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Risky Business? Maybe Not

 

 

 

Pramilla Ramdahani, CEO and founder, Community Innovation Lab

“You are risk takers, don’t listen to that stuff. You are risk takers because, quite frankly, you raise families, you have children, you move countries, you move cities, you have had enormous risk in your life!”

That message from Women on the Move’s CEO Heather Gamble—to ignore such axioms as “women can’t succeed in business because they don’t take risks”—had particular resonance for this audience of women business founders, some of whom had endured extreme risk, such as immigrating to Canada, heading single households, and surviving intimate partner violence. And the point was particularly impactful coming from an entrepreneur who reached $1 million in revenue just 18 months after launching her first startup.

As a revenue accelerator devoted to helping other women entrepreneurs reach the million-dollar milestone, Gamble is also a faculty mentor of The Refinery, a unique business growth program designed by women for women out of the Community Innovation Lab (iLab), a hub for entrepreneurs based one hour east of Toronto in Oshawa, Ont., where it serves the Durham Region.

Pramilla Ramdahani started the non-profit iLab as a way to tackle community social issues through an innovative lens in an ethnically diverse region with pockets hard-hit by job losses. Ramdahani, who has an MBA in community economic development and studied social entrepreneurship at Stanford University, left her own successful enterprise and bootstrapped iLab for three years before landing any kind of substantial funding. Talk about taking a risk. Eventually, the Ontario Trillium Foundation funded iLab’s most in-demand seminar, which morphed into The Refinery and will support 1,335 women through 2020.

Ramdahani says she started The Refinery after noticing two needs in the region: entrepreneurial training for women and assistance for marginalized women. After seeking feedback from the community through roundtable events, Ramdahani realized that women wanted a founder’s program created and staffed by women, to serve women. Women said they felt safer in smaller rooms with doors rather than one large open hall. They also said they have different and more open conversations when the instructors are female. Plus, they like to support each other. According to Brenna Ireland, director of operations for iLab, the women wanted a program to strengthen “business and personal ties to better the community, not just compete against each other.”

So, no, a traditional male-led accelerator would not do.

Yet, The Refinery is more than an all-female accelerator

At the earliest stages, LiisBeth founder Petra Kassun-Mutch designed a curriculum for women-only programs that helped infuse feminist entrepreneurial values throughout iLab’s work—business counselling and training, building opportunities and networks, mentoring, and widening access to capital. (Researchers Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott define feminist entrepreneurship as “a mechanism to create economic self-sufficiency and equity-based outcomes for women, girls, and other gender-oppressed communities.”) All entrepreneurs at iLab are coached with the end goal of achieving autonomy, and by extension, strengthening their community with hiring and spin-off economic activity from new ventures.

Refinery Incubator participants in session

The Refinery includes a three-day boot camp, a year of intensive training delivered online and at the iLab centre, optional seminars on such topics as social media marketing, and opportunities to receive year-long mentoring from an established entrepreneur. Women learn how to access capital, build strong teams, scale processes, and generate sales.

The Refinery supports entrepreneurs working in a variety of sectors including business services, media, wellness and coaching, automotive sector, food, gift products, and human resources (note it’s not just tech). Women are guided to discover their own strengths and ideas, rather than the staff deciding which businesses would be best for them. According to Ramdahani, The Refinery is about “integrating empathy, social justice, and user-led techniques.”

The women-centric support and camaraderie is particularly important for abuse survivors, who face additional challenges when starting a business. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the U.S., survivors may have endured years of economic abuse, including tactics that damage their credit, deplete their resources, and prevent them from completing education and training. They may face ongoing threats of violence even after leaving an abuser, as well as legal issues and long-term mental and physical effects of trauma. Survivors may also have spotty employment records. Child care is often difficult to arrange after years of social isolation. And while all entrepreneurs may struggle with confidence, survivors must overcome low self-esteem brought on by years of abuse. They may also fear publicity or the idea of bringing their business online given that abusers often continue stalking and harassing their victims, in person and online. To top it off, survivors likely live under the poverty line and struggle to pay for food, shelter, utilities, and transportation expenses, leaving little to bootstrap a new business.

