Categories
Activism & Action

HOW WE CONTINUE TO FAIL BIPOC ENTREPRENEURS (And What We Can Do About It)

Photo by Holly Clark, Stocksy

Several weeks ago, a 35 year-old, Latinx, queer, immigrant woman-in-tech entrepreneur named Sophia Stone did what entrepreneurs do:  apply for funding.

With her 65+ page business plan well underway, Stone applied to, among other prospects, Futurepreneur Canada (Futurepreneur) a 20 year-old government-funded Canadian nonprofit that provides up to $60,000 in financing, along with mentoring and coaching to youth entrepreneurs 39 and under.

Stone expected the usual hoop jumping that comes with applying for a loan.  She did not expect to find her herself in a high-stakes face off with institutionalized racism.

Stone publicized her experience in a Medium post on Aug. 5. Frustrated with her interactions and response from Futurepreneur, Stone called me.  Her story clearly demanded further amplification. We believed this story also held important lessons for incubators, accelerators; in fact the entire entrepreneurship support industrial complex. With Stone’s consent, we began our own investigation.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A month after filing her application to Futurepreneur, Stone was engaging in an Instagram discussion with a fellow Latino about Latino proximity to whiteness and the privilege that affords. “We as a community need to also face the anti-Black racism that occurs with us too,” she wrote.

An interloper, who is not Latino, happened upon the discussion, and fired back with racist insinuations, which Stone and others challenged.

Stone, outraged by his comments and as good millennials do, did some internet sleuthing. Who the hell was this Dick? Who did the Dick work for? To her shock, she discovered he was a mentor at the very place she was applying to—Futurepreneur.

He was university educated, successful, midling, millennial white tech entrepreneur.  Along with being a youth mentor at the very prestigious Futurepreneur, he sat on the advisory board at The HUB, a Scarborough based startup incubator at the University of Toronto.

Genuinely concerned for the safety of herself and other BIPOC entrepreneurs, Stone made the gutsy decision to bring Dick to the attention of the CEO of Futurepreneur. Stone was hopeful something good would happen out of this. However, the official email response and “courtesy” phone call in response to Stone’s complaint that the email received was inadequate, revealing that despite commitments to diversity and inclusion, actual policies, protocols and practices remain deeply racist, sexist and oppressive.

The CEO explained they had investigated Dick, spoken to him and the four people he had mentored (one a person of colour, though not black) and found that, while they strongly disagreed with his point of view, Dick is an exceptionally good guy who is just underinformed, believes in equality, and that there was “no hint that his actions are inconsistent with our values of diversity and inclusion.” And if there was a whiff of stench, it appeared to be an isolated incident. Since Stone was not yet at Futurepreneur, her concerns hardly mattered, insinuating they were going above and beyond by taking any action at all.  And, besides, Dick wrote these things on his own social channels—not Futurepreneur’s; how could they be held responsible for what he or any of their other 3000+ volunteer mentors do in their personal time? To cover all bases, management brought the issue to the attention of the board, which by the way, included a Black member (new, her first meeting was July 14/15); the collective decision was made to continue working with Dick, albeit asking him “to be mindful of his public comments” and to do a bit of recommended reading. If there were future incidents, they promised to review his role.

The CEO then proceeded to remind Stone about all the good diversity and inclusion (D&I) work Futurepreneur has been doing, including promoting their IT Director (a Black man who has been with the organization for five years) to Head of D&I, as well as the recently added Black board member.

Our Follow Up Investigation

I found Dick easily on LinkedIn. He refused to meet and tell his side of the story, responding in writing that he did “not see how my (his) personal posts have anything to do with Futurepreneur.”

I interviewed the CEO of Futurpreneur. The Chief Experience Officer joined the call. The CEO professionally conveyed the same discussion points relayed to Stone. During the call, I discovered the organization had not seen or read Dick’s recent 10,000-word essay including carefully researched citations entitled “Evidence-Based Examination of Systemic Police Bias in the United States,” arguing that he is right, everyone else is wrong, and that police bias does not exist and that the inherent badness of Blackness brings on their troubles.

