From tech consumers to creators

The Black Women Business Network

The Black Women Business Network found strength, creativity, and a path to socio-economic security through community.

2020 was a tumultuous year, marked by both moments of unity and profound challenges. Some people might best remember the things that united us, like the viral whipped coffee and bread-making to reality show marathons. Others may think more about the challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everyday life in different ways, and it increased the divides already faced by many.

Black and racialized women, particularly those who belong to multiple communitiesFootnote 1 , were some of those most impacted. They faced job losses and reductions in hours worked. They were also overrepresented in both essential frontline work and unpaid care.

Meanwhile, global protests against anti-Black racism were mobilized and amplified after the murder of George Floyd. Because of this, important conversations on racism in Canada and the United States were becoming more mainstream.

The rapidly changing social climate already had Pasima Sule, a business professional with a long-time successful career in the oil and gas industry, wondering how she could best support her community. But it was her daughter who ultimately became her catalyst for action.

“She firstly inspired me by saying ‘Hey Mom, do you see what’s happening on the streets? What are you doing? With all the experience you have, you need to do something.’”

This was the breakthrough moment for Pasima. In 2020, with her daughter in mind, Pasima both conceptualized and launched Black Women Business Network (BWBN).

Creating safe spaces 

BWBN is a non-profit organization centred on advocacy through targeted programs aimed at supporting Black women to succeed in business. Pasima Sule, Executive Director and Founder, has taken an innovative approach to supporting and creating community for Black women and girls.

“We are a change agent to promote Black women’s equity in health, education and socio-economic empowerment,” says Franklin Bourguep, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Development.

Based in Surrey, British Columbia, the BWBN currently serves communities in British Columbia and Alberta. 

“Our mandate is to create a space for Black women and girls to come together,” adds Pasima. “The BWBN is a space where they can connect, inspire one another, and where they can be informed about opportunities and resources.”

Pasima's vision for BWBN places a strong emphasis on both access to resources and Black representation. While the importance of ensuring that Black women and girls are learning about job opportunities is clear, the significance of representation within the business and tech sectors may not be apparent to all.

So, why is representation so vital in these industries?  

Across the globe, science, technology (tech), engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are big business - from new and emerging tech companies to breakthrough advances in the medical field. Among high school graduates, women are nearly 30 per cent less likely than men to enrol in a STEM program at the undergraduate level.Footnote 2 

Within Canada, Black women and girls are significantly underrepresented in these industries.  Additional support, mentorship, and networking opportunities that acknowledge present inequalities are needed to close the gap.

BWBN’s work is both timely and critical. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses and consumers alike are different now – and as the world springs back towards normalcy, we need to see the process as an opportunity to do better.

“The tech sector demands creativity. Black people have been seen as monolithic, but we are not. Our experiences are unique, and we offer richness to any industry, especially technology,” says Pasima. “Companies should be leveraging these experiences to create better tools and solutions that will benefit all Canadians.”

The tech sector has become well-known for its successful entrepreneurs. According to Statistics Canada, the overall proportion of women entrepreneurs with intersecting identities declined between 2017 and 2020.Footnote 3  In addition, Black women entrepreneurs continue to face systemic barriers including difficulty accessing financing, a lack of networking opportunities, mentorship, and training. 

Networking and mentorship are crucial to the success of BWBN programs. “When young Black girls look around, they see that their mothers, their aunties, and their sisters are often overrepresented in certain areas like social care and frontline jobs,” says Pasima.

Of course, the barriers that Black women and girls face run deeper than lack of mentorship. “Psychological barriers are formed because of what they see around them and the stereotypes they face,” says Pasima. “Black women and Black girls can do much more than what society thinks they can do.”  

Turning a vision into action

Equipped with funding from the Feminist Response and Recovery Fund offered through Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE), BWBN was able to turn their vision into action by getting more Black women started in the tech sector and exploring entrepreneurship in this industry.  

One of their priorities with the WAGE-funded project is the development of the Black Women in Tech Hub.

This hub is a space where Black women and girls interested in a tech career can access crucial resources. It is a community for tech employers, but also a space where Black tech professionals can mentor others who are looking to break into the sector.

To carry out this work, BWBN relies on partnerships with industry heavy hitters like Microsoft, Amazon, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and others to help curate the most helpful resources possible.

To BWBN, these partnerships are an essential part of ensuring the success of their participants.

“These partnerships allow collective efforts to identify and address the root causes of barriers preventing Black women in Canada from achieving socio-economic empowerment,” says Frank. “Industry partnerships bring together the expertise and resources of various sectors, leading to a more robust response to issues Black women face, and greater accountability and sustainability in implementing solutions.”

Within their first two years of operations, they have already created the Black Women in Tech Hub, established key programming, hosted a cornerstone event, and created strong industry partnerships – to name a few major accomplishments.

“This funding is giving us the ability to implement an actual solution,” says Pasima Sule. “We are able to bring this community of ecosystem stakeholders to collaborate and co-create while continuing to address the issues.”

BWBN events create opportunities to help even the playing field – providing space for professional connections to be made for individuals brand new to tech. For Susan Thon, an attendee at a Black Women in Tech Project networking event last year, it was an important first step in launching a career in tech.

“It was inspiring and encouraging to see women from my community, who looked like me taking on leadership roles and excelling in the tech industry,” says Susan. “Networking at this event opened doors for mentorship opportunities and enabled me to receive guidance and advice for professional and educational development.”

As a result of the event, Susan completed the educational requirements to become a certified Project Manager and now “looks forward to an exciting career in tech.”

The future of BWBN

When asked what’s next on the horizon for BWBN, Pasima smiles. Despite being new, BWBN has lofty goals – and a track record that leaves no doubt they can meet them. “Our goal for 2024 is to empower 150 women Black women across British Columbia and Alberta to be interested in tech and aware of the opportunities that are in the sector.”

And in the long term? BWBN aims to have over 5,000 members nationwide by 2028. At a minimum, 1,000 of the members will ideally be placed with industry partners and working in tech.

“Black women and girls don’t want to stay as only the consumers of technology,” says Pasima. “They can – and want – to be the creators of technology.”

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