But the same policy research group also notes that survivors have strengths and resilience that may serve them well in entrepreneurship. The reality of managing a relationship with an abusive partner may require the same skills exhibited by the most successful CEOs: calculated risk-taking, thoughtful action, tough-mindedness, the ability to read people, problem solving, and determination.

In Oshawa, where iLab is based, domestic violence calls to police increased by 15 percent between 2013 and 2017, but the actual rate is much higher, as 70 percent of spousal violence is not reported to the police, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

One survivor in The Refinery program (she asked to remain anonymous), who started a new business service while caring for elderly relatives, says she still suffers side effects from an earlier abusive relationship and has been grappling with relocation. She received much-needed sales, marketing, and financial training from The Refinery, but it was the all-female setting that was most critical. “It provides a safe spot,” she said. “Because after you’ve been victimized, you’re vulnerable and your confidence is shot. And so, any time a man is in the room, it’s a different dynamic than when you’re surrounded by women.”

She recommends The Refinery to “anybody that is looking to flesh out their business, anybody looking to ramp up their business, and who needs to build up a network of people. It certainly gives you all the supports that you need.”

The Refinery and iLab strive to create a safe space for all by requiring instructors to undergo police checks, as well as privacy and sensitivity training. The board of directors and staff strive to be as diverse as those they serve.

And here’s another appealing aspect for marginalized women: thanks to funding from Trillium, all fees are waived. Even optional seminars can be subsidized for those who need financial assistance. To help fund their startups, iLab partnered with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to widen the eligibility criteria for funding to help women entrepreneurs. Ramdahani also hopes to start a micro-lending circle at iLab to help women who don’t qualify for funding through banks, the BDC partnership, venture capitalists, or angel funding.

A safe space for women nurtures growth for all

Based on the success of The Refinery, iLab looked at other gaps in community services and launched entrepreneurial programming for additional under-represented groups. ILab started incubators for at-risk youth entrepreneurs called NEET (not in education, employment or training), Spice (seniorpreneurs who are 55 and up), and the Social Enterprises Accelerator that helps social entrepreneurs grow to the next level. Said Ramdahani, “If you cannot find employment, why not create your own business? That’s the pathway we see that participants can use to alleviate poverty.”

 

CiLab Women Finance Day

ILab also offers co-working spaces and rooms to rent for events and meetings—at a fraction of typical costs. Staff are quick to answer questions and find extra resources to accommodate attendees’ personal circumstances. And in order to create a community for entrepreneurs to grow and apply what they’ve learned, alumni from all streams are invited to join a Facebook group once they complete a program.

Elsii Faria, of The Hive Centre Bee and Bee, entered iLab’s social entrepreneur program to get much-needed support in a variety of areas. The business she runs with her husband offers overnight accommodation via a retreat centre that hosts nature, creativity, wellness, and spiritual events, as well as marketing and web design, and a platform called 1Community1 focused on community engagement. While building the business, Faria faced a life-threatening illness, took on a new mortgage for the bed and breakfast and office space, as well as cared for her one-year-old child. Faria says connecting with other social entrepreneurs at iLab gave her “really valuable support from other businesses with similar objectives.” It also introduced her to key partners such as Bear Standing Tall, their first Indigenous retreat leader. She had an arts education but needed to build up business skills. ILab helped her improve her sales skills and understand their business model. The business recently landed a grant that allows them to partner with Durham College to continue developing their 1Community1 platform.

Yet, for all of iLab’s success helping others, it has yet to receive solid funding support from any level of government—municipal, provincial or federal. Ramdahani is frustrated that governments favour investing in tech-based entrepreneurs and large urban-based non-profits. She is pleased that the Ontario Inclusive Innovation Action Strategy, released in June 2019, expands the government’s innovation definition to include “processes that are not tech-based.” But she points out that the strategy will only support women entrepreneurs at the high-growth stage only. “There is no funding for women who are marginalized, and who have just started a business, or have been in business for under three years,” Ramdahani said. Early-stage women founders often find doors for traditional loans closed. Without investment and cash flow to conduct business, Ramdahani wonders, How can they grow?

