Cover photograph by Tony Dib
It all started over coffee – and a love of David Attenborough.
Almost three years ago, Zainab Muse and Nickie Shobeiry met at a coffee shop in Ottawa. At the time, Zainab – an entrepreneur, process designer, interactive digital media expert, author, and filmmaker – was pitching a documentary about entrepreneurs, Creatorland, to Bell Media. “I didn’t think the film was going to have a narrator,” Zainab said. “But Nickie is such a great conversationalist and is so engaging with people. Plus, at the time, I was obsessed with David Attenborough,” Zainab laughed.
Nickie Shobeiry (L) and Zainab Muse (R). Photograph by RNI Films.
Indeed, Nickie - an award-winning journalist and communications consultant - does have an incredible English accent. But, having spent time with both Nickie and Zainab, I can tell you that it’s their shared curiosity, drive, and commitment to storytelling that made their launch of the SoGal Ottawa community in 2019 so successful.
The seeds of the community, though, were planted in that coffee shop over a shared love of filmmaking.
The documentary Creatorland, released in 2018, follows the lives of Ottawa creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs (it is now streaming on CBC Gem).
The unique women-led film gives viewers an inside look at what it takes to be your own boss – the highs and the lows, the triumphs and the failures, and the all-too-often isolation that is a big part of entrepreneurship. Putting the film together gave Zainab and Nickie an idea: what if they could create a community of diverse entrepreneurs right here in Ottawa; One that would bring together people who feel excluded from the traditional, tech-heavy definition of an entrepreneur?
“Getting to have these conversations for Creatorland, it showed us that an entrepreneur does not have to be someone in tech or a man in a suit,” Nickie said. “Moreover, it made me come to the realization that I could do this, too.”
How can you build a community from scratch? The answer, for Zainab, was in Singapore.
SoGal is the largest global platform for the education and empowerment of diverse entrepreneurs and investors. Founded in Singapore, their mission is to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship and venture capital.
“At the time, I was inspired by Singapore and the incubators that were coming out of that country,” Zainab said. “I learned about SoGal through a TEDTalk by their founder, and was really motivated by the work they were doing.” She found the email address of Pocket Sun, the SoGal founder, and sent her a cold email to inquire about starting up a SoGal chapter in Ottawa. As it turns out, it was to be the first ever SoGal chapter in Canada.
Photograph by Mimi Do
The Start of a Community
The first SoGal Ottawa event was held at Rebel.com’s office in Ottawa’s Downtown Rideau neighbourhood in early 2019. While Rebel has hosted a range of diverse events since renovating their office space in 2018, it was clear from the start that SoGal was something very special.
“The Rebel team were real collaborators with us, and part of our success is a testament to them and the space they are creating for communities like this,” Nickie said. “Having a permanent home for SoGal Ottawa was so important, and we felt like it was a real partnership between us and Rebel.”
The Rebel team got to see the community grow larger and become more engaged with the content at every SoGal Ottawa event. “The organization and the passion that Nickie and Zainab put into every event was remarkable,” said Justine Sousa, Rebel’s Event Coordinator. “They wanted each event to be better than the last, and they were committed to doing everything they could to grow this community.”
Going Bigger – and to San Francisco
For both Zainab and Nickie, part of the reason they were able to build the SoGal Ottawa community so well was because they had a very clear end goal in mind: to bring women entrepreneurs from Ottawa to the global SoGal pitch competition held in San Francisco in February 2020.
“You always need to have a clear mission,” Zainab told me. “Community building is hard work, but it’s very beneficial. We sold a vision that everyone can buy into.”
That vision resulted in the SoGal Ottawa contingent heading to Silicon Valley earlier this year to support the winners of the local SoGal pitch competition. The three Ottawa finalists, Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau, founder of Welbi, Sarah Abood, founder of Thawrih, and Andria Santos, founder of Fulhaus, were selected by a panel of judges to represent not just Ottawa but all Canada amongst a distinguished group of entrepreneurs from all around the world.
“The San Francisco trip was incredible,” Zainab said. “It dawned on us that we single-handedly brought Canadian start-ups to the global stage, with forty investors hearing our entrepreneurs pitch.”
The result of this excursion? Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau, founder of Welbi, won $25,000 in investments from SoGal Ventures. “Everyone at the event in San Francisco seemed to know who we were,” Zainab said. “People would come up to us and say, ‘You’re the Ottawa chapter!’. There were 10 of us there, and we definitely made the most noise when our entrepreneurs were pitching.”
Photograph by Alexandria Preston
Like All Good Things…
Now that Zainab and Nickie have accomplished the goals they set out to with SoGal Ottawa, they are passing the torch for 2020.
“We built the community, both in person and online, to around 800 people,” Zainab told me. “Now, with the new chapter leads taking over, we know it will grow even more.”
In fact, the new chapter leads are SoGal Ottawa alums – three entrepreneurial women who spoke at the third event. The team from Nurtured Life - Bree Jamieson-Holloway, Emma Pearce-Mogridge, and Stéfanie Bolduc - will be relaunching SoGal Ottawa once we are safely out of the pandemic crisis.
For Nickie and Zainab, it is bittersweet to say goodbye to the SoGal community. But that doesn’t mean they won’t still be attending the events to support Ottawa’s diverse group of entrepreneurs, and cheering along as the next pitchers hope to make their way to Silicon Valley in 2021.
In the anxiety and confusion of our current times, the SoGal Ottawa story helps to remind us that we need community – now more than ever. “There is a power in bringing a group of people together,” Nickie said. “It is larger than just us. There is a hunger for conversation.”
And soon, we’ll be able to bring together the community and have face-to-face conversations again.