Day on the Hill: Bringing small business owners, public servants and politicians together

By Michael Woods

The federal government’s much-anticipated innovation agenda took centre stage at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre early last month.

The event was Startup Canada’s third annual Day on the Hill, a 1,500-person gathering geared toward bringing small business owners, public servants and politicians together.

Activities included so-called ‘policy hackathons,’ during which entrepreneurs worked with ministers to tackle policy challenges such as women in entrepreneurship, social innovation and disruptive tech in government.

The 50 meetings with cabinet ministers and members of Parliament, policy hearings, panels and other events centred around the theme of Canada’s innovation agenda.

Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains is leading the Liberal government’s development of an innovation agenda by next year’s federal budget.

Here are four ideas and recommendations for the federal government that emerged from the gathering:

Overhaul Canada’s procurement strategy

The feds are being urged to overhaul their procurement strategy to better support small businesses owned by indigenous, women and ethnic minority entrepreneurs.

Startup Canada suggests a program that adopts elements from the U.S. 8(a) Business Development Program, which helps socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs compete in the marketplace.

“Most small businesses cannot compete for these government tenders,” Startup Canada CEO Victoria Lennox said. “They’re just not to scale.”

A new program would make it easier for businesses owned by women, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities to bid for contracts.

Government departments could also ensure major contracts awarded to large companies have a minority-owned company as a subcontractor.

Better attract and retain talent

Startup Canada says the government needs to update economic immigration programs, such as the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Express Entry, to bring more executive talent to Canada to help train startup founders.

New companies have difficulty bringing in new talent because of long processing times and administrative inefficiencies, Lennox said. That means they lose out on employees who don’t want to wait for months for approval to come to Canada.

Lennox also noted that Canada does a good job of training international students, but a bad job of keeping them here. Canada should look for ways to accelerate the permanent residency of international students trained here.

A national women’s entrepreneurship strategy

Spurring women-led entrepreneurship was a huge theme of the Day on the Hill.

Sue Abu-Hakima, the CEO of Amika Mobile, participated in several policy sessions. She called for a $100-million venture fund for women, since studies have shown eight out of 10 women are rejected for funding by banks.

“It looks like unless you have an intermediary male that the bank is comfortable with, they’re not going to fund you,” she said.

That’s despite women leading about half of all small businesses in Canada. In the United States, the rejection figure is much lower.

“There’s definitely some bias going on with how women are perceived in business, especially in tech,” Abu-Hakima added. “I’ve created hundreds of jobs and contributed well over $18 million to the Ottawa economy, and yet we still get treated as second-class citizens. It’s astounding.”

Lennox said it’s estimated that a 10 per cent increase in the number of women-­owned firms over the next decade could result in a net economic gain of $15 billion.

“What we really need to do is double-down on women entrepreneurship.”

Modernize the public sector

Lobbying forms a small part of Startup Canada’s mandate. But since the Day on the Hill, Lennox said she has been booked solid with government officials eager to connect with the entrepreneurship community. “That was truly unexpected,” she said.

One of the messages she stressed is the need for the federal government to embrace an entrepreneurial culture to make it more nimble and foster innovation.

“It’s about public sector modernization; thinking like a startup and employing the latest technologies to create efficiencies like any company would,” she said.