Join PK Mutch, publisher of LIisBeth Media in short (10 minutes) pop up interview with Canadian Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion where Minister Ng talks informally about her goals for women entrepreneurs in Canada and what’s next for the Canadian federal government’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy.
For more information on The Fifth Wave, Canada’s first feminist business accelerator, click here. Fifth Wave is an initiative of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) and supports womxn founders in digital media.
Here are 10 new songs for us to march to on Sunday, March 8, for International Women’s Day. I believe that working towards equality is a balance between doing our own inner work and taking action in the world. We must be able to honour our pain and the learning we still need to do, and also look outwards to see where there is injustice in our communities and step forward proactively.
The artists below are each striving for equality in their own way, using their platforms and voices to help us all learn and grow. We are each here to contribute to that greater purpose. Let this #IWD2020 be an inspiration for us on how we can march forward, and what direction we are heading in.
Bikini Kill, “Girl Soldier”
Bikini Kill, known for pioneering the Riot Grrrl movement, was one of the first all-female bands in punk to speak out against abuse and misogyny. “Girl Soldier,” truly an anthem to march to, points to the irony of men fighting overseas when there is a war happening on our own homes against women, women’s lives, women’s bodies, women’s rights. Seen here in a live video from the early ’90s with “Turn Off Your TV” draped behind them, Bikini Kill inspired a revolution and called us all to action. 2020 sees them reuniting in a world that just might be ready for their message.
Haviah Mighty, “In Women Colour”
Brampton rapper Haviah Mighty made history in 2019 when she became the first female rapper to ever win a Polaris Prize. The opening track to her album, 13th Floor, cuts hard to the truth of how racist and misogynistic our world (let alone the music industry) still is. She tells her powerful story, how none of it could break her, and now as she breaks boundaries with her art, she is changing the landscape for Black women in this country.
Rising Montreal rapper Backxwash identifies as queer and a witch—two communities that have historically been broken through hateful, patriarchal culture. F.R.E.A.K.S is an anthem to all the incredible people existing in the margins of society who are changing our culture by showing up unapologetically. Historical change has always come from queer and marginalized communities, pushing the restricted boundaries of normalcy and redefining identity. Today we celebrate all the amazing freaks.
Riit, a Juno-nominated and rising artist from Nunavut, is an embodiment of the slow but real change beginning to happen in the music industry. Her Inuktitut lyrics and throat singing speak of her experience growing up in the Northern Territories, and the strength she has found as a woman through much of it. “qaumajuapik,” the first video from her 2019 album, landed her on many incredible shows and festival lineups, a massive hurdle for an artist living in such an isolated population. Making space for voices like Riit’s is the reason our individual actions matter.
Tei Shi, “Alone in the Universe”
Colombian-born singer Tei Shi often sings on themes of love and loss but her 2019 anthem “Alone in the Universe” is a song for us to march to. If there is a God, and if she is a woman, she’s dropping the ball, Tei Shi proclaims. She follows it by promising to speak up for the sake of others, where she hasn’t been able to speak up for herself. It’s a powerful reflection on the isolation of being a woman, and the importance of taking action on behalf of ourselves and others.
Lido Pimienta, “Eso Que Tu Haces”
Lido Pimienta returns this April with her first album following her 2017 Polaris Prize win, titled Miss Colombia. “Eso Que Tu Haces” depicts the magnificent colour, warmth, and dance tradition of San Basilio de Palenque, the first place of refuge for those fleeing slavery in the Colonial Americas. Her magnetic voice and storytelling has begged Canada for years now to be accountable to continued racism in the country, and this song is no different as she sets a boundary around what can be considered a “loving action,” and what is false.
Sudan Archives, “Glorious”
This video is Black Girl Magic personified as Brittney Parks imagines her own prayer to God in the style of old oral tradition hymns. Inspired by Aisha al-Fallatiyah, the first woman to ever perform in Sudan, “Glorious” prays for money, a foundation of life in our world. It is a stunning and raw nod to intersectional equality—if we want an equal world, we have to understand that it takes marginalized genders, races, and identities that much more effort to get what they need to survive in it.
