After being routinely pushed to the margins by the entrepreneurship ecosystem, Rusul Alrubail created a space that understands the challenges faced by entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds. The Parkdale Centre For Innovation bridges the inclusion gap and offers support for new business owners.

The Parkdale Centre for Innovation is a not-for-profit incubator and accelerator that searches for dedicated founders who are working to validate and scale their startup project. Specifically, they support early-stage entrepreneurs, with a focus on inclusion and equity. The Centre receives approximately 400 applications per year, and currently accepts about 30 projects annually. Their programs prioritize women, namely Black, Indigenous, women of colour, newcomers and those from low-income backgrounds.

The Parkdale Centre’s founder, Rusul Alrubail, has drawn from her background and experiences to form the centre’s mission and vision. Before this, she focused her time and energy on grassroots organizations and initiatives that had a strong focus around racial equity, social justice and advocacy in education. These experiences, combined with her background as a professor and entrepreneur, inspired her to advocate for the student voice and equity for teachers of colour.

The work was far from easy. “Oftentimes, the work of women of colour is taken and used without credit and our voices silenced. Advocacy spaces don’t usually have the capacity – or are even equipped – to deal with inequalities within the organization,” she explains. These challenges, while trying, taught her a great deal, including how to prioritize her time and energy, how to identify her allies and how to advocate for herself – a subject that is prevalent in the Parkdale Centre programming.

Providing guidance, mentorship and accountability

The Parkdale Centre supports diverse founders through programming that addresses the unique challenges they face through the business startup stage. “There are many barriers to access critical entrepreneurial resources,” explains Alrubail. “In particular, getting the support to create a sustainable business roadmap and business model is especially challenging.” That’s why Parkdale Centre’s mission is to bridge the inclusion and accessibility gap and create an alternative form of innovation economy.

The Centre offers programming through two main streams: Early Stage Startups and Women Founders. Under the Startup stream, the Centre leverages partner relationships to advise on key topics including marketing, fundraising, partnerships, sales, small business and entrepreneurship. The Women Founders stream, meanwhile, addresses topics such as leadership, self-advocacy, digital presence, financing and marketing. The self-advocacy portion of the program, which works on building confidence and skills in self-promotion, has been particularly popular and useful for participating women entrepreneurs who are often not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.

Entrepreneurs can choose one, a few or all services depending on their time, resourcefulness and business milestones. “At the end of the day, we’re there to support people on their business journey from the start,” says Alrubail. “We’re aware that many things change along the way, and if entrepreneurs take away one or two elements from the program that helps them to grow as entrepreneurs and as people, then that’s success in my eyes.”

The programs are designed for entrepreneurs who are dedicating their full focus on their business, so there is a great deal of accountability and onus on the entrepreneurs to follow through their own roadmap and meet their own milestones. “Parkdale Centre provides guidance, mentorship and a lot of accountability on the completion of these milestones,” explains Alrubail. “We have heard from our entrepreneurs that this roadmap creation is one of the most helpful pieces of the curriculum, as entrepreneurs have a guide and plan on how to tackle their business challenges within monthly and/or quarterly goals.”

Startups tackling COVID-19

To help address the vast range of needs and challenges that have arisen out of the pandemic, The Parkdale Centre is prioritizing projects responding to COVID-19 across three major themes: Connected Communities, Food Security and Smart Technology. “We have had a lot of entrepreneurs apply with businesses that are working on solving problems in these spaces,” says Alrubail. There has been a swell in businesses supporting the food security space, as well as those building digital products that have a social impact and mandate. “One of the great things about the space we’ve created is that entrepreneurs come from such diverse backgrounds and are working on solving problems that are directly impacting their communities.”

For their part, the Parkdale Centre has done its own pivoting to continue operations through the pandemic. “The centre has had to take our programs online,” explains Alrubail. “We still exist on the corner of Queen and Lansdowne, but we’ve had to rethink what it really means to be an incubator and support entrepreneurs during this time.” Their online national platform – — has always been a part of their scale out plan. COVID-19 has accelerated this mandate to grow their programs to make them accessible for entrepreneurs across Canada. “Through Canadainnovates, entrepreneurs will be able to join the incubator program and connect to a regional community hub. It’s important that entrepreneurs do not feel isolated during this time, and have the support they need while starting a business.”

How RBC is supporting inclusion in entrepreneurship

RBC recently joined as one of the founding sponsors of Canadainnovates, a commitment that will help support free incubator programs for underrepresented entrepreneurs across the country. The funding will also support ongoing program activities and development of the platform to ensure it continues to meet the needs of businesses and their partners.

By the end of the first year, Parkdale Centre will be working with several priority neighbourhoods in Ontario to pilot the platform to support local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Diane Amato is a Toronto-based freelance writer who loves to talk about finances, travel and technology.

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