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Diversity and innovation take the main stage in Toronto’s small business community

Press Release

December 12, 2023

On Oct. 30, 7,000 attendees, business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders came together at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to celebrate Toronto’s thriving small business community.

Toronto’s Mayor Olivia Chow kicked off the event, accompanied by Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie, Councillor Shelley Carroll and Councillor Paula Fletcher. Then, Rechie Valdez, the minister of small business for Canada, and Nina Tangri, member of provincial parliament and associate minister of small business for Ontario, took the stage to acknowledge the role of small businesses in Canada.

“Small businesses aren’t small. They represent 98% of all businesses in Canada and employ 10 million hard-working Canadians, with so many of them right here in Toronto,” said Valdez. “They are at the core of keeping our economy strong, and it’s so important to support them, especially those businesses run by entrepreneurs from under-represented communities.”

In the afternoon, Wendy Cukier, founder and academic director of the Diversity Institute (DI) and research lead for the Future Skills Centre, presented on a panel about the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and how it can drive innovation in business.

The panel on Diversity, Resilience and the Lived Experience: Why It Matters also featured Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB); Darrell Schuurman, CEO of Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC); and Andrea Robinson, founder, president and CEO of Robinson Global Management. It was chaired by a senior advisor at DI, Shannon Pestun.

Diversity Is Good For Innovation

The panellists agreed that investors, customers and employees are increasingly interested in businesses that share their values and reflect the communities from which they come. They said companies need robust EDI strategies to hire the best talent, cater to the most customers and bring more investment.

They said taking advantage of this growing market demand and fostering innovation are two compelling reasons to support diversity. Cukier highlighted the importance of supporting diverse entrepreneurs because they bring innovative ideas that address the needs of a diverse community. “A few years ago, a woman pitched a product idea to some men venture capitalists and they all rejected the idea. The product was pantyhose that do not run. Now, if you fly through [Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport], you will see that Sheertex is everywhere,” she said.

Robinson said that building EDI into businesses also leads to better, more innovative products and services. She explained how, a few years ago, infrared sensors on faucets were less responsive to dark skin until more diversity and inclusion practices were implemented in AI, which improved the technology and created better products for everyone. “Ultimately, it is good for business,” said Robinson. “The more hiring, buying and involving diverse people, the better for your business model.”

Stereotypes and Trust Among the Biggest Barriers

Despite the benefits that diverse entrepreneurs bring to the economy, barriers still exist. Cukier said that one significant barrier is the stereotype of what an entrepreneur looks like. “If you ask someone to think of an entrepreneur, most people will suggest white men in tech. We want to celebrate diverse entrepreneurs across diverse sectors,” she said. She highlighted an initiative from DI’s Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), the See It Be It campaign, which is a database of diverse Canadian women entrepreneurs who serve as role models and inspiration for emerging entrepreneurs.

Bull said Indigenous communities still face barriers in accessing financial capital to open businesses. “Only 33% of Indigenous businesses have a relationship with their financial institution due to trauma around money and trust of institutions that has eroded over 150 years,” she said. “That is going to take a long time to rebuild.”

Schuurman emphasized that for his community, fear of self-identification is an ongoing concern. “It was not many decades ago that you would have been fired for being queer if you were working for the federal government,” he said. “If you are not comfortable being 100% who you are, you are not going to be able to give everything to your business.”

Organizations can’t serve diverse people if they themselves are not diverse.

Wendy Cukier, founder and academic director, DI

For businesses looking to commit to EDI, the panellists shared some advice. In Cukier’s experience, she said the main challenge is convincing people who do not see the value of diversity to open their hearts and minds. “Telling people what they should do has no impact. You have to do it in a more substantial way to drive change,” she said.

The panellists agreed that EDI needs to be a commitment from leadership through a corporate strategy and culture that supports hiring and retaining diverse talent, buying from diverse suppliers and applying a diversity and intersectionality lens to everything. “If you are the owner, you need to be the one setting the culture within your company, understanding why it is important and communicating it across the business,” said Schuurman.

Bull suggested measuring and reporting on the diversity and inclusion strategy at every board meeting to ensure ongoing progress. She highlighted CCAB’s Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) certification program that helps businesses assess their employment and procurement relationship with indigenous communities.

Robinson recommended building a procurement selection process that meaningfully engages diverse suppliers. Resources like CLGCC’s Diverse Supplier Program CAMSC and WeConnect are certifications that help businesses to implement supplier diversity programs.

The 50 – 30 Challenge, in which DI is an ecosystem partner, is also a resource to improve EDI within organizations. It encourages organizations to advance gender parity (50% women and/or non-binary people) and increase diversity (30% other equity-deserving groups) on boards and/or in senior leadership roles.

“As Canada is changing to be more diverse, we have to keep aligned with that. We know that organizations can’t serve diverse people if they themselves are not diverse,” said Cukier.

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