Austra, “Risk It”
Austra returns this year with new music after four years when we last heard “Future Politics,” a plea for a more equal, utopian world. “Risk It” is a call to action that can be interpreted in our love lives, our political lives, or both (since there’s really no separation in the end, is there?). As we march to the beat of this song, we can contemplate risk as an essential part of growth and change. There are places where we all need to risk it in our lives in order to see equality grow in the world.
Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Indians Never Die”
This song is a beautifully haunting comment on our Earth and the Indigenous communities that have cared for it over many generations. Colonial violence is still painfully active and destructive in the 21st century, and we are each responsible for our part in ensuring that the land we live on and the individuals who continue to care for it do not waste away. Perhaps the physical earth can be part of our vision for equality, too.
Vagabon, “Every Woman”
Do not be deceived by the gentle strum of this song. In the lyrics lives a war cry, a proclamation that Laetitia Tamko is not afraid of the battle that women face every day to exist and be free. There is a solidarity in her lyrics as we understand the importance of every woman coming together in the name of equality. We may be tired, but there’s a ways to go still before we sit down.
You can also find all our playlists on Spotify under LiisBeth. https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/07/11/summer-reset-playlist-feminist-entrepreneurs/ https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/03/15/a-change-makers-playlist/
The $1 billion+ fragmented feminist economy comprised of feminist enterprises operating in all sectors to advance equity and equality for women, girls, trans, and queer folk is about to come together.
On January 5, LiisBeth Media, Canada’s only feminist business media enterprise with 2,500 subscribers and more than 19,000 online readers, is launching a new service, the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC), an online community built with Mighty Networks technology. It will enable the currently far-flung and splintered feminist enterprise community to come together in a safe, supportive, authentic, radical, change-led, and feminist-values-led space.
As part of the community, members will be able to connect, share valuable insights, ask important questions without outside surveillance, contribute tools, find relevant and new feminist research, and glean new insights to advance their own feminist practice, enterprise, and drive for systems change. They also have the opportunity to work collectively to further strengthen the feminist economy by resourcing, and sourcing from each other.
LiisBeth founder, PK Mutch, says, “We decided to build a new online community because we are increasingly unhappy with policies, bias, and breaches of trust by social network companies like Facebook and Google. Recently, Facebook randomly prevented LiisBeth from posting because they said our group site was too political. Apparently you can’t boost or promote a post about feminism’s point of view on current events without giving them your personal SIN number or driver’s licence. We challenged them on it, and the restriction was lifted—briefly. Still, that was the last straw for me. Once our new network gets going, we will be essentially using our LiisBeth Facebook channel to redirect people to a safer, online space.”
Mutch also adds, “We also aim to keep the community small and engaged. We are not aiming for thousands of phantom users.”
What is a feminist enterprise?
Feminist enterprises are typically founded by visionary feminist entrepreneurs, innovators, creators, investors, researchers, and social justice activists who leverage their entrepreneurial, leadership, innovation capacity, and creative skills expressly to not only create enterprises or projects that advance gender, economic, social, political, and environmental justice, but also to experiment with new ideas that can help us begin to conceive an alternative world beyond neo-liberal capitalism and patriarchy where all people and the planet can flourish.
At present there are no other feminist economy or enterprise-oriented networks in existence. Although, there are an increasing number of feminist business coaches popping up in the US.
PK Mutch explains, “Entrepreneurship is a tough path for all who pursue it to surviving or thriving economically in an increasingly unequal, precarious economy. Heavily promoted corporate responsibility efforts to address broken systems give the illusion that we are making sustainable progress, but the truth is lasting change won’t happen without the engagement of the rest of the economy—entrepreneurs and small enterprise leaders—in a conversation about what an economy beyond modern capitalism and patriarchy might look like.
Feminist entrepreneurs have all that to contend with plus the fact their ideas are marginalized because they challenge deeply held beliefs, and because, often, they move at the speed of humanity—versus the speed of technology.
