Creative Co-Operative launches program to support BIWOC founders

WALA 2021 winner Priyanka Ashraf launches massive program to support BIWOC founders

When I spoke to WALA 2021 winner Priyanka Ashraf last June, she told me her 12 month dream would be to transition her entire core team at her start-up social enterprise, The Creative Co-Operative, to give them permanent employment.

It is now February 2022 and she has already hit that target by 100%.

“Permanent employment is important to me because anything less than equates to insecure employment and insecure livelihood,” she said. “Whilst many have adopted nomadic ways of working like professional freelancing, this is only viable with those who have security. Temporary visa holders are over represented in unpaid, under-qualified or insecure work and they are forced into this work as there is no other option.”

“Without secure employment there are structural barriers like the inability to access a home loan, despite this being one the major ways in which the average person accumulates wealth. We need to achieve more than just getting a foot in the door, we need to be moving them into secure work, we need to be moving them upwards.”

Ashraf, who took home the WALA for Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year in 2021, also announced she and her team were putting the final touches into a program supported by the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship Grant from the The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

The program, called ‘Anyone Can’, would be the first program dedicated to empower the growth of the Women Of Colour innovation ecosystem, including WoC founders and STEM professionals, engaging 100 Women of Colour into the ecosystem.

This month, ‘Anyone Can’ has finally gone live with an exciting launch event taking place on 24 March 2022 in Melbourne. Attendee and Pay It Forward tickets can be purchased here.

For any current or aspiring startup founders or STEM professionals who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Women, Black Women and/or Women of Colour, this program will provide a psychologically safe space to demystify the ins and outs of the startup ecosystem and normalise the access and advancement of BIWOC in this high-promise sector, which has traditionally been dominated by white men.

To mark the occasion, we sat down with the extraordinary creator and mentor to learn her insights in entrepreneurship, women in tech, and the importance of standing up for yourself.

The Creative Co-Operative team

You started your company in September 2020. How has it been since then? In the role of director, what are your day to day tasks?

Since starting The Creative Co-Operative in 2020 it’s been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. No two days have been the same and it’s really been an exploration of how hard we as a team can push ourselves to achieve the impact that we have articulated as our goals – $700 million into the pockets of BIWOC if we want to make a dent at fighting intergenerational financial inequity. This is an urgent mission and it cannot wait. This has meant that there’s been a lot of pressure we put on ourselves to hit milestones by a certain deadline, but I believe that by being really specific about what we needed to get done, and by when, it’s allowed us to achieve an immense amount of impact in an incredibly short amount of time. It has not been easy yet even then I’m aware that our existing access to and knowledge of the start-up ecosystem is what enabled us to get this far.

Our first win was at a Victoria University pre-accelerator program called BETA. We took home the Action Award of $2,000, which covered our initial set up costs like ABN registration and insurance. From there, we went to pitch at another startup competition, The Future Founders Festival. We won a prize of $1,000, which paid for our website.

We started from these extremely humble beginnings, including our first client project for $500. They loved our work and strongly endorsed us.  We follow the 80/20 rule by focussing on delivering an exceptional client service – 80% of our work comes from 20% of our client base. As a result of our deep level of care which translates to exceeding client expectations, we’ve quickly grown a trusted reputation and largely picked up work through word of mouth referrals.

From that first project, we grew the confidence to then pitch for a $50,000 project, and despite competing against over 20 other established agencies, we won. We’re about to hit 18 months and we have already doubled last year’s number of transactions. By month 12 we had already created >200 financial transactions and opportunities for other WoC.

It is interesting talking about our challenges in the context of our wins because we don’t actually start at the same starting line as everybody else. This is because of our diverse set of intersecting identities. We’re not just women. We’re Women of Colour. Amongst us there are additional intersections beyond race. For example, some of us may not be first language English speakers. Some of us are citizens, but some of us are temporary visa holders. Some of us are (myself included) live with PTSD. The greater the number and types of intersections, the further one stands from the starting line.

When we’re 5 to 10 steps behind the starting line, that’s extra work we have to perform. Extra effort towards reversing biases held by decision makers to convince them they should believe in us, invest in us. I speak about my own experiences as a migrant Woman of Colour but compared to the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, to Black Women, I am privileged.

The other challenge of being a first generation migrapreneur or a migrant entrepreneur is the lack of established networks and in startup land – your network is your currency. It’s what either opens or closes doors. If you don’t have a network, you have to figure out how to build one.

