WOSEN: Disrupting traditional entrepreneurship through equity and inclusivity
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 case study on the deep impact and innovative design strategies of WOSEN, a program supporting women social entrepreneurs. As is the mandate of WOSEN, we hope that by sharing insights about this trailblazing program that it will encourage further support and programming for women social entrepreneurs, and that WOSEN’s inclusive design strategies will inspire others to integrate greater equity into their work.
The Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) is a collaborative led by Pillar Nonprofit Network, SVX, CSI (the Centre for Social Innovation), and NORDIK Institute. The initiative was officially launched in August 2019 thanks to a grant from the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, although members of the collaborative had already been working together for three years to reimagine a new social entrepreneurship ecosystem in which disparities were addressed and women social entrepreneurs were uplifted and supported.
Pillar, CSI, and NORDIK Institute, who previously led the social enterprise strategy for Ontario, reached out to SVX and Lean 4 Flourish to design a program that would elevate the profile of social entrepreneurship within the entrepreneurship ecosystem by using a gender and equity lens. Together, they created WOSEN, an Ontario-wide collaborative that works to support and develop women social entrepreneurs. The organization is dedicated to redesigning the system of support for entrepreneurs, to create one that is more equitable and human-centric. WOSEN seeks to support women entrepreneurs from underserved and underrepresented communities, who have solutions that put people and planet first.
Although collectively the term “women” is used throughout this article, it is critical to underscore that WOSEN’s programming and support are inclusive of all women and non-binary/genderqueer entrepreneurs, especially those from traditionally excluded and marginalized communities. This includes, but is not limited to, those who are Indigenous, in rural or remote regions, racialized women, immigrants or refugees, 2SLGBTQ+, or those with disabilities.
This post is part of a series of knowledge assets created for the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN).
Why is WOSEN important?
The challenges facing women entrepreneurs in Canada are well-documented, from access to capital to structural and institutional limitations. Key among these challenges is access to the right entrepreneurial ecosystem supports. In Ontario, less than half (44.4 per cent) of small business and innovation organizations consider gender and diversity when recruiting new enterprises or clients, and only 6.8 per cent offer women-specific programming. An even slimmer 4.3 per cent of organizations specifically serve women entrepreneurs.
“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,” said Eaman Fahmy, Inclusive Program Designer at Pillar Nonprofit Network.
In addition to a lack of programming and supports for women entrepreneurs, there remains a sense of exclusivity in entrepreneurship experienced by women attempting to find their place in the sector. The pathways that women are taking in building their businesses often challenge traditional notions of “growth-at-all-cost” entrepreneurship, as well as the need to navigate gender norms and family planning. Unfortunately, the available supports are constructed to encourage women entrepreneurs to adapt to the broader, masculinized culture of entrepreneurship rather than accommodate (or better yet, celebrate) alternative ways of engaging in entrepreneurship.
Recognizing these gaps and the demand for gender lens entrepreneurship, WOSEN was built to support women social entrepreneurs, especially those from underserved and underrepresented communities, who are traditionally excluded from business programs. The focus on social entrepreneurship is intentional, with a goal to create a more inclusive economy that promotes prosperity for all.
Addressing the gap in support for women-led and women-serving ventures not only serves to uplift the economic and social freedom of women, but is also an opportunity for local economies to benefit from women-led and purpose-oriented businesses. Research finds that women entrepreneurs are also more likely to lead businesses with a social justice or environmental focus than men, making it more important than ever to support women entrepreneurs in the growth of the social innovation ecosystem.
What are WOSEN’s core programs?
WOSEN has a wide range of programs that are designed to address the gaps in the current entrepreneur support ecosystem. In addition to supporting women-led and women-serving ventures, WOSEN provides the different stakeholders within the ecosystem — advisors, mentors, funders, investors — with the tools and knowledge necessary to create a more just and inclusive economy. The WOSEN programs include:
- Women in Social Enterprise (WISE): A series of accelerators that provide women interested in starting or growing a social enterprise with access to skill-building opportunities, industry coaching, and peer learning. WISE includes:
- The START program is designed to provide women exploring social entrepreneurship with a deeper understanding of the space and a more refined concept for their venture.
- The GROW program is for social entrepreneurs looking to take their business to the next level. Social entrepreneurs at the GROW stage have a validated business idea and are looking to refine their business model and strategy in order to achieve their next enterprise milestone.
- The RESILIENCE program is a responsive online program that provides social entrepreneurs with the support and resources necessary to adapt their business and strategy to our new reality in the pandemic.
