Using Design Principles to Make Incubator & Accelerator Programming More Equitable

SVX is committed to embedding greater Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in impact investing as one of our strategic priorities. This month, we’re sharing a collection of blogs on gender equality in impact investing and social entrepreneurship featuring knowledge, insights, reflections, and case studies. We hope this collection of blogs will both inform and inspire you to engage with Gender Lens Investing (GLI) and women entrepreneurship.

This blog is a reflection on developing inclusive incubator and accelerator programs from our team member Li Jiang, Impact Fellow. Based on her extensive experience with running programming for the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) collaborative, she has found that good execution of inclusive design principles shape the core of a program to balance power dynamics and deliver better outcomes for entrepreneurs, particularly those that have been traditionally excluded by the startup world. We want to share this valuable and important learning with our ecosystem partners to help shape future programs and contribute to a healthier startup ecosystem.

In an incubator or accelerator program, business support, industry insights, and physical spaces (which COVID had transformed to online working sessions) are offered to for-profit or non-profit early-stage ventures. Incubator and accelerator programs are designed and delivered by one or more organizations that act as educators in the system or the industry. These programs may be cohort-based, where ventures of the same industry or sector participate in group sessions together; or they can be venture-focused, where an entrepreneur meets individual coaches or consultants one-on-one.

While the terms are commonly used interchangeably, there are differences between an incubator and an accelerator. In an incubator program, ventures tend to be in its earliest stages of ideation, so the incubator supports the entrepreneurs with business idea validation, understanding the different aspects of running a business, learning about the industry and potential clientele, and creating a minimal viable product or offering. Meanwhile, accelerators target ventures that may or may not have already moved through an incubator program, and are further along in their development; accelerators support entrepreneurs with business growth and expansion, improving access to capital, or their pivot services or products.

Imbalanced power dynamics exist in many incubator and accelerator programs on various levels, including between facilitators and entrepreneurs, and between entrepreneurs themselves. This amplifies the privilege of a small group of entrepreneurs who benefit from the business support, but disserves and discourages traditionally underrepresented or marginalized entrepreneurs who have brilliant and innovative ideas.

This article discusses practical approaches to design and deliver successful cohort-based incubator and accelerator programs using the WOSEN inclusive design principles as an example. The goal of this article is not to promote the WOSEN design principles themselves, but to encourage practitioners to customize their own design principles that fit the programs and the people they are serving so that the power dynamic is shifted, shared learning is cultivated, and lived experience is valued.

The WOSEN Inclusive Design Principles

Inclusive & Accessible

Empowering all participants through respect, fair treatment, and equal access by considering each participant’s lived experiences and barriers to inclusion when designing programs and selecting participants.

Responsive

Design programs to meet people where they are by engaging in two-way communication and facilitating feedback to adapt programs and meet the needs of participants. WOSEN seeks feedback and input from participants to continuously iterate its programs.

Human-Centered

Understanding the emotional, physical and spiritual needs of the persons and communities we are looking to serve to create a space where everyone can be seen as their whole selves. By carving a space for empathy, WOSEN programs prioritize the experience over the tasks.

Systems-Informed

Integrating systems-thinking, systems mapping, and systems navigation to acknowledge WOSEN’s place within the systems and understand the barriers and influences affecting the system. This broader view allows WOSEN to thoughtfully design programs that can create systems change.

Decolonized

Acknowledging WOSEN’s place in the colonial system and the history of social entrepreneurship in Indigenous communities and communities of color to create a space for knowledge sharing and decenter where knowledge is held. WOSEN creates a space for conversation and knowledge sharing surrounding decolonization in its programs.

Anti-Oppressive

Recognize the oppressions that exist in our society at all levels, attempting to mitigate their effects, and working to equalize the power imbalance in our communities by challenging systemic oppression and helping the WOSEN network navigate allyship and complex conversations. WOSEN integrates programming on power and privilege into its programs to recognize and challenge oppression.

Ecosystem Approach

Understanding the entrepreneurship ecosystem and its barriers to foster meaningful relationships, building an ecosystem of support for all entrepreneurs of systematically oppressed communities. Helping entrepreneurs understand their part in a larger movement against the inequities of the ecosystem.

To learn more about each design principle, please read WOSEN’S DESIGN PRINCIPLES: MOVING BEYOND CHECKBOXES TO CREATE SYSTEMS CHANGE and WOSEN DESIGN PRINCIPLES.

The Design Principles in Practice

WOSEN’s programming has created profound impacts on both program participants and facilitators. Using the design principles outlined above, we integrate inclusivity and equity into every stage of our programming, including the Program Design Stage, Program Delivery Stage, and Post-Program Reflection Stage. Here are some of the practical, concrete ways we execute each of the design principles before, during, and after our programs.

Design stage

Inclusive and Accessible.

Inclusion and accessibility can mean different things to different people. Therefore, we prioritize creating shared language and understanding around what it means to be inclusive and accessible. I will never forget when a program participant said, “Having access to a gym does not mean it is accessible to me.” As facilitators, we remove accessibility barriers by not only offering accommodations, such as sending the text material beforehand for visually challenged folks, but also integrating soft skill topics such as “Knowing your worth”, “Relationship with money” and “Thriving in the unknown” into the program curriculum design, which helps people to overcome mental barriers on these difficult topics.

