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Fashion Zone startup creates grant to support women-led businesses

By Charlize Alcaraz

Encircled, a start-up clothing company from Ryerson’s Fashion Zone (RFZ), has just launched their first ever 2020 Impact Fund. The fund was created to support underrepresented, women and non-binary-owned businesses that demonstrate a “social purpose mission.” 

Founded in 2012 with the help of the RFZ, Encircled specializes in “capsule wardrobe essentials” for women’s clothes and accessories.

Kristi Soomer, CEO and founder of Encircled, said she wanted to create a fund that stressed the importance of businesses with a social impact within underserved communities. She enlisted Founders Fund, “the first exclusively digital growth accelerator supporting underrepresented, women-identifying founders,” to help her with the logistics of getting the fund started.

“As we build our community, we’re seeing so many more specific intersections come up within our community and we’re able to provide more support and culturally specific training for those people,” said Amanda Baker, COO of Founders Fund.

Both Founders Fund and Encircled focus on ensuring that intersectionality and inclusivity are their main consideration when reaching out to their demographic of women and non-binary people. 

Founders Fund started with an average accelerator model where participants receive mentorship, resources and funding. However, when Soomer sent in her proposal for the impact fund, Baker says Founders Fund’s purpose became a lot bigger. 

“It was just this kind of beautiful realization that we could actually help other organizations facilitate these funds,” said Baker. “A lot of organizations and leaders are looking for a way to contribute in a meaningful way back to the entrepreneur community.”

During the application process, participants are supported by Founders Fund with four sessions that discuss themes such as ethos and purpose, communicating leader capabilities, impact metrics and video pitching

“They’re not getting to the demographic that really needs the help; [the funding] is going to people with a business background, people from a very specific demographic, age range, socioeconomic upbringing. It’s very restrictive.”

Even if a candidate is not selected to be the recipient of the $5,000 funding, monthly mentor sessions and bimonthly impact check ins, each person that applied will be getting feedback as an opportunity to learn and prepare a better funding proposal in the future.

Their teams closely reflect their target communities as Baker said that everyone on her team has experienced the pain of growing a business and the difficulties of reaching out for funding.

Baker said there is a lot of gatekeeping and barriers when it comes to business owners accessing funding, and the Encircled Impact Fund wants to set a precedent for opening up their funding to more people in underserved communities.

“[Funding] is often presented in a very…clinical way using business jargon, assuming that people have English as a first language, assuming that people’s visual ability is all the same,” said Baker. 

“They’re not getting to the demographic that really needs the help; [the funding] is going to people with a business background, people from a very specific demographic, age range, socioeconomic upbringing. It’s very restrictive.”

Less inclusive presentation of traditional funding can also lead to women underestimating themselves and having doubts of being a suitable candidate, said Baker. 

This also refers to the term, “the confidence gap,” in which women are found to doubt their skills and think they are less deserving of their achievements more often than men.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman from The Atlantic wrote, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”

A study by psychologists David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger also found that  among the group of students that were included in the study, “women rated themselves more negatively than the men did on scientific ability,” Kay and Shipman reported.

The same students, unknowing of their performance in their first test, were invited to participate in a science competition. Dunning and Ehrlinger found that only 49 per cent of women signed up for the competition compared to the 71 per cent of men.

A Hewlett-Packard internal report found that underqualified men tend to not think twice about signing themselves up for a promotion, applying as long as they thought they could meet 60 per cent of the listed job requirements. Overqualified women tend to hold back, only applying if they believe they meet 100 per cent of the qualifications listed for the job.

Baker said that with funding, it’s not just about the logistics and the technical aspect of dealing with finances, but it’s also about the mentality around it.

“We’re finding with women particularly, they don’t think that they deserve it or they think that they are taking it away from somebody else,” said Baker.

She wants to see more boldness from women in the entrepreneurial field and for them to feel comfortable taking more risks.

“I hope to see more risk-taking…more audacity, a little bit more aggression and ego,” she said.

“I know that those are historically bad words, especially if you’re applying them to women because, God forbid a woman gets feisty about something…I think a lot of times with the traditional role of women, we’re kind of taught that we have to keep everything stable and make sure that everybody’s taken care of. And that makes us risk averse and being very heteronormative.”

From talking to women entrepreneurs day to day and sharing their stories, Baker gathered that women business owners are long-term thinkers and have actually done a lot better during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think some founders can see just a tree…women and non-binary and female led businesses see an entire forest.”

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