Categories
Transformative Ideas

If These Streets Could Talk

Chloe Doesburg on Driftscape | Photo Provided

There’s something special about exploring a city on foot. Whether you’ve lived in the same place for twenty years or are visiting someplace new, going for a wander—headphones in, music on, people watching, popping into shops, turning down a side street and discovering a hidden gem—is a consummate pleasure. 

What if, though, you could engage more intimately with the cityscape by accessing information about it—events, history, restaurants, music—as you move through it? That’s the idea behind Driftscape. Co-founder and CEO Chloe Doesburg calls the app a “cultural discovery platform,” which allows the user “seamless connection” to the physical spaces they occupy. 

Driftscape offers a selection of topics—from architecture to history to arts and literature. As users approach things that might interest them, the app on their cellphones will send a notification. This could be a piece of trivia, a festival nearby, or what Doesburg calls the most “sophisticated” option: an immersive experience such as a Jane’s Walk, free urban tours inspired by Jane Jacobs, who penned the classic, The Life and Death of American Cities, and advocated for mixed-used, walkable streets; or First Stories, which documents the rich Indigenous history of Toronto; or Queerstory, which will leads to sites in Toronto’s vibrant LGTBQ2S+ culture.

Driftscape, which now employs six, officially incorporated in 2017 but had been “in the works” for at least a year before that and involved a lot of “serendipity,” says Doesburg. She was inspired by a “location-specific project” called Murmur, which existed before smartphones: You could dial in and hear a story about a specific place. She was also working with a musician friend who was recording an album of location-specific songs set in Toronto; they created Track Toronto, which allows users to listen to music associated with places in the city as they pass through them, now used by Driftscape.

“People were super enthusiastic” about the experience, says Doesburg. While working on that concept, she met programmers working on a similar project, and together they dreamed up Driftscape.

The project has evolved significantly since its inception, adding more layers of information by becoming a subscription platform. For a fee—Driftscape partners—which range from not-for-profits to private content producers to businesses and municipalities—provide content for the app, such as visitor’s guides, self-guided tours[1] , and digital walks. There’s a sliding scale for partners, ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 a year. More content draws more eyes to the app, which draws more users to the app and, in turn, more partners subscribing, creating a positive feedback loop.

Says Doesburg: “We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19. People want to do more digitally. People are looking for self-guided tours, for ways they can be their own guide, and also just looking to rediscover their own city and places nearby, the way the way you would as a tourist.”

“We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19″.

Chloe Doesburg

That style of subscription service, however, is not without issues. Open the Driftscape app and you’ll be presented with a map of Canada, with Driftscape’s points of interest and services— loaded by its subscribers. The first thing you’ll notice is that most of the content is based in Southern Ontario, and the vast majority of that in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), making the app, at present, tremendously urban-centric. In Northern and rural areas, programming options include things like Historica Canada and its Heritage Minutes, providing a perspective that can skew to colonial, cis-heteronormative Settler norms. That’s a very different experience than users can access in the GTA, where Driftscape offers more of a mosaic.

This discrepancy is due to growing pains, Doesburg says. Driftscape can’t offer a wider variety of content in more remote areas until they bring on a wider variety of partners. “That’s certainly something we’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about and we’re trying to layer in other perspectives wherever we can. We are especially working to grow the Indigenous voices on the app.”

“We would certainly welcome organizations anywhere in Canada and in North America to host their content on the platform,” she adds.

In April, Doesburg participated in Fifth Wave Labs, a four-month feminist incubator geared towards supporting women-identified digital media entrepreneurs in Southern Ontario. She says the program provided mentorship and networking in a time when, due to COVID-19, everyone was feeling very distanced from each other. It also altered the way she thought about her business practices. 

Although Doesburg doesn’t necessarily consider Driftscape a specifically feminist enterprise— “We haven’t really been using that word”—she thinks of it as being in keeping with those values.

“Before doing the Fifth Wave labs program, I didn’t really think about feminist business practices,” says Doesburg, “but certainly while we were part of that program I was like, ‘Oh, this is what we already do.’” 

Doesburg says she thinks of Driftscape as a social enterprise. That “seems very, very similar, although not identical (to feminism) but certainly in terms of just looking at business as something that has profit as one of its goals, and not its only goal.”

