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Spotlight on Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi, Accelerate Her Future

Workplace programs aren’t designed effectively for all women, especially Indigenous, Black and women of colour. Women in the Workplace report, McKinsey and Lean In 2022, highlights that women at all stages of their careers, from early-career to senior executives, are leaving their jobs at the highest rates to start their own companies or switch jobs. This is attributed to a variety of factors, including a lack of flexible work environments, burnout, microaggressions, bias, and a lack of meaningful focus on equitable pay and support.

In 2016, Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi made the decision to leave her full-time position as a professor for some of the same reasons and embarked on co-creating career development solutions by and for Black, Indigenous, and women of colour pursuing careers in business and tech.

The idea for Accelerate Her Future came from Dr. Golnaraghi’s lived experiences as a racialized woman, her research, and mentoring more than 200+ young women and youth.

This article is about a woman of colour, championing and dedicating her life’s work to all women of colour, and as such is written by a woman of colour. 

Breaking Through Systemic Barriers

“When I first set out on my social entrepreneurship journey, navigating the ecosystem was challenging.”

Report after report tells us about the gender inequities in workplaces and the entrepreneurship ecosystem alike for women, and especially racialized and Indigenous women. Underneath these statistics and trends, are human stories of women entrepreneurs that we don’t see or read about. 

She initially founded a community in Coralus (formerly SheEO), where a number of entrepreneurs inspired her to embark on her social entrepreneurship journey in 2016. That said, she found it challenging to find other communities of support. She recalls contacting various incubators – some had a focus on the 18-29 age range, some didn’t call back, and others failed to take her idea seriously.  In one of her first meetings with a mentor, she was discouraged from going down the entrepreneurship road and was even advised to stick to teaching. But she didn’t give up. She trusted her purpose and vision, and kept going. Eventually, She found community and support with several incubators and communities including TMU’s Social Venture Zone, Sheridan EDGE and Coralus.

Driving change from the grassroots to gaining momentum and traction is personified in Golnaz. Golnaz and the team are intentional about Accelerate Her Future being a for-profit social enterprise and working towards pursuing a B-Corp certification. This is an act of agency and resistance against the deficit lens and ‘charity’ mindset projected onto racialized and Indigenous women with roots in colonization and saviourism. Golnaz prioritizes Accelerate Her Future’s mission and purpose works with a team to generate diversified revenue streams. Golnaz also felt that the ‘hero’ entrepreneur approach was not for her. Any important social, economic, cultural, and political advancement of women requires a team and community. Sumayya Daghar, a former research partner and professional in the field of data analytics in tech, joined Golnaz in 2018 as a founding team member to work together on strategy and early launch. Since then the team has grown to six individuals.

After successfully launching a pilot Summit in 2019, the initial momentum was impacted by the pandemic. To ensure their work remains intentional, Accelerate Her Future convened an Advisory Group true to its ‘nothing about us, without us’ philosophy. When creating new programs or services, the team works with its Advisory Group and its community to apply a participatory design approach. 

“I celebrate Accelerate Her Future’s small and mighty team for moving mountains to do the work we do. We are also glad to have an incredible community of people who believe in our work and refer us to their friends, peers and organizations.”

Accelerate Her Future’s Work and Programs

Before Accelerate Her Future came to be, Dr. Golnaz and Sumayya hosted a design session with women of colour to better understand their experiences with career development. What was clear is that the ‘one size fits all’ approach only goes so far. Following the design session, several other women stepped forward and joined Golnaz and Sumayya to design and launch a pilot summit in 2019. This summit validated their mission!

One of Accelerate Her Future’s first flagship programs to be launched was the Fellowship Circle – a 10-week mentorship and career readiness program led by and for Indigenous, Black and women of colour students and recent-graduates. To date, they have served 200+ participants and 115+ mentors across the country with a program satisfaction rate of 94% and strong outcomes for community and career readiness skills building.

The organization is expanding its programs and services for women (including a Virtual Summit and the Virtual Career Accelerator upskilling program) as well as working on a suite of programs and services for organizations including postsecondary and employers.

