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How WOSEN is Designing Inclusive Entrepreneurship

Nikky Manfredi

Nikky Manfredi

Communications & Content Specialist

This month marks one year since CSI launched its first WOSEN program. As we celebrate Canadian Innovation Week (and move “from isolation to inclusion”), there’s no better time to take a look back at what a year of designing inclusive entrepreneurship means. 

The Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) works to unleash the entrepreneurial energy and capacity of women and gender non-binary entrepreneurs who have solutions that put people and the planet first. Together, WOSEN is redesigning how business supports are provided so these entrepreneurs can build skills that match their potential and help them succeed. 

Thank goodness because it’s clear the system needs a redesign. As we find ourselves in the midst of a “she-cession,” women are the majority owners of only 15.6% of Small Medium Enterprises in Canada. And the hits don’t stop there: only 2.3% of (US) venture capital funding went to women-led startups last year. As for gender non-binary entrepreneurs, the difficulty of finding relevant statistics is probably proof enough that support is vital and the current system needs to change. WOSEN intends to do just that. 

Designing for Inclusion Looks Like….

WOSEN programs launched across Ontario in the summer of 2020 to support women-identified and gender non-binary entrepreneurs from underserved and underrepresented communities. This includes Indigenous women, women in rural or remote regions, racialized women, newcomer women, LGBTQ2+, women with disabilities, and those who identify as gender non-binary. 

So far, CSI’s programs have supported 85 founders in taking the next steps for their social venture, including supporting over $2.5 million in grant submissions. Altogether, the WOSEN partners have supported 236 founders from across Ontario. 

Support at Every Stage 

From ideation to acceleration to investment, CSI launched three recurring programs designed to support individuals at every stage of their venture.

Three women posing for photo (one of them WOSEN program manager, Mitalie)WOSEN Start is a nine-week online ideation program designed to help fifteen early-stage women and gender non-binary entrepreneurs move from idea to action. Our WOSEN Senior Program Manager, Mitalie Makhani, and Social Entrepreneurship Lead Facilitator, Peggy Sue Deaven, co-facilitate the program through hands-on coaching, weekly workshops and peer-led support sessions, often supporting individuals who may never have considered themselves entrepreneurs before. One graduate of our Fall cohort had this to say about the program: 

 “The CSI Start program is more than a course on how to start a business. It is a holistic, values-based approach to social entrepreneurship that centres the participants’ interests and needs. Through it, I have been able to refine my business idea and learn how to communicate it effectively to others. But most importantly, the program has helped me develop a personal guiding principle that will extend beyond this particular business idea to influence all major decisions in my life.” 

Last summer, in response to COVID-19, Mitalie, alongside WOSEN partners, developed and led WOSEN Resilience, a program designed to help underrepresented and underserved entrepreneurs weather the pandemic. This, in addition to our Investment Readiness Supports program, provided WOSEN participant, Kelly Emery, with the support she needed to prepare for upcoming funding and grant opportunities. Last week, Kelly’s tech startup, Troop, closed its pre-seed round of funding at $300K. We are so proud! 

Looking ahead, WOSEN Grow is a three-month program starting September 2021. The program is designed to support women and gender non-binary entrepreneurs at the validation stage of their social enterprise through one-on-one coaching, learning sessions and more. If you’re interested, sign up to be notified as soon as applications open. 

 

Building Trust 

Photo of Jo Reynolds, Social Innovation Specialist “We want women and gender non-binary folks from all different backgrounds to bring their business ideas to reality to create good jobs and make meaningful change in their communities,” Jo emphasizes. “That is why the WOSEN collaborative is disrupting how entrepreneurial programs are designed and offered.”   

One way WOSEN redesigns entrepreneurship programming is through their outreach. Mitalie prioritizes relational ways of working, reaching out to communities outside of conventional sector channels and building trust through conversation. As WOSEN participant, Kelly Emery explains, At the beginning, even the smallest ounce of support can be the catalyst for success. For me, it was the phone call with Mitalie, when she told me about the WOSEN program. There I met a mentor, which led to an introduction to someone who would become an advisor, and from there, the first investment cheque.”

Mitalie does this, in part, by following the WOSEN collective’s eight design principles. All outreach, programming and facilitation is designed to be inclusive and accessible, anti-oppressive, decolonized, human-centred, responsive, systems-informed, and to take an ecosystem approach.

Reflecting on these design principles, Jo says “On a personal level, I can feel a shift happening when deep inclusion is intentional. At times it feels like a huge relief to recognize and reflect on ways we can change; and at other times, seeing my own blinds spots can be jarring. Over this year, our collective has done a lot of inner work that we see as fundamental to how we are all needed to break down barriers and make way for people to meet their potential.”

That inner work will soon result in large-scale change: WOSEN recently received three years of Innoweave funding to support bringing WOSEN’s Inclusive Program Design into the economic development ecosystem. 

Taking a Network Approach 

WOSEN is a joint initiative between CSI, Pillar Nonprofit Network, SVX, and the NORDIK Institute, with Lean 4 Flourishing supporting content design. The initiative was made possible through the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy. And while the term “women” shows up in its name, the collective sought to expand the initiative to include gender non-binary entrepreneurs. 

What is the value of a network? Jo explains, “Taking a network approach means we can access the resources and know-how of our partners. We bring  talented business coaches, impact investors, and many skilled professionals from across our partner relationships to meet entrepreneurs where they are at.” 

What’s Next? 

By the end of 2021, CSI’s WOSEN will have worked with over 200 founders through the Start, Grow, and Investment Readiness Supports programs. 

Jo elaborates, “We will have run Women in Innovation series in communities across Ontario specific to women in rural, and urban settings. We will have offered digital support services, grant and presentation writing services, investment readiness, and individualized coaching. As well, we will have launched our Inclusive Design Knowledge Products, and new entrepreneurial tools that we hope will help to change how entrepreneurial supports are offered.” 

We can’t wait to see it happen.

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