The company’s social values, she says, include “a commitment to supporting the cultural community and being part of that ecosystem” as well as “how we run our business, that we’re committed to making the best place to work for employees. “We’re committed to having a really transparent company where we involve everyone at all levels of decision making. We’re really open about what we’re doing and what our values are, what our challenges are.”

In contrast to multinational social media giants serving up information, Driftscape features diverse local experts. Says Doesburg: “We boost the voices of local organizations who are creating fantastic content, and we create a place where users can access a wide-range of otherwise hard-to-find local information on an ad-free platform at no cost to the user.”

Driftscape is Doesburg’s first entrepreneur venture. Until 2015, the University of Waterloo graduate worked as an architect, a profession that obviously gives her a special appreciation for cities and the nature of place. “Being an entrepreneur certainly offers more freedom and flexibility,” she says of the change. “Buildings take years to complete so, compared to architecture, working on software is refreshing because it’s possible to iterate quickly, see what works, and make changes easily.”

With Driftscape growing, adapting and adding new directions, Doesburg is content knowing what entrepreneurial path she is on. “I don’t have any next steps in mind. For now, I’m focused on growing Driftscape.”


Contributor’s Bio: Lori Fox is a queer, non-binary journalist based in Whitehorse, YT. Their work focuses primarily on issues of class, gender, sexuality and environment, and has appeared previously with Vice, The Guardian, CBC, and The Globe and Mail. You can find them on twitter @fox.e.lori.


Publishers Note: Driftscape is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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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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Categories
Our Voices

How To Achieve True Diversity At Conferences? Embrace Discomfort

 

On day two of Elevate Toronto, Deepa Kundur, the lone woman but easily the most heavily credentialed expert speaker on a panel of six, sat on a stage in front of a welcoming, mostly male audience of 200. The session titled “Building an AI Ecosystem” lasted for 45 minutes. Kundur spoke for approximately five.

The event was part of Elevate Toronto’s inaugural three-day tech conference touting diversity and inclusion and it promised a “diverse” panel to explore how AI will change the future of work and life. This panel featured the usual: five white men. And there was Kundur, a South Asian woman who also happens to be the chair of the engineering science division at the University of Toronto.

When questioned by the male moderator, Kundur offered a thoughtful response to a knee-jerk comment about a young woman planning to skip university and join a startup directly because she wanted to “do what I want to do” and “university is not going to teach me the tools I want to know.”

After the audience’s muted laughter died down, Kundur spoke: “It’s easy to learn tools. But it’s not easy to build character and be educated about the responsible use of AI. I think character is important and is becoming a very important consideration in building an AI ecosystem. This is going to create stability. It’s important to get out of our comfort zones to develop character.”

It’s fair to say that Elevate Toronto, while promising to promote diversity and inclusion, stayed well within its comfort zone. One attendee, Janice Sousa, vice president of business development at Merit Travel, expected to hear challenging discussions, like how leading tech companies in Toronto are using diversity and inclusion as a lens to work through; honest examinations of the ethical implications of AI; and how the negative implications of AI can be countered.

Needless to say, Sousa left disappointed. “It was more a celebration as opposed to the work to be done,” she said.

By the end of day two, even Elevate Toronto’s CEO Razor Suleman was admitting the conference came up short of its mission. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of finding the champions of diversity.”

Who might those champions of diversity be? And had those champions been invited to Elevate Toronto, what would they have contributed to the conversation?

Kathryn Hume, vice president of product and strategy at Integrate.ai and panelist at Elevate Toronto, had some suggestions: Joelle Pineau, who co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab at McGill University; and Fei Fei Li, director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. “That’s just a few women, but these are leaders in the field,” says Hume.

Pineau champions the cause of making AI mature. One of the biggest challenges she tackles is the lack of diversity in AI not just in terms of gender, but also demographics, social backgrounds, and cultural communities. The lack of diversity creates narrow AI ecosystems, arguably like those on display at Elevate Toronto.

Renowned AI researchers Fei Fei Li and Olga Russakovsky at Princeton University spearheaded the creation of SAILORS (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab Outreach Summer), a program devoted to increasing financial and cultural diversity in AI. Its junior achievers program focusses on the growth and education of ninth graders by providing them with hands-on AI experience and mentorship. Research shows that the ninth grade is when students are most likely to think seriously about their college majors and their impact on the world.

