Janice McDonald has just added another leadership role to her already impressive résumé.
Last month, Ms. McDonald began a one-year term as Startup Canada’s 2017 Ambassador for Women Entrepreneurship. In her new role, she’ll work with business and government officials to help raise awareness of issues important to female-owned companies such as lack of capital, financial literacy and access to government procurement contracts.
In addition to running the Beacon Agency, the serial entrepreneur is the co-founder of This Space Works, a firm that matches businesses that have excess office capacity with clients who need short-term workspaces. The company now operates in Ottawa and the Greater Toronto Area.
“She was our No. 1 choice,” says Startup Canada chief executive Victoria Lennox. “She’s in it for the right reasons, and she wants to see change. In addition to that, she has an amazing level of political acuity. She can interact with CEOs the same as she can interact with ministers and senior public servants, and that’s what it’s going to take in order to really advance the agenda for women entrepreneurs.
“She is herself a woman entrepreneur who’s gone through all these struggles, and she’s invested her time and resources in research to make sure that all of her recommendations are evidence-based. This is a great platform for her to be able to make a difference.”
Named one of Canada’s top 100 most powerful women four years in a row by the Toronto-based Women’s Executive Network, Ms. McDonald was inducted into the organization’s hall of fame last fall.
“It’s very nice to get that kind of recognition and share that with the other women who were honoured,” she says.
Ms. Lennox calls her friend a person with a “keen sense of public service,” and Ms. McDonald’s commitment to the cause of advancing female entrepreneurship bears that out.
A member of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard University’s Harvard Kennedy School, from 2013-15 she also chaired the Ottawa chapter of Women in Communications and Technology, a non-profit group that provides mentorship to female professionals in those fields.
"She can interact with CEOs the same as she can interact with ministers and senior public servants, and that’s what it’s going to take in order to really advance the agenda for women entrepreneurs."
A passionate advocate for giving female entrepreneurs a stronger voice, Ms. McDonald laments that women remain woefully underrepresented on most corporate boards in North America.
A sample of 677 companies collected by provincial securities regulators last year found that women occupied just 12 per cent of total seats on their boards. Meanwhile, a recent report from Boston-based Vell Executive Search determined that 66 per cent of the nearly 600 public tech firms it surveyed in Canada and the United States had fewer than two women on their boards.
Those figures disappoint Ms. McDonald, who first wrote about the issue 25 years ago for her master’s thesis in Canadian Studies at Carleton University.
“We haven’t seen as much progress as you might have predicted and hoped for,” she says. “When I did that work, I never thought that I’d still be talking about that same issue over two decades later and that (change) would be as slow as it’s been. Frankly, it’s a competitive advantage, those (companies) that recognize that diversity of thought. It’s surprising to me that this is still a conversation that we need to have, but frankly it is a conversation that we still need to have.”
Ms. McDonald says she’s encouraged by some of the Liberal government’s new initiatives to aid female-owned companies announced in last month’s federal budget – particularly its pledge to invest $50 million in a new program that will make it easier for companies led by women and other “underrepresented groups” to bid on government procurement contracts.
“It’s opening up the space for greater possibility, and I think that’s really exciting,” Ms. McDonald says. “If barriers exist and you eliminate them, that enables those firms to grow faster, to hire more people.”
She says being a Startup Canada ambassador will provide yet another vehicle for her to shine a spotlight on the vital role women entrepreneurs play in the Canadian economy and allow her to mentor a new generation of female business leaders.
“It’s hard to be it if you can’t see it,” she explains. “If you can see those who are succeeding, it kind of gives you that inspiration to go for it yourself.”