Mutch adds “The feminist economy has been around for over 100 years (think bookstores and women-led credit unions in the 1970s), yet its work and leaders are systemically and frustratingly overlooked or appropriated without attribution. Most enterprises are grassroots in scale and strapped for time and resources, so finding each other and connecting has been difficult. We saw an opportunity to change that. Ultimately, we believe a stronger, more visible and better supported feminist economy leads to more well-supported experiments with alternative economic models and systems concepts. These tens of thousands of small but bright bonfires for real change will lead to the kind of radical social and economic changes we need to see if we are to ever leapfrog past our currently repressed ideas about the kind of world we have the power to make.”
Canada has a feminist government, feminist budget, and feminist foreign policy—and the Ministry for Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) in 2019 announced the historic $400 million Equality Fund, which combines international feminist grant-making with an innovative investment arm, delivering new momentum for women’s movements and supporting the advancement of gender equality globally. It makes sense that Canada should also be home to the world’s first visionary feminist enterprise community.
Mutch and her team envision that the FEC is intended to become a global community over time.
The Feminist Enterprise Commons
Built on the Mighty Network platform (founded and led by Gina Bianchini), FEC is a space where founders, project leaders, and aspirants can freely ask questions and, with the help of others, refine their ideas about how to flourish differently without fear. A core feature of the community will be the “Feminists in Residence” program. The program will bring in feminist thought leaders who are experts at specific topics and tools like “feminist marketing” or “feminist business model canvas” to share their expertise and will offer exclusive member-only workshops.
Investors, funders, and individuals or organizations with resources to share are also encouraged to sign up and support inspiring founders and transformative ideas that they believe in.
“So many corporations and impact investors are working to support gender equity these days but end up creating their own initiatives to do so instead of finding and investing in feminist enterprises or organizations that are already out there doing this work. The Feminist Enterprise Commons would create an opportunity for them to go to one place to find existing, experienced investees or partners instead of spending time reinventing the wheel,” says Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO.
Elize Shirdel, a feminist tech entrepreneur, says, “When one decides to create a feminist enterprise, it’s easy to feel alone out in the world. Feminist enterprise communities are cross sectoral, grassroots in scale, fragmented, and widely dispersed. Access to aligned startup and growth funding for promising but radical ideas is extraordinarily difficult. This keeps our voices small and weakens our ability to thrive while doing countervailing work.”
Valerie Fox, founder of the Pivotal Point and a LiisBeth advisory board member, says, “I believe in the power of well-connected innovation ecosystems to change the world. So I am excited about this idea. We need feminist enterprises to lead the way if what we want is the ability to imagine what else is possible socially, politically, and economically. It’s especially important to flow investment towards these sometimes ‘hard to love’ enterprises because they work hard to deeply challenge our assumptions about a system that, frankly, works well for some people, but not all.”
Nancy Wilson, founder of the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, says, “The Feminist Enterprise Commons is a great idea. It seeks to connect unique types of enterprises and leaders with a feminist point of view. Not all women are feminists and not all feminists are women. If they are successful, they will not only be able to strengthen themselves, but also increase their ability to attract resources and influence policy.”
Mutch adds, “This is not a women’s empowerment or women’s booster network. It is an intersectional, queer and trans-inclusive, pro-reproductive rights, and social equity-oriented feminist space where existing systems are critiqued, dismantled, and new status-quo-busting novel concepts and ideas are worked out.”
The Commons is operated by LiisBeth Media, a division of Eve-volution Inc., a for-profit social enterprise and certified B Corporation. However, LiisBeth Media will be spun off into an independent cooperative by June 2020.
Commons host PK Mutch says, “It goes without saying that the leadership, ownership, governance structure, and community conduct agreements will be ultra transparent, developed participatively, accessible, responsive, caring, inclusive, in other words, feminist in every way. We are very clear that we are not going to build another ‘ghost town’ community network enterprise where frankly, the members in the end, are the product, versus the other way around.”