What funding is available for women entrepreneurs?

The federal government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) has added millions to support women, including new funding for enterprises in the high-growth stage, organizations that help grow women’s businesses, and research hubs. Currently, there is a federally funded women’s business development centre in every province and territory except the Northwest Territories. Provincially, the non-profit Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise supports women-owned businesses and community economic development in northern, eastern, and central Ontario, excluding the Greater Toronto Area, through federal and Ontario Trillium Foundation funding.

In the U.S., the Small Business Administration (SBA) partners with non-profit organizations to fund and oversee 113 Women’s Business Centres. The centres offer entrepreneurs and small business owners free counselling and free-to-low-cost training. Men can receive services through these centres as well.

American women entrepreneurs are encouraged to register with the SBA for a Women-Owned Small Business or Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Business Certificate. This qualifies them to bid on contracts with the federal government to supply products and services. During 2017, $20.8 billion in contracts were won by women-owned small businesses. The U.S. federal government strives to award five percent of their supplier contracts to women-owned small businesses.

Like iLab’s innovative programming, these are ideas we can build on. ILab involves participants in curriculum and space design, “rather than building something and inviting them,” said Ramdahani.

Something for funders to chew on.


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This article was generously sponsored by Startup Here Toronto.


 

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Categories
Activism & Action Systems

Where are the Women in Canada’s Women in Tech Venture Fund?

 

We are watching. Photo credit: Bianca Castillo, Unsplash

 

A year ago, the Canadian federal government and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) set out to level the playing field for women in tech by increasing the amount set aside for its Women in Technology (WIT) Venture Fund from approximately $100M to $200 million in 2018.

In Canada, studies show only 4 to 7% of all venture capital goes to women majority–owned or women-led tech startups. In the US, the situation is even worse according to a 2018 Tech Crunch study that found only 2.2% of venture capital investment in tech firms went to US-based female-founded startups, a decline from previous years.

Not surprisingly, many placed high hopes on the increased investment in the WIT venture fund to fuel change. Announcement of the fund’s increase came in 2018, in what the government touted as Canada’s first-ever feminist budget, which included a $2 billion investment in women entrepreneurs over the next five years.

A Year Later, What’s Changed?

In an announcement released this April, BDC reported that $17 million (8.5% of the $200 million) has been invested in a total of 25 companies. More than 1000 enterprises inquired about the fund or were encouraged by one of BDC’s 34+ fund managers to consider applying.

One recipient was Innerspace, a company that says it is closing in on an “important problem,” that is helping Google track you once you are inside of a building. At present, you disappear from “under his eye” once you go indoors. According to Innerspace, companies can benefit by keeping their employees under surveillance, minute by minute, to identify efficient use of space. The government clearly agrees and invested $3.5 million in the company, even though its founders are all male. No, wait, on closer surveillance, LiisBeth discovered that Innerspace employs a woman as their chief marketing officer!

When news of the investment came out, sources familiar with the firm quickly expressed outrage on social media. How could BDC use the WIT fund to invest in yet another all-male-founded shop? Is the fund a sham? Does adding one woman to their leadership team truly qualify Innerspace as the type of company politicians had in mind when they created this fund?

More importantly, has the WIT fund changed anything?

In mid-April, The Logic, a snappy new $300/year subscriber only indie news source reported that, despite years of efforts to advance women in tech, 90 percent of Canadian investment deals still go to companies founded exclusively by men. The Logic also wrote that BDC made 47 investments in women-led tech firms from 2014-2018 under the WIT initiative. Those investments represent only 15.8 percent of its total venture portfolio, which translates little change. Or progress that is measured in inches, not yards.

Turns out, social change is hard to scale.

Look! There’s a Woman!

