Minority and newcomer entrepreneurs bring incredible ideas and innovations to our society and economy but face significant barriers to reaching the same level as other members of this ecosystem. Atlantic Canada prides itself on close-knit communities and familiar faces. This is a benefit when you’re on the inside of those networks, but can be a barrier for entrepreneurs who are unfamiliar with the regional entrepreneurship ecosystem, or who are newcomers to our communities.
There are many pockets of people working with great intentions in our region. However, they naturally have more connections and trust within their established and existing circles. If you don’t come from an entrepreneurial family, haven’t grown up in certain towns or cities, or don’t have the ability to participate in traditional network building opportunities, your path will be more difficult.
Our networks are powerful, and when they are strong, they can open doors, identify opportunities and build bridges to programs, funding and more. The absence of a broad and inclusive network can be equally powerful, but in negative ways. In a domino effect, mentorship, programs, funding, training, are all less accessible when you don’t know who to speak with or feel like there is not someone on your team.
The barriers faced by members of minority and newcomer groups to find and enter existing circles can be significant, and the playing field is not yet level. When you are faced with barriers to just enter the race, it can be hard to feel like you will ever catch up. We will all lose if this remains the status quo. Great ideas may never get the platform that they deserve, our communities could miss out on brilliant solutions to some of our most pressing problems, and our regional economy could fail to reach its true potential.
We need to treat the causes of these issues, not the symptoms. A one-off networking event, or side of the desk initiative will not be enough to support the cultural shift that needs to occur. There are some great individuals and organizations making progress to ensure underrepresented individuals are supported, but we can do more, for these groups and for individual entrepreneurs. It will require consistent and considerable funding, long-term initiatives and relevant and accurate data. Understanding the metrics today and measuring those against ambitious targets is important. Digging deeper than just the number of minority-owned businesses to explore structural factors like ownership, funding and participation in programs will be essential.
It is up to all of us to ensure that today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem reflects the diverse and innovative perspectives of all members of our communities. When there are barriers for some members of our community, we are all held back. We must consciously and actively broaden our circles and voice our support for more resourcing and treatments, not band-aids. If we do, we all stand to benefit, and our ecosystem and economy will be stronger because of it.
Akram Al-Otumi is the CEO and Founder of Spritely Technologies Inc. He is also Director of Shiftkey Labs, a Nova Scotia software innovation hub and a lecturer of technology innovation and entrepreneurship at Dalhousie University.
Editor's note: Given the events of recent weeks, we wanted to host a discussion on whether people from the Black, First Nations and other minority communities are welcomed, supported and funded in the Atlantic Canadian startup ecosystem. We've asked representatives of these communities to offer their thoughts. This is the fifth article in this series.