Jessica Yamoah of Innovative Inclusion on ensuring economic success and stability for those in underrepresented groups and why you should listen to your younger self
Jessica Yamoah is the Founder of Innovate Inclusion, an inspiring organization that advocates for the intraprenurial and entrepreneurial success of underrepresented communities with a focus on technology. Through her work, Jessica is on a mission to impart the ideation of innovation in all streams of entrepreneurship and connect the tech ecosystem to delete the digital divide. She is driven to create an equitable playing field in the innovation economy that reflects and benefits all members of our global community. Jessica’s background spans community engagement and entrepreneurship that dates back to her youth in Waterloo. She has worked for some of the world’s most recognized organizations including Nike, Nokia and Apple and has also been an active member in the technology accelerator community. She is a proud advocate for diversity and in inclusion and a second generation Canadian –Ghanaian.
Looking back 5-10 years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?
Looking back, I definitely envisioned working for myself. Being an Entrepreneur! In regards to the path to getting where I am today, that has definitely been the culmination of a few things. From a personal perspective, my Ghanaian descent I had an insightful and strong willed mother and I was the eldest of three girls. In a professional capacity, I’ve had the opportunity to work for some of the world’s best and most innovative brands. This allowed me to be around very smart people who both taught me a lot about business and proved to be great mentors. After working in the corporate world, I transitioned to the startup space. This transition was a combination of my love for technology, being “over” the corporate world, and being laid off! After joining the startup/accelerator space and seeing all of the opportunities and resources within that community, I noticed there were not a lot of people who looked like me. This realization made me question why such a reality was the case and is essentially what brought me to the intersection of innovation, technology, race, diversity, and entrepreneurship. It’s what inspired me and prepared me to start Innovate Inclusion.
Tell me about Innovate Inclusion. What made you start it and what are the things that you are focused on at the moment?
Being in the incubator space, I experienced and benefited first hand from the funding invested in innovation and technology. I also noticed people from under-represented communities were unaware of these resources that could help them start businesses and improve their lives. That realization resulted in Innovate Inclusion. Innovate Inclusion advocates for the entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial success of underrepresented communities, and promotes entrepreneurship as an option for underrepresented communities who may not see themselves in the technology world or starting their own business because of ingrained cultural or societal biases. Our “why” is essentially to help ensure economic success and stability for all regardless of ethnicity, orientation, cognitive abilities or physical abilities; we want to redefine what success looks like and provide access to capital or other resources that might not seem to be attainable.
Are there any Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) myths out there that are causing organizations to think about it the wrong way?
D&I is often seen as charity. Organizations would be better served to appreciate diversity and inclusion as an investment that should span all aspects of organizations, not just Human Resources.
From an engagement perspective, there are also lots of things that can be improved to be more inclusive. When you look at the incubator space in particular, a lot of the time it’s a very “bro” culture and the atmosphere is all about beer and bean bag chairs. This is considered “cool.” Unfortunately, it’s very exclusionary. Being inclusive often comes down to thinking through the small things. If companies don’t think through things like as simple as lunch options, or non-alcoholic beverages at events they likely won’t be able to attract or retain the best people. I’ve been in situations at company functions where the only drink options where beer and wine. What if someone doesn’t want to drink or is on the path to becoming sober from an abusive relationship with alcohol? It’s these kinds of things that make workplaces less inclusive. Startups historically, haven’t thought about things this way.
What are the most important things that the tech world needs to do now to help really drive more inclusive environments?
Creating more inclusive environments often comes down to corporate leaders leading by example. I find there is lots of talk around diversity and inclusion issues, especially with what is going on in the U.S., but we often forget about what needs to be done at home. Our organizations don’t often take the time to understand our diverse communities within Canada and invest in them. There are so many fantastic organizations that are working at the grass roots level that commonly get overlooked. Doing little things like supporting local events or providing new experiences to communities that wouldn’t traditionally be exposed can do so much to help our community at large. It’s not always about giving millions of dollars; consistent small initiatives can be more empowering and impactful.
What have been some of the most important business lessons you have had to learn the hard way? How have they enabled your success?
I’ve definitely learned that you need to be very mindful of who you partner with. Make sure they share your morals and ethics. At the same time, you also need to allow people the space to disappoint you. When all else fails, get as much as you can in writing!
What does leadership look like to you and how does the next generation need to start thinking differently about leadership?
I’ve recently come to understand that leadership is an exercise in patience and humility. I personally think that my generation, and those who follow, will have some challenges with both. When thinking about leadership it’s so important that there’s less selfies and posts talking about being a boss and more of a focus on ethics, acumen and exhibiting leadership.
What would be your one piece of advice for those in the workforce today to get ahead and find work that is fulfilling?
There is a great quote that says, “To thine own self be true”. A lot of the time we find ourselves doing things to please other people like our parents, friends, partners or working somewhere because it’s perceived as where you should be.
The reality is if you aren’t truly happy, having fun, or enjoy the people that you are around for eight precious hours of your day, you’re living in vain. If that is the case, the money, accolades, none of them matter.
I’m not saying that you should quit your job and couch surf for the rest of your life. Rather, take the time to reflect on who you really are. Think about the things that you liked to do when you were young and foster those feelings. When you are young, there is no sense of “I can’t”. Channel those feelings and “just do it.” As adults, people often lose that confidence after the world beats us up a few times. This shouldn’t be the case. If anything, our failures and experience should be what make us great! Instead, they’re often used against us and this is when we start placing limits on ourselves. Self-imposed limits prove to be our biggest obstacles. Don’t let setbacks prevent you from attempting things because then you become further away from accomplishing what you are capable of.