Over-mentored, Underfunded: why it’s important now more than ever to invest in women founders

One of the top email inquiries and requests I receive in my inbox on a weekly, and now almost on a daily basis, is to become a mentor to our startups and entrepreneurs. Often there’s a specific request to mentor women founders.

Running an incubator/accelerator that has a mandate to prioritize women entrepreneurs, especially those who identify as Black, Indigenous, women of colour, and newcomers, I get to have the first hand of experience of seeing how women founders and “perceived” by potential stakeholders.

Photo by Cristian Escobar on Unsplash

In general, there is a huge appetite to support women founders launching a business, especially those who are in the early stage of their ventures. However, when we take a closer look, stakeholders are more willing to provide mentorship than investing in women-led ventures.

Investors often reveal their biases when they discuss women entrepreneurs, and come to the conversation about women ventures with a deficit mindset. They speak with doubt and seek to invalidate until proven otherwise that these businesses are actually real, they have a strong business model, and have a high potential in being successful.

The amount of work our team has to do to “convince” and advocate for entrepreneurs in our ecosystem is often very laborious and frankly disheartening process.

Of course, from an investor’s perspectives, the stakes are high when investing in a business, and of course there is a risk when investing in early-stage businesses. Combine this with a business led by a woman, let alone a woman of colour. This is all understandable and to be expected. Without weighing risks, and analyzing odds, one should not be in this business.

However, there is a real bias when it comes to investing and putting actual dollars in women-led businesses. Instead, the focus is always on mentorship and advising. Mentorship and advising are crucial components of entrepreneurship, yes they are. This is why they’re core pillars in our incubator and accelerator programming. This is also one of the reasons why 1-1 mentorship starts early on in our programming phase, in order to understand the specific challenges of each entrepreneur’s business.

Inclusive and equitable mentorship and advising for women entrepreneurs, especially for BIPOC women founders, is often also a scarce resource in and of itself, especially for underrepresented founders. It’s not easy to access a network of mentors and advisors who come with an equity lens, and who are connected to inclusive and equitable opportunities.

More importantly, it’s often a challenge for women founders to connect and find mentors who are aware of and would not apply power structures to the mentor/mentee dynamic.

This is why we at Parkdale Centre are very mindful and intentional about bringing on the mentors who have formulated this understanding before meeting and working to mentor women founders.

Often, mentorship is people in power’s way to feel good about themselves, and “give back to the community”. White saviourism is a real issue when it comes to mentorship, and discussing it’s power relations to women entrepreneurs is a necessary step in helping to dismantle it.

The feeling of giving back through “expertise” rather than actual capital often perpetuates a class divide that likely the women founder herself is working against, and reinforces the financial and racial gap that currently exists in the innovation economy.

It’s rare for stakeholders to be willing to raise their hand and invest in early-stage businesses. Instead, corporations, organizations, institutions, foundations, and banks invest more in mentorship, and training for women founders, with very little to no access to starter capital to actually start a business.

And that’s exactly what entrepreneurs need. Women founders need access to capital more than they do mentorship at this moment in time. Research shows that over 83% of women-led businesses use personal sources of finances to start the businesses. And here is where I should be adding statistics about the lack of access to VC funding for women founders.

But we see this lack of access to capital in the entrepreneurs we support everyday. We are the stats.

While launching Parkdale Centre myself, when looking through many different sources of funding, one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome is recognizing the difference between those who are willing to support and address the need we had at the time, which was access to funding, from the ones who simply wanted to “give back to an underrepresented cause” through mentorship, and guest workshops (which is often tied to folks looking for visibility more than anything else).

As an entrepreneur, one has to draw the line of where their time is being committed, and to whom. Mentorship is great, but mentorship is also not needed if the mentor has never walked in our shoes, and wouldn’t know what it’s like to launch a business from scratch especially as a woman of colour.

When people, organizations, and investors invest in women-led businesses, not only is there a return on investment, but the economy and society as a whole benefit from this success.

So I’d like to challenge organizations, corporations, financing bodies, and investors to think about the following:

  • Address and learn about your own biases and systemic biases when it comes to race gender and class.
  • Analyze and take a hard look at the policies and processes of your investment requirements and portfolio thesis.
  • Address current gaps in the ecosystem and how you/your organization might play a part in widening this gap.
  • Understand you would prefer to give your time than your money. Then address this bias and assumption.
  • Be intentional about creating space and make a deliberate effort to support and back women-led businesses through access to capital.

Women of colour founders are over mentored, and underfunded. In this day and age, we don’t need more mentorship, and training, we need access to the capital required to launch our ventures successfully.

Are you a woman founder struggling with some of these areas? Do you have any questions that you’d like to inquire about and get support on how to navigate? Feel free to send an email to rusul@parkdaleinnovates.org, your query will remain anonymous, and I’ll try my best to support.

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