Deborah Rosati, a corporate director for Sears Canada and the co-founder and CEO of Women Get On Board, is another diversity expert who wasn’t invited to speak at Elevate Toronto. Her area of expertise is corporate governance in the AI startup culture. “AI companies need to have a longer-term view when building boards and structures,” says Rosati, who was recognized by the Canadian Board Diversity Council on its 2014 Diversity 50 list. Often consulted by tech companies on how to build diverse advisory boards, she says these requests often lack foresight and they’re based on an immediate requirement to fill a short-term need. Consideration of issues like sexual harassment and lack of gender diversity are fundamental to AI talent acquisition, and therefore, discussions of it would have to begin at ground zero: the development of long-term AI governance and ethics structures. “It’s a sexy thing to have an .ai domain name. But the field is evolving very quickly, so no one knows what the end game is.” She says long-term governance and ethics committees need to be in place to identify gender gaps in existing tech boards to build teams that are diverse in skills, geography, gender, and accessibility.

To underline Rosati’s point, Osler Law’s 2017 Diversity Disclosure Practices reported that the percentage of women directors at TSX-listed companies moved at a “glacial” pace from 12% in 2015 to 14.5% in 2017. The technology sector lagged even further with only 9% of its governance represented by women directors.

Elevate Toronto had positioned itself as a leading space in the AI revolution in Toronto, which should have entailed not only looking at new discoveries and algorithms but how those innovations impact future unemployment, inequality in wealth distribution, and humanity itself. That consolidated approach to AI would require interdisciplinary panels comprised of sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, ethicists, economists, and law makers, in addition to the usual suspects, computer scientists and deep-learning experts.

On that note, some Elevate Toronto panelists, such as Gary Bolles, came across as positively entitled.

Tracey White, a Toronto-based senior HR professional and economist, participated as an audience member and could not believe what she heard when Bolles, who writes and thinks at the intersection of disruptive trends, offered advice to displaced workers in the American manufacturing industry. “Bolles called these people negative externalities,” says White. “It’s as if he means that we should all build lucrative tech businesses and maximize shareholder value while broad swathes of the American population, who have lost their jobs to AI and living in trailer parks, can just be discarded as negative externalities. That kind of thought is unacceptable.”

Bolles is heir to the fortunes of his father, Richard Bolles, who wrote the bestselling career counselling guide, What Color Is Your Parachute? His advice to unemployed workers in the American rust belt who had been displaced by AI automation was more lead balloon, telling them to pull up their bootstraps and become life-long learners by hiring coaches. The rest of the panel did not question him on the socio-economic—or political ramifications—of his off-hand statement. Angry and despairing, those so-called “negative externalities” in the rust belt heard Donald Trump’s promise to bring back their manufacturing jobs and helped make him president.

Perhaps more diverse panels would have challenged Bolles, or challenged Elevate Toronto’s celebration of tech innovation, which too often glossed over the warts and blind spots. As tech thought leaders Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have increasingly been pointing out: technology is not benign.

But there’s always next year. As Julie Hanna, a leading Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and Elevate keynote speaker, says, “Elevate is a profound opportunity. What’s important is to not think about it as an event but an ongoing dialogue; what worked well, what did we learn, what could be done to make this more inclusive.”


Additional Readings:

https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/08/28/elevating-inclusion-diversity-toronto-tech-scene/

Categories
Activism & Action

Elevating Inclusion and Diversity in the Toronto Tech Scene

Stacey Vetzal is the founder of Mojility, a consulting practice that coaches and mentors software teams 

 

Stacey Vetzal, a veteran woman tech entrepreneur, heard about a new, three-day tech festival in Toronto called Elevate and thought about attending.

Then the former chapter lead for Ladies Learning Code saw the early bird ticket price of $647 (to be increased to $905 Sept. 1) and laughed, perhaps even more heartily at the regular ticket price of $1,416 if you also want to hobnob at the Spotlight Tech Award. “The average trans person in Ontario is highly educated but has an income of $15,000 a year! What were they thinking?” says Vetzal.

Scrolling down the “Get Tickets” web page in hopes of other options, Vetzal came across a large-type headline that said “Diversity is Our Strength.” It was followed by directions on how to access a block of complimentary diversity tickets (the “D” is capitalized).

