Recently I was doing a bit of historical research for a project and it was frustrating to have the search engine deliver up the same set of white, bewhiskered men.

My frustration with those white, bewhiskered men was amplified as I considered that recently Communitech’s Fierce Founders program welcomed a new cohort of 25 women from female-led startups to its Bootcamp. February is also Black History Month.

So I got to pondering female leaders of colour of the past and present, and thought it would be worthwhile to look at a couple and what the next generation of female entrepreneurs can learn from them. I won’t be covering women featured in the new film Hidden Figures (though there’s way more to the history of “computers” at NASA than the movie covers – go read more!)

Other notes: Links I’ve included are by no means exhaustive. Again, go read more! Entrepreneurs, mentors and activists like Viola Desmond, Madam C.J. Walker, or Rose Fortune. Any errors/misrepresentations are mine.

So, let’s hop in our TARDIS — the time machine from Doctor Who — shall we?

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born and lived much of her life in the U.S., but she and her family moved to Canada when the second Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. As a child, her family moved from one state to another to enable the children to continue going to school when laws banning the education of African-American children were expanded.

An educator and journalist, Shadd opened schools in the U.S. and Canada (in Windsor, Ont.) and continued to teach for most of her life. She also pursued her own education, and at age 60 she became the second African-American woman to earn a law degree in the U.S.

Shadd didn’t spend all her time teaching. She was an active abolitionist and founded the anti-slavery newspaper The Provincial Freeman, becoming the first female publisher in Canada and the first Black female publisher in North America.

Shadd was also member of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. She worked alongside women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which might sound great — lots of strong women united for a common cause.

But what doesn’t get talked about much is that plenty of suffragist leaders, like Anthony and Stanton, held explicitly racist (and more misandrist than feminist) views. Were their beliefs a product of their time? Yes, but this does not excuse them.

Sometimes we have to make hard choices and compromises in pursuit of the big picture and the important goals. But forgiving isn’t forgetting. And it’s good to keep in mind that most of us won’t have to exercise that level of forbearance.

The takeaway for today’s female entrepreneurs?

The world in which live and work never remains the same as the world in which we’re initially educated. We need to keep pursuing learning throughout our lives. Also, teaching others to help them prosper is often even more important than educating ourselves. Keep an eye out for the curious ones.

And this. When you have something to say, do what you need to do to say it. Also, don’t rely on others or their platforms as the vehicle for your message. It leaves you under their control. Finding your audience is far easier now than in the 1800s.

Jumping ahead in our TARDIS to today…

Dr. Linda Maxwell is a physician, surgeon, and the Director of the Biomedical Zone at Ryerson University. The Biomedical Zone is “an incubation space for entrepreneurs, students and clinicians working on solutions, applications and devices that have commercial potential in clinical and healthcare settings.”

Her passion for business and entrepreneurship led her to additionally earn an MBA from Oxford.

In 2016 she was listed as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful women in 2016.

Healthcare is often touted as a huge area of both concern and growth given Canada’s aging population. Its strongest future lies inextricably linked with technology and entrepreneurship. Someone like Dr. Maxwell, with an intimate understanding of medicine, technology, and business, is an ideal leader in this sphere.

There are a lot of women already working in the healthcare field, and this is likely to continue to grow. There are amazing opportunities for leadership, invention, and the next generation of STEM minds. Women like Dr. Maxwell are helping to shape both those minds and their field. Of course, integrated disciplines are invaluable well beyond healthcare, though it can be hard to see the path initially.

The next woman I want to feature is a bit of a departure from the well educated, entrepreneurial types from yesterday or today.

There’s no question that the playing field for education, business opportunities and community leadership has never been even for everyone — less and less so the further you are from being one of those white, bewhiskered men.

While many of us have grown up in a fairly safe, seemingly civilized world, this hasn’t always been the case in the past. It isn’t always the case today, and won’t always be in the future.

So let’s end with Marsha P. Johnson. Transwoman (before such terms were widely used), LGBTQ+ rights and AIDS activist and one of the firebrands who literally cast the first stones at the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

There is a time for civil discourse, hard work and working within the system. But some people aren’t even allowed into the system. And so there is also a time to get fed up and scream bloody murder (though let us acknowledge the dangers for people of colour who do so, particularly today…).

The Stonewall Riots were one seminal event, but Johnson spent years working extensively to protect and advocate for her community, and particularly its youth.

The worthiest fights are the fights that help one’s community, and in particular help the community’s next generation so it don’t have to fight or suffer in the same way. Johnson’s 1992 death was ruled a suicide, but there is suspicion she met with foul play.

In business and in life, be like Johnson. Be loud, be colourful, be yourself. Still not often the easiest path, but the right one. And there you will find your market, your audience, and most importantly, your people.

Photo: Stonewall, by Travis Wise, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.