Paulette Senior, Wendy Cukier: It is important to rethink the entrepreneur stereotype

Viola Desmond was arrested and jailed for sitting in the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia cinema. The case ignited the civil rights movement in Canada.

Quick, name three entrepreneurs.

The image that pops into your head is probably that of a white man in tech: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. It’s an easy cliché reproduced in popular culture, media, and industry events.

Even famous businesswomen are seldom afforded the term “entrepreneur.” Think Kylie Jenner, one of the world’s youngest billionaires who built her fortune on Canada’s own Shopify, or Oprah Winfrey, whose diversified portfolio is massive.

Do a Google image search of the term “entrepreneur” and that stereotype is confirmed, with hundreds of white men and few women, particularly racialized women, appearing in the results.

Women account for 39 per cent of all self-employed Canadians and 16 per cent of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Among Canada’s million women entrepreneurs, thousands are black women. Unfortunately, their stories are rarely told and their successes are rarely celebrated in mainstream discussions about business innovation.

It’s such a shame given the substantial barriers black women entrepreneurs must overcome. Most women entrepreneurs report great difficulties in securing capital. In fact, a Harvard study showed that when investors were presented with identical pitches by a man and a woman, they were twice as likely to invest in the man. When you add race to the mix, these barriers are amplified.

Social stereotypes and bias are factors, as well as the fact that women are not well represented in venture capital or investment branches of banks. The gendered barriers are so pervasive that many women who start businesses don’t even define themselves as entrepreneurs and so don’t incorporate, missing out on programs and services that target SMEs.

Many black women report that when they were overlooked for employment opportunities in corporate Canada they turned to entrepreneurship out of necessity and found success. Despite this, when we do hear success stories of black women they are usually stories of social activism and not entrepreneurship. Everyone knows that Viola Desmond took a stand against racial segregation, but they don’t necessarily know that she did it while running a successful business.

Like most women entrepreneurs, black women entrepreneurs are more likely to be in services, retail, healthcare, and hospitality. Examples include Nadine Spencer, CEO of the Black Business Professional Association and founder of Brand EQ; Tanya Walker, who started a successful Bay Street law firm; Delores Lawrence, a nurse who started the multi-million-dollar healthcare company Nursing and Homemakers Inc.; Jennifer Holness, who with her partner launched Hungry Eyes, an award-winning production company; and Olutoyin Oyelade, the founding partner and CEO of InVCap Corporation, an investment advisory firm with partners in Nigeria and Canada.

It is so important to rethink the entrepreneur stereotype because we all need to “see it to be it” — and young women, particularly those who are black and racialized, hardly get that opportunity. It’s important to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs. If we over-tell white male stories of entrepreneurship and under-tell other narratives, we only reinforce stereotypes that constrain aspirations and sustain barriers.

Black History Month is a good time to disrupt the assumptions, and we all have to do our part. Organizations and leaders who support businesses need to move beyond vague diversity and inclusion rhetoric to coordinated, evidence-informed action. This includes intentionally creating new narratives and uncovering hidden stories.

Think entrepreneur? Think again.

Paulette Senior is CEO and president of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, one of the champions of Ryerson University DMZ’s Black innovation Fellowship; Wendy Cukier is the founder of the Diversity Institute at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and the founder of the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub.

This piece was originally published at the Vancouver Sun on February 28, 2020.