Talks with several BDC officials confirmed that the WIT venture fund eligibility criteria require that companies have at least one woman in an executive leadership role. Shawn Salewski, director of external communications at BDC, says a leadership role in the context of this fund means “an executive on the leadership team driving the direction of the business.” Salewski adds that the fund also considers the length of service of that female exec. “You can’t come in with no women on the team one day and a woman on the next and expect us to invest,” he said. “We won’t. They need to be in the role for at least a year.”

Research shows that half of all tech startups do not have a female executive at all, and only five percent have a female CEO. So, on the surface, a “one-is-better-than-none” rule seems like a good point of intervention. We can be persuaded that limiting access to the WIT fund to firms that are 51 per cent majority owned by women may be impractical in the venture space where founders, of any gender, typically sell more than 50 per cent of ownership in their company in exchange for venture capital raised.

But Where Did the Money Go?

To verify if WIT funds have been invested in ways that at least put more women in tech, LiisBeth reviewed 16 companies listed on the BDC WIT website that received WIT investment this past year plus those recently announced (total of 20). We reviewed company websites, Crunchbase data, other business databases, plus conducted Google searches for media related to the company in the past few years. We looked at the leadership team to see if it included at least one woman. Lendified aside, it turns out that BDC did reward companies that had at least one woman in leadership.

Then we looked for a deeper commitment to gender equity by checking out the gender composition of staff, advisory boards or fiduciary boards, and whether a company’s website art and copy was gender inclusive. We recognize that it’s possible a company’s website or online data is out of date. However, we think that if a team were chasing WIT venture capital, it would ensure their online image was in sync with their pitch.

We summarized our results in the chart below. We awarded three boobs as a “hooray-good job” to companies we felt went beyond the “one woman” benchmark , and two to those we felt just met just this basic criteria. Companies that left us scratching our heads received one boob. Lastly, we gave a plain old “WTF” to those that did not seem to reach even the basic criteria, which is to have at least one woman somewhere on your VIP list on Crunchbase, a PR release, or your “Our Leadership Team” page on your website, even if it is in a traditional female role (i.e., human resources, communications, marketing).

       Note: Chart was updated April 30 to reflect updates from Tealbook and Plum on staff composition from Tealbook and Plum. We increased their sticker count from the original two to three. 

 

Overall, 16 of the 20 companies had at least one named woman co-founder recognized on their site. Eighteen had a woman in an executive role. That’s the good news. Only three of the companies had all women co-founders, originally. Thirteen of the 20 companies appeared to be committed to gender equity beyond just the leadership team. One company, Nestready had a woman co-founder and woman in a leadership role at one point, but no longer does. BDC says it did not participate in it’s latest funding round as a result.

We awarded three of the companies an “earth” star for creating products that potentially benefit society. The rest are either basically helping you spend money more easily, finding ways to put more tech between you and other humans, or helping companies become more efficient through automation.

To be clear, we’re not opposed to efficiencies or automation. Stronger bottom lines can be a great thing—if that results in companies that pay living wages to gig economy contractors, support local communities, and provide real full-time jobs (in Canada) with benefits for employees, for at least a year or two after implementation. Given this is public money being invested, we would hope BDC pays attention to founder values and intentions post exit.

And one more observation: None of the 20 enterprises that received funding produce products or services that specifically work to advance women and girls in society.

To Wit, What’s Next for WIT?

The WIT fund is the first fund of its kind in the world, according to Michelle Scarborough, the Managing Director, Strategic Investments. She says investments will continue to flow. “We have a very full pipeline.”

Adds Scarborough: “Our due diligence process is in line with best practices in the fund management game. We look for category leaders, whether they have an unfair advantage, own their intellectual property, and have the potential to disrupt and grow fast-globally. Our approach is pretty traditional.”

And that’s where our real concern lies. If Silicon Valley venture dogma and “best practices” entrenched a gender bias in tech in the first place, perpetuating it certainly isn’t going to get us out.

