Inclusively Designing Mentorship Spaces

Bright orange background with illustrative graphic of BIPOC people helping each other climb to the top of a staircase. An image of a search bar is overlaid with text that reads, "How to inclusively design mentorship spaces".

By Kilah Rolle, Entrepreneur and Inclusive Communications Specialist

As a single mama’ing neurodivergent social entrepreneur facing constant interrogation from systemic oppression, racism and hypervigilant productivity within a capitalist white supremacist systemplease believe me when I say ALL the Black women in me are tired. 

So when I was approached by Tribe Network to take on a mentorship role for early-stage Black Canadian entrepreneurs, my initial gut reaction was to ask the universe, “But how?” My next immediate action was to say yes, collect that extra income, and worry about the “how” later. 

The struggle to march on past the point of optimal wellbeing into the territory of burnout is a common phenomenon experienced by historically excluded peoples who have been forced to live within the margins of society. Social entrepreneurs of colour often have the triple burden of competing in markets while confronting daily microaggressions and dismantling structural barriers caused by systemic social inequality.

In a previous guest post, I shared a few insights for building community-centred, culturally responsive mentorship practices. In this post, I am sharing insights about my personal, entrepreneurial and leadership development.

Allied mentors with lived and cultural experiences with racism, who take action to fight it, are a critical support factor in accelerating innovation and holding space for Black entrepreneurs to thrive. 

Complex PTSD is a common phenomenon experienced by people belonging to historically excluded and oppressed social identities and cultures. Effective mentorship relationships must be guided by a cultural knowledge that prioritizes optimal wellness over resiliency.

The social entrepreneurs in the three-month-long entrepreneurial development cohort (mostly Black women) ranged in age and lived experience. Within the group, there was a co-founder of an online marketplace that sells an assortment of foods, crafts, and grocery products made by racialized vendors; a founder of a cultural media literacy and wellness platform; a life coach helping to transform futures for people with criminal justice histories;  a multi-founder entrepreneur determined to help Black women-owned and Black-led startups and small businesses with bookkeeping solutions; a PR specialist; an owner of a successful hair and beauty business; and an experiential cultural learning facilitator launching unique healing and liberatory development framework to support social entrepreneurs and change creators in co-designing a culturally relevant (and resonant) embodied leadership style. 

These were folks that I would look to for inspiration in my own work as a marketing and communications consultant interested in social enterprise. 

My inner voice rang loudly in my head with imposter syndrome, bullying my thoughts with questionable doubts: ‘From which empty, tired vessel will you dredge up the remains of your strength to empower these brave new entrepreneurs to forge futures of sustainable prosperity? How are you going to guide the journey of social change makers when you feel stuck in a pattern of failure? How will you clearly articulate your scrambled, anxious neurodivergent thoughts, and will you be able to mask your way through three months undetected?’

Mentoring Black entrepreneurs, especially the aunties, taught me that the rooted wisdom I needed to lead in times of uncertainty or doubt is a cultural inheritance from my ancestors, family, and my community.

That leadership quality simply needed a safe, caring space to be embodied. 

Over a period of three months, we gradually gave ourselves permission to remove our masks and judgement. We celebrated our cultural diversity and the patterns of our experiential intersections. We bonded over Gullah-Geeche, African and Caribbean cultural heritage. We showed up in head scarfs some days, and on others we didn’t show up on the screen at all because the hair “wasn’t did.” There were times when no mentees showed up at all (because life), and I was still gifted with soul-restoring dialogue with the program facilitator.

This collective cultural healing happened in micro-momentsin the subtle pauses of “business.” 

We evaluated each other’s websites and social content, and we offered valuable feedback as each other’s target customer groups. We reviewed strategic business fundamentals and explored digital marketing concepts using real-time tools and solutions. I remember sharing my screen to show the group how to use Google Trends to compare user search terms in a targeted region. 

The participants were grateful to learn that there are free digital tools they can use, but the real joy came from learning how those tools were relevant to their business. One participant said, “This is exactly what I needed. No fancy big words or promises; I just wanted someone to show me where to go and what to type in.” This taught me that even when we make resources accessible, they have no value unless they can be RE-sourced.

The most important milestone of my development came from the neurodivergent practice of overcommunicating.

As a neuro-inclusive entrepreneur, I rely on many resources and neuronormative “hacks” to keep me on task. For example, after each weekly session, I would follow up with an emailed discussion summary with links to informational resources. Those emails allowed each of us the time in between each session to interpret and apply the insights learned in a way that best met our respective learning styles and schedules. 

For time-pressed entrepreneurs who work full time at home as caregivers and in organizations as employees, it is difficult to find the capacity to be the architects and implementers of systems and processes within our businesses—even with the use of project management technology. However, mapping and designing these systems and processes is critical for leaders and change-makers in Black communities to achieve generational progress and prosperity. 

By co-designing systems that are inclusive and accessible, we can alleviate some of the stressors Black entrepreneurs face and help them to focus more on achieving their goals. 

Black people today continue to survive racism by tapping into the ingenuity of our enslaved ancestors and the knowledge of our decolonial ancestors who pioneered the world’s most significant advances in civilizations. 

Anti-Black racism was designed using a divide and conquer communication model of exclusion. The economic gains from the slave trade and chattel slavery directly correlate to the attempted genocide of culture, resulting in Eurocentric ideas about literacy and effective communication. Literacy in an enslaved community was a punishable criminal act. As a result, enslaved Africans learned to survive by co-creating coded language and masking their creativity. 

The practice of decolonizing knowledge by sharing it freely was an important lesson in my own development because it repositioned a method of communication that I had attributed to a cognitive disability as a strength of inclusive leadership.

Accessible and inclusive communication principles helped to establish the trust, community, safety and belonging that we needed to thrive in our co-mentoring space. 

In hindsight, I realize now that we did follow a mentorship model, albeit intuitively, of the 4Cs —conversation, connection, community, and culture—empowering each of us with the leadership capacity required to impact meaningful systems change.

Profile photo of author, Kilah Rolle. Kilah is resting her chin on her hand and looking at the viewer.

About the Author

Kilah Rolle (she/her/mom) is a Halifax, Nova Scotia based inclusive communications consultant, content creator with intersecting Caribbean (Bahamas/Africa) and European (Canada/France) Diasporic identities.

Medium: Ki Rolle
Instagram: @mind_ya_kiki
LinkedIn: Kilah Rolle