Our takeaways from The Forum’s AFIA DEI Index launch event

The Index is designed to accelerate access to funding for women entrepreneurs

Yesterday, on a chilly September night, The Forum warmly welcomed people into Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art to celebrate an impressive initiative led by its senior program manager Gretchen Ferguson: the AFIA (Accelerating Financial Inclusion and Access) DEI Index.

The Index, which is free to use and funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada, has been developed as a go-to resource package to help women entrepreneurs (especially BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+ individuals) access funding. The event promised networking opportunities, stories of entrepreneurship and an exciting panel featuring award-winning leaders and businesswomen like the Black Entrepreneurs and Businesses of Canada Society‘s CEO Jackee Kasandy and The Finance Café Podcast’s Shannon Pestun. 

Funders and founders flooded the Gallery to learn about the resource, why it’s here and what it can do for the business community in B.C. and beyond. Forum CEO Paulina Cameron graced the podium to start us off with some important stats: “On average, women launch businesses with 53-percent less capital than men,” she said, “and women-owned businesses receive 31-percent smaller loans than businesses owned by men. 

“The bottom line is this: accessing funding is disproportionately hurting racialized, immigrant and gender-diverse small business owners, limiting the business growth, job creation and financial independence for thousands of entrepreneurs,” Cameron stressed. That’s why the Index provides founders with evidence-based tools, resources and training to accelerate and amplify DEI and Reconciliation in business funding. “In the process of developing this, we engaged diverse women entrepreneurs, funders and entrepreneur support organizations to inform this up-to-date research,” said Cameron. 

Key elements of the Index include an online tool to assess policies and processes against meeting practices, a scorecard that provides guidance based on self-assessment, and online training modules that can help build team capacity. 

As the panellists gathered by the podium to address challenges women face when it comes to accessing funding, the mic symbolically screamed in protest. But that didn’t deter Pestun, a Métis entrepreneur who started working as a business banker 10 years ago, from telling it like it is: “It’s impossible—impossible—for us to get to gender equality without financial inclusion,” she stressed. “Women, particularly Indigenous women, are over-mentored and underfunded… We need more diverse people inside financial institutions making the money decisions. Not just our tellers, not just the people at the call centres, but people who are actively making decisions as to who’s getting the loan.” 

Black women must go above and beyond to convince funders that their business is viable, added Kasandy. “Nails and beauty and all that—in the US it’s one of the biggest and fastest growing categories. But when you want to do that business here, you have to defend yourself so much more… and when you get any money, it’s $10,000.”  

The Forum’s Ferguson emphasized the importance of relationship development between founders and funders in unpacking unconscious biases. “When women founders pitch to investors,” she said, “they’re often asked questions about the risks or downside of the business whereas male founders tend to be asked about the potential of their business. And this is proven through research, which is shocking.” 

A number of institutions including Vancity Credit Union have already committed to the Index, which is ready to help more organizations and leaders review and revise funding practices through the lens of DEI and Reconciliation.

“When you don’t have the data, it’s really hard for us to make the argument,” said Pestun. “That’s why the [Index] is really important toward economic reconciliation because this is giving us critical data that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”