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Celebrating International Women's Day: Q&A with Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi

March 8th, 2021

By: Annemarie Cutruzzola

Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi

Happy International Women's Day! This year's theme, #ChooseToChallenge (external link) , is very relevant to the passionate and hardworking women entrepreneurs at the Social Ventures Zone who are dedicated to social impact. Several of our ventures are committed to addressing issues that affect women, whether it's menstrual health, sexual violence, or postnatal recovery.

In celebration of International Women's Day, we spoke to Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi, the Founder of Accelerate Her Future (external link) . AHF is a career accelerator that supports Black, Indigenous and racialized women pursuing careers in business and STEM, providing them with the resources and mentorship they need to succeed. We discussed Golnaz's experiences as a woman of colour in the startup world, her vision for Accelerate Her Future, her recent selection for the Globe and Mail's 2021 Changemaker's List, and more!

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

While it's important to have International Women's Day to talk about gender equity and gender equality, I feel that this goes beyond just one day. This work is everyday work. One of the things that I'm super committed to is ensuring that I challenge the systemic and institutional barriers that early-career women, and particularly racialized women, continue to face. And I think that if we each take actions, even small actions, every single day, the cumulative effect is incredibly powerful. This work is about how as women we can be better allies to one another across communities. It is also about organizations and workplaces taking meaningful action to embed equity and anti-racism into policies, practices, and processes. We simply need to do better.

"I think that if we each take actions, even small actions, every single day, the cumulative effect is incredibly powerful. We simply need to do better."

- Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi

What are some highlights of the impact Accelerate Her Future has made so far?

Accelerate Her Future (external link)  came from my own lived experiences in the workplace as a racialized woman, teaching and mentoring early-career women, and my research. I felt a deep calling to bring that work into the community, and co-create solutions with racialized women centring their voices and their needs. Sumayya Daghar, a research partner and manager in the field of data analytics, joined me back in 2018 as a founding AHF team member. We hosted a design session and it became clear from what we heard that our experiences are not an anomaly. It was clear that we need programming that is tailored to our needs applying an intersectional lens. Other women from the design session came forward wanting to work with us. 

In 2019, we launched a summit, as a pilot which validated our thinking. COVID-19 resulted in the need for us to rethink our programming. We worked with our advisory group and our community to design the Fellowship Circle (external link) , a 10-week career accelerator program. For our first cohort, we had 114 applicants from five provinces, which blew us away. We have over 50 fellows and 26 mentors in the program as we speak. We're in the middle of measuring and evaluating the impact, and so far it has been very positive. 

One year into the pandemic, how have you seen it affect women who are beginning to develop their careers?

The pandemic has had a multi-layered impact on women, especially when it comes to early-career, Black, Indigenous, and racialized women, those that are in school, or those working in careers that are deeply impacted by the pandemic such as service work and retail. We also know that internships and co-op opportunities are more limited as a result. Having to move to a virtual environment where job searching and building networks is even more daunting and challenging. The pandemic has highlighted how deep inequities truly are especially when we apply an intersectional lens. 

In workplaces, the pandemic is impacting women in a number of ways. A higher percentage of women are “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce, due to lack of work flexibility, or feeling the burnout from having to balance work with caregiving as a few reasons. Working double-shift is more pronounced and challenging, particularly with less stable access to school and childcare. These challenges are even more pronounced for racialized women.

Almost 70% of woman of colour in Canada have a higher education credential, yet only 6.5% hold a management position.

Recently, Accelerate Her Future was chosen for IRP funding you were selected for the Globe and Mail Changemakers list – congratulations! 

Thank you very much. I am excited and deeply grateful for the response we're receiving. A big part of it is that our work is genuine and being co-created, centering social impact and the voices of early-career racialized women. Their voices and their work is at the center of everything we do. Accelerate Her Future was one of 19 organizations in the Brant/Halton/Peel region to receive Investment Readiness funding (external link) . That funding will be helping us on a number of different fronts, including the ability to work with service providers to think more deeply and thoughtfully about how we can build a sustainable organization.