Mutch adds, “We won’t be perfect, but we will be human. We will work through any stumbling blocks along the way together.”
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How do you create inclusive communities through innovation? That question brought together more than 500 leaders from across Canada’s social innovation landscape for the Econous 2019 conference in September. Guided by Indigenous advisors, organizers asked eight members of a Witness Panel to share their personal thoughts (not through the lens of the organizations they work for) on what they had taken away by participating in the event.
Kosisochukwu Nnebe, a Nigerian-Canadian policy analyst and visual artist, had this to say:
My name is Kosisochukwu, which means “as it pleases God” in Igbo. I start with this because every name comes with its own story, and it is my way of grounding what I say next in my positionality as a young Black woman born in Nigeria and raised in Gatineau, Que. It’s taken me many years to love my name and cherish what it says about me and my heritage. It is one element of my bundle—an Indigenous term, as I’ve learned, that refers to sacred items such as feathers and plants, as well as to the collective and personal knowledge that we hold, and the gifts that we come into this world with.
As witnesses [at Econous 2019], we were invited to think about leveraging our own unique bundles to assess and filter what we would be learning throughout the conference. As witnesses, our role was to use our own personal lived experiences as a lens through which to understand and then communicate our learning.
Thinking through the last couple days, two ideas have remained with me constantly: the importance and power of language, and the idea of practice as something that is not linear, but encapsulates past, present, and future. Both concepts are intricately linked and, when harnessed, can help us move towards a more inclusive vision of a social economy that collapses both time and space, in terms of bringing together generations of knowledge that is both rooted in local places but also connected to people and regions across oceans.
I’m quite new to the field of social innovation and social finance, and have often found the terminology heavy on my tongue, filling my mouth with words that seem foreign and abstract, until explained in more accessible terms and applied to more relevant contexts.
How many of you are familiar with the legend of the Tower of Babel? In it, humankind attempts to come together to build a tower to reach the heavens, but is unable to do so because what used to be one universal language becomes mutually incomprehensible dialects. In our context, it is not only language that has the potential to divide us, but also these silos that represent different sectors, different organizational types, and different forms of knowledge production (be it institutional knowledge production within universities or knowledge that is derived from being in community or on the land).
Fundamentally, however, we’re all working towards the same thing, all trying to erect the same tower that will help us generate wealth for all our communities in ways that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. This gathering and the conversations that have taken place are a safeguard against a similar fate (of Babel), and a way of ensuring that we can all collectively contribute to building that tower. It is by coming together to share our journeys and the best practices and lessons learned that we can begin to see and understand the interconnected nature of the greater ecosystem that we are all working within. We all come to this work with our unique bundles—be it skill sets, perspectives, resources, responsibilities and capabilities—and we all contribute towards a common vision, even though we may describe it and name it in different ways.
As I heard yesterday, friendship centres and Indigenous folks have been doing the work of social innovation for years, decades, centuries, even before that since time immemorial—all under a different name. As I discussed with a friend during one of the breaks, within African Canadian communities, the practice of social finance can be traced back to the sou-sou savings clubs of West Africa. Women would pool their savings and come together on a regular basis to then distribute that money to a member of the collective to, for example, start a business. These practices are not new. They have been with us for generations, just under different names. When we speak of diversity and inclusion in our fields, we must remember why this is important. It is not only for the sake of representation—which, though important, often leads to tokenization—but because these communities have access to a wealth of knowledge and practices that have contributed to their resiliency throughout years of oppression, both material and psychological. They have something to offer, something that we can all learn from—if only we can put aside differences in language and really listen to each other. Coming into this space, I became so overwhelmed by language around social finance that I forgot that my own mother had benefitted from a sou-sou when facing difficult times. We need to create a space where these lived experiences are valued and brought to the table as models that can inspire.
