For the Toronto-based not-for-profit, the equity-free, virtual incubator program aims to build on Venture Out’s mission by supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs working on early-stage startups.
“For underrepresented and underestimated founders, the problem is not from one to many — the problem is from zero to one.”
-Kai Jia, Gradient Spaces
With the financial support of Toronto-based FinTech investor Georgian, the first cohort of Gradient Spaces’ founders program will run from the beginning of February until the end of April 2022. Applications for the incubator are currently open and set to close on December 31.
“What we thought was really important was to intentionally design support for entrepreneurs and founders because there’s just so much about that experience that can be challenging and stressful and lonely,” Lisa Durnford, former founding Venture Out member and one of the co-founders of Gradient Spaces, told BetaKit in an interview.
Durnford, who also works as the manager of regulatory research and development (R&D) at Wealthsimple, added that this experience “can be compounded [for 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals] if you feel like every other entrepreneur that you meet and talk to is not necessarily facing the same challenges as you.”
Gradient Spaces was created by former Venture Out team members following the mass resignations that took place last fall.
Founded in October 2020, Durnford described Gradient Spaces as “a natural evolution” of Venture Out’s goals. When the team resigned from Venture Out en masse last October citing diversity and inclusion concerns about its parent organization, she said they still wanted to find a way to support 2SLGBTQIA+ members of Canada’s startup ecosystem.
Enter Gradient Spaces, a mostly volunteer organization that aims to build “affirming, generative, and joyful spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ people to grow and innovate together” through events and programming.
Gradient Spaces’ three-month founder program will offer participants expert-led sessions in subjects ranging from customer discovery to designing a go-to-market strategy and building a compelling pitch. The program will also provide mentorship opportunities with startup industry veterans, culminating in a final pitch day before a group of investors.
Kai Jia, a founding Gradient Spaces member, has been tasked with heading up the organization’s new incubator program. In an interview with BetaKit, Jia said that the Gradient Spaces team felt there was a need to make it easier for 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals working in Canada’s startup community to connect with one another.
Gradient Spaces held its first event this August, and hopes to hold them quarterly going forward. Durnford said a “natural next step” for the organization was to find a way to support founders and entrepreneurs.
Durnford said Gradient Spaces realized that it needed some dedicated attention and support to design this incubator program, which it has now secured from Georgian.
“I’m also just very grateful to partners like Georgian who view their position as leaders in the venture space, that they value redistributing what they have made from successful exits to new companies coming up in the flow that might otherwise be somewhat disenfranchised or have less access to venture funding,” said Durnford.
She added that organizations that take a “redistributive approach to the profits that they have made from successful investments … creates a much stronger ecosystem and a much stronger and just tech community in general.”
“We want to be a good, positive part of the [Canadian tech] ecosystem.”
-Ben Wilde, Georgian
“We want to be a good, positive part of the [Canadian tech] ecosystem, and this is one of the ways that we can help,” Ben Wilde, Georgian’s head of marketing and growth, told BetaKit in an interview.
According to Wilde, the firm decided to back Gradient Space’s new program “to help on two levels.”
“One is we want to grow our business [and] make sure that there’s the broadest range of investment opportunities in Canada we can have … and then also, we care a lot about equality of access to the technology industry,” said Wilde, citing the firm’s past involvement with other programs designed to help more Canadians join the tech industry.
Jia highlighted that members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and more specifically, the intersectional community within it, face an “uphill battle” in accessing venture funding.
“This basically translates to a negative impact on [2SLGBTQIA+] founders who are so afraid of coming out, because they think that coming out … will somehow hinder the development and performance of their startups,” said Jia. “And that’s something that we are trying to change.”
Durnford acknowledged and dismissed the perception that there aren’t enough people to support a dedicated program like Gradient Spaces’ new incubator. “What we learned even in just the small pilot that we did last year is that there’s a ton of interest” from founders in a program like this, she said, adding that they just “might not have it in their Twitter bio.”
According to Jia, many incubator and accelerator programs have a general focus and are interested in seeing traction. “But for underrepresented and underestimated founders, the problem is not from one to many — the problem is from zero to one,” said Jia.
Wilde said Georgian recognizes the lack of companies founded by 2SLGBTQIA+ founders coming through the firm’s investment pipeline, and has partnered with Gradient Spaces to help address this gap.
“We’re a growth-stage organization,” said Wilde. “In order for us to see more diverse founders coming through to our stage, we wanted to get involved in some capacity earlier in the cycle.”
Jia, who’s currently building an early-stage FinTech company of his own, hopes to leverage his experience to make things easier for other members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Program mentor Mike Stephenson, the co-founder of Vancouver-based fractional real estate investment startup Addy, aims to do the same.
“For me, coming out as a gay founder and CEO was one tangible thing I could do to create more representation for LGBTQ2S+ people in leadership and the startup ecosystem,” Stephenson told BetaKit.
“A program like Gradient … sets the foundation for diversity in leadership and business — something we desperately need more of.”
-Mike Stephenson, Addy
Stephenson added that “a program like Gradient is incredibly important because creating a space where difference is respected and everyone is valued for their perspectives sets the foundation for diversity in leadership and business — something we desperately need more of.”
Gradient Spaces aims to admit 15 to 20 startups as part of the program’s first cohort. In addition to program applications, Gradient Spaces is also currently seeking financial sponsorships as well as other mentors.
“We want to open applications to all of Canada,” said Jia. To ensure accessibility, Gradient Spaces plans to keep the program’s delivery online, and couple this approach with the option to attend some in-person social events.
Jia added that Gradient Spaces’ vision is bigger than just one cohort, noting that the organization aims to make its incubator offering into a regular program, and hopes, down the road, to potentially expand into serving companies at other stages. For its part, Wilde said Georgian views the partnership as a “long-term project.”