Startupfest Launches Inclusion Initiative For Underrepresented Groups

A past Startupfest event. Image: Submitted

FREDERICTON – Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs could be among those taking advantage of a new Inclusion Initiative at Startupfest in Montreal.

Festival founder Philippe Telio said in a phone interview with Huddle that making the event accessible and inclusive is “really important.”

“Our mission is to create more entrepreneurs and better quality of entrepreneurs,” he said. “There’s already a pool of talent that could become entrepreneurs within our society that just doesn’t feel like this is an option for them. So, it’s just giving them that option, first and foremost.”

In its eighth year, Startupfest expects to attract around 7,000 entrepreneurs and investors from July 10-14. It’s a space for entrepreneurs to connect with investors and peers, learn various topics, and pitch their companies.

It’s the first time the festival is integrating a formal initiative focusing on inclusion. BDC Capital and QuickBooks are subsidizing a 90 per cent discount for 1,000 tickets to the festival for female technology entrepreneurs, Indigenous entrepreneurs and those from other underrepresented communities, including those who are differently-abled or live in remote areas.

Joint Economic Development Initiative and Startup Canada are also among the program’s partners.

Indigenous businesses, especially startups and growth-focused firms, continue to face challenges when seeking capital, a 2016 survey by the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business found.

More than half of the businesses said locating potential funding sources have been very or somewhat difficult. Nearly half of Indigenous businesses also have difficulty meeting requirements for lending, as only 30 per cent have a formal business plan.

But a growing number of Indigenous businesses reported net profits and increased year-on-year revenue.

Acess to capital is a key factor for business growth, yet many groups are underrepresented in spaces where investment decisions are made, Telio said.

TD Bank’s #MoveTheDial campaign found only 6 per cent of CEOs in tech companies are women, and only 13 per cent of the executive team in tech firms are female. In Canada, only 8 per cent of tech board directors are female. The numbers aren’t any better in venture capital funds.

Telio said his team is planning some sessions focused on women entrepreneurship because there are potential investment opportunities specific to them, though there will be no specific prizes for underrepresented groups.

“We want [underrepresented groups] to be part of the community and feel welcomed and as equal as everybody else,” he said. “The message is not to treat them differently, but rather that everybody can be on the same level playing field.”

“I’d like to see more organizations that empower women to take investment decisions, inspire more women to get involved in investing, I think that’s one of the keys,” Telio said. “The other key is just role models. It’s important for us to showcase more women that are doing great things as part of the entrepreneurial landscape.”

He urged event organizers to ensure panels and speaker lists are diverse, even when it’s difficult because of the lack of diversity in the tech sector.

“We need to make sure that in all cases we’re showcasing and we’re assuring that equality and diversity are represented on those type of panels,” he said.

Interested entrepreneurs can apply to the program with a $50 commitment fee, which can be refunded if they can prove they will be attending, Telio said. The tickets normally cost $500.

Intuit President Jeff Cates. Image: Submitted

Jeff Cates, the president of QuickBooks maker Intuit, told Huddle his firm will provide financial literacy boot camps in addition to subsidies for the tickets.

Intuit will make accounting software QuickBooks available for free for one year to entrepreneurs that take part in its boot camps live, or online through Startup Foundations.

Intuit will focus on educating entrepreneurs about financial management and business plans, and how to apply that to seek potential lenders and funding.

“Often small businesses aren’t clear on their business plan and the problem they’re solving, and they can get distracted trying to solve too many things,” he said. “Having a clear business plan and understanding what your core focus is and the problem that you’re trying to solve is really important. And connect yourself to others that can maybe help you.”

Cates said more needs to be done to showcase entrepreneurial successes, especially in underrepresented communities, to inspire others.

For the Maritimes, Cates said a good example of successes can be seen in the university teams that are part of Enactus, a global organization that entrepreneurialism at the post-secondary level for social good.

Both Newfoundland’s Memorial University and Nova Scotia’s St. Mary’s University have shown that the region is “punching far above its weight,” he said.

“I’ve been so impressed with the calibre of the students engaged in these programs and the problems they’re trying to solve. It’s really, really neat,” he said.

So far, hundreds of entrepreneurs from various regions have signed up for the Inclusion Initiative, Telio said. Those interested can apply on Startupfest’s website.