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Priyanka Ashraf
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Priyanka is a proud Bangladeshi-Australian and self-described ‘migrapreneur’ - migrant entrepeneur. She grew up in Bangladesh, and came to Australia around 20 years ago to study law at the University of Canberra. Currently, she is the founder and director of The Creative Co-Operative (CCO), Australia’s 1st 100% Woman of Colour social enterprise working to close the intersectional and intergenerational wealth gap specifically by supporting community across entrepreneurship (Anyone Can) and accessing in-time culturally appropriate mental health and wellbeing support (Maya Cares).

The CCO first started as a creative agency to support migrant Women of Colour get a foot into the door of work in Australia. Now the CCO is primarily focussed on their Anyone Can community program, backed by the Federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources’ WISE grant as well as developing Maya Cares, an anti-racism tool supporting the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Black and Women of Colour. It launched on 21 March 2023. Maya Cares is a community tool developed by the community for the community, and is funded by the Victorian Government.

Priyanka’s goal is to push for intersectionality in the Australian start-up ecosystem where Bla(c)k women and women of colour start-up founders and operators are not only seen but have structural access and advancement. Before founding the CCO, Priyanka was an ex-lawyer turned technologist who had worked across technology strategy and startups, leading a range of functions across growth marketing and sales. In 2022, Priyanka and The CCO were included in The Australian’s List of Top 100 Innovators 2022.
Racism. It’s a topic that’s often shied away from or depoliticised in Australia - a prominent example would be the Howard government’s rebranding of The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD) on March 21 to ‘Harmony Day’ which replaces IDERD and attempts to portray a more unified multicultural society, without actively combatting or discussing racism. The fact that Australia at large does not step up to discuss the realities of racial discrimination, is harmful to anyone of colour who experiences any form of racism, as it can quickly become an internalised issue. 

Many people try to change the system from within. Priyanka is someone who vocally combats systemic and individual racism from the outside in. She has created safe spaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, black and women of colour from the ground up with her initiatives Anyone Can and now Maya Cares. Her passion in supporting women of colour and women in general, has stemmed from her own background and experiences as a migrant woman of colour. I’m very thankful that people like Priyanka exist - people who want to build a strong community to support other women of colour. You don’t realise how much you need these communities, until they’re here and you’re a part of them. I wanted to interview her in order to learn more about the exciting initiatives she’s working on, as well as her experiences coming to Australia as a migrant woman of colour.

I hope Priyanka’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
You started the CCO to empower migrant Women of Colour, and then Anyone Can to specifically support BIWOC founders in the startup space. What are the key challenges that people from migrant or international backgrounds face, especially coming from your personal experience?
Apart from capital and your ability to imagine AND execute, there are 3 key factors that determine how far you can get in the startup ecosystem - network, know-how and knowledge. All of these things are inherited intergenerationally in Australia, in some way or another. Let’s take the startup space as an example - when you’re starting out, your network is the only capital you have to turn a seed of an idea into something more. From networks, you can access knowledge informally - the knowledge of certain steps to take or things to pursue, and the knowledge of a system that your peers who grew up here, would know from the back of their hand. And from these networks, you can also access backdoor opportunities and get introduced to more people who will give you the opportunity to develop your skills and ‘know-how’.  

These barriers are reflected across the industry, and aren't only relevant in the startup ecosystem. And the issues are purely intergenerational - second generation Australians may face something very similar since their parents never developed these networks to pass down to their kids in the first place. If your parents are already lawyers, and you then choose to study a law degree, you’re already miles ahead from everyone else in your cohort. Everyone might have access to the same opportunity, but it’s not necessarily equitable since some people are able to break in and ‘access’ it way easier than another simply due to family circumstances.
This lack of the same amount of access to others, is one of the reasons why you started the CCO right? To provide more opportunities for migrant WoC. Could you tell me more about how you ended up starting the CCO? 
Exactly. When I first came to Australia to study my law degree, I was earning $25 an hour as a babysitter because I couldn't get a job as a lawyer, or as a paralegal, or even as an admin assistant at a law firm. 

Employers look at people’s experiences, and traditionally don’t understand the experiences of those that are not similar or familiar to them. It’s much more risky for them to employ someone and invest time in someone that they believe is going to be much more high-risk (even though they aren’t, since they’re usually discounting important experiences). This happened to me, but when I did break into the job market here I would always deliver outstanding results. I did that consistently to the point where for one employer I became the person who would always “get stuff done.” I don’t believe this is something unique to me, but a general skill of all people who are either first or second generation migrants. Systemically, we have less access to resources so when we do get an opportunity, we won’t waste it.

I was able to break into the system but it was really challenging. I felt like I had to hustle to get a foot into the door, when it shouldn’t and isn’t that hard. And I was very aware that if I felt it was this hard, then it would be so much harder for someone who spoke with a distinct Bangladeshi accent, for example - they would immediately be looked at as if they were less than, given the racism that still exists in Australia. 

That’s why I set up the CCO. To try and make a stab at trying to dismantle systemic racism in the small way that we can. I wanted to share opportunities with more women of colour get ahead in the job market. Even then, when they’ve got a foot into the door, they're still in a system that wasn't designed for them. But at least they're now in there, and can start to work around the system and over time, change it.

