A Network of Support Built on a Foundation of Trust: Lessons from the Start-up of WOSEN

Last August, a grant from the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario enabled Pillar Nonprofit Network, along with partners the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), SVX and NORDIK Institute’s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship (SEE), to launch an ambitious project to support and develop women social entrepreneurs – the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN).

WOSEN offers a suite of programs for women interested in starting or growing their own venture, that seeks to have a positive social, cultural or environmental impact through its operations, and/or the sale of their products and services. The project is centered on equity and inclusion and seeks to support women-identified and gender non-binary entrepreneurs from underserved and underrepresented communities.

Today, the collective launches their website, a hub for all information about their partners, programs, media, events and project updates. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing reflections from the lead collaborators who will provide a look into the start-up phase of the project and early lessons learned from the first few months of programming.

Reimagining the social entrepreneurship ecosystem

For three years prior to WOSEN’s inception, Pillar, CSI and NORDIK Institute, worked together as leads on the social enterprise strategy in Ontario, and were stewards of the social enterprise network within those regions. As the project was winding down, the partners were starting to wonder what would happen next.

When the Ontario Government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy was announced, the partners reached out to Lean 4 Flourishing and SVX to collaborate on an ambitious proposal to solve a systemic problem. Together, they would imagine a program that would elevate the profile of social entrepreneurship within the entrepreneurship ecosystem and do it from a gender and equity lens. Eaman Fahmy, Inclusive Program Designer at Pillar Nonprofit Network further explains why the program is so needed.

“The nature of the project is unique in what it’s set out to achieve - to support women social entrepreneurs from Indigenous and marginalized communities in accessing the supports that aren’t typically theirs,” said Fahmy. “The traditional business systems can be quite exclusive and can push certain individuals from marginalized communities to the fringes, and they’re unable to access the knowledge, the capital or the supports. This is a way to try to disrupt those systems to try to provide what it is that they need.”

Building this type of a program has required a new approach from the ground up. Attempting to reach marginalized communities within a pre-existing framework, like what is seen in many entrepreneurial support networks built on prevailing hegemonic values, would simply not succeed. The WOSEN collective partners all emphasize how ground-breaking this project is in every aspect from relationship building, to project design principles, to partner collaboration and evaluation. All of these components are predicated on a deep sense of trust that has been established amongst both the project team and with the women-identified founders.

An ecosystem of trust

The most common word the program leadership used to talk about WOSEN was trust. Establishing trust-based relationships has been critical to the whole project ecosystem. For the collaborators, establishing trust with each other has been essential for shared leadership and allowing for the vulnerability required in building a program that challenges cultural norms and personal biases. For women founders who have been alienated by traditional business supports, they must feel they can trust those offering support.

Sarah Beyea, Project Manager for WOSEN from Pillar Nonprofit Network describes the process of building trust amongst the geographically dispersed partners. “We came together early on for an in-person kick off meeting which was really important. It was about building trust and building relationships,” she explained. “Everybody had a common understanding of what we hope to do because we were shaping that together. We had a lot of trust from everyone because we co-created our vision together.”

Krista Bissiallon, Researcher at NORDIK Institute, and program lead in Northern Ontario, shares her experience of building trust within Ingenious communities and how those lessons have been applied to the project. “My perspective of working with communities of Indigenous folks, and Indigenous women in the north, is that there is a lot of trust that has to be built first before engagement with institutions and collaboratives even happens,” she noted.

“If we were speaking in business buzz words, those communities will think it’s just another one of those projects that won’t really be relevant to me, or I won’t really feel heard in.” She went on to explain the importance of creating design principles for the program to ensure it is not perpetuating other previous sector projects that have further marginalized women founders.

Designing shared values

Both the goals of the collaborative and the logistics of bringing together such a large group of partners are challenging tasks to say the least. How would the team chart a path forward where they could ensure all participants had a common vision, common language and a shared set of values to ensure alignment at all levels? That’s where the project’s design principles came in.

