Global Affairs Canada’s Women’s Voice and Leadership Program changes organizational trajectories for the better: Queer Women in Business+ Allies NPC

By Marinda Weideman

Global Affairs Canada’s Women’s Voice and Leadership Program changes organizational trajectories for the better: Queer Women in Business+ Allies NPC

“There are many barriers to starting a business that all entrepreneurs face, but there are additional layers if you are black, poor, and female, and there is yet another layer if you are queer,” a woman entrepreneur commented in an interview with the author of this article.

There are an estimated 400,000 queer women in South Africa according to data from Queer Women in Business and Allies. These women, and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community, face exacerbated challenges when entering the economy. Inter alia, they are disproportionately excluded from opportunities, more likely to experience bullying, violence, and discrimination, and less likely to have access to start-up capital. Queer Women in Business and Allies conducted research among queer women entrepreneurs and working professionals in South Africa and found that 80% require queer women-centric spaces to network, 80% need like-minded mentors, 60% lack business skills, and 60% struggle to access resources.

Queer Women in Business + Allies NPC (QWB+A) was established in 2018 to support queer-women-owned businesses and to address the systematic economic exclusion of LGBTQIA+ people from the economy.

Active in three of South Africa’s most populous provinces, the organization inter alia hosts annual summits, generates social media and business content and conducts business development programs to ensure that queer women-owned businesses are investment-ready. It also hosts Club Access, a (closed) virtual platform where queer women in business can network.

QWB+A is best known for the Start-Ups Pitch Challenge (SPC). The SPC is an annual six-week business incubation course where industry experts provide business-related training on a voluntary basis. The course culminates in a ‘pitch challenge’ where judges select one winner and four runners-up that receive prizes such as business equipment and marketing and branding services and are paired with long-term business mentors. Other participants gain permanent access to the QWB+A network.

Photo Credit: QWB+A

The first SPC took place in 2019 and was attended by 30 queer-women entrepreneurs. On the strength of this and other achievements, QWB+A was awarded a Global Affairs Canada (GAC) Women’s Voice and Leadership (WVL) Multi-Year Core grant for their SPC for the period July 2020 to 30 December 2022.

The next SPC took place in 2020. During interviews with the author and in internal project documents, course participants were unanimously positive about their experience and referred to the SPC as “excellent”, “life-changing”, “inspiring” and “insightful”. They reported extensive business-related skills acquisition (e.g., contracting, branding, marketing, communication, opportunity identification, strategic thinking, income diversification, networking, and accessing markets).

The prize winners of the 2020 SPC included the winner, Mwari Pizza House, Lithane Cleaning Services, and the Color Me Foundation.

Mwari Pizza House is a township restaurant that delivers pizzas using bicycles and taxis. This innovative business is not exclusively profit-orientated. The restaurant serves as “a vehicle of empowerment, where young entrepreneurs attend free business development courses and network” and where members of the queer community attend business events in relative safety. Mwari also operates a soup kitchen. The skills acquired during the SPC included financing, Zoom, marketing, opportunity identification, presentation, pitching, and business canvas modeling skills. The company’s prize included a dough mixer and oven.

The Color Me Foundation was established in October 2018 to empower the LGBTQIA+ community in rural South Africa. The Foundation supports queer youth by developing their entrepreneurial skills and by creating spaces to showcase their talents and build networks. The Foundation produces high-quality logos that are embroidered onto ‘genderless’ items of clothing that come in 20 different colors. Its prize was an industrial manufacturing machine.

Lithane Cleaning Services started in 2013, provides residential and commercial cleaning services. The company’s prize included uniforms for all staff members and bulk cleaning supplies. The skills acquired at the SPC included marketing, advertising, communication, and social media skills that have contributed to an increase in customers. Lithane now requires industrial cleaning equipment to scale its commercial cleaning arm.

The WVL grant also changed QWB+A’s trajectory to one of longer-term sustainability and success. Until late 2021, QWB+A’s performance and growth was hampered by human and financial resource constraints. Much of what the organization had achieved was done through partnerships, volunteering, and utilizing own resources. However, the WVL grant, and the capacity building provided as part of this grant, has elevated QWB+A’s reputation and good governance practices thereby increasing the organization’s ‘bankability’. QWB+A has since obtained a three-year organizational development grant from Google that will enable the organization to achieve sustainable growth.

As a senior member of the organization said: “The WVL funding enabled us to diversify funding from other donors by enhancing awareness of our brand. WVL changed our lives! The WVL grant was the kick-start we needed, after which we were noticed by Google and now because of that, by other corporate donors as well”.