How startup program Anyone Can is supporting BIWOC founders across Australia

anyone can

Panel session from the Anyone Can program (from left to right): Carey Taylor, Vanessa Lee-Ah Mat, Annie Parker, Jeanette Cheah, Priyanka Ashraf

It’s been little over a year since Priyanka Ashraf, founder of The Creative Co-Operative (CCO), took home the award for Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year, at the 2021 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.

After claiming the award, she stated in her winning speech: “Whether we’re migrant women of colour, whether we’re Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, whether we are women living with a disability, whether we are from the LGBTQI+ community, it is important to me that every single one of us are appreciated for our unique talents and abilities, irrespective of what you may see externally.”

Since then, Ashraf and her team at the CCO have been working hard to support and encourage more black, Indigenous, women of colour (BIWOC) into the entrepreneurial space, particularly in startups.

They launched Anyone Can in May this year, the first program of its kind dedicated to empowering bla(c)k women and WoC in the startup space. The eight-week program provides 101 startup education by and for BIWOC founders to help advance in the ecosystem and break through the barriers in accessing initial funding.

Successful applicants are then narrowed down to six finalists who would then get the opportunity to take part in a pitch competition to win $10,000 in cash, and a six-month subscription to a co-working space.

Last Thursday, the CCO launched an event in Sydney to conclude the Anyone Can program for its first cohort.

The night began with a live pitch watch party. The audience gathered together as the finalists for the first cohort of the program pitched their businesses in front of the judges. Founders across tech, health, bioscience, and storytelling, each had three minutes to convince the judges why their businesses were worth investing in.

Zoom screenshot: Pitch competition with the six finalists from the first cohort of the ‘Anyone Can’ program.

Santosh Kaur, founder and CEO of SmartHeal, ultimately won first prize and the $10,000 bursary, with Alinta Furnell, co-founder of Synbiote, taking home second place.

Kaur, who worked in healthcare as a registered nurse for more than 15 years, founded SmartHeal as a way to assist healthcare professionals in providing optimum wound care by accessing important wound data with a no touch technique. She says that this win has given her the validation she needs to work harder on building the service.

“Hearing feedback from the judges means that SmartHeal as a business exists for the right reasons, and is an investable and scalable business which will drive impact. We are aiming to have our release 1.0 in July and are currently training our AI model. So this $10,000 will go towards building our technology,” Kaur told Women’s Agenda.

Image: Santosh Kaur, Founder of SmartHeal & Winner of the first ‘Anyone Can’ pitch competition.

When asked about her experience with the program, Kaur acknowledged its uniqueness and greater importance in closing the gap within the startup ecosystem.

“I know of many startup programs focused on female founders but none for BIWOC specifically. Meeting Priyanka in person, I feel even more closer to the cause. I highly encourage black or other woman of colour founders to apply,” she said.

“Although the data already shows the funding gap for women, the gap and disadvantage in the start up industry is even WORSE for WOC. We can be judged for our appearance, accent and via other lenses before our skill set. So these programs are uber important platforms to give us a stage, voice and a chance. I think we need more of these programs.”

The pitch competition was then followed by a panel session. Joining Ashraf on the panel was Vanessa Lee-Ah Mat — founder and director of Black Lorikeet Cultural Brokering, Jeanette Cheah — CEO and founder of HEX (EdTech), Annie Parker — executive director of Tech Central, and Carey Taylor — COO and co-founder of Blakthumb.

The panel discussed their own experiences in the tech space and the startup ecosystem, and also touched on their leadership journey.

Lee-Ah Mat reflected on the hardships Indigenous women face in this space, even in leadership positions, being both an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman herself. Despite having held leadership roles in public health, suicide prevention, data sovereignty and governance, and women’s issues nationally and internationally, she still finds herself coming across people who question her leadership.

“I had someone say to me, ‘I don’t think you’re a very good leader,’ and I said to him, ‘so you’ve just insulted my profession, my leadership capabilities, everything I’ve done for the last 30-odd years,” she said, also noting the lack of support for BIWOC founders to break into the startup space.

“Governments need to do a lot more. They need to step up to the table. They need to open doors properly for women of colour, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, including Indigenous women globally. Australia’s a multicultural country, and we’re not seeing the support.”

Annie Parker echoed Lee-Ah Mat’s words saying: “It’s 65,000 years of continuing culture, the oldest continuing culture on the planet. Why on earth would we think that you don’t hold the answers to some of these important questions? It’s absurd. I think we need to throw out the white way of thinking, chuck out the systems, and create some new ones.”

For Jeanette Cheah, it was not seeing enough honest representative leadership that encouraged her to quit her corporate job, and find ways to challenge the system herself.

“We need to change the system, and for me, that was the inspiration for leaving my corporate job. It was looking up and looking at leadership and looking at the people making decisions around business, technology and government, and saying ‘why don’t these people look like the communities and the economies that they serve?” she said.

As part of the Anyone Can program, the CCO undertook research into the opportunity barriers experienced by BIWOC startup founders in Australia. The report, which was released earlier this year ahead of the launch of the program, revealed that despite the record-breaking $10 billion of venture capital funding raised in Australia in 2021, only 0.03% went to early stage Bla(c)k Women and WoC founders.

The panel gave their thoughts on those shocking numbers.

“The problem with that statistic is it’s been that low forever. And it’s not shifting,” Parker said.

“VC’s need to hire more women, more women of colour, and more women who look like every single woman in this room. There are a handful of women partners in VC firms now in Australia, but they’re still predominantly white. That’s not good enough.”

COO and co-founder of Blakthumb, Carey Taylor even recalled her own struggle to secure funding, and it was not until Blakthumb broke into the US market, that she started to see a shift.

“They didn’t quite believe that two female founders could build an operating system for farming because it’s traditionally for men,” she said.

Jeanette Cheah agreed, adding: “Having numbers like that where only a few of us got some money, it’s a weird thought of ‘well you must’ve been extraordinary’. No, the system is still kind of rigged.”

Ashraf wrapped up the panel session by asking the speakers their advice for women wanting to enter, or are having a hard time progressing in the startup ecosystem.

Carey Taylor responded saying: “Just persevere. Don’t give up. There have been moments in my life where I just wanted to give up, but just don’t give up.”

Cheah followed, encouraging the audience to attend more events like this one, as well as taking up opportunities where they can be a role model to others.

“I would say lean into communities like this one, absolutely. And also, if you have those moments where you have the opportunity to be on stage in the spotlight, speaking to students, speaking to other people out there, spreading your message, you gotta do it, because you don’t know who needs to see you doing that at that exact moment.”

Applications are now open for the second cohort of Anyone Can — an eight week program starting July 20th, creating a psychologically-safe space for Bla(c)k Women and Women of Colour to access 101 startup education and be set up for success and advance in the ecosystem. Applications close on July 11th. You can apply here!

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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