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Balancing the Grind with Priyanka Ashraf, Founder & Director of The Creative Co-Operative

Priyanka Ashraf, Founder & Director of The Creative Co-Operative, Australia’s first 100% migrant woman of colour owned, led and operated social enterprise focusing on driving economic and social outcomes for other Women of Colour through entrepreneurship and digital skills.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I was a lawyer turned self-taught technologist turned self-taught startup founder and director of The Creative Co-Operative

The CCO is Australia’s first 100% migrant Woman of Colour owned, led and operated social enterprise challenging systemic racism by driving better economic and social outcomes for other Women of Colour through the creation of paid work, capacity building and digital tools.

Starting with rewriting intersectionality into the Australian startup ecosystem where Bla(c)k Women and Women of Colour startup founders and operators not only have access but advancement. And where Co-Conspirators, who have moved beyond Allyship, are actively engaging to enable this to happen.

Why? 

From a very early age, I’ve been passionate about social justice. I was born into it—my father is a freedom fighter. He is from a disadvantaged background, one of the poorest regions in Bangladesh, and he also has a disability. Although he built a successful career, he had to work so much harder to get there. It did not feel fair. 

The pursuit for fairness is why I pursued a career in law. Once I was there, I found more problems than solutions, which I was blocked from driving, trapped in a highly rigid structure. 

Then I started learning about smart contracts and identified the path towards driving change at scale would be through tech and that is how the transition began. 

I’ve personally and professionally never looked back. I’ve truly loved pursuing the opportunities that have come my way in the startup ecosystem. As a Woman of Colour, I’ve fought hard for most of those opportunities and those with less access than me would need to fight even harder. Which also doesn’t feel fair. 

This is why The CCO is now building the country’s first program and support network for the Bla(c)k Women and Women of Colour startup community, and actively working with Co-Conspirators to do so. We’re launching our program “Anyone Can” at an event this Thursday, where we will share more about our program plus our report into the state of the ecosystem as experienced by our communities – you’re all invited.

2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

A day in my life is always unpredictable. Being able to adapt and problem solve enables me to thrive in this setting – I truly love it but I know this isn’t for everyone. Or at least until they’ve developed adaptability skills, which I believe anyone can do with the right training.

A workday ideally starts with a team catching up, to make sure we’ve shared a laugh then checked we’re on track with project timelines. Post that, being in the start-up space often involves putting out dozens of little fires in creative ways.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

The CCO was founded in the midst of the pandemic so we were digital natives from day one. We have been working as flexibly and remotely as possible and currently have a hybrid model where we choose days to work from home or from our co-working space, The Commons.

As we grow as an organisation we will be honing in on more practices around transparent Ways of Working and utilising tools to enable this, to ensure that we can continue to enjoy that flexibility.

Having previously worked for an organisation that attempted to follow a holacratic structure, I have seen (and benefitted) firsthand from the potential of decentralised Ways of Working.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Where startups are involved – balance is not easy! Having been in this space for over 10 years though, I understand how important it is to create a space that’s supportive and creative and we can openly talk about burnout instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. Then working together on how we structure work to get ahead of it, before it’s too late.

The team and I are always in close communication with each other, and that means when someone needs to be supported or have a mental health day, there is then the opportunity to enable that. 

I discourage colleagues from working weekends and once our hiring activities are completed, I look forward to applying that rule to myself!

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I’ve stopped consuming sugar, which has helped my quality of sleep. My energy levels are a lot more stable too. I’ve also capped my coffee to once a day, no fizzy drinks either.

Living with PTSD used to overwhelm my days, but I finally started taking medication to cope with it, three months ago. It helped my mental health and general wellbeing massively. I’m no longer too concerned about the little things or requiring perfection — it’s about the big picture.

There’s still quite a bit of stigma out there about taking medication for mental health but it’s high time we change that. For me, once I did, it was an incredible change of perspective, and I often catch myself thinking, “Wow, this is how people actually live life.”

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

One of my favourite books is Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus. This book informed how I approach business, how I grow it, and how I will continue to do so in the future.

Also Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge which was critical to informing my vocabulary around anti-racism.

My favourite podcast would be anything by Future Women. I like that they cover topics you can’t typically google yet are so relatable.

My favourite newsletter is Backstage Capital – I am a huge fan of Arlan Hamilton.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

Well, the tool that I can’t live without doesn’t exist yet but The CCO is building it. 

We are working with different communities to develop a digital mental health tool so that anyone who identifies as a Woman of Colour, can access it if they’ve experienced racism. 

The impact of racism on your mental health and wellbeing has already been well established. What we also know from evidence is that women of colour disproportionately experience racist attacks during COVID19 — a study came out that stated 6 out of 10 people targeted were women. 

The tool will provide a safe space for Women of Colour to go, to be supported as they would like to be. Whether in responding to microaggressions or overt acts of racism and everything in between. 

For anyone interested in this project, please follow our socials (@creative_cooperative on Instagram or the-creative-co-operative on Linked In) or join our newsletter to stay in touch about how our project progresses or any of our other projects, all of which are designed to build better outcomes not only for women of colour but as a result, positive outcomes for all of society.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

It would be by Jirra Lulla Harvey, the founder of Kalinya Communications. I’m interested in her specifically because of how much education she shares around First Nations entrepreneurship.

There is a focus on taking meaning, taking time, considering sustainability—all areas of experience and expertise I’d be keen to learn more about. I’d love to understand that balance as start-up Ways of Working can at times be described as the antithesis to work-life balance! 

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

If you’re a Bla(c)k Woman or Woman of Colour within the Australian startup ecosystem or looking to become a founder within this space, please connect with us. As rewarding as it is, it’s not an easy path but with support, it is easier.

The community is growing and we’d love to help you grow. A research report we are publishing soon indicates that there are several systemic barriers stopping us but we’ve also found recommendations to work through them all (which we are also implementing). 

Join us at our event to learn more! We’d be more than happy to share our learnings on work, life and balancing it all while growing our startup.

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About Author

Balance the Grind is a work-life balance publication on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.