“Since I was in high school, I noticed something about myself,” says Ali, 33, programming director and co-founder of Toronto-based Gashanti Unity, which has a budding social enterprise arm that incubates young Somali women entrepreneurs. “I wanted to create things that didn’t exist.”

In 2007, at age 24, Ali did just that. Along with her sister, Khadra, and five friends, she secured funding from the Youth Challenge Fund (established by the United Way of Greater Toronto and the province of Ontario to support youth-led initiatives serving racialized and marginalized youth) to launch Gashanti Unity, a grassroots community organization that supports young, first- and second-generation Somali women growing up in Toronto.

Gashanti Unity’s motto is “anchored in our culture, focused on our future.” Its name reflects the two identities the women it serves constantly straddle: their Somali heritage and Canadian youth culture reality. The group reclaimed the Somali word gashanti, which translates literally as “unmarried woman in pursuit of a man,” to instead mean a young woman in pursuit of her own personal development. They combined it with the word unity, a nod to Queen Latifah’s 1993 hip-hop hit “U.N.I.T.Y”, an ode to female empowerment.

The network of young women held monthly shah and sheekos (tea and talks), organized a day-long symposium for 100 Somali girls from across Toronto and created a leadership program called Tusmo: The Future Leaders. The aim is to redefine what success for Somali women looked like. “In our community, women are always putting themselves last, making the sacrifices,” says Ali, who points out that Somali culture has very different expectations of sons and daughters. For girls, it’s often enough to graduate high school and get married. “This is the one space where we’re like, ‘No, this is where you take up space, . . . where you dare to dream . . . dream to be that and something more.’”

Ali made documentary films that explored themes of identity and the intersectionality of being young, immigrant, Somali, Black, Muslim and female. In 2012, Ali and her sister, Khadra, were invited to take the films to the annual Hargeysa International Book Fair in the Horn of Africa and the Somali Week Festival in London, England. Ali and others from Gashanti were also being hired to film, photograph and DJ at Somali weddings—sparking the start of a social enterprise extension of their work.

Ali, who had earned a social service work diploma from Seneca College, began exploring ways to formally structure Gashanti Unity as a social enterprise and applied to the School for Social Entrepreneurs Ontario (SSEO). According to managing director Marjorie Brans, the school focuses on the individual, not the enterprise and aims to “help promising community innovators and emerging visionaries become the best leaders they can be.” Brans admits she was blown away by Ali’s application. “It just seemed like Muna had an easier time jumping in and moving ahead.”

Ali found herself surrounded by entrepreneurs trying to establish themselves in Toronto’s vast startup community. She learned how to pitch in Dragons’ Den–style challenges and how to create an “ask” for resources, such as help or funding from another organization or possible investor. “I realized that I can make people [nod their heads] while I’m talking,” says Ali. “They’re saying yes because I’m really evoking something.”

Now a graduate of the SSEO, a master’s student pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in education, gender and women’s studies, and humanities at York University, as well as a newlywed, Ali is pushing to add another arm to Gashanti Unity after identifying another gap: a lack of women-of-colour entrepreneurs and women of colour in decision-making and leadership positions acting as role models.

“Like it’s Oprah and that’s it,” she laughs incredulously. She recalls times she’s attended women entrepreneurship events in Toronto and spotted one woman of colour in the room. “I wonder what that would look like if I could see an [entrepreneurship] network of women who were all women of colour?”

In true Ali fashion, she is working hard at finding out what that will look like. Despite the fact that Gashanti Unity is currently 100 per cent volunteer-based with a small office housed inside the youth space of a Toronto Community Housing building, Ali and her younger sister, Hoda, 30, are now incubating seven young women entrepreneurs. The group, which includes four graduates of Gashanti’s Tusmo leadership program, is piloting an online podcast for young Somali women that discusses everything from race and ethnicity to pop culture.

Muna Dahir, 22, is one of the women being guided by Ali. “Even seeing people that look like you in a certain position is enough to spark being inspired to do your own type of thing because if you don’t have that representation, then you don’t see those possibilities,” Dahir says. Her friend Basma Deef, 21, nods in agreement. “So [Gashanti] really is a [role] model for Somali girls—they’re doing this, they’re grinding. They’re pretty big, to us at least,” Deef says.

And Ali wants Gashanti to get bigger. While mentoring the next generation of leaders to spearhead its community programming work, building the organization’s social enterprise capacity and applying for operational funding, she is also creating a leadership curriculum that can be implemented for Somali girls in cities around the world. She says that Gashanti has been her “playground,” providing an opportunity to explore, grow and learn. “I always like to say it’s about understanding that what got us here won’t keep us here.”