This essay was published for all to see, under his real name, several days after his meetings with Futurepreneur.

Futurepreneur thought they had handled it. Case closed. But racists don’t just change their deeply held beliefs after a meeting. Once Futurepreneur read the Medium post, to their credit, the organization called an emergency meeting and, later that evening, announced that Dick was no longer affiliated with Futurepreneur. The CEO wrote and posted this blog piece on their site the next morning: “We made a Mistake. We Fixed It. Now We Learn From It and Move Forward”. That was Aug. 6.

Meanwhile, three days earlier, the Director of The Hub at U of T learned about Dick’s posts independently from staff. The very next day, that organization terminated Dick as a member of their advisory board and posted this note on their website, immediately: “Comments like those made online stand in sharp contrast to the University of Toronto’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

With Dick removed from both organizations, Stone, at this point, might be pleased. She was not.  “This story was never about the mentor,” she wrote in an email to me. “It stopped being so the minute (Futurepreneur CEO) Ms. Greve Young chose to protect a racist. She is complicit in this story and used her own racism as a tool to systematically perpetuate institutionalized racism. She fixed and learned nothing and is wholly unfit to lead this organization.”

Futurepreneur’s mea culpa post never mentioned Stone’s role nor honoured her courage for speaking or acknowledged the weight of the emotional labour people of colour bear when they risk calling out a racist in their midst. They most certainly did not thank her for the personal risk she took.

Not doing so sends a clear signal to other marginalized, community whistleblowers: if you speak up, be prepared to be re-traumatized. Organizations may mean well, but they clearly lack the know how to deal with complaints about systemic oppression—and their ham-fisted action can, itself, be oppressive.

Calling in White Leaders in Entrepreneurship

So what can we all learn from this? And by “we,” I mean everyone, including our team at LiisBeth?

Make this Two-Handed Work: We must advance diversity and inclusion organizationally but, as importantly, dismantle racism and other systemic forms of oppression in broader society. That starts with accepting that we have all been raised in patriarchal, capitalistic, colonialized societies based on white supremacy—we are totally brainwashed. Ergo, so is our ability to “see” and respond appropriately if our goal is to dismantle systemic oppression. What to do? Make sure you have relationships with anti-oppression activists (perhaps even on your board). Recognize and check in with your own racism (we are all racist) when called to deal with immutable racists in your midst.  Seek out, support and establish relationships and work with leading activist organizations—not just corporate consultants who do this work daily on the ground and are farther along in their liberation journey than you are.

Know the Law: Incubators and accelerators depend on volunteers. But few have clear intake protocols, onboarding workshops, and explicit policies around volunteer conduct and accountability—let alone transparency about what happens if that conduct breaches policy or damages reputation. It is incorrect to assume what someone says on their personal social media channels is not your business.  According to legal precedent, organizations have, can and should hold employees and volunteers legally responsible for what they post on their personal social media channels. Especially if it causes reputational damage, harm to the community, or contravenes an organization’s stated values.

Develop anti-oppression informed policies and practices : The investigation process itself and fact that Futurepreneur exonerated Dick the first time raised a lot of questions and suggested a racist perspective, and perhaps even white feminist lens was at play. For example, how many times does someone have to demonstrate racism before being held accountable by an organization that is committed to diversity and inclusion? How are you treating the whistleblower? As an annoyance? Or are you honouring their identities, courage and wisdom by truly listening and figuring out how to overcome the challenge together, in a way that is anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal? Are you using the fact that you have a Black or Indigenous board member as a cover or leveraging their wisdom and experience in a meaningful way? In this case, it might have been more appropriate to fully engage person of colour on staff, the person in charge of D&I, or BIPOC person on the  board to participate in calls with Sophia—and me—rather than a white male colleague.

