Written by: Claire Francis, Freelance Writer

On May 30th in Toronto, Startup and Slay took place at Spaces, a venue in downtown Toronto. Hosted by Emily Mills via How She Hustles,a network that is tuned into the needs of today’s female entrepreneur, this event’s focus was a panel discussion in which 5 diverse women dispensed wisdom in front of an audience of female entrepreneurs of colour.

Ms Mills stated that her decision to develop and host Startup and Slay was inspired by her own entrepreneurial journey. Earlier this year after leaving her full-time position with CBC, she attended several events around Toronto marketed towards entrepreneurs. At one point she was attending up to 3 a week.

Nevertheless, in spite of this Ms. Mills noticed a pattern. Among other incidents, “I remember attending a sold-out women’s entrepreneur event and literally, the only other black women in the room were cleaning tables.” Startup and Slay came into being because she decided, “to create the women’s entrepreneur event I wanted to experience. Where Black and diverse women played a central role on stage – and behind the scenes.”

Although heartened by the diversity at Startup and Slay, I couldn’t help but wonder about those who might not have attended. In spite of the positive environment in the room, I realized that some women of colour who are entrepreneurs might be skeptical of networking. Yet it remains an important tool that shouldn’t be ignored.

When considering networking opportunities, real-life representation matters. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to feel isolated. From your company’s creation to its marketing strategy, chances are you depend on no one but yourself for virtually all of your major business tasks. Yet although independence can be empowering, at times it can be isolating.

Ms. Mills notes that, “It’s critical to have a village of supporters, mentors and sponsors.” Speaking from experience she acknowledges, ”As a new full-time entrepreneur, it’s even more critical to have people to guide my journey – personally and professionally…It’s easy to feel isolated when you’re starting out as a solopreneur, but I think it’s about your mindset and how you surround yourself with support.”  No one can or should expect to do everything entirely alone, and It can be truly inspiring to see women who look like you, who share your challenges, and are successful.

Meanwhile, you may still feel reluctant to engage with strangers. Thankfully, Ms. Mills understands that no entrepreneur is an island. “Getting out there and making connections is important, regardless of your industry or business.” Professionally speaking, mingling with other like-minded individuals can be very useful. A stranger may possess skills that you lack–or at least, know someone who does.

Overall, what can organizations do to provide a diverse environment for networkers? The key lies in being intentionally inclusive. Yet in doing so, companies need to be mindful of their execution.

Ms. Mills suggests that organizers be thoughtful. “Consider how diversity and inclusion impact all aspects of your event – and your overall vision. It’s not just about inviting women to the mic – but what range of expertise, experiences and identities are these women bringing to the table?”

Women of color possess knowledge from a range of fields. Yet at times organizations make the mistake of limiting these speakers’ coverage of subjects to those that are culturally-related.

As attendees, when it comes to expanding your horizons, Ms. Mills has this advice: “Specifically for women of colour, I’d say go where you people don’t expect you. Bring a friend or ally if that makes it more comfortable. Be open to who your allies in the room may be.”

Knowing that you’re not alone in your journey can not only strengthen you, but contribute to your success.

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