Oh, Canada…. a lot is going on. With the recent murder of George Floyd, the Ontario Premier boldly stating that Canada doesn’t have the systemic deep roots of racism that are found south of the border, and the endless stream of talk radio callers obliviously questioning how protesting in Canada will resolve the issues in the United States, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to speak up. I’m here to let my personal network know that the same systemic racism found in the US has roots just as pervasive and deep right here in Canada. And it affects every facet of Black life, including the technology and entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Here’s a quick snapshot as to how racism is constricting the growth and economic success of Black entrepreneurs:
Starting A Business
Black entrepreneurs are up against a lot from the very beginning. I often hear companies joyfully exclaim how they bootstrapped their way to seed funding. So tell me, what happens if you don’t have any boots? This is the position that many Black entrepreneurs start from for various reasons, some of those include not having the luxury of inheritance through intergenerational wealth, lack of community connections, and the Black Tax.
Having access to intergenerational wealth affords entrepreneurs the flexibility to take on projects and not have to choose between eating or having a safe place to sleep at night. Intergenerational wealth is something that is created and passed down but unfortunately, the Black community as a collective is disadvantaged toward upward movement due tosystemic barriers like redlining. The simple act of restricting loans to individuals who reside within specific area codes trickle-down and negatively affect the Black community’s ability to reach economic sustainability.
Having connections to a community network gives entrepreneurs the credibility required to close deals. Connections are created through communities like places of work, neighbourhoods, and extracurricular activities. If Black people are not being hired in the C suite within workplaces, not being offered a seat on the Board, not living in affluent neighbourhoods, and not participating in the ‘right’ extracurricular activities, it should come as no surprise that accessing connections that have the authority to make the decisions that matter is next to impossible for Black entrepreneurs. Where our white counterpart may be able to have his father introduce him to a CEO that owes him a favor, many Black entrepreneurs are living an entirely different reality.
Then there’s the ever-present Black Tax. What’s the Black Tax? It’s the money your immigrant parents send back home so that the family they left behind can eat and buy the necessities of life. It’s the money that a somewhat successful older sibling gives to her family to help pay a bill or co-sign on a loan because without them the family would be screwed. Paying the Black tax is as routine as paying the GST at the convenience store. It’s something we all have to live with.
The gap created from the initial bootstrapping disadvantage expands significantly as Black entrepreneurs attempt to move forward. It takes away our ability to fail fast and pivot as quickly as recommended by start-up experts.
I’ll leave it up to you to figure out why so many of us miss out on the next crucial funding phase called the friends and family round…You can’t get blood from a stone.
Raising a Funding Round
Typically Angels and VC’s invest in people who have a product/service. Did you catch that? They invest in people.
Now imagine being a Black woman, walking into a room full of white, middle-aged men and expecting them to invest in you. It’s rare to get a positive outcome and this is because typically investors invest in people who remind them of themselves. We’ve all heard the Sharks say phrases like, “I like you. You remind me of me, I’m in!” It’s because they see a familiar quality in the entrepreneur that they recognize as similar to themselves and they can empathize with the entrepreneur’s current position while believing that they too possess the skills to achieve similar success.
Eurocentric beauty standards originated during the slave trade and were designed to oppress and denounce all things Black while developing a false narrative that white is best. From our kinky hair & melanated skin to the figure of our bodies and the ideas that come from within. It is all considered ugly. Compound that with the images and stories that flood media and further depict Black people as being less than human, I’m not saying that it’s intentional, but there’s a chance that implicit bias is present during your meetings.
Ask yourself, would you invest in someone who the system collectively perceives is of no value?
Let’s switch gears and discuss tech talent working within startups that are bound by very few laws. In the past 15 years, the technology sector has brought to the forefront a new reality that includes having built-in systems take care of menial tasks. Using skillful algorithms, companies automate technology that enables computers to make decisions that have very real consequences for individuals applying for jobs and loans. Computers are also tasked to help self-driving cars avoid accidents and facial recognition systems to identify suspects. What may seem like a useful tool quickly becomes problematic if the team building the algorithm is not inclusive because individuals hold their own personal biases. The research is out there, Google, Apple, and Facebook all admit to underrepresentation within their organizations. More needs to be done to create a sense of belonging for all employees and retain the talent that is so desperately needed to design the machines of tomorrow inclusively.
In 2017 I launched the not-for-profit Innovate Inclusion with a mission to advocate for the economic success of underrepresented tech talent and entrepreneurs. This was because I consistently experienced racial inequity while building my startup. I authored Innovate Inclusion’s Ontario Incubator Diversity Report where we looked at the current state of diversity within Ontario based incubators and accelerators. Through this report, we were able to take stock of inclusive programming, boards, and staff members to benchmark and work towards improvement. We found that although organizations were gender-inclusive, they lacked the perspective of the Black lens resulting in the inability to adequately support or direct entrepreneurs to the right supports.
These are just a couple examples of how systemic racism affects Black entrepreneurs specifically in the Canadian entrepreneurship ecosystem. Let’s skip over the challenges associated with applying for funding and finding a mentor that understands your unique perspective and go home. But it’s not that simple, because on top of all the inequalities associated with being a Black entrepreneur you are at an increased risk of being carded on your walk home or getting pulled over simply because you’re driving home while Black.
A couple years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates did an interview on The Daily Show and said this:
“If I have to jump six feet to get the same thing that you have to jump two feet for, that’s how racism works.
To be President, Obama had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds. Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That’s the difference.”
Racism is just as alive in Canada as it is in the USA. The only difference is Canadian’s happen to be better at hiding it behind their polite exterior.
Here’s How You Can Help
Public & Private Organizations
- Hire Black talent in decision-making positions and make an effort to focus on retention;
- Support organizations that provide services to Black entrepreneurs.
VC & Angels
- Make it a point to invest in Black companies. And when you do, write a cheque that is just as generous as your other investments;
- Stop requiring a warm introduction. Those connections are not always available for Black entrepreneurs.
- Stop facilitating the narrative that Canada is racism-free.
- Don’t rely on the Black community to explain every issue. Take the initiative to do your own research and educate those around you. Here’s a good place to start.
Innovate Inclusion has several programs that support Black Canadian entrepreneurs. Donate today.