Something we don’t talk about is the level of privilege you actually have if you’re able to take the risk of becoming an entrepreneur. It’s a path that is only really accessible to those who have a fallback in case their startup fails, particularly those who possess inter-generational wealth or alternative access to funds whether that is savings, a partner or access to welfare.

Finally, whilst I have the privilege of being a first language English speaker, I don’t come from a business family nor intergenerational wealth so there’s a lot I’ve had to figure out along the way. In addition, starting in the middle of a global pandemic has been an extremely humbling experience.

In the role of director, what are your day to day tasks?

At this early stage of creating a social enterprise / startup, my role might say Director but really my role involves literally everything. It involves sales & strategy as much as it does licking postage stamps.

In short, my day-to-day tasks constantly change, though we’re starting to arrive at a point where we’re reaching more of a structure. I’m very proud we have grown to the point that we’ve been able to hire some amazing colleagues to further propel our growth.

As a result, I’m now able to start focusing on the things that a Director should be focusing on, namely more strategy and revenue generation and less execution.

Why did you start CCO ? What were you hoping to achieve?

I started The CCO because of my personal experience of systemic racism. However it was down a path beaten before me and whom I learnt so much from – incredible Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women and Black Women, some of the first to challenge and dismantle forces of oppression, something many of us benefit from today in different ways – the likes of Aunty Gladys Elphick, Aunty Pearl Gibbs, Auntie Joyce Clague here or Angelia Davis, Harriet Tubman or Madam CJ Walker in the US.

Like many, for me, George Floyd’s murder was a serious wake up call. It wasn’t that systemic racism hadn’t been around for hundreds of years. It was that in the context of the world standing still during COVID-19, the world had the space to absorb what had happened. 

At the time I was still applying for jobs during COVID-19 and kept getting knocked back. Yet I saw peers who I previously worked with (who I had to actively manage to ensure they met their deadlines) were successfully getting hired at the same places I was getting knocked back. What other difference did we have than our race, gender, and how white our name sounded?

I decided I was going to stop wasting my time applying for jobs with organisations that were biased against me and refused to see my value. I knew what I could achieve. I’d built a successful track record doing it for other companies. So I decided to finally invest my talent in myself instead and others like me. I started applying all of that energy and focus to create the environment I wanted to work in and the type of work I wanted to perform. And that is exactly what the CCO represents a mere 15 months later.

I think society’s current Ways of Working are deeply flawed. Everything comes down to a race to the bottom. Who can deliver the work for the cheapest amount of money? Typically, those with no other options like temporary visa holders. This is a prime example of how systemic racism is perpetuated.

What if we built organisations that were in a race to the top? Examined what the individual wanted to achieve, aligned their work to what they cared about, then aligned the organisation’s goals in that direction? What if we actually built an organisation that existed to serve its employees as opposed to the other way around?

It’s not a What If. That is what The CCO is currently doing. We want – demand – better for ourselves, for our communities. Its what the team cares about. Its what the team is good at. We’ve validated we know how to rapidly start, launch and scale a successful enterprise and we’re not the only ones – if other BIWOC can access the starting line, they can too and we are privileged if we can be a part of making that happen.

What is the most difficult thing about being someone in a leadership position who is not white and not male in Australia?

For anyone who is BIWOC and considering leadership and entrepreneurship – you may already know or you may not – you’re going to face fare more barriers and you’re going to have to work a lot harder than your peers to get to the same place (if that) – but what you do know is that for better or worse, resilience is in your DNA and if you can harness it, you will get there.

I’m walking in knowing this, completely aware of what my barriers are. Or so I thought I was. It meant that for me, when I show up to a meeting, I don’t get the benefit of the doubt. I have to make a really compelling case each time I am pitching to a new client or potential funder.

I have to go above and beyond. I can’t just be okay or just wing it. I have to be extraordinary.

This wasn’t something I was aware of until I met with a Venture Capitalist last year. The person who got me  this meeting with him, was a white female who I consider a close friend co-conspirator. I asked her to sit in on it so I felt safe. Call it instinct. 

During the meeting, he had his video switched off the entire time. I recall him being out and about whilst taking my call. Of course I had prepared a presentation, I’m just not sure he saw any of the content since he had diallied in from his mobile phone.

