Friends and leaders in feminism, Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Photo by Dan Wynn, 1971.

By Jaclyn Tersigni

I have worked in the worlds of tech and entrepreneurship — by way of my job at the DMZ, North America’s leading incubator — for two-and-a-half years. I’ve been to “meetups” and “hackathons,” I’ve seen startups launch, fail, pivot and succeed, and I’ve watched hundreds of entrepreneurs come and go from our community.

The headlines of your business publication of choice are true: even in 2016, these worlds are overwhelmingly male and white, and issues of diversity and inclusion are still very much on the table.

Not that there aren’t incredible, badass women entrepreneurs (including women of colour and of diverse backgrounds) in our community. At the DMZ, we’re lucky to count the following female-led companies amongst our members and alumni: Think Dirty, Peekapak, Mywedhelper, Ambience Data, Sampler, SoJo, SupaMaasai, Blynk, Nudge Rewards, AccessNow, and more.

We’ve also got brilliant female advisors and community friends (like Teresa Manley and SheEO‘s Vicki Saunders). And we make concerted efforts to build our female membership, through programs like MasterCard Women in Entrepreneurship.

But for every female entrepreneur, there are two dozen male entrepreneurs. There aren’t enough women. And there are definitely not enough women of colour, Aboriginal peoples or individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Or people over 35. One look at the average startup event and you’d think entrepreneurship has a strict membership policy: must be young, male and white.

Why? So many reasons. Here’s a small sample.

  • Culture: startup culture often skews “bro.” It’s an atmosphere that can be isolating for anyone who doesn’t fit the demographic.
  • Inherent bias: enter deeply engrained gender stereotypes. Boys like trucks and are good at science. Girls like dolls and don’t understand math. When everyone “grows up,” both men and women carry those biases into the world, where they affect job-seeking and hiring practices.
  • Affordability: it’s nice to think that entrepreneurship is a level playing field, but it’s not. If you had to take a huge student loan to pay for post-secondary education, you’re probably less likely to take a chance on starting your own company from your basement. Who will pay the bills during the hard times?

The first leg in the very long journey to fixing issues of diversity and inclusion is to talk about them. That’s why the DMZ and TechGirls Canada hosted a “Panel from the Margins” today, as a part of our International Women’s Day programming.

Led by Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada, our panelists — aboriginal youth activist Erica Violet Lee, personal security engineer Foteini Agrafioti, journalist Desmond ColeHuda Idrees, head of product and design at Wealthsimple, and Zee Adams, founder of Somanda — each shared their own experiences as outliers in journalism, technology, and engineering, and as non-white, non-male individuals.

The highlights:

On systemic — and personal — bias

Agrafioti (on her time as an engineering student): “I’d subconsciously take the backseat and let men do to the work … I was programmed to believe that men make good developers and good engineers … I had the ‘imposter’ feeling planted in my head. I had the feeling that I didn’t belong there.”

Adams: “The norm that’s set becomes your norm, whether you like it or not … We don’t realize how much we perpetuate. We internalize each other’s biases and make them our own.”

On sexism and exclusion

Idrees: “I’m used to being in places I don’t belong. Literally everyone in tech is some white dude … People think I’m filling a quota.”

Agrafioti: “I almost think we were better off in the time of Mad Men. It was so obvious and in your face … now it’s hidden, in so many little things.”

On why those with privilege need to be a part of the conversation

Cole: “We need to talk about who benefits, instead of only talking about who’s on the losing end … Men need to be a part of the conversation. We are the benefactors of the status quo.”

Agrafioti (on being tougher on a female job applicant): “I did to women, what men did to me in the beginning of my career. We always have to look back and check biases.”

On ramifications 

Lee (on the more than 4000 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada): “It’s not just about micro-aggressions. It’s about us getting killed.”

Idrees: “Women don’t have to be just as good, they have to be 10 times as good. Which is insane!”

Muzaffar: “I will never know the confidence you get when you’re in the centre of a system that gives you power.”

On what those “in the margins” can do to help affect change

Muzaffar: “What can we do to get girls into STEM? Get out of their way. Stop telling them what they can and can’t do.”

Cole: “We need to have more courage in the media and say what’s really going on instead of playing these games.”

Idrees: “If you’re a person with privilege, be an ally for someone that does not have that privilege.”

From left to right: Saadia Muzaffar, Zee Adams, Foteini Agrafioti, Desmond Cole, Huda Idrees and Erica Violet Lee.

From left to right: Saadia Muzaffar, Zee Adams, Foteini Agrafioti, Desmond Cole, Huda Idrees and Erica Violet Lee.


The DMZ is a leading business incubator for tech startups in Canada. They help startups build great businesses by connecting them with customers, capital, experts and a community of entrepreneurs and influencers.

The DMZ is a partner in StartUp Here Toronto.