“To me this says, ‘Oh look, you’re different and not like us, but come anyway,’” says Vetzal, who is an engineering graduate from McMaster. “A statement like that tells me that nobody like me will be there.”

For a city sponsored tech festival that involves 70 venues and aims to attract 5,000-plus people and has aspirations to become a shining example of inclusivity and diversity, Elevate Toronto is off to a very shaky start. And it’s not just the ticket prices raising hackles.

The execution, including the communications strategy, speaker lineup, and community outreach efforts all demonstrate significant blind spots. Working to advance inclusivity is clearly unfamiliar terrain for festival organizers.

For example, the organization wrote on its website that it “set aside a block of complimentary Diversity tickets for those who need them.” It also offered a handy list of traits to help you determine if you are part of the “Diversity,” set including “body size.” To earn a ticket, applicants are asked to answer the skill-testing question, “What does Diversity mean to you?” The intent behind the diversity ticket comes from the right place, but the execution could have benefited from expert advice, or better yet, lived-experience insight.

Then there is the website. The write-ups beyond the catchy “Diversity is Our Strength” headline don’t add up. If an image is worth a thousand words, they might have wanted to reconsider choosing UK billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson as one of the lead images on its website.

On the upside, the speaker lineup exceeds the 30% gender quota recommended by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and organizations like the 30% Club, which is a great start. However, only six of the 100-plus speakers are racialized women.

Finally, Elevate’s community outreach to tech’s “underrepresented” relied on email blasts to the usual suspects. Beyond starship enterprises like MaRS and OneEleven, many private or community-based organizations who support marginalized and women tech-preneurs were never contacted let alone invited to become a community partner. Emily Mills, founder of How She Hustles, a Toronto-based Black women’s entrepreneur network of over 5,000, says, “Nobody contacted me.” Others were contacted but were left hanging. This amazingly includes the 1,000-plus members of SheEO. Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation said they reached out to Elevate to become a community partner, but never heard back. These two organizations should be top of the list for anyone interested in fostering diversity or inclusion.

Not surprisingly, as of August 25, only 147 people have received the free “diversity” tickets even with Elevate’s “all who ask will receive” policy.

So, what is going on here? If Elevate is meant to showcase how Toronto’s tech community does diversity and inclusion, why has it fallen so short?

Elevate Selectively?

Elevate is structured as a new, non-profit startup with ambition to become the largest tech festival in Canada. It is led by Razor Suleman, a Silicon Valley–braised, Toronto tech entrepreneur who successfully exited his last venture for $110 million and is now a partner at private equity firm Alignvest. Elevate Toronto’s leadership team—all volunteers—includes four men, plus Valerie Swatkow, the executive vice president of communications at marketing giant Cossette, and Jodi Kovitz, CEO of Acetech, an elite club for tech CEOs where memberships range from $1,800 to $5,000, as well as the founder of #MoveTheDial, a conference held in January 2017 to advance women working in tech.

In his televised festival announcement, Suleman says, “I think we have made good progress [advancing diversity], but there’s still work to be done…. We can’t afford to keep half of the talent pool not engaged in our industry. We need to access every unique individual…and make them all feel included in our movement.”

The “half” he refers to, supposedly, are women. Terrific. But which women?

Studies show Canadian women entrepreneurs start with half the capital than men, use up more personal savings credit, receive less than 6% of venture capital funding, and pay themselves less as founders. In Canada, they also receive less ecosystem support. According to a June 2017 McKinsey report, Canadian women entrepreneurs experience an exacerbated level of gender inequality compared to their corporate sisters, and it will take 180 years to close that gap at the current rate. Women entrepreneurs are disadvantaged. For racialized women entrepreneurs, the gap is wider still.

We need more women, yes, but not just privileged women. Using an intersectional lens to illuminate more robust inclusivity strategies to attract women attendees would have been advisable.

Elevate Who Else?

The tech industry’s success depends on a functioning and competitive ecosystem which includes an array of professions, such as designers, graphic artists, illustrators, writers, filmmakers, editors, performers, sales professionals, and spreadsheet ninjas. Many work in coffee shops, micro-enterprises, or drive Uber cars to supplement their salaries. If they are self-employed, they tend to work in offbeat co-working spaces, community centres, libraries, or work from home. They are hard to reach. And have no money.