If WIT’s goal is truly to produce gender equality in tech, it must take a different approach, to change the underlying system.  Whether it’s getting more women into politics, onto boards, into manufacturing/construction/mining (insert any under represented sector), the strategy of enticing a few women onto the field and expect them to win at a game that is not built for them, even has rules stacked against them, will result in limited, if any real change. Most of them will disengage and start their own business in a sector that is far less hostile to people born with two X chromosomes—versus one. Nestready is an example of a “now you see them, now you don’t” outcome.

What is required for true systems change is a reinvention of the game. If we truly want to see women in tech thrive, we would be better off building a WIT fund built by women, for women, from the ground up.

Jonathan Hera, managing partner at Marigold Capital and expert in gender-lens investing, says BDC’s intention may be good, but sticking to traditional selection criteria is an example of impotence in action. “BDC has the opportunity to re-write the entire rule book when it comes to unleashing the power of women in tech. They could change what success and outcomes look like – long-term economic impact that supports female founders, the products and services they offer, and the underrepresented and marginalized communities they more often serve. To do this would mean altering the basis on which BDC makes decisions, and of course why they do so. Like most of us in the venture space, BDC’s investment processes have deeply embedded implicit and unconscious systems bias, and unless they change the criteria, their success won’t likely meet its intent and opportunity.”

A Solution?

Radicals would say, start over. Segregate the WIT fund entirely. Give it a clean slate. Bring in a group of smart women to redesign the fund from the bottom up. Recruit a kick-ass collective of women in tech to govern the fund. And see where it takes us. For those who think enabling a group of women in tech to manage the fund as a collective is a risky idea, we say two things:

First, our government invests and grants billions of dollars in risky future forward ideas every year to drive economic growth and social change. See #supercluster. $200M is a drop in the bucket.

Second, collectives of men have been running venture capital for years.

At the very least, WIT should strengthen its criteria. It should require evidence of a commitment to gender justice throughout the company — not just at the executive level. Evaluations could require a minimum of 50 percent women on advisory boards, 50 percent women on staff, ideally many in non-traditional roles, as well as a review of marketing materials to assess gender inclusive messaging and evidence of policy that aims to procure at least 10 percent of its supplies and services spend from women-owned firms. It would be wise to add a requirement to complete third-party employee surveys that comment on whether or not the culture is, indeed, inclusive.

Better than all of this, BDC could focus the fund on tech companies that have products and services that advance gender justice in some way—or at the very least  develop products that addresses one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Given the state of the planet, we could use less investment in extractive and rent seeking “disruption” and more tech companies that focus on reclamation and harmony.

For anyone who moans that there is only one way to measure return on investment, or that stronger criteria slows things down, is too expensive, hard, or intrusive, just tell them to apply to the traditional venture capital funds or one of BDC’s non-women funds that comprise its whopping $33 billion portfolio. Again, the $200 million WIT venture fund is a drop in the bucket. So, let’s make that drop count. Public money investments need to push boundaries and lead the way. That is what governments are uniquely able to do: Think long term and drive needed change when entrenched patriarchal industries and quarterly review–driven mindsets clearly will not.

Surely, we are ready to move beyond, “OMG, they got a woman in the C suite! Tick!”

After all, real change is what most women voted for—and what many will vote for again in the fall.


Editors note:  BDC officials say Nest Ready was co-founded by a woman originally and had another woman on the executive team at the time of investment. However, the fact that her existance or contribution to the creation of the enterprise is non existant on any company sits or news releases speaks to what we would call erasure.  So we are keeping our rating of “WTF”.  It also points out that a firm can evolve back to an all male team after WIT investment. Correction: Lendified received a grant under the WIT fund–not a venture deal. 


Related Articles

Read May 2nd OP ED by The Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce founder, Nancy Wilson below. “How many women does it take to make a “women-led” company? It turns out you just need one – that is, if you are a tech company looking for investment from a venture fund marketed to support female entrepreneurship and participation in the tech sector.”

Op-Ed: What’s a ‘Women-Led’ Company? We Need a Standard Definition

https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/12/03/feds-drop-9-million-into-womens-entrepreneurship/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/06/21/confronting-gender-inequity-inclusion-innovation-space/

 


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