New Brunswick

BIPOC and women in Atlantic Canada need more support, representation in startups, report finds

Although startup businesses are increasing in the Atlantic region, BIPOC and women founders in particular need more support and representation, says report.

Findings come despite promising growth in startups in the region amidst pandemic

Sherry Law is the CEO and co-founder of Innerva Virtual Inc. She hopes to revolutionize virtual reality and target its potential in helping to improve cognitive, emotional and physical wellbeing in seniors. (Submitted)

Although startup businesses are increasing in the Atlantic region, BIPOC and women founders need more support and representation, says a recent report.

The 2020 Atlantic Startup Report by Entrevestor, originally released in June of this year, says while business owners have a lot to celebrate for making it through the pandemic, more needs to be done to target and support specific groups of people.

"In the last year or so, we've started to take a measure of how we're doing and we're not doing very well," said Peter Moreira, owner of Entrevestor, at the Oct. 8 online report conference. 

The report states that out of 554 startups in the region, 0.7 per cent of the companies had Black founders or CEOs who were born and raised in Canada, and 1.6 per cent had Indigenous founders or CEOs. 

The report states people identifying as Black account for about 1.4 percent of the Atlantic Canadian population, and Indigenous people for about 5.5 percent, signifying a largely underrepresented group.

Moreira pointed toward the creation of hubs like Tribe Network, a hub for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour pursuing entrepreneurship, as well as investor groups like Sandpiper Ventures, a seed stage, angel-backed women's fund and investor group, as a sign that things are getting better.

But more needs to be done.

"There needs to be a cultural change among investors," the report states.

More representation for BIPOC founders

Tosin Ajibola is the CEO and co-founder of his startup, Welkom-U, a business centre that helps newcomers and immigrants settle into new communities in Canada.

As a former international student himself hoping to become a permanent resident, Ajibola says he was ineligible for a lot of startup funding programs because of his immigration status. Along with this, there were multiple barriers to entry.

"There's so much more around survival. A lot of guys are trying to survive, trying to pay the bills, trying to meet each other, keeping up with the standard of living, and also pursue their venture."

Ajibola says that support, while often given verbally, isn't necessarily backed up with action or monetary support.

"When it's time to provide the actual support, you don't see anybody, you don't see any actual substance in that, right."

Ajibola says his business was able to stay afloat through startup competitions and award funds, other Black entrepreneurs and mentorship.

"I'm grateful for Fredericton because it's a small business community," said Ajibola. "I think there's a saying that you're two people away from the person you want to speak to."

Tosin Ajibola, an immigrant from Nigeria, says he's found support and mentorship within the Fredericton business community and hopes to continue growing his business here. (Submitted)

The research also found that visible minorities who have immigrated to Atlantic Canada make up a far larger proportion – about 13.4 per cent of the startup founders or CEOs -- compared to those who grew up here.

"I think when we want to discuss programs to support entrepreneurship among minority communities, we're more interested in the people who have grown here, not because they're preferential but just because they have different experiences, different characteristics, and the programming should identify that," said Moreira.

However, Ajibola says that while his original goal was to move to a bigger city after graduating, he no longer plans on leaving any time soon.

"Throughout my time in the program, throughout my experience here, I saw limitless opportunities that the province had to offer that I may not have even had the opportunity to access in the cities that I planned to go to." 

Supporting women founders and CEOs

Sherry Law came up with the idea to use virtual reality to help her ill grandmother in Hong Kong while she was studying for her master's degree in counselling therapy.

At around the same time, there were new developments for the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset.

"I kind of merged those two ideas together -- VR and helping my grandmother. What if I could just put her onto a beach to help her to feel more relaxed?"

A new report by Entrevestor shows that BIPOC and women startup founders are in need of support to achieve proportionate representation and funding in the space. (Shutterstock /

Today, Law is about two years into the launch of the business she co-founded, Innerva Virtual Inc., where she hopes to continue research into the potential of VR to help seniors.

According to the Atlantic Startup Report, out of 105 startups identified in the region who are run by women, only $5.3 million was raised for their companies, with $1.2 million coming from the founders themselves. 

This represents about 3 per cent of the $206.2 million that was raised for startups that year.

"That certainly doesn't surprise me and I think a big part of it is visibility and representation," said Law. "Sometimes it feels like a little bit of tokenism. And that's unfortunate, but I feel as though these efforts are still impactful."

Although her company is not yet seeking investment from big investors, Law said she's prepared for the landscape once she enters a more competitive environment.

"I have yet to experience direct discrimination for my identity. That being said, if it happens - actually it's not about if, it's when it happens - I'm not going to be particularly surprised."

But she hopes she can contribute to creating change.

"When people are visible, they come out, they share, they educate," said Law. "They educate people who do have the privilege to speak in spaces of power and positions of power and control. I think that collaboration is key to changing this environment."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.