- Women-Centered Innovation Learnings (WIL): A community designed to help existing and aspiring social entrepreneurs build capacity and co-create networks of women in the ecosystem. WIL consists of sessions that are intended to allow social entrepreneurs to connect and share through personal and professional experiences. These sessions help women entrepreneurs discuss barriers that exist to help them maximize their venture’s social impact. Sessions can be in the form of sharing circles, workshops, labs and more, depending on the needs of the community.
- Social Enterprise Ecosystem Developers (SEED): A convening of coaches, advisors, and community leaders to develop key competencies and learn how to respond to the needs of social entrepreneurs and innovators using an inclusive lens. The program includes a combination of training, online resources, and peer learning to help ecosystem developers learn socially innovative frameworks and support the community.
- Funder Pair: Following the learnings and feedback from the pilot program in 2021, WOSEN launched its Funder Pair program in January 2022. This program creates a space for social entrepreneurs and social capital providers to engage and create human connections outside of the fundraising relationship. By engaging in conversation on equal standing, Funder Paid hopes to facilitate knowledge sharing and discussions that will help both parties contribute to ecosystem change.
- Finding Funding & Investing for Impact programs: As a member of the ecosystem, WOSEN leverages its network to help social entrepreneurs find and access available capital through a variety of programs offered from various organizations including SVX, VERGE Capital, Ontario Catapult Microloan Fund, and more. At the same time, WOSEN mobilizes a network of social capital providers interested in supporting women-led enterprises and connects them to investment ready women-led ventures.
How is WOSEN creating systems change?
WOSEN is creating systems change through design principles, which are integrated into every program and service offered. By taking the time to facilitate open communication and understand the persons, communities, and system WOSEN serves, WOSEN aims to address the root causes of the systemic barriers that exist for women-led and women-serving ventures. By intentionally designing programs that follow these design principles WOSEN is fundamentally altering the structures and systems in place to create a more inclusive and equitable economy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What are some of WOSEN’s success stories to date?
A Friendlier Company
A Friendlier Company (AFC) is a Guelph-based, women-led venture that aims to make the take-out food industry more environmentally friendly by replacing single-use containers with sustainable, reusable alternatives. The venture was started during the pandemic and has since raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding. Since its inception, AFC has successfully diverted 4,600 lbs of waste from landfills.
AFC’s founder Kayli Dale joined WIIN’s Investment Readiness Support program in May 2021. She was a participant in WOSEN’s pilot Funder Pair program where she was matched with Dragonfly Ventures. “WOSEN helped us through our first ever investor fundraising round, not only with knowledge but also with peer support. It helped me gain confidence about fundraising, provided networking opportunities with investors, and allowed me to speak with other women who had been through the process before,” said Kayli. “We were so thankful to have the support and mentorship provided by WOSEN, and ended up raising almost double what we had been originally looking for.”
Foodpreneur is the only Canadian, Black-woman founded and led non-profit with a mission to advance racial and gender equality within the Canadian food industry. Foodpreneur aims to help food entrepreneurs from underserved communities realize their small, large, short-term and long-term business goals by closing knowledge and access gaps through its start-up and scale-up programs.
Foodpreneur’s founder Janice Bartley joined WIIN’s Investment readiness support program in August 2020 and continues to be an active member of the WOSEN community. “WOSEN reawakened and reaffirmed the dormant entrepreneur in me. I had the information and support that made me believe I could do it,” she said.
Janice also spoke to the inspiration she got from other like-minded women she met through WOSEN who were fighting to make an impact, despite all obstacles they encountered along the way.
“People often say entrepreneurship is a lonely journey but it has never been a lonely walk for me because of WOSEN.”
Troop is a platform that bridges the gap between local community needs and local businesses hoping to give back. Its mission is to create stronger and more connected communities by supporting local initiatives through empowering businesses to contribute. Every month employees receive a list of current community needs and can vote on what initiative the business’ contribution and support will go to.
Troop’s founder Kelly Emery joined WOSEN back in June 2020, and has since gone through several WOSEN programs including the Resilience Program, WIIN, and Extended Coaching Program. Kelly said that what she appreciated most about WOSEN was the community of like-minded individuals that the programs brought together.
“Through WOSEN, I met a woman who ran a fund. After our chat she personally sent $1,000 to support my company and I still have the cheque framed above my desk today,” she said. “It is these small acts of genuine connection and encouragement that keep you going.”
To learn more about WOSEN’s story and its impact nearly two years since its inception, please see the WOSEN Interim Report here.
What’s next for WOSEN?
WOSEN will continue to iterate and create programs that focus on creating systems change by applying its design principles. These programs will focus on supporting changemakers to create a more inclusive and flourishing economy. Be sure to check out the WOSEN website for more details on upcoming programming.