It's such an honour to be recognized for the Globe and Mail Changemakers list (external link) . It's the first time in my 25+ year career in Canada that I've been recognized nationally. It means so much to be recognized for the work that I feel is my calling and worked very hard to bring to life. I've also been very clear that it's dedicated to everyone who has touched Accelerate Her Future with their generosity, ideas, and contributions. This work is not created by one person, it takes a community. First and foremost it is dedicated to each and every woman that I have the privilege to work with on my team. It's dedicated to our advisory group, to our fellows and mentors who come in every week to our experience with so much care. To our community partners who believe in the work, to the incubators that we belong to, to our advisors and coaches.

Accelerate her future logo

Read more about the work Accelerate Her Future is doing to support Black, Indigenous, and racialized women pursing careers in business and STEM.

How can the startup space be more inclusive of women and people of colour?

When I first set out on my startup journey, navigating the startup ecosystem was challenging. It felt like it wasn’t there to serve my needs as a racialized woman with a social venture idea. In fact, as I connected with different incubators I found the experience discouraging. Some didn’t return my calls, others felt exclusionary, or I felt I wasn’t taken seriously. I chose to not give up. I stayed the course as hard as it was. I joined different spaces specifically for women, including SheEO as an activator. Eventually, I was able to find several incubators to which we currently belong that are inclusive and embrace social impact. What makes these spaces different is that they have a broader more inclusive concept of what entrepreneurship means. I also see myself represented in the membership or their mentor pool which matter. I’ve managed to piece together the support we’ve needed within the startup space including joining incubators, hiring coaches and mentors along the way, and forming meetup groups with other entrepreneurs. 

The startup space encompasses significant barriers including lack of funding for Black, Indigenous and racialized women and lack of access to influential networks as two examples. Service providers in the startup space need to do a much better job of understanding the needs of systemically excluded communities and taking meaningful steps to address them.

"Navigating the startup ecosystem was challenging. It felt like it wasn’t there to serve my needs as a racialized woman with a social venture idea."

- Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi

How has the SVZ supported your venture since you joined our incubator?

I applied in January 2020, was shortlisted to pitch and wasn’t successful. I took the feedback from the selection panel to think more deeply about our theory of change and business and impact model. I applied again, and we were accepted as part of the Summer 2020 intake. While rejection can be challenging, a growth mindset is essential to entrepreneurship life. The Summer incubation program encompassed weekly sessions with peers and mentors. I enjoyed coming into that community and working together. It helped me clarify things a bit more. And then my one-on-one sessions in terms of mentoring were helpful as well. 

After completing the incubation program, Sarah and Alex did a terrific job of connecting me with an SVZ mentor out in B.C. I thought the matching was targeted to our needs at the time and that relationship worked out really well.  

We were also approached to take part in the Social Ventures Zone Internship Program. We had an opportunity to interview an amazing young woman and Toronto Metropolitan student who has recently come on board as our Special Initiatives Intern. 

What is the best advice you have for women starting a career in business or entrepreneurship?

Challenge the status quo. We have many messages and biases coming at us that we must disrupt and challenge. I would say, “Trust your ideas, trust your knowing, trust your path, trust your approach, trust your excellence. Keep challenging the status quo, ask for what you need and keep going.” Find communities and spaces that feel psychologically safe and aligned. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and are willing to give you feedback and straight talk, but are also willing to be your ally and sponsor.

What’s next for you and Accelerate Her Future?

The team is wrapping up our first pilot for the Fellowship Circle and we're gearing up to open applications for the next round. We'll be offering the Fellowship Circle (external link)  over the summer, especially because of the impact of COVID-19 on youth employment. With our Investment Readiness funding, the team is working with our service providers on strategic planning to ensure our long-term sustainability. 

“Trust your ideas, trust your knowing, trust your path, trust your approach, trust your excellence. Keep challenging the status quo, ask for what you need and keep going.”

- Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi