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People involved in DEI work may feel discouraged and frustrated that they aren’t making enough progress.fizkes

Earlier this year, Jen Anthony began noticing a pattern emerging among the clients she was helping with their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

“Everybody still really wants to do the work – but they’re stuck,” says Ms. Anthony, senior vice-president and DEI communications practice lead at Toronto-based communications agency FleishmanHillard HighRoad.

“[People are] still excited about the possibilities, but they’re frustrated by a lack of progress,” she says.

What Ms. Anthony is describing is “diversity fatigue.” The term was coined in the 1990s to describe the stress companies complained about as they diversified their hiring practices. Since then – and particularly in a post-2020 working world, when events like the Black Lives Matter protests prompted many companies to re-double their DEI efforts – the term has morphed to encompass the feelings of frustration, isolation and even demoralization that people doing the daily work of building more equitable workspaces experience.

DEI work is both tactical – for example, installing software to track applicant demographics, hosting workshops, surveying current employees – and also enormous and existential, like trying to course correct after thousands of years of flawed human history armed with just a laptop and a (hopefully) supportive executive team.

“It is big, there’s no question,” says Ms. Anthony, who is also on the board of Pride at Work Canada, an organization that helps employers build workplaces that celebrate all employees, regardless of gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation. “[DEI work] is about fundamentally changing a lot of the structures we’ve built, and at the level of systems and structures, it’s challenging.”

To support the people doing DEI work in corporate Canada, Ms. Anthony and her team spearheaded a new initiative called the good group, a regular gathering of people working in the DEI space. The idea is to help these individuals get “unstuck,” says Ms. Anthony.

“It’s about getting together, talking it through, feeling supported, finding solutions and then taking the next steps to move forward,” says Ms. Anthony. “It’s not just a forum for discussion, but a forum for discussion that enables movement.”

Maintaining momentum

DEI is often highly emotional work, carried out in many cases by people who are intimately familiar with the very barriers to equity and access they’re working to remove.

“It’s the kind of stuff that hits home, and can be fairly personal,” says Shab Baharyeh, operations lead for diversity, equity and inclusion at Pelmorex, the Oakville, Ont.-based media company behind The Weather Network.

“It takes a certain kind of person who is able to connect on a personal level to get some of this done,” says Ms. Baharyeh, who is a member of the good group.

Like many people working in corporate DEI, Ms. Baharyeh is relatively new to the field, and has only been involved in the work for two and a half years. This has meant a steep learning curve, particularly around the fact that so much of this work is a “long game,” as she puts it.

“You’re always at the beginning, in some ways,” she says. There are “little wins,” such as creating a holiday policy that allows people to opt out of certain days off, many of which are based on Christian traditions.

“[But] you can feel like you’re not getting anything done, and you can take it personally, like I’m failing or I’m not doing enough.”

Ms. Baharyeh says she makes it a priority to do things like exercise, meditation and reading so she’s not “wearing the weight of it all.” She notes that from a workplace perspective, it’s important to have an “empathetic” leadership team who can provide necessary perspective on the work that has been accomplished.

A network of collaborators

Another side effect of “diversity fatigue” can be a sense of isolation, as individuals try to figure out how to do this huge thing on their own. To combat that isolation, Ms. Baharyeh is focusing on building out her network of other people involved in DEI work (which is what led her to the good group).

“I want to create a community where I can vent, ask questions, get advice,” she says. “A community of folks you can collaborate with, who can understand what you might be going through.”

This is the one area of corporate life where there should be no trade secrets, she says.

“It needs to be an open-source scenario, where if something is working, I want to be able to share with others, or others to share with me, so we’re not all alone, spinning our wheels.”

While FleishmanHillard HighRoad’s good group is only available to the company’s current clients, Ms. Anthony says she’s already received inquiries from other businesses, and they’re hoping to roll it out on a wider scale once they’ve proved the concept.

“The reality is that getting stuck, or sliding back a little bit, is exactly where we need to break through, and be there to support each other,” says Ms. Anthony.

“We need to be there to make sure that people have what they need to keep going.”

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Question: Two friends and I have recently been working on a new startup idea. We have spent the last six months researching, planning and putting together our business plan and we are ready to make it happen! However, we are all new to the startup world (though we do have about 10 years experience in our respective industries). We have a small nest egg we will be using to get the company off the ground, but we are hoping to leverage additional funding. As newbies to the startup scene, what are the first steps to getting funding? We are all women, so we are wondering about any special grants, loans or VC funding we might be able to pursue.

We asked Neha Khera, general partner at 2048 Ventures, to field this one:

If this is a high-growth, high-velocity tech startup, then venture capital (VC) is absolutely a source of funding that you can consider. If it’s more of what we in the industry call a lifestyle business – something that doesn’t have the potential to make a billion-dollar exit – then you could look toward more traditional sources of funding.

On the traditional side, there are many different types of grants available – grants for people under 30, grants for women, grants for certain industries. And there are some great websites that curate those funding sources. Two sites you could check out are Futurpreneur and BDC. Mentor Works has a really great page that outlines the different funding sources by province.

One tip: you can hire someone to be your grant-writing consultant. This becomes more important when you’ve got your company underway. You’re often so busy with other things that you don’t have the time because grant-writing can be a lengthy process.

You mentioned that you have a nest egg. If you have the capability, it’s a good idea to put in some of your own money to see if the idea sticks or has life to it. It can be an important signal if you choose to go down the second path of funding, which is venture capital. It is rare that a VC will invest in a company where the founders haven’t taken the leap of faith by trying to prove out the concept, talking to customers, maybe getting a website launched. They want to understand, how committed are you, really? They want assurance that you’re going to grind at this at all costs.

To prepare to pitch VCs, you’ll need to do what I call intense customer discovery, which means you’ve identified the problem, talked to customers and started to architect what the solution could look like and where the company could go in the next 5 to 10 years. Then, you need to translate that into a pitch deck and be able to tell a compelling story around it.

When it comes to how to reach VCs, that is definitely an art in and of itself. It’s not okay to just mass blast every VC out there. Each VC fund has very specific criteria for what they’re looking to invest in: the stage, the industry, the geography. Crunchbase does a good job curating that information. Do your research, then come up with a target list of VCs. From there, LinkedIn is your friend.

It can be very challenging to get connected to these firms, particularly if you are new to Canada or you don’t have an extensive network. A lot of these people rely on warm introductions. You can definitely reach out cold, but tailor those emails to the individual you are approaching. Again, the idea is not to mass blast them because at the early stage of the game, VCs are as interested in building relationships with founders as they are in their business ideas.

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