Talking community and the true potential of WoC-led startups with The Creative Co-Operative founder Priyanka Ashraf – SmartCompany

Priyanka Ashraf might be the perfect person to talk to about community and business. She’s worked in a number of big businesses like Fintech Australia, Stone and Chalk and ConsenSys across the community function, where she came to understand the role of community as a “non-negotiable” in helping startups and VCs serve their portfolios.  
On top of that, she herself has built a community. The Creative Co-Operative, the startup social enterprise she founded, started as a creative agency. Its rapid growth saw other Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour reach out to her for advice. Eventually she couldn’t continue to run her business and also keep up with the volume of enquiries and opportunities.
This entrepreneur recognised the needs of a large community and, the question of her rich experience and desire to Pay it Forward, but lack of time, became ‘how do we turn this into shareable knowledge?’ How could it be structured into a program that would grow more effective the more members engaged with it? 
That’s how Anyone Can was born. Activate, its flagship community startup program, was Australia’s first community startup program 100% by and for Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour. It consists of workshops, networking events and pitch competitions with $10,000 prizes. It also offers a safe space for Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour to nurture their ideas away from the institutionalised racism of typical workplace environments. Ashraf looks at it like an “experiment” of sorts, a test case where results go far beyond that of a handful of great startups.
We’re talking about something else,” she said. “We’re talking about the capability of Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour, after having been underestimated systemically for generations.”
The work uncovers insights and ideas that, in any other environment, would have been missed or suppressed.
“What are the specific ingredients that are required to make an exceptional entrepreneur, what does that look like?” she pondered. “We had no idea of the true capabilities of Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour working within systemic racism, working within white institutions.
“We couldn’t see their true potential because of the barriers in their way that stopped them from demonstrating that potential. Now we’ve separated them out from that; they are in this environment where it’s free of systemic racism and it doesn’t have those types of limits that are set on them.
“When you don’t apply those limits on them, how far can they go?”
Activate’s most recent cohort met at a pitch competition last week and chose two winners. The first was Dr Kyal Agraval, a subject matter expert who’s working on a health tech platform that helps users find the best health specialist for their needs. “She sees this problem all the time, her patients experience so much difficulty in trying to locate appropriate specialist services. This is a much needed healthcare solution” said Ashraf.
And the second prize was taken by Blume, a range of prebiotic tonics founded by Rachel Castelino, that Ashraf expects to be “a moneymaker”. 
“If you look at the explosion of, and level of innovation happening in, the beverage space, she’s going to go far.” Blume is already in ten different retailers.
But while Ashraf’s work is a way to provide a safe space and to open doors for Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour, she says others have a role to play here too.
“It’s not to say that people who are not Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour don’t get involved. No. They still need to get involved, and the way to do that is to support us but not speak over us.”
She listed government support, such as through the Department of Industry, Science and Resources’ WISE grant, which makes Anyone Can possible, as an example. “That’s one way the system can lean in and be a part of the solution without delivering the solution on behalf of the people.”
Support from the sidelines for people who, through lived experience, know best how to deliver solutions is the way forward. 
The second way is through amplification. Helping Ashraf’s community and others tell their stories, have a voice and drive applications and awareness for the types of initiatives available to Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour, “that’s huge, and that’s another form of support”.
Ashraf worked in community roles for years and understands the influence it has on the bottom line. It’s to do with the relationship between businesses and their customers.
The companies she worked at that didn’t have a community footprint?
“They don’t really have a connection with what’s happening out there in the real world, there’s almost this barrier, a barrier between them and their customer base.”
But community is a growing area. More and more VC funds are prioritising the role of community as a non-negotiable that must exist in serving their company’s portfolios.
“Community has been considered a fluffy role in the past but, to be completely honest, it impacts the bottom line.
“If the community is saying that they’re really happy, then that’s a very obvious sign that they’re going to tell the world about you and all of a sudden you don’t have to invest as much in marketing or even sales.”
She calls it the “community muscle”, and said however strong it is, it’ll generate revenue capabilities for the companies in organic, sustainable ways that make sense to the company and the people it serves.
And just like any KPI, it can be set up in a framework, monitored and measured.
“For us, we knew that we wanted to work within this system where success is articulated per dollar amount that gets generated, as well as the impact. But that dollar amount, that’s not going anywhere, right? That is going to speak to whether or not you are a successful company. We wanted to go backwards from the point of ‘what do we need to get an 80-plus NPS score from our communities?’ What do we need to achieve that, irrespective of whatever product or service that we deploy?”
In addition to helping 75 Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour launch their careers in six months, the Anyone Can program consisted of a research element that identified a funding gap experienced by Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour founders. This group only accessed 0.03% of the $10 billion+ invested in Aussie startups in 2021, a massive discrepancy.
Since the founding of CCO and launch of Anyone Can, further funding and support has been directly unlocked to support intersectional founders such as an accelerator program supporting First Nations founders.
Another four or five similar community organisations supporting Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour in business, tech and startup worlds have emerged since CCO launched, which Ashraf said is amazing.
“It’s demonstrating the growth of an ecosystem. If it’s just you who’s delivering the work, that’s not a good sign, it means you’re not growing a community.”
The CCO team is also working on Maya Cares, a mental health and wellbeing tool that supports Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour respond to racism they experience in society. First, through offering information that validates the experience “so you don’t feel like you’re imagining things or being gaslit”, secondly by connecting them with culturally-appropriate culturally-appropriate supports and resources like lists of culturally-appropriate counselling services. 
Maya Cares is one of the seven startups that made it into the highly competitive Humanitech Lab program powered by the Australian Red Cross, backing innovative start-ups tackling humanity’s toughest challenges with technology
As we prepared to finish the call, Ashraf pointed out that “all of this, by the way, was in less than a year and a half; I’m so tired. I’m exhausted!”
Now her focus has shifted to next year. Activate is preparing for its third cohort, and is accepting expressions of interest. She’s also excited, after two years of operation, that CCO has now developed enough knowledge to understand what works when supporting the community and what’s working from a business perspective, so they can enter a new phase.
“It’s no longer going to be that constant hustle, we’re now moving into this space where we have ‘validated’ ourselves, built a trusted reputation as an organisation that delivers and we finally have access to some time and space to focus on strategy, planning, and take a much more proactive approach, which is really critical, because we’re not here for the short run, we’re here for the long run. 
“The problems we’re trying to solve are systemic and finally we can now think about long-term sustainability.”
Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour interested in taking part in the next Active cohort are encouraged to enter expressions of interest. Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour founders not interested in the cohort are still encouraged to list on the Founder’s Directory to enable them to access more opportunities and audiences like investors, clients, customers and press.
Priyanka Ashraf won The Community Hero Award in last year’s Smart50. This year she returns to the program as a guest judge. Enter the 2022 Smart50 here
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