Can redesigning the way business supports are provided unlock the potential of diverse women entrepreneurs? When Pillar Nonprofit Network, CSI, SVX and Nordik Institute set out to form the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN), we began with that question in mind. Our goal was to reimagine the entrepreneurship ecosystem to support women entrepreneurs from equity-deserving communities who are often excluded from traditional business supports. We knew that ending these inequities would require a unique approach.
When we refer to "women entrepreneurs" this includes ALL women. WOSEN recognizes the vast spectrum of gender diversity and as such programming is also inclusive of Two-Spirit, non-binary and genderqueer individuals. Admittedly, our learning of inclusive language continues to evolve.
WOSEN has been asking equity-deserving founders how entrepreneurial support services can better meet their needs. We heard that talented entrepreneurs continue to face barriers as they navigate systems that were not built for them. These barriers include: lack of access to capital and investment, systemic racism, biases towards hyper growth and institutionalized stereotypes and biases, just to name a few.
We know that our social and economic systems are built on a foundation of colonization and white supremacy. As a result, traditional business supports uphold these oppressive systems. Without honest examination, acknowledgement and change, these systems and supports will continue to perpetuate harm to entrepreneurs from systemically-oppressed communities by creating barriers to success. This fuels a lack of trust, increases stress and impedes the entrepreneurs’ ability to build the enterprises that serve our communities.
In response, at the outset of WOSEN, the collaborative began with our own reflective process. From there, we co-created seven Design Principles to help reimagine how to equitably reach and support a diverse group of social entrepreneurs to meet their potential. The principles have evolved beyond checkboxes for inclusive design and have become the root system that nurtures this entire network.
The Design Principles, Inclusive & Accessible, Systems-Informed, Decolonized, Responsive, Human-Centred, Anti-Oppressive and Ecosystem Approach are the foundation to all aspects of the WOSEN project. They guide recruitment and onboarding, inform design and delivery, build reflection in evaluations and create connection in partner collaborations. They are introduced to all external delivery partners and facilitators and are discussed frequently in internal meetings.
Most importantly, the principles are interconnected and relational – they are not meant to be expressed or lived in isolation. They are linked to each other. This connectedness is deeply felt in how the principles show up within the relationships between the collaborators, program partners and participants. The WOSEN collaborators are constantly learning together and the way we understand, define and demonstrate these principles continues to evolve.
Rooted in relationship, the Design Principles are critical to building inclusive programming and a community where women entrepreneurs feel they belong. In our experience, being in authentic relationship means engaging participants in the process of program design to ensure it is meeting their needs, then iterating and responding to feedback along the way. Eaman Fahmy, Inclusive Program Designer for Pillar Nonprofit Network explains that the importance of “connection before content” cannot be underplayed. “We really have to establish that trust and connection before moving forward with the content,” she explains.
Jo Reynolds, Social Innovation Specialist at the Centre for Social Innovation, adds: “For people like myself who design programs, the Inclusive Design Principles is an invitation to do it differently. Nothing for us, without us, is very important.”
Exploring the Design Principles has prompted a deep inner and external learning journey for all WOSEN collaborators. Developing new ways of working that challenge our current oppressive systems while still mentally steeped in the dominant narrative requires a great deal of personal development, un-learning and reframing. A commitment to this type of learning also requires the ability to let go of the need for perfection, to lean into discomfort and to appreciate the iterative nature of changing thought patterns, and ultimately, developing new systems.
“I'd like to share with someone who's going on their learning journey that it doesn't always feel like you're moving forward and there’s an ebb and flow. I love the mentality of honoring the process and that it isn't linear, said Mitalie Makhani, Senior Program Manager at the Centre for Social Innovation. “These aren’t checkboxes, you don't get to say, I'm now decolonized and I'm officially anti-oppressive. That doesn't happen. It is ongoing and continuous.”
To share what we have learned with others who design and deliver business development programming, and those engaged in system shifting collaborative projects, the collective has developed knowledge products including a set of comprehensive definitions and a series of videos launching today. These products, along with a deck of conversation cards that is currently in development, will help facilitators and collaborators integrate the teachings into their relationships and content development.
By creating space to reflect, the following videos capture the principles in an organic way and illustrate how they are interpreted and explored by the people who use them every day. The series is narrated by Storyteller, Performer, Arts Educator, and Creative Consultant, Timaj Garad, who beautifully weaves the metaphor of the honeycomb as representing the interconnectedness of the collaborative and how the principles connect and overlap. As an artistic artifact, they present the content in a human-centred and heart-led way that is accessible and engaging, inviting viewers to tap into the emotion that exists as we uncover deep questions.
Reflecting on Systems-Informed and Anti-Oppressive
We can all place ourselves within systems. It takes time to understand our positionality and learn how to navigate these complex systems which are rooted in colonization and not built to serve everyone equally. It takes time and energy to stay Systems-Informed but the work is necessary to challenge these systems and pave new ways to navigate and bring about the change that our communities desire.
We seek to recognize the different forms of oppression that exist in our society, and attempt to mitigate their effects and eventually equalize the power imbalance in our communities. Practicing Anti-Oppressive work in real terms is not only confronting individual examples of power and oppression or confronting societal examples, it is also confronting ourselves in recognizing our own roles in upholding systems of oppression.
Reflecting on Inclusive & Accessible
As we’ve embarked on an un-learning and re-learning journey, we’ve had to consider the power of perspective; recognize power dynamics and reimagine inclusion and representation as belonging rather than participation. With these mindset changes, we begin to foster safe, brave spaces to co-create and co-learn with one another and create more opportunities to fill gaps and bridge barriers. All decisions have consequences and it’s vital that we approach decision-making with intention and inclusion if we are to make shifts in the ecosystem.
Reflecting on Decolonized
Being decolonized means reflecting on the history of colonization and recognizing that these oppressive systems still exist today. It means being committed to an ongoing learning journey that isn’t only captured through academia, intellectual theory and western knowledge. Taking a Decolonized approach recognizes that knowledge is also held in the body, in the earth, in our spirits, in ancestral wisdom and cultural traditions. It means listening in a deep and generative way, not only with our ears, but with our hearts. Taking a Decolonized approach requires hard work and heart work and honoring that we all hold knowledge and lived experience. It means changing the narrative together.
Reflecting on Human-Centred, Ecosystem Approach & Responsive
We are all human, but centering the human experience has not traditionally been the norm in entrepreneurship. If we believe that the people are more important than anything else we must create an environment to hold space for Human-Centered design. The Responsive nature of this approach is not a one way street, it requires co-creation with program participants. It means working together to share knowledge and gain more clarity about the ecosystems that we work within. Relationships are the foundation for everything, including how we define success and how we affect change.
The WOSEN collaborative partners hope that these knowledge products will help to amplify and disseminate what they have learned so that others working with entrepreneurs can adapt their offerings to be more equitable, inclusive and responsive for existing and emergent talent. By sharing their collective insights, learnings and un-learnings in using the design principles, they hope to encourage program designers in the entrepreneurial ecosystem to also dive deeper into their work to enhance their program design, relationships and facilitation practice.
Learn more about WOSEN and the design principles here.
The Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network is a collaboration between Pillar Nonprofit Network, Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), SVX and NORDIK Institute’s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship (SEE). Lean 4 Flourishing supported the development of the Design Principles. This project is funded in part by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.