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Shaping the Future of Startups and Venture Capital at DMZ

In her interview with CanadianSME Small Business Magazine, Emily Smiley, the Director of Partnerships and Investor Relations at DMZ, shared her insights and strategies for navigating the challenging landscape of venture capital and startup development. With a focus on adapting to market trends and the economic climate, Emily underscored DMZ’s commitment to strategic partnerships and sustainability in startups, emphasizing the importance of resilience and practicality in business models. She highlighted DMZ’s unique approach to supporting diverse founders, providing tailored mentorship and resources to underrepresented entrepreneurs. Emily also discussed DMZ’s initiatives to address the disproportionate allocation of venture capital to diverse-led startups, including inclusive support ecosystems and transparent success metrics. Passionate about fostering a vibrant innovation ecosystem, she aspires to expand DMZ’s global impact, prioritize diversity and inclusion, and build a holistic support system for entrepreneurs tackling real-world problems.

As the Director of Partnerships & Investor Relations, Emily is responsible for the development and execution of DMZ’s startup programs. Additionally, Emily connects startup founders with funders where she sees potential opportunities, helps startups with fundraising strategies, and works with investors in the DMZ network as well as connecting with new investors interested in the DMZ. Emily joined the DMZ team in 2017.

As a passionate advocate of the Canadian entrepreneurship ecosystem, Emily has spent a great deal of time throughout her career advising entrepreneurs on early-stage business ideation. She has led business development campaigns and supported fundraising planning and execution in early-stage SaaS startups. Emily brings a diverse range of experiences in high growth startups, corporate sector and public sector organizations. Emily studied at Queen’s University.

Given the significant downturn in global venture capital funding in 2023, as reported by Crunchbase, how has this affected DMZ’s approach to securing and managing partnerships and investments?

DMZ has historically adjusted our approach to partnerships, investments and startups broadly based on the state of the ecosystem. Our team is proactive in staying informed about market trends, economic forecasts and the evolving needs of startups and investors. While it is certainly true that global venture capital funding in 2023 declined, it was not too different from pre-pandemic years. With this in mind, we’ve been able to blend old and new strategies in our approach:

Shaping the Future of Startups and Venture Capital at DMZ
Image courtesy – canva
  • Strategic partnerships : Developing deeper, more strategic and diverse relationships with corporations and groups that align with our mission and our founders. This allows us to explore the potential for more meaningful collaborations with our startups to drive innovation.
  • Sustainability : Prioritizing startups developing sustainable and resilient solutions that address essential needs or have long-term viability. Startups need to be agile and respond to market conditions —  a vital skill in the changing tides of technology.
  • Practicality : Coaching our founders to focus on achieving tangible milestones and demonstrating traction rather than the previously popular startup advice of “growth at all costs.”
  • Investment readiness : Providing additional support to help our startups with fundraising readiness. This includes helping them refine their business models, articulate their value propositions and develop compelling pitches to attract potential investors.

With early-stage funding experiencing a dramatic decline of over 40% year over year, what specific initiatives or programs has DMZ implemented to support early-stage entrepreneurs, particularly in this challenging financial climate?

DMZ is working to create the next generation of camel startups – companies that are resilient, resourceful and balanced above all else.

We’re supporting our startups to live by a strong value proposition, which means working with them to refine their products and solutions to serve their end users better. A core pillar of DMZ  programming is to ensure founders prioritize quality and focus. By giving founders the resources, one-on-one support and mentorship to grow with intention and not get caught up in startup hype, they are set up for success and can thrive through uncertainty.

We are intentional and strategic about the resources and programs that we offer our network of founders. We have doubled down on initiatives designed to ensure founders are set up to succeed during turbulent times. This includes:

  • DMZ Connect : A program that fosters collaboration between our corporate partners and startups to spark opportunities for pilot projects and partnerships.
  • Fundraising support and financial management tactics : Support with fundraising strategies, pitching, curated introductions to DMZ’s network of investors and financial management.
  • Grant support : Support identifying startup grants and subsidies and grant submissions with experienced subject-matter experts.

We’re encouraging founders to be selective in what they do. Cut out distractions and be intentional in the events they attend, establish a strong rapport with partners and investors and cut back costs to show a healthier burn rate, focusing on metrics that matter most.

A recent BDC report highlights the lack of diversity at senior levels in the private asset industry and the low percentage of venture firms owned by women, Indigenous people, and visible minorities. In your role, how are you addressing these diversity challenges within DMZ and the broader venture capital ecosystem?