As I’ve heard many times throughout the conference, innovation isn’t necessarily about doing something new, but rather about doing something differently. It does not always have to be future-oriented but must build upon the past to orient the present in order to guide the future. Time is not a linear thing, nor is practice. My source of inspiration now is my own mother and her mother and her mother’s mother. How can we value their voices in our work as well?
Beyond time, how can we borrow from fields that seem so separate from ours? Much of my mindset and worldview is influenced by concepts rooted in Black feminism, from intersectionality to standpoint theory (personal experience shapes one’s perspective and is multifaceted rather than essentializing). During the session on feminist economies, we were all reminded of the words of Audre Lorde—a brilliant Black feminist thinker—that the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house. In imagining the future that we want to move toward, are we rethinking our tools? Are we rethinking language and organizational structures that we don’t often question yet contribute to perpetuating the status quo? Are we looking outside of our own systems to systems of the past or systems from other regions or countries? In a feminist economies class, we did a simple exercise—completing a feminist business model canvas—and quickly discovered how a simple change of language in the way the canvas was designed could prompt questions and lead to analyses and solutions that are more inclusive, and rooted in care and the flourishing of all.
What we need to build that tower to the heavens in the legend of Babel is an ability to find common language. Language that allows us to see the similarities and potential synergies in the work that we are doing. Language that allows us to understand it as a practice that’s not constantly looking forward into the future, but harnessing the knowledge and the traditions of those who came before us, in order to create sustainable futures for those who come after us. What is required is language that is inclusive—of different traditions, of different geographies, of different methodologies, of those who are not in rooms like today where decisions around common language are made. We must ensure that the language we use does not become a tool to erase and alienate movements and people who are vital to the success of what we are trying to achieve, but rather increases the richness of the work we are doing. We must question the tools at hand and have the courage to reach out for new ones as well.
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“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.
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.”
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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Clearly, we need social entrepreneurs more than ever.
Earlier today, in London, Ont., the Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion, announced a new $3.6 million investment in diverse women social entrepreneurs in Ontario as part of the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) initiative that seeks to double the number of women-owned businesses by 2025.
The funds will go towards the creation of the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) and the development of a fresh, sophisticated social enterprise entrepreneurship program based on inclusive design and Indigenous approaches to venture creation. The WOSEN project aims to support 150 new women-led social enterprises, as well as expand 75 existing ones. It will also offer 10 women-centred innovation training sessions to 250 people, training for 35 business coaches, and connect $3.5 million of capital through the Women Impact Investor Network.
That’s a lot of impact for just $7 million. But the social enterprise space is used to making a dollar stretch.
The need for a women-centred program and investment has long been clear to the social entrepreneurship community in Ontario. Women have dominated the for-profit and non-profit social enterprise space. Tonya Surman, founder and CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation, has worked to support over 5,000 social-purpose companies since 2008. The CSI is home to nearly 1,000 organizations, 2,700 social innovators, and according to Surman, 58 percent of their members are women. “CSI has been female-led for 15 years and we know first-hand the challenges of getting the support to be able to grow our businesses,” says Surman.
One of the most significant barriers to sustainable growth for women social entrepreneurs, apart from access to aligned capital, is finding relevant programming, mentors with the right experience, and a supportive network.
Research shows that many women social entrepreneurs eagerly line up to participate in mainstream startup support programs, only to find that the programming is one-size-fits-all or tech and venture capital pipeline–oriented. Only 44 percent of 117 startup support organizations in Ontario consider gender and diversity when recruiting or selecting clients. Fewer still have diverse, women-centred or purpose-led enterprise programming.
Additionally, access to relevant programming of any kind has been uneven across the province. Rural areas are often left out. Diverse and Indigenous women have expressed concerns that existing programming privileges colonial approaches to venture design, leadership, and operations, which results in their reduced participation. As a result, both material economic growth—and social impact—have been left on the table.
The program aims to be the first of its kind to incorporate Indigenous values, practices, and wisdom into the design right from the start. The programming is also aiming for 70 percent participation by underrepresented women entrepreneurs, including those with disabilities, Indigenous women, women-identified, two-spirited women, women in rural or remote regions, and those who identify as visible minorities and newcomers.