Early on in the project development, the team came together to share their perspectives and together they arrived at the following principles: inclusive and accessible, systems-informed, decolonized, responsive, anti-oppression, human-centred and ecosystem-approach. While each team brought their perspectives of how best to create an inclusive program that would call in women from marginalized communities, the wisdom of the women themselves was ultimately the most important voice to consider.

At every stage of the project, the WOSEN team has had the opportunity to bring in, and compensate, women founders for their knowledge capital. “The folks behind the design of the collaborative are not the experts, in fact, it’s the women in communities who are the experts,” explained Bissiallon. “The lived experience is the entire driving force behind this kind of work.”

Within the collective, there is acknowledgement that some of the values seem aspirational and difficult to put into practice within the confines of our society’s prevailing economic and cultural values. As the project progresses, however, the practice around them is deepening. The team is committed to continually interpreting what they mean to the collective and participants, adapting as they go.

“What we’re learning is that the design principles are not cut and dry. There’s a lot of grey space around them,” reflected Ellen Martin of Lean 4 Flourishing the organization leading WOSEN's WISE program. “Our participants have different perspectives on those design principles as well, and so what is inclusive and accessible for one participant might not be for another. We’re learning what it means to also have a shared understanding of these principles in action.”

From collaboration to co-creation

Building on trust-based relationships and the collective vision established amongst the leadership team, the role of collaboration in the day to day aspects of program management has been equally nurtured. Following a RACI model, everyone has an equal say in all aspects of the program from shared decision making, to doing collaborative budgeting and program design. This process is coupled with a commitment to not just replicate one organization’s existing programs, but to create something new that will better support women founders.

André Vashist, Director of Social Innovation at Pillar Nonprofit Network, who is supporting Pillar's leadership of WOSEN, explains the important distinction between collaboration and co-creation, and how the project team has embraced this practice. “One thing I learned from Heather Atleo, was a distinction between collaboration and co-creation. She said: collaboration is creating relationships with people but there’s always winners and losers in those relationships,” explained Vashist. “Co-creation is about building trust, we learn together and we fail together in that trusting environment. We really challenge ourselves to be co-creative and I think that has come through.”

Bridget Zhang, Manager at SVX and project lead for the WIIN program, agrees that the co-creative approach is working. “The amount of thought and effort that has gone into working amongst all of our organizations before anything exists out in the world, is orders of magnitude greater than any other multi-stakeholder project I’ve worked on,” she said. “I really found the past six months to be very eye opening in terms of what an aligned and motivated group of individuals can accomplish.” She adds that the opportunity to test out hypotheses with the intended audience prior to launching them, is also not common in the world of social finance projects, but a welcome change.

Early reflections on evaluation

While it’s too soon to say if the program will meet its goals, the early feedback has been positive. The collaborators are constantly gathering reflections from each other, the practitioners, and of course, the women founders. Jude Ortiz, Research Coordinator for NORDIK Institute, and the programs evaluation lead, explains that WOSEN follows a developmental evaluation framework. This approach is key for the collective to establish a responsive program that will ultimately affect the change it intends.

“Developmental evaluation is a continual process of learning what the women need and building our capacity to respond to it,” explained Oritz. “It’s at a project level with the four partners, but also at a program level. Every activity has an evaluation form which captures input from participants and a reflection of the practitioner who is delivering. That feeds in and ladders up to the project level.” She adds that this process is critical for the coaches who are continually adapting their delivery in response to what methods are working and those that fall short.

Ultimately what would success entail for WOSEN? Jo Reynolds, Social Innovation Specialist from the Centre for Social Innovation reflects. For Reynolds success would be overcoming the under-representation of women, especially those from marginalized communities, in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem. In closing, Reynolds feels the greatest impact of the program will be how the women founders will set out to change the world.

“They have the solutions that we are all seeking, without a doubt. What the need are the systems to be receptive to those solutions because many of them are viable,” said Reynolds. “These women social entrepreneurs have solutions, they’re committed to them, they’re giving their lives to them. Being able to bring some recognition and validation to that is a feminist approach, its anti-colonial, and it’s really positive for everybody. That’s the change I want to see.”

To learn more, visit the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network website

Article type: 
Blog entry
News Topic: 
Social Enterprise
Social Innovation

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