What comes to your mind when you think of startups?

Written by Priyanka Ashraf

A startup is a tech-enabled business that is scaling an innovative solution to a widespread problem.

However, when you have to generate a 10x return in 1/10th the time, how do you avoid shortcuts?

They require investment in order to achieve rapid growth and are required to adhere to strict terms to generate a return to their investors by a fixed deadline.

Typically this can result in the exploitation of human labour.

We’ve seen the meteoric rise of share economy startups, heralded ‘changemakers’. Some attain ‘unicorn’ valuations of $1 billion and become publicly listed on the stock exchange.

However, they have created a race to the bottom where the cheapest price wins. The person who takes the hit typically belongs to some of the most vulnerable groups in our society, like international students who are over-represented in underpaid and insecure work. In 2019, up to 56% of international student graduates either worked outside their field of study in jobs they were overqualified for, or they were unemployed.

Priyanka Ashraf

What about the individuals from those groups who also belong to intersecting identities across race, gender, disability, LGBTIQ+ and more? We know the higher the number of intersections, the deeper the barriers and impact faced by the individuals.

Somewhere along the way, the scale at which startups grow may have solved specific problems faster, but on the other hand, created new problems or perpetuated existing ones deeper.

What if we built startups that were purpose driven, that were focused on generating social, instead of capital, returns? Like Madison’s Yarli Creative which invests back into Aboriginal communities through her work?

Personally, I was motivated to start The Creative Co-Operative after experiencing the impact of systemic racism firsthand when trying to find a job. And it didn’t just impact me. Of all women, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women have the lowest workforce participation rate (47.3%). The term CALD is also colour blind, so the true impact on Women of Colour (WoC) is not known.

The Creative Co-Operative exists to address the economic and social access barriers faced by migrant WoC as a result of systemic racism. Through our social enterprise, which is a creative, marketing and digital agency, we employ migrant WoC to deliver services to clients.

We apply a Pay It Forward model where the proceeds from our client work helps fund our storytelling projects which raise awareness of systemic racism – such as campaigns, festivals and creative productions like our upcoming book. These projects also engage migrant WoC in paid work. By month nine, we will have created over 50 paid work opportunities for migrant WoC. 

It is not only important to us that we advocate for the equitable participation of WoC, but the manner in which WoC are represented. The media, corporate communications, NFPs and social enterprises often bucket and ‘other’ migrants and refugees when, between them, they have entirely different life experiences. They are also often portrayed in the context of ‘poverty porn’ or requiring ‘saving’ from themselves. This type of representation is harmful, disempowering and entirely at odds with reality. We don’t require saving, we simply need the barriers of systemic racism to be removed from our way. When they are, we’re unstoppable. And that is the message I want every WoC and ally to get behind. And that is my purpose. It is The Creative Co-Operative’s purpose.


Lawyer turned technologist, Priyanka Ashraf is the Founder and Director of The Creative Co-Operative, Australia’s first 100% migrant Women of Colour owned, led and operated startup dedicated to lifting the economic access barriers faced by migrant WoC as a result of systemic racism. Structured as a social enterprise and operating as an agency, the CCO employs migrant WoC across creative, marketing and digital services and in the space of roughly nine months of bootstrapping, has already created over 50 paid work opportunities for migrant WoC. The CCO applies a Pay It Forward model, where its commercial work helps fund community projects to amplify WoC. For instance, the recent Curious About Culture Festival amplifying over 40 WoC creative entrepreneurs and generated over $30,000 for the community. Priyanka is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at Tech Ready Women and an Expert Mentor on the Boosting Female Founders Initiative with the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. 

Skip to content