Innovate Inclusion’s Social Media and Marketing Coordinator, Valerie Chong, recently sat down with Sarah Juma to learn more about her journey from working at an independent record label to becoming a tech entrepreneur and Founder of Innovate Inclusion.
VC: Could you share a little bit about your education and early career?
SJ: I was born and raised here in Waterloo, and attended the University of Waterloo for Human Resources. At UW, I was always interested in music. I wanted to work at a record label in the A&R (Artist & Repertoire) industry, deciding who to sign on to the label and finding the next biggest stars. After university, I ended up moving to Toronto to work for one of the largest independent record labels at the time.
VC: How did that lead to your work in entrepreneurship?
SJ: After working at the record label for a time, technologies such as the iPod and mp3’s began to grow in popularity. I saw that there were limited opportunities to move up from my position, so I decided to create my own opportunity by starting a consulting company, Juma Management. I helped Canadian artists to find funding by writing grants and providing other management support.
I had spent a lot of time watching TV for my consulting work to stay up to date on fashion, music, and the arts. I would see great outfits that would be perfect for client events and spend hours on Google trying to find the same pieces without any luck. Four years later, I decided to make an app, called StyleID, to help people connect with the brands and designers seen in movies and television.
VC: What was that foray into tech entrepreneurship like?
SJ: I had just moved back to Waterloo from Toronto. I learned about Communitech, a local innovation hub that helps tech entrepreneurs grow and succeed. I went to their website to see what resources were available, but was initially too intimidated to move forward with them because when I reviewed their website I didn’t see anyone who looked like me (a Black woman). I eventually went to an open house event hosted by Communitech called Techtoberfest, and realized it would be a great place to make connections after all. I have used Communitech as a resource for several years now. But I would never have realized that without attending that event.
VC: Were you able to raise venture funding? What challenges did you face?
SJ: I was able to raise $30,000 for StyleID through grants, but over many years and through a lot of small grants. It was a lot of work to put together each application with no promise of funding.
Grants are not guaranteed; and many times they are reimbursements, which means that you often have to find and spend the money up front prior to receiving the funding.
I definitely faced some obstacles based on the fact that I’m a woman of colour. I’ve been told, several times, that I should consider hiring a white male to run my company as I will see faster and more success. At the time, I had no idea how to respond to that feedback. I had no Black female mentors in the tech ecosystem to seek advice from. Even now, I’m still working on building up my support network. That is why I founded Innovate Inclusion – to connect underrepresented entrepreneurs with each other, to build a support network, and to find the resources to succeed.
VC: Do you think things have improved in the entrepreneurial space for underrepresented communities?
SJ: There’s been a big push for diversity over the last five years, but diversity can mean a lot of things. I think we’re doing better for female representation, for example, but not necessarily for people of colour or persons with disabilities. Organizations may be discussing diversity a lot, which is a good first step, but more action needs to be taken to change systems and organizational infrastructure.
VC: What do you think is the biggest impact Innovate Inclusion has had so far?
SJ: I’m really proud of the Diversity Report we released in 2018. Innovate Inclusion conducted a scan of four leading Ontario government funded Incubators. We analyzed the ethnic diversity of advisory boards, executive teams, start-up teams and mentors. We also looked at diversity-focused programming available at each location. We wanted to set a current benchmark for diversity so that we can measure progress going forward.
As a result of the recommendations and observations in the Diversity Report, a number of organizations were developed to provide more support to underrepresented entrepreneurs. For example, while Lekan Olawoye was at MaRS, he launched The Black Professional in Tech Network in addition to TalentX, which supports diversity in tech entrepreneurship; and the DMZ (Ryerson University’s business incubator) launched a Black Innovation Fellowship in partnership with Isaac Olowolafe.
VC: What’s been your favourite part of being involved with Innovate Inclusion?
SJ: I love connecting with entrepreneurs. I enjoy learning about their businesses, helping them move in the right direction, and watching them grow. Even if it’s just a conversation about their challenges and brainstorming how to work through them, it’s a privilege to be part of their journeys.
VC: What bugs you the most about the current entrepreneur/tech industry in regards to underrepresentation?
SJ: The lack of funding and gaps in programming for people of colour. Underrepresented entrepreneurs can participate in general programming and apply for general funding; however, due to systemic biases that are often unconscious, they are often less successful in obtaining the funding than majority applicants.
At Innovate Inclusion we’re learning more about this issue through research and connecting. I’m looking forward to the future and to seeing more entrepreneurs achieve economic success. There are so many underrepresented people out there working really hard, and hope that we can support them even more in the work that they do.