We aim to create an inclusive program by having diversity and representation. Our approach is to recruit coaches who come from a variety of communities across Ontario and have a long history of working in local communities. These coaches support entrepreneurs in their own communities who otherwise cannot afford these speciality consulting services. This approach has helped us connect with a significant number of BIPOC entrepreneurs and foster trust between coaches and entrepreneurs.

System Informed.

We integrate topics such as “impact gaps canvas”, “community asset”, and “stakeholder mapping” into the program curriculum to encourage participants to look at the big picture of the ecosystem. We collect, update and share available funding opportunities in the system. We also create materials for participants, such as the Participant Program Workbook and Social Venture Financial Plan Guide. These documents include resources from ecosystem partners, practical templates and articles about the system.

Ecosystem Approach.

We piloted with Funder Pair sessions, where funders and founders are brought together for meaningful conversations. In these sessions, founders share their struggles in raising capital and funders share their approaches and limitations. This shared understanding and co-creation of funding approaches is significant and valuable because it builds the foundation for future fund design and paves a road for much needed system change.

Anti-Oppression Lens.

As facilitators, we check our privilege in two steps. The first step is to acknowledge our identity, such as our skin color, ethnicity, language, educational background, physical ability, and financial situation. The second step is to situate those identified privileges into different scenarios. “Do I ever censor my own opinion or passion, or hesitate to make waves due to a fear of my knowledge and experience being overlooked in a conversation with folks ‘at the table’?” “Do I see non-racialized peers as automatically more powerful and well-educated?” “Can I count on my skin color to not disadvantage me in terms of accessing capital?”. Asking ourselves questions like these allows us to display empathy and screen out biases.

Delivery stage

Inclusive and Accessible.

A participant shared with us that her experience with another incubator program was discouraging as she felt inferior because she did not understand some industry jargon and acronyms. Because of feedback like this, we check our language and explain the industry jargon we use when delivering the content and facilitating discussions. In addition, we use visual and auditory supports to explain concepts or case studies to avoid information overload. As facilitators, we also pay attention to session participation and engagement and hold space for every participant to share and learn.

After each session, we write session summary emails to participants to outline the content we introduced, insights from discussions, and resources shared by everyone. We also check in with individuals who missed a session to update them and answer questions.

System Informed.

We hold space for peer circles every month, where participants lead the conversations. These unstructured sessions have been highly informative and people feel heard, supported and a sense of belonging to the community. Topics discussed in these sessions include experiences with bookkeepers, accountants, and lawyers; investor pitch experience; burnout and self care; imposter syndrome; etc. These sessions allow participants to see the system from a variety of perspectives, learn from trial and error, and form their own views of the system.

We invite industry practitioners as guest speakers to help demystify and decode the system, share their honest opinions about the system, and engage in systems change discussions with our participants. In addition, our small group coaching sessions, customized for 3 to 5 participants in each group, discuss more in depth system-informed topics such as the funding landscape.

Decolonized.

We spend time acknowledging diversity in the room and appreciating each other’s unique culture. We share our insights on current news about Indigenous people and Black communities; we realized that shocking and tragic news stories to some people might be the daily life and reality to someone else. These conversations are difficult to facilitate because they require vulnerability, respect, trust and deep listening. But they are beneficial to participants because the sharing of lived experience uncovers the value and purpose behind the venture, enables shared learning, and gives everyone an opportunity to check their unconscious bias.

Responsive.

During each session, we hold space for reflection and asking questions. After each session, we ask our participants to fill in a short session feedback form. We are flexible and change our agenda based on the feedback and current needs of participants.

In order to best support entrepreneurs, it is crucial for facilitators to reflect on and understand their own boundaries. We set reasonable expectations for ourselves on questions such as: “When are you available to meet? When are you not? How would you like to be contacted? How soon do you want to commit to responding to participants over email?”

Human Centered.

In every session, half an hour is dedicated to check-ins with everyone. In addition to venture updates, we also ask check-in questions such as “What boundaries are necessary for your well being, and how do you honor them?” and “How do you show up in today’s session?” Participants are able to get to know each other on a personal level through these questions and build connection and trust over time. These conversations also contribute to a shared brave space, where participants can be honest about their presence in the sessions. “You created a space where we could come be ourselves, however imperfect, and as a perfectionist that is a very unusual thing for me to be able to do’’, shared by a participant.

Reflection stage

Summary and reflection drive better iterations of programming. There are a lot of things we can reflect on: the language used, the way we framed questions, the cultural knowledge we shared, the inspiration we got from participants, the revealed unconscious bias, the pace and structure of the program, the feedback from coaches and participants. Group sharing and learning within our own organization and with partners are highly appreciated.

Through the past three years of WOSEN programming, we have supported and built trust with over 700 participants from 120 communities. 97% of the participants come from underrepresented groups. One of the WOSEN programs, the Investment Readiness Support Program alone has supported 15 marginalized entrepreneurs to get access to over $5 million in funding from investors and funders. The GROW program, another WOSEN program, which was completed most recently, received a net promoter score (NPS) of 9.6/10.0.

Here is some of the amazing program feedback we received from participants:

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