The Indigenous component of the program’s development will be led by Okwaho Equal Source, an Indigenous-owned boutique consulting enterprise created by Shyra and Rye Barberstock. Shyra Barberstock, who is the president and CEO, has long been part of efforts to support and improve access to relevant programming for Indigenous entrepreneurs. “As an Anishinaabe woman, and social entrepreneur myself, I am happy to see us finally have the opportunity to develop a program that embeds, versus tacks on, Indigenous values and concepts when it comes to venture creation,” says Barberstock. “After all, Indigenous peoples have been entrepreneurs for a long time. We know a thing or two about creating economic opportunities that help communities flourish while also sustaining the environment on Turtle Island.”
However, no province-wide program has, as of yet, attempted to create an entirely new program from scratch that blends and builds on both Indigenous and feminine wisdom.
Andre Vashist, Director of Social Innovation at Pillar Nonprofit Network, says the approach to economic development has been missing an inclusive and Indigenous lens. “In the era of truth and reconciliation, we should be open to the knowledge, wisdom, and help by the longest living community on this land. As we are tied to land, whether we call it Canada or Turtle Island, there are many practices and teachings that can benefit our society’s economic strategy. This includes a more holistic approach that combines financial, social, and environmental considerations,” says Vashist.
Ondine Hogeboom and Ellen Martin, Co-Directors of Lean4Flourishing, points out that the exciting thing about this project is that the funding is not about delivering standard programming fare to an underrepresented group. Hogeboom adds, “We have the opportunity to work with the social enterprise community to co-create an entirely new innovative system of supports and curriculum that is grounded in current social, political, and environmental realities. This is IP [intellectual product] that, if proven effective, could be exported across Canada and beyond.”
Joanna Reynolds, Director of Social Enterprise at CSI, notes that WOSEN will enable CSI to work directly with women social entrepreneurs with a focus on helping racialized, newcomer, and Indigenous women gain equitable access to business acceleration supports. “The fact that WOSEN’s partners are all committed to learning from traditional Indigenous knowledge in order to embody the next economy, one that is regenerative, equitable, and prosperous for all, is also inspiring,” says Reynolds.
Overall, this initiative, according to Lore Wainwright, Interim Executive Director of Pillar Nonprofit Network, will help us build even stronger partnerships across the province, from rural to urban communities. “We can support a diverse population of women who want to contribute positive economic and social impact,” says Wainwright.
Creating a financially sustainable enterprise creates measurable social benefit, especially in a society that still thinks investing in social enterprises is just a new form of philanthropy versus real business. Being a woman, especially a woman experiencing intersecting oppressions, generates additional barriers.
Sure, $7 million in combined new investment over three years is not a game-changer in dollar terms when you consider investments made in other sectors. But perhaps the little innovative program that comes out of it will be.
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Also, the following women-owned-or-led businesses received up to $100,000 through the Women Entrepreneurship Fund to help them grow their business and reach new export markets:
Shaw’s Ice Cream, located in St. Thomas, Ont., will launch new products, set up an innovation lab for product development, and create six new jobs
Borm Capital, located in Aylmer, Que., in collaboration with ETBO Tool & Die, also located in Aylmer, will acquire a power generator, improve production processes, expand exports to the European Union, and create 10 new jobs
Stiris Research, located in London, Ont., will commercialize an artificial intelligence–based Grammar Error Corrector, expand their clinical trial management software, accelerate sales to the United States, and create six new jobs
A Couple of Squares, located in London, Ont., will purchase equipment to automate the production process and expand to e-commerce platforms
Scribendi, located in Chatham, Ont., will incorporate artificial intelligence into its platform, expand exports to the European Union, United States, and United Kingdom, and create two new jobs
DOZR, located in Kitchener, Ont., will use artificial intelligence to build an equipment management portal, and create five new jobs
Reko International Group, located in Windsor, Ont., will create a new robotic automation system that will help the company increase its market globally