Yearly, an average of 41 per cent of small businesses are reported to contribute to Canada’s gross domestic product. 12.8 per cent of medium businesses contribute to it.
However, women are less inclined to start a business, taking up only 16 per cent of entrepreneurs. Women from racialized and disabled groups are even less inclined to do so. In fact, they have limited access to resources and funding to even start planning a business.
The report also found that women tend to start businesses at twice the rate of men. Yet, they have higher chances of failing or not achieving the same growth. This was found to correlate with less access to capital. It also correlates with less likelihood to seek debt and equity financing and little promotion among Canada’s supplier chains. Women-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises make up less than five per cent of suppliers within all levels of Canadian public sector corporations.
ELLA is a leading women’s-based research initiative from York University. They estimated that by closing the gender gap, Canada could see financial growth of as much as $150 billion. In 2018, the government followed through with a new initiative called the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES). The plan is to invest more than $6 billion in women-owned businesses, federal innovation, community-based programs, research and mentorship.
The strategy is the first of its kind. It partners with Toronto Metropolitan University’s Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), which comprises over 300 organizations. Over 100,000 female entrepreneurs have already received access to these resources.
Ayaa Mohamad is the project manager for Scadding Court Community’s Women Entrepreneur Hub (WE-Hub), an organization involved with WES. Since the first cohort of 2018, the program has built many female leaders through customized support, training and mentorship.
Unique to WE-Hub is market testing, where participants get to try out their business ideas in risk-free controlled environments. Every year, it varies from collaboration with other market organizers or temporary access to a co-working space with other vendors. Participants get real interaction with customers and mentoring from experts.
Beyond their goal of starting a business, Mohamad stressed the need for holistic approaches to building female leaders. Mohamad said unconditional social support for the journey is vital in building confident entrepreneurs. Rather than preparing women through a technical and competitive environment similar to a post-secondary program.
“We focus more on the journey than the result. A failure is just as much as a success,” she said. “When you have that community of support, you are more likely to try and gain clarity of your life in general.”
Despite lacking business education, through years of helping female entrepreneurs, Mohamad felt inspired to start her side hustle: Papaya Petals. Helping facilitate a safe space for women to learn, interact and grow their business ideas improved her confidence.
In her journey with WE-Hub, Mohamad also saw the need for a new perception of entrepreneurship. Traditionally, the word has cemented a specific image of a white male in a fancy suit who leads a large corporation with an aggressive personality.
“My goal is to help redefine the word ‘entrepreneur,’” said the project manager. “The young woman in her cheap Scarborough apartment trying to start up her candle business—that’s an entrepreneur as much as anyone else.”
A new future for business infrastructures
In facing multi-faceted barriers, female leaders are more likely to innovate new policies for management, structure and problem-solving. Also helping create these innovators is My Start-Up, with the Elizabeth Fry organization in Toronto. The program engages participants in university-level classes and one-on-one training with experts from the industry they’re interested in. It also provides the ‘social work’ part of the training.
Project and employment coordinators Meera Umasuthan and Halyna Vinnichenko use their experiences in the social services to help female entrepreneurs.
They use their knowledge to help women navigate their unique intersectional identities. They do so through wrap-around support, such as access to employment or child support.
“A lot of the women that come in face obstacles in receiving an education or simply do not have the time as single parents,” Umausuthan said. “We address those challenges for free to make their goals more accessible.”
Umausuthan and Vinnichenko have already witnessed the benefits of supporting women interested in business. As they formed close relationships, the entrepreneurs were always passionate about giving back to the community. They did so either through donations or as mentors themselves.