We need to stop imagining corporate diversity and make it a reality.

Before I became an entrepreneur, I pinned my career hopes on corporate Canada. I was led to believe that every corporation was a meritocratic ecosystem in which those who worked the hardest and waited the longest were rewarded with higher salaries and bigger titles.

But the longer I waited, the more I realized that this was not true. The glass ceiling remains firmly intact, with visible minorities holding just 8.3 per cent of CBCA-governed board seats in 2022. I left corporate Canada because I knew my worth and didn’t want to ask permission to show my ability. If I wanted to take the helm of an organization, I had to build it myself.

Unfortunately, many minority professionals find themselves in those same uncomfortable shoes. But increasingly, they are discovering that entrepreneurship is no longer the road less traveled. According to a 2022 Intuit QuickBooks study, a staggering 2.2 million Canadians started new businesses in the last two years. I’m sure many of these people were like me, wondering why they should continue to serve skewed institutions that no longer serve them.

However, as every entrepreneur knows, starting a business can be both exciting and scary, as growth never happens in a linear fashion. If you are part of a marginalized population, the hills and valleys can be especially steep. Statistics Canada expected visible minority-owned businesses to experience steeper declines in demand, sales and profitability in 2022.

I am as inspired as ever by entrepreneurs of color who are fighting against stereotypes, prejudice, and racism to launch their businesses. But I am also discouraged by what they are facing. Everywhere I look, I see very gradual progress, entrenched barriers to entry, and exclusionary beliefs and practices.

My wishes for 2023 are a faster and bolder evolution; a definitive dismantling of systemic inequities; and a significant acceptance of diversity, equity and inclusion in Canadian business.

This looks like economic and business equity for business owners of color. In recent years, we have launched many of our own initiatives to provide adequate financing, such as the African American Business Loan Fund. These targeted programs have given previously excluded groups access to the financing they need. But this shouldn’t be the only path to business success. People in power need to take business people of color seriously, even when they don’t share the same lived experience. The new story must be one in which business leaders can receive venture capital or loan approval, no matter who they are.

Gender parity must be part of this. The spaces in which women entrepreneurs operate are not always the ones with the highest investment. We are more likely to build experience in the service sectors, which have been hit hard by the economic turmoil and lose funding to flashier tech companies. As a society, we need to broaden our definition of legitimate business, and we need to think about entrepreneurship beyond male-led tech startups.

Black women are increasingly taking the plunge, but we are more likely to be “independent entrepreneurs” working from home. Without employees or offices, we are often ineligible for financing or dismissed as premature or unpolished when we qualify.

We must stand up for black business representation. Even when our businesses are small or community-based, they are still important. The challenges facing our businesses are compounded by anti-black racism, generational trauma, and disinvestment in neighborhoods. We often come from communities where we have lacked the social capital, networks, and seed money to launch strongly. In anticipation of this, how can other companies, government officials, and society at large cheer us up and prevent black corporate failure from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Too often when we talk about leveling the playing field for the marginalized, we are looking into the distant future, as if what we are looking for is complex and novel. But this is a moral and social imperative. It is time that we stop imagining this as the future and make this the reality of today. It’s what I dreamed of when I started my first business, and it’s what the emerging class of entrepreneurs deserve.

Nadine Spencer is executive director of the Association for Black Businesses and Professionals.

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