For the past few years, the CCO has been working on Maya Cares. Could you tell me more about this tool and how it’s going to be used?
I first experienced COVID-19 racism in May 2020. I was at the supermarket and this woman told me, in the most awful tone, to go back where I came from and take my COVID virus back with me.
I did not have COVID. I remember that my response was to confront her for her racism and that there are no excuses for her behaviour.

Afterwards when I told my friends about it, there were mixed reactions. Some friends said that my confrontation was too intense. One friend told me it was harsh to call someone a racist. When my own friends responded in this way I started feeling doubtful and shameful - not even necessarily because of that woman’s words but my own community’s response. It's no fault of their own that that was their immediate response, since we’re living in a very white, western society. A few months after, I talked to another friend about this incident, who happened to be a white woman running an anti-racism organisation at the time, that specifically targets allies. She asked me if I had reported this incident, to which I responded that I didn’t even know where to report this. If I studied law, and didn’t know where to report this then I doubt the ordinary Australian would know where to report it. So from there, I decided to do something about it and take matters into my own hands.

That’s how Maya Cares came about. How do we help other Women of Colour, respond to the effects of racism? And if one of the ways for them to effectively respond to racism - so that they can process and heal, is to report it, then how do we help them do that? In terms of the features - we help people in the end to end journey when they experience racism, from validation to helping them find a culturally literate and appropriate counselor to reporting this incident. We did a lot of research and user testing for this tool.  

At the time when someone first experiences racism, they need their experiences to be listened to and validated, as opposed to gaslight. Otherwise, you won’t process it and will internalise it. When you internalise it, your mental health takes a hit. There’s been studies by the Victorian Government that reported how racism physically affects both your lifespan as well as mental health. If you are validated as soon as it happens, that can immediately reduce the level of harm that's inflicted on you. 

For some people, validation is enough. Others may want more support such as reading informative content, or in finding a culturally appropriate counsellor which we can help with. We also support a feature where they can report this experience to a chatbot. It’s important that this tool acts as a neutral third party for individuals to report to - even though government bodies for racism reporting exist, they're not widely known by the community.
What is your theory, in how margnialised communities and allies can dismantle systemic racism in Australia?
That's such a huge question - but I believe that nothing actually happens unless you mandate it. It's taken centuries for systemic racism to take place and it's going to take centuries for it to get dismantled. It's not going to happen overnight, and change doesn't happen without legal intervention.

And that's why - coming back to Maya Cares - if we're able to bring these stories together and advocate for change, that's where you can really see change happening at a systemic level. It always comes back to the data. Racism is severely underreported in Australia for very complex reasons. That data is missing, which can’t inform policy or legislative changes. We have to start somewhere - we have to get the data and demand for change to happen.
Now that the CCO has established itself as a reputable organisation that constantly delivers, what plans do you have for the CCO moving forward in 2023?
The CCO’s focus is really on Anyone Can and Maya Cares. The creative agency is deprioritised for now, because we are focussing on services that are more scalable so that we can achieve impact on a much greater level. Even though the agency’s work is so meaningful, and we’ve worked with so many great clients along the way, and continue to work with a select few, the lion's share of our focus is on Anyone Can and Maya Cares.

So after launching Anyone Can last year, we received so much support and more demand that we’re now designing a new version of the program to support even earlier stage founders. Connect with us to find out more as we'll be making the announcement to start taking applications very soon!

With Maya Cares, we’re focussing on bringing it to the community and maintaining it as a high quality platform that supports the needs of our community. We’re going to be paying close attention to the user feedback and experience. Ultimately, we’re solving to create the digital version of a physical safe space.
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
I came to Australia quite late in life when I was around 18 to 19. To this day, I don't really feel like I ever really belonged as an Asian Australian. I think, similar to most third culture kids, I identify with the different countries in which I've lived and grown up in - for me that was Bangladesh, Singapore, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and finally Australia. I feel like I’m made up of an intersection of so many cultural racial identities, which has definitely evolved over time. 
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
A significant cultural memory for me is celebrating Eid, which is timely since we've just kicked off Ramadan on March 22, 2023. So for me, back in Bangladesh, or in whichever country my family was living in, Ramadan was such a special time. It still is, simply because of the anticipation of celebrating Eid with my loved ones. Even sharing Eid and my culture with other people who aren’t Muslim is a very special thing. 
What is your favourite food from your culture?
My favourite Bangladeshi food from my culture is called ilish mach, known as hilsa in English. It's a very delicious fish which we cook in mustard oil, tumeric, garlic and ginger. It's delicious and everybody fights over the egg. 

Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
An Asian Australian who inspires me is Marjorie Tenchavez. She’s the founder of Welcome Merchant which supports and elevates refugee powered businesses in Australia. Marjorie is the type of entrepreneur who really shares the same ethos as I do around building community, around service and supporting other women of colour and women in general.

So Marjorie is one of those women who does not play into the game of competing against other women, or succumbing to a system that tells you that being white is the best way to be - she really supports people of colour, which is something that I really believe in and live by. And I think that's why both Marjorie and I are also really good friends. She really practices what she preaches and I’m inspired by any person who does that.