From the outside, Melbourne-based business The Creative Co-operative appears to be your standard creative agency.
Led by a team of women, they’re experts in design, marketing and web development. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see this agency is anything but typical.
For one thing, The Creative Co-Operative is actually a social enterprise. They’re working to help migrant Women of Colour get a foot into the door of professional industries.
“We didn’t just wake up and decide to set up this social enterprise,” founder Priyanka Ashraf explains. “We were spurred into action after the murder of George Floyd. We wanted to do something to address the issues of systemic racism we see in this country.”
Racism is still a huge problem in Australia. Along with being damaging to the mental and physical health of those on the receiving end, it’s also costing the economy.
“If you have extremely qualified people working as cleaners, as opposed to engineers, it’s our community and economy that’s going to suffer as a result,” Priyanka says.
She’s come up against similar barriers to employment herself. Despite being a qualified lawyer, and having lived in Australia for 20 years, Priyanka found herself working as a babysitter. Stories like this in international student and migrant communities are all too common. “That’s why we’ve selected this as a particular problem to solve,” she says.
In June 2020, Priyanka created the Diverse Founders Directory, the first of its kind in Australia. The directory, specifically for entrepreneurs, amplifies self-identifying People of Colour who are racially diverse startup and business founders.
“If a startup founder wanted to have a diverse entrepreneur speak on a panel or at an event, they’d use the directory to find someone,” Priyanka says.
“Typically, panels like this have been made up of men,” she continues. “More women have been joining boards, but there’s still a disparity. It’s time more POC are included.”
To date, the directory has around 250 culturally and racially diverse founders. The purpose of the directory was to spark thought, and challenge people to realise that there is a wealth of diverse talent in this country.
It wasn’t enough to just get people thinking though. People needed to be talking. And it needed to go beyond People of Colour talking amongst themselves; white peers and allies needed to be part of the conversation too. That was when Priyanka came up with #ShareThePlatform, an antiracism campaign focusing on the startup community.
“We engaged influential people from the startup ecosystem: Malcolm Turnbull, Daniel Flynn, Janine Allis, Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and Mark Bouris,” Priyanka says. “They interviewed and amplified the voices of six different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander founders and African-Australian founders.”
The conversation wasn’t just about systemic racism, and the experiences these people had encountered. Instead, it was about recognising their excellence and expertise.
The campaign was hugely successful, exposed to over 4 million people across 30 different countries – in the middle of a global pandemic. Some 60 organisations, including Bank Australia, came on board to help Priyanka spread the message of using our voice to make a difference.
Since opening the doors to The Creative Co-Operative in September, Priyanka and her team have been able to create over 22 paid professional work opportunities to self-identifying migrant Women of Colour.
Along with providing creative services to their clients across the government, not-for-profit and startup sectors, as well as community leaders and human rights advocates, The Creative Co-Operative are passionate about skills training.
“We get these super qualified people join the team, but because they’ve been excluded from the workforce they have to catch up on missed practical work experience ” Priyanka explains. “We follow agile Ways of Working and encourage learning by doing. We’re proud of our culture of experimentation and innovation - traits around resilience that are quite complementary to the lived experience of migrants. ”
Feedback from clients has been strong, and the majority of the agency’s new clients have come through word-of-mouth referrals.
“When you’re true to the problem you’re trying to solve, you meet the people that are going to resonate with that,” Priyanka says. “Those people become your advocates and your allies. We’ve definitely seen that.”
The Creative Co-Operative is running a daylong festival on 21 March celebrating Melbourne’s diverse community of creative, entrepreneurs and performers. Full details on Curious about Culture Festival here. Otherwise, find out more about The Creative Co-Operative here, via Instagram here, or LinkedIn here.