Written by Andrew Seale
Sarah Juma and Jessica Yamoah aren’t interested in rehashing the conversation surrounding the role inclusion plays in innovation; they’re looking for action.
That’s why the entrepreneurial duo recently launched Innovate Inclusion, an initiative that aims to bring ethnic communities and other underrepresented groups into the conversation and introduce them to the resources available for entrepreneurs.
“As Jessica and I have moved along through this life called entrepreneurship, we noticed that support for the underrepresented is lacking,” says Juma the co-founder of StyleID, a style identification platform that cross references movies, music videos, television and award shows to help consumers identify the designer of items worn, used or featured. “Jessica and I are both black women working in tech entrepreneurship.”
Yamoah, StyleID’s head of marketing, noticed a trend as the startup worked its way through the startup ecosystem going to events and conferences.
“As we move through the programs and all the resource available… the conferences and all these great events (you) realize if you look around nobody looks like you and nobody sounds like you,” she says.
“From a perspective of (being) black, and as you go down the checklist being a women there’s not as many – that’s how Innovate Inclusion was born.”
But StyleID and Innovate Inclusion’s stories are intrinsically linked.
When Juma and her co-founder Rachel Nicole first came up with the idea for the app in 2012, she says she didn’t know the first thing about tech or the resources available to her. A Waterloo native, she had obviously heard of Communitech, so she went out for a visit, which happened to coincide with the accelerators first Techtoberfest, a startup conference aligned with the region’s world-renowned Oktoberfest.
She liked what she saw and signed on, attending seminars and classes, learning the basics of how to launch a company and developing the product in tandem. They also participated in Google for Entrepreneurs at the Google Hub Waterloo.
And by 2014, the idea was a reality. They released the first iteration of the style identifier for Android, following up with an iOS version in 2015. That same year they joined the newly launched Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion innovation at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone in Toronto.
The expanded their team and built out features like a profiling section which tells the stories of the different stylists and costume designers working behind the scenes to develop the looks. But as the company has grown, they’ve realized that while Toronto’s startup ecosystem is expansive, it isn’t always easy as an entrepreneur to find your way into it.
Yamoah says they regularly bring people from more ethnic communities into the DMZ for meetings and the visitors are always wowed by the fact the incubator exists right there in the centre of Toronto.
“Half the people we’ve brought here are of colour and didn’t know it existed, didn’t know it was out there,” she says. “All these people are of an entrepreneurial mindset and could bring (a lot) to different incubators.”
Yamoah points to Juma as an example of someone who went out to find the resources to pursue her entrepreneurial endeavor but not everyone will take that initiative.
“If you’re not a tech person – what’s going to motivate you to get up and do it, especially if you don’t have a clue of where to start?” she asks. “There need to be more solutions fostering entrepreneurship (aimed at) underrepresented communities and including them in the conversation going forward… it’s hard to do something when you don’t see yourself in that space.”