“Accelerate Her Future is committed to advancing Truth & Reconciliation. Through the leadership of our Indigenous Engagement Lead, we have created a Four Pillar reconciliation framework to guide our work.”

In 2021, Dana Carriere joined Accelerate Her Future as Indigenous Engagement Lead. Through Dana’s leadership, Accelerate Her Future invited Annie Battiste, Reconciliation Consultant, to provide a three-part learning program on Treaties 101, Indigenous history, and the legacies of Residential Schools, and allyship. Dana has hosted sharing circles with Indigenous women in the AHF community and the team, and continues to work closely with her and the community on its programs for women. 

The Path to Funding

We all know the social entrepreneurship journey is not easy. Golnaz says access to funding, fundraising, and influential networks continue to be challenging for the organization, as is the case with many social enterprises, particularly those founded and led by historically excluded populations. 

“Who you know matters in the entrepreneurship, corporate, and funding ecosystems.”

Golnaz recollects first hearing about the Investment Readiness Program (IRP) by the Government of Canada from Sheridan EDGE in 2020. She equipped herself with the knowledge and know-how through IRP-related and grant writing webinars and workshops. Determined to learn through this process, Golnaz surrounded herself with a strong support system of mentors and coaches through Sheridan EDGE – one of whom helped her perfect her grant writing and another who coached her through budget preparations.  

“I gave myself three weeks to work on the application, working an hour a day writing early mornings when I can think most clearly. This process not only allowed me to work on the application when I have the greatest clarity of thought but also to space out the writing to allow time for processing and reflection.” 

Throughout the application process, Golnaz balanced parenting and work alongside writing the application. When she learned Accelerate Her Future made it through the review process and had been selected for funding, the sense of accomplishment was significant. Seeing Accelerate Her Future and other smaller organizations receive funding, shifted her perception that the funding landscape is inclined towards larger institutions and charities. 

“Receiving the Investment Readiness Program funding gave me and the team significant motivation to keep going with our mission and work.”

The IRP funding that Accelerate Her Future received in 2021 supported the organization in the following ways:

  1. Work with coaches and consultants to create their first strategic plan, impact framework, and financial budgets, with financial sustainability and social impact at the core.
  2. Put their first signature program in motion! Since then, they have grown with intention and expanded their offerings to include programs and services for women and organizations.

In the words of Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi

We, at Accelerate Her Future, are about intentional and mindful growth and not scaling at any cost. We are following the energy of our community in terms of service, program, and event needs. We are also committed to challenging the status quo when it comes to eradicating barriers that Indigenous, Black, and women of colour continue to face in recruitment, retention, growth, and advancement in their careers of choice. We place a lot of effort on a relational approach to our work being guided by our values. Our community has been one of the greatest sources of referrals, partnerships, and work for us. 

My advice to women identifying entrepreneurs looking to launch and grow ventures in the sustainability space, is to first and foremost lead with your values, know your ‘why’ and do things on your own terms. Challenge the status quo. We have many messages and biases coming at us that we must disrupt. Trust your ideas, trust your knowing, trust your path, trust your approach, and trust your excellence. 

Remember, there is no ‘right’ or prescriptive way to social entrepreneurship. As social entrepreneurs, we bring our cultures, identities, world views, lived experiences, and values into the journey – do it on your own terms.

Footer: Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi is an Iranian-Canadian immigrant woman author, speaker, activist and award-winning changemaker. As Founder and President of Accelerate Her Future, her big vision for this country for 2030 is to build workplace cultures that are equitable and just where Indigenous, Black and women of colour thrive and fully participate at all levels of leadership in organizations. 

A TEDx and Walrus Talks speaker,

Dr. Golnaz has been named as a Globe & Mail Report on Business Changemaker (2021) and a Future of Good New Founders to Watch (2022). Her talks, work, and commentary have appeared in conferences, podcasts, journals, and media internationally.

Accelerate Her Future received funding via Community Foundations of Canada in 2021.