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International Women’s Day 2022: Wrapping up WOSEN

Passion.

A painfully overused descriptor, and probably the most eye-roll inducing word for anyone in Human Resources, the word ‘passion’ describes anything from the fervour in an actor’s voice when they deliver a monologue, to caffeinated warmth perfectly poured into a cup by your favourite barista. Passion and purpose connects EQ to IQ; it describes the synergy of the left and right brain that has sparked innovations, social movements, and systems change for as long as people have participated in society.

If there’s anything to be said about passion, it’s that the feeling is unmistakable, palpable – and it’s the first thing you notice in Mitalie Makhani’s voice when she talks about the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN). This International Women’s Day, I sat down with Mitalie, who is the senior program manager for WOSEN, to unravel and understand the work that she’s wrapping up alongside Jo Reynolds, CSI’s social innovation specialist, and Eyra Abraham, CSI entrepreneur-in-residence.

A microcosm of dreams, a macrocosm of obstacles

When you picture an entrepreneur, who comes to mind first?

It’s 2022, yet the word “entrepreneur” often evokes images of a tech bro tinkering away at an app, or a man in a thousand dollar suit pitching his next invention – but these examples are only partly true. Entrepreneurship can also be driven by an inherent passion for social impact, and isn’t always a pre-Amazon Jeff Bezos-esque scene: It can look like co-operative kitchens that serve fresh, accessible baked goods – or building a community that puts climate action and passion to practice. Even with brilliant women-identifying founders at the helm of these social innovations, our existing financial, economic, and social systems are best designed to steer the success of entrepreneurs that fit the status-quo: white, straight, and male.

Much like the issue of more CEOs named John globally than women participating in boardrooms, women-led businesses account for a mere 15.6 per cent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Canada. Women entrepreneurs are less likely to seek and obtain financing, with only 32 per cent looking to sources other than friends and family to help fund their businesses. Add human layers like non-binary and racial identities, you have a much more constricted runway to success.

Mitalie recounted these facts and tied them into her own entrepreneurial woes.

“I have a background in environmental science, which eventually turned into a social-impact focused business,” she shared. “The strong affinity I have for doing this work comes from my own entrepreneurial struggles. I lacked mentorship and programming support – and I never sought them out because I didn’t feel represented, comfortable, heard, or valued.”

Putting pragmatism in passion projects

In order to solve a problem, one must be able to identify it correctly first. A core focus for WOSEN is to eliminate seeing social entrepreneurship through rose-coloured glasses, and effectively communicate obstacles that women have faced in the past, and still do. WOSEN is dedicated to equity and inclusion, and the term “women” is used collectively throughout this article. The network’s programming is inclusive of trans, Two-Spirit, non-binary, genderqueer, and cis individuals. Priority goes to those from underserved and underrepresented communities, including Indigenous folks, folks in rural or remote regions, racialized folks, newcomer folks, LGBTQ2+, and folks with disabilities.

To combat obstacles faced by underserved people, WOSEN has seven principles that guide their work:

  • Inclusive and accessible – to ensure all participants can feel they belong and have equitable access to opportunities and resources
  • Human-centred – to create missing opportunities in a patriarchal system to calm, stretch and carve space for empathy and being as we are
  • Responsive – to centre the needs and identities of the participant and changing directions as needed to move in the direction that they need
  • Eco-systems approach – to value partnership and collaboration, helping entrepreneurs learn how to partner well, and be active personal and systems mappers and designers
  • Systems-informed – to work to acknowledge and understand the links between elements that make up a system, including your place within the system
  • Anti-oppressive – to recognize the oppressions that exist in society and attempt to mitigate their effects, eventually equalizing the power imbalance in our communities
  • Decolonized – to value and honour their lived experiences, encouraging participants that they don’t just live on the land – they live with the land

WOSEN takes a much more circular approach than typical networks for entrepreneurship. To evoke and spark a systems change means to effectively influence the existing gaps in entrepreneurial systems, banking systems, credit score systems, and this work cannot be done without recognizing that these systems are, in fact, built unfairly. WOSEN programming doesn’t just provide a springboard, but offers in-depth discourse on navigating the systems participants currently live and work in.

From Start to finish

The long-standing pervasiveness of the status quo also means that mentors and coaches lack the tools, business networks or funding models to meet the unique needs of underserved, underrepresented demographics. Aside from a deep passion for this work, the intention to spark these social entrepreneurs no matter the circumstances is inextricable. Even throughout the pandemic, WOSEN programs were hardly cookie-cutter and have been adjusted and tailored repeatedly. For example, each cohort for the Start program experienced different stages of pandemic, so their fatigue and anxieties were accounted. Since launching its many initiatives, such as the Start and Grow programs, WOSEN compassionately carries its participants through a series of programming that connects them to tools and resources they need to navigate murky systems with passion and confidence to make informed business decisions.

Since 2019, WOSEN:

  • Delivered 34 regional and provincial programs
  • Engaged 120 communities
  • Supported 719 program participants
  • Jumpstarted 172 social impact entrepreneurs
  • Raised $5M across 15 founders through Investment Readiness programs 

“All these participants were confronted with an invisible force and imposter syndrome that takes over the passionate work they want to do, and some don’t even realize that their entrepreneurial ventures actually contribute to positive social impact,” Mitalie explained. “There’s an existing, unattainable definition of social entrepreneurship that needs to be dismantled, and the only way we can spark true systems change is through challenging conditioning in an intentional, methodical way.”

Partners and Funders

WOSEN is funded in part by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. The Government of Canada is advancing gender equality, women’s economic empowerment, and supporting women entrepreneurs through the new Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, announced in the Budget 2018. It is a $2-billion investment that seeks to double the number of women-owned businesses by 2025.

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