Be Clear About Tolerance Level: If a person kills someone, do we wait to see if they kill a second time before we act? Can you really change a person’s “misinformed” beliefs by handing him a few readings and telling him not to do it again?  Dick’s Medium post written to prove he is right and everyone else is wrong—after reprimand—reveals the need for a clear zero tolerance policy. Does this lead to “cancel culture”?  If you think that cancel culture is really a thing, think again.

What Now?

Ultimately, this story is not about Futurepreneur. It’s about how to make real change.

The fact is that our entire, mostly government funded entrepreneurship ecosystem is patriarchal, racist and pro-extractive capitalism centered. If we want to see a healthy post COVID-19 economy and socially just world emerge, this must change—fast.

Through this debacle, Tara Everett, a young Indigenous entrepreneur and sixties scoop survivor  contacted me. She told me that she pursued entrepreneurship after tiring of repeated discrimination in the job market only to experience further discrimination and trauma in the entrepreneurship space. The problem, she said, lies with programming at entrepreneurship centres, which is defined by government policy rather than being “led by the people who need to access these services.”  Everett left me this to think hard about: “I believe at the heart of it, it wasn’t the people that I felt the discrimination from. It was the policies and the procedures.”

Last year, a June 2019 report, “Strengthening Ecosystem Supports for Women Entrepreneurs,” surveyed 117 Ontario entrepreneurship support organizations and found that more than 68 per cent of startup incubators do not provide training on gender equity, diversity, and inclusion. A mere 3.4 per cent of incubators make accommodations for specific demographic groups. Worse, only 20 per cent of the 686 incubators and accelerators operating in Ontario even bothered to participate in the survey.

The vast majority of our mainstream women’s entrepreneurship centres and institutions are still led by white women and predominantly white boards of directors. Open positions are still filled primarily by white men and women. The Aug. 11  “State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada 2020 Report” by The Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) at Ryerson University affirms that as a nation of white, settler, colonialists, neo-liberal capitalists with dominant patriarchal norms and systems, “bias is baked in” to everything we do and create. Wendy Cukier, Director of WEKH noted in her webinar presentation about the report that “diverse women face additional barriers in our entrepreneurship ecosystems. As long as our definition of innovation and success is predominately tied to tech and science, we will continue to see exclusion for all women.”

This year, the York Entrepreneurship Development Institute (YEDI), was recognized by the University Business Incubator (UBI), a global ratings company, as one of the “World’s Top Five” business accelerators. Yet, a look at YEDI’s website shows that the place is overrun by white men. Out of 45 mentors, instructors and staff, only seven are women (15.5 per cent), and a mere three are from visible minority groups (.06 per cent). There are no Black mentors.

Several folks advocated for UBI to change their assessment criteria to include D&I metrics, including me. The response? Economic performance is all that matters. As a result, to me, UBI recognition means “seal of patriarchal approval” versus excellence.

This is a moment to seize and learn from, to build a movement.

If our entrepreneurship support institution leaders continue to lag and receive funding, it is up to us—the entrepreneurs they serve—to rise up and push for more meaningful progress.

Some Additional Next steps?

First, let’s applaud Sophia Stone for her unbelievable, selfless courage. You can show your support by taking the time to read her own story here.  I guarantee you will learn from it.

Futurepreneur should also step up and thank Stone for this incredible learning opportunity she handed them, and also clarify how her work as a whistleblower will impact her application to Futurepreneur going forward—should she decide to continue.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners everywhere need to continually assess their own prejudice, practices and policies. Myself and LiisBeth included. Because committing to diversity and inclusion is an ongoing, living, complex personal and professional practice, not a statement.

In fact my own white feminist lens came into play while working on this article. I too have learned some hard lessons.

Related Reading

How Do We Remake The World?

The first-ever SheEO Global Summit featured 93 speakers which offered new strategies to over 600 participants including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Read More »
Categories
Activism & Action Systems

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

incubator-part-two

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