In Toronto, the average monthly take-home pay per person is $2,963 ($1,927 for women) and monthly rent ranges from $1,200 to $2,000 for a one- or two-bedroom apartment. According to Living in Canada, a website that tracks salaries by job in Canadian cities, Toronto software developers earn, on average, $3,800 net per month. So, even with Elevate Toronto’s selectively promoted 50% discount, the price of admission would still eat up 18% of your monthly net pay if you are a woman, or close to 9% if you are a computer engineer.

That’s akin to asking someone who earns a net $100,000 per annum to pay $9,000 to $18,000 for a three-day conference ticket.

People in the average pay bracket have additional externalities to consider, such as the cost of taking time off work (the event runs from Tuesday to Thursday, 9 to 5 p.m.), and child care for those without a nanny or free after-school care. For single parents, of which more than 80% are women, the costs of attending are 10 times magnified. Travel is another cost of participation that is often overlooked.

For ecosystem players who would like to go, network and learn, the thought of having to find a reason to apply for a “diversity” ticket because you can’t afford the regular ticket price and other external costs is repugnant.

Sanjin Zeco, a recent MA grad and co-founder of BlueScout, a platform that enables people with disabilities to live fuller lives, agrees that the pricing is a barrier. “I’m an entrepreneur who cannot afford to go to this event!” says Zeco, who adds that many tech events are priced beyond the reach of many entrepreneurs, even with the 50% discount code he heard was available-somewhere.

“I applied for Elevate’s complimentary diversity tickets (he identifies as disabled) and hopefully I get one,” he says, though he admits he felt “strange” applying under such a category. “It felt like being singled out, given ‘special’ consideration. It was an unwelcome feeling of being put under a microscope and scrutinized in detail.”

Sanjin Zeco is the co-founder of BlueScout

The lesson? Even a broadly distributed 50% discount on a $647 to $1416 ticket is not going to improve access at an ecosystem level. Here are a few strategies to consider: honour-based tiered pricing, ally ticket options, on-site child care, child care and elder care vouchers for primary caregivers, arrangement of dorm rooms, discounts for backpacker hotels, or a tech-to-tech community billeting strategy to reduce the cost of travel for those outside of Toronto. Innovative access strategies like these would have been more effective at ensuring inclusivity and fostering creative collisions between various enablers in the tech innovation space.

Elevate How?

Jodi Kovitz, a spokesperson for Elevate’s leadership team, is genuinely sincere in her aim to advance inclusion while also covering costs. “We are making every effort to reflect diversity across the festival,” says Kovitz. “But by nature, running a festival is very expensive, and we are doing our best to minimize its cost. We know our prices are in line with the cost of running three-day festivals around the world.”

Kovitz believes the Elevate leadership team enabled access by budgeting for 1,250 free tickets (25% of total tickets), of which 600 was to be distributed by its corporate sponsors and partners to their communities. In addition, it offered discounts for seniors and students, and of course, those “diversity” tickets and discount codes. Organizers hoped that would do it. Kovitz adds that due to the self-imposed tight launch schedule, there wasn’t enough time or hands on deck to handle the communications and outreach required to engage directly with lesser known organizations.

However, that is exactly what is needed if you are looking to re-frame the tech community in Toronto.

Vetzal, who has a lot of experience working with marginalized community groups, says community partnerships can improve communications with systemically marginalized people. “Take Pflag for example. They support LGBTQIA youth, for example, who are terrified about pursuing a career in tech. And think of all the other social services, clubs, and student groups in the city, the First Nations centres, Muslim student groups, and so on. They are trusted by their members, and can help connect you with tech-oriented members of their communities.”

The second lesson? Advancing diversity and inclusion requires a street level sherpa work, authentic connections, and thoughtful invitations. It moves at the speed of human connection and trust, versus the speed of the Internet. No one goes to a party where they feel they don’t belong without a lot of extra encouragement. Relying on tech community–based media and mediated emails to populations who don’t know you, and who are justifiably wary of tech industry spaces and culture, is suboptimal. If Elevate Toronto had recruited one or two people to their leadership team who already have direct relationships with these communities and demographic oriented entrepreneur networks, it might have hastened the process.

Growing Pains

Elevate Toronto is a new festival, so sh*t will happen. Lessons will be learned. And as social entrepreneurs know all too well, succeeding at mixing business outcomes with social innovation goals is demanding. You have to feel for the stones, one at a time, to cross the river.