I took him through my proposal and for all I knew, he had given me a positive response. He was going to take my proposal up with the Board, apparently.

After the call, my friend apologised to me. She said, “I am so sorry. I can’t believe how prepared you were for that call. How much you put into preparing for it. And he didn’t have the decency to have even really showed up for it.

I feel extremely aware of how much I benefit as a white woman. I don’t have to try as much just to get people to listen. I have never felt like I needed to prepare a deck. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt. I even made mistakes in meetings with this person before but was still given the opportunity of a redo.”

My response, “Really? So you’re saying not everyone prepares this much?”

As recently as last year, I had not even realised I’d been discriminated against my entire working career, in this way.

It took for a white woman and a Woman of Colour to be in the same “test” environment to understand how they fare in comparison.

Debriefing on this meeting with my friend, and realising just how differently we are treated, made it really clear to me it’s a waste of my time speaking to people like that. This was an extremely valuable lesson – it’s made me become really good at identifying very early on which conversations are worth your time and which ones aren’t.

With all of that said and done, I think what’s most difficult is, how do you teach someone empathy? If you are a cis, white, middle-class male who has only ever experieced a life of privilege, how are you going to understand how life is experienced by someone on the complete other end of the spectrum? That’s what is difficult. What’s more, at the end of the day, it’s not my job, as a Woman of Colour, to be taking on the emotional labour to be providing that free education anyway. Where does that leave us?

Why do you think we should have more women of colour in STEM and social enterprise?

Growing up in Asia, I never felt a huge gender gap in STEM. Growing up, it was normal to see women working as engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists.

Similarly there were tons of women working in the not-for-profit and social enterprise sector. I was born in Bangladesh, the home of Professor Muhammand Yunus who founded the concept of micro-credit where women are the preferred borrowers.

Moving here though the story is entirely different. The same women who worked in STEM in Asia work as nannies here. Purely from an economic perspective, it’s nothing short of a huge financial loss to the economy. According to the Alfred Deakin Institute, we know that systemic racism cost the country A$44.9 billion between 2001 and 2011.

So its not that there aren’t enough Women of Colour in STEM or social enterprise. There’s plenty. They’re either just under-estimated, passed over or not given due credit for their work, which means we don’t see them reach the top. 

What is social enterprise’s largest problem in western countries that you think we need to change? And how do you think having more women in the field will change things?

In the case of NFPs and social enterprises that specifically exist to support Women of Colour, you rarely find any Women of Colour represented at the leadership level.

Sure, there are plenty of WoC who are hired to work at the “grassroots” level to justify the organisation having some connection to the communities they’re meant to serve, Rarely do those WoC progress to meaningful roles with any authority or decision-making power in those organisations.

Lived experience should be the very first criteria to assess suitability to work for an organisation that exists to support Women of Colour. If you have no lived experience of intersectionality (specifically being a Woman of Colour), how can you possibly understand or feel, how deep the problem cuts? Or what exactly the solution should be? You can’t. Can you support from the sidelines? Certainly. But one can’t speak over Women of Colour to decide what solutions are best for them.

In short, the largest problem in Western countries where social enterprises are concerned, is when people holding positions of power in these organisations have zero lived experience, and therefore are not qualified, to be designing the solutions to the problems they’re trying to solve.

The line between impact and saviourism is an extremely fine one and I see it constantly, even amongst some of the most “forward thinking” social enterprises and startups.

Where it comes to the area of international development, there tends to be a bit of amnesia. For example, whilst there are social enterprises that are trying to support garment workers rights, it’s important to keep in mind the source of problems faced by the very same garment workers.

We’re not “saving” anyone when our consumption habits is what forced those people to work for under $2 a day. We’re actually just restoring equity.

The constant messaging of migrant and refugee women needing saving from themselves, to me, is a tired one. The underestimation. They can be more than factory, hospo and craft workers but those are the opportunities the sector seems to think they’re best suited for. I see it everywhere – it needs to stop because we are so much more than just the help..

We know what is best for us, and we should be the ones making those decisions.

What are your ‘chill-out’ activities? What do you do that calms you down or relaxes you?

There is nothing that beats lazing on the couch amidst a group cuddle session with my husband and our two two Brussels Griffons. Absolute favourite pastime. Other than tending to my million and one house plants. They say money can’t buy you happiness but it can. It can buy you puppies and plants.

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