‘Equity over Everything’  — one of our founding values at DMZ, recognizes that not all founders begin at the same starting level. We don’t provide every founder with the same level of support, we provide them with the right support.

DMZ provides additional streams of programming to underserved founders, including Black and women entrepreneurs. This means they receive additional opportunities and specialized support like grant funding, mentorship opportunities, a peer network, exclusive events and connections to investors dedicated to supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs – on top of the standard programming all DMZ founders get.

DMZ engages and advocates within the venture capital ecosystem on the benefits of investing in and supporting diverse founders. While our investor network is broad to help all of our startups connect with best-fit investors, we dig in deep to cultivate relationships with firms already aware of the valuable opportunity presented to them in funding diverse founders.

Our portfolio at DMZ is one of many success stories of the value created by diverse founders.  Businesses founded by women deliver more than twice as much per dollar invested than those founded by men, making them better investments for financial backers. Plus, we know that diverse founding teams create better business outcomes for investors, resulting in 30% higher multiples of invested capital for investors.

Our team provides curated fundraising support for diverse founders to help them navigate the common barriers, unconscious biases, and pitfalls they face.

Shaping the Future of Startups and Venture Capital at DMZ
Image courtesy – canva

Diverse founders routinely underrepresent their projections and approach fundraising from a more risk-averse position. Our additional coaching and support and ability to connect diverse founders with a network of investors we know understand their potential help us to support our founders in driving better outcomes.

Considering that diverse-led startups in Canada and the U.S. are receiving a disproportionately small fraction of venture capital funding, what steps is DMZ taking to ensure these startups gain better access to funding and support? How do you measure the success of these initiatives?

In addressing the disproportionate allocation of venture capital funding to diverse-led startups in Canada and the U.S., DMZ has implemented strategic initiatives to foster a more equitable and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Step 1: Inclusive Support Ecosystem

DMZ has proactively cultivated partnerships with corporations, government entities and philanthropic organizations committed to promoting diversity in entrepreneurship. This multifaceted approach ensures that diverse-led startups gain access to funding and benefit from a comprehensive support network, including mentorship, resources, and opportunities typically reserved for a more privileged few.

Step 2: Tailored Mentorship Programs

Recognizing the crucial role of mentorship in startup success, DMZ has instituted specialized mentorship programs explicitly designed for diverse founders. These programs guide in refining business models, articulating value propositions, navigating the intricacies of fundraising, and addressing the unique challenges underrepresented entrepreneurs face. Diversity is at the heart of our program design, from ensuring diverse representation in our selection committees, recruitment, onboarding and delivery to help founders overcome barriers.

Step 3: Transparent Success Metrics

To assess the effectiveness of these initiatives, DMZ relies on transparent and tangible success metrics. Beyond financial benchmarks, the organization tracks the growth and accomplishments of startups within its programs. Metrics include monitoring not only the amount of funding secured but also the development of sustainable business models, job creation and the overall impact of the startups within their respective industries. DMZ utilizes this information to assess the overall growth of the companies as well as the impact they create.

As someone passionate about fostering a vibrant and inclusive innovation ecosystem, what are your aspirations for DMZ in the upcoming years, especially in the context of empowering entrepreneurs and innovators to solve real-world problems?

My aspirations for DMZ are centred around fostering a dynamic ecosystem that cultivates creativity, resilience and sustainable solutions. I believe DMZ will continue to catalyze positive change, empowering entrepreneurs to tackle real-world problems and contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive future in this ever-changing world.

Global impact 

Expand our reach to support entrepreneurs and innovators further worldwide, fostering a global network of problem-solvers in collaboration with international partners, governments, and organizations to address pressing global challenges.

Diversity and inclusion

Prioritize diversity and inclusion within our community and our programs at all levels and in all areas, ensuring that a broad range of perspectives contributes to the future of innovation.

Technology for good

Cultivate founders and companies with ambitions to build globally scalable companies that consider the benefits of social impact in critical areas that directly address real-world problems.

Holistic support ecosystem

Provide comprehensive anywhere-anytime global support to founders everywhere. Going beyond today’s startup offerings, enhancing mentorship, funding, legal guidance, etc., in collaboration with industry experts and professionals to offer specialized knowledge tailored to each entrepreneur’s needs.

Ecosystem building

Forge a network of strategic partnerships with investors, governments, and corporations to facilitate knowledge transfer, pilot projects, and investment opportunities to ensure tomorrow’s greatest innovations.


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