At its heart, Elevate is the right idea at the right time. There are still 15 days until the start of the festival, which means there’s still time to remedy and tweak the event to improve outcomes.

Says Vetzal: “In tech, we are in the middle of a diversity crisis. We have products being built by monocultures for the planet, and the related problems are beginning to surface everywhere. AI technology, for example, is racist, misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic because the people that train AI don’t know any better. So yes, we need diversity absolutely, but you have to start by making people feel included.”

Adds SheEO founder Vicki Saunders: “One of the challenges we have in the world today is wanting a different result and yet doing things the same way. If you want a festival to be inclusive and diverse and bring a different outcome, then you can’t just design it the way all festivals are designed—in an expensive way—and invite the usual, leading, well-known community partners. You must start at the design level and think, ‘Who is not usually represented? How do I get them involved? How can we bring the brains we need, regardless of social or economic barriers faced, authentically on board?’ This is a big challenge for all of us. We have to think really differently about our business models if we want a different result.”

And that is the third and perhaps most important lesson.


If you are looking for Elevate tickets, you can still find them here.

You can find a 20% discount code on the tech newsletter Betakit.

“Diversity” tickets are still available here.

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Our Voices

Her unapologetic confidence to succeed

A female VC once told Jessica Mah that her personality was too strong – at least for a woman in the tech industry. Mah calls it unapologetic confidence and she’s not ashamed to put it to good use. After all it was strength and willingness to believe in her abilities and her company that allowed her to reinvent her financial software firm and create a stunning growth rate of 2,685.6% over a three year period.
Mah launched inDinero in 2010 with her friend and co-founder Andy Su. At the time Mah was just 19 years old and by the time she was 20 they had received $1.2 million in funding through Y Combinator.

Inspired by her entrepreneurial mother, Mah claims to have had her first taste of business in second grade selling drawings in the school playground. When she was 8 years-old Mah began learning computer programming. At age 12 she started her first company and by the age of 15 she dropped out of high school to take computer science courses at University of California at Berkeley from where she later graduated. Tech Crunch toted her as “the closest thing we have to a female Mark Zuckerberg.”

In creating inDinero, Mah was motivated by her previous small business ventures and the problems she faced with managing her books. She took something that intimidated her and decided to create a product that would make it easier for small businesses to manage their own accounting.

With her immediate PR and funding success, Mah did not project that inDinero would fail within the first year. According to her feature in Inc. magazine most of the 30,000 mom-and-pop-shop customers using inDinero were not buying into premium tools and used the software for free.

Money started to burn away. There were the basic operational costs but there were also the costs of letting your ego get the better of you. In an email to her parents she confessed to the detriment of cockiness and arrogance: “I feel like I’m Bernie Madoff – rich on the outside, but completely broken on the inside.” Flashy PR and an expensive office was not going to sustain her success. Mah had a wake up call. She was spending $80,000 a month, with only $150,000 left in the bank. The platonic co-founders laid off all their employees save for two, moved the company into their home apartment which was subsidized by their parents and started again from the ground up.

In order to survive inDinero had to pivot. Mah and Su used their personal connections and market research to create a more refined business model and product offering. Ultimately inDinero acted as a back office operations software that would handle accounting and taxes for small to medium sized businesses.

In a recent interview with Inc. Magazine on her success Mah said,

I think if anything this [experience] has made me even bigger and bolder. I am more ambitious now than I was a few months ago. A year ago I was calling my mentors and saying, wow, maybe I won’t be able to build a huge business and its not going to be great – and over the past few months that attitude has completely shifted. Now I’m like, I can really crush it. I can do really great things in the world.

Mah also noted that although she might be a little bit more paranoid after coming back from the brink of failure, she has learned not to take anything for granted.

Today, inDinero is a growing force in the small-to-medium-size-business software space. Customers now pay three to four figures monthly for use of the the proprietary software and inDinero received another $8.8 million in funding which led to a staff of 150. In 2014, inDinero hit $2.9 million in revenue with a growth rate of 2,685% and Mah is confident that their growth will double by 2016.

For more details about the trials and triumphs of Jessica Mah and her co-founder Any Su read Inc. Magazine’s feature “How Couples Therapy Helped Bring This Company Back From the Brink” by Kate Rockwood.