Op-ed: Women entrepreneurs cheer feds’ female-first strategy

Being a businesswoman in Canada has its share of challenges, Janice McDonald writes, but new funding measures in the 2018 budget could mark a positive step toward removing a key obstacle – a lack of access to capital
Clare Beckton and Janice McDonald
Clare Beckton (left) and Janice McDonald have studied female entrepreneurship. (File photo)

For many women entrepreneurs, it felt like Christmas in February when the federal government released its 2018 budget.

The spending plan offered a specific strategy developed to assist women business owners, and many of the recommendations outlined in the recent national study on women entrepreneurs and innovation I co-authored with Clare Beckton from Carleton University were included in the budget.

The government’s initiatives aimed at boosting support for women entrepreneurs include tripling the size of a venture capital fund managed by the Business Development Bank of Canada for financing female-led tech startups to $200 million from $70 million. The Liberals are also increasing the BDC’s funding for majority female-owned businesses by $1.4 billion over three years.

Travelling across the country, I heard considerable support and interest in these programs, so I wanted to gauge the reaction of businesswomen in our region.

Overall, I’d characterize their reactions as positive, mixed with a hint of “wait and see.”  

Nilufer Erdebil is the founder of Spring2 Innovation, a consulting company that has been growing steadily in the capital. She has been in business for almost seven years and has clients in both the public and private sector.

Erdebil says measures to help female entrepreneurs grow their businesses are a step in the right direction.

Spring2 Innovation is looking to expand beyond regional borders into other provinces and the United States, she adds. The biggest barrier she sees isn’t access to capital but rather “making sure the right people are part of the team to expand beyond borders.”

Women entrepreneurs contribute billions of dollars to the Canadian economy and to the communities where they live. International Trade Minister Francois-Phillippe Champagne believes gender equality can be advanced through trade and argues that increasing the number of women entrepreneurs trading internationally would boost the economy by $150 billion.

That rings true to Erin Kelly, who says her Ottawa-based company, Advanced Symbolics, must “export or die.” She is planning to launch a U.S. operation this year.

“We have a great roster of clients now in Canada, and that gives us a terrific launching point for U.S. expansion,” says Kelly, whose firm uses artificial intelligence to predict human behaviour.  

For Kristine McGinn, the budget is filled with positive news.

“I am really impressed with the federal government’s commitment to advancing women in business,” she says. “It represents a significant leap toward equality.”

She believes the budget will help to level the playing field between men and women entrepreneurs and encourage more women to open up their own businesses.  

Growth and expansion are very much on her mind. McGinn is co-owner of Assurance Home Care, a boutique in-home care company offering high-quality, customized care to seniors and those with injuries, illness or post-surgery needs, a segment of the population that continues to increase in size and need. I should know – her partner is my husband.

Susan St. Amand, the founder and president of Sirius Financial Services, says that although the new budget measures “will not mean a lot to my business,” she hopes the programs “highlight the success of female entrepreneurs and focus on the visibility of leaders. If successful women are visible, it will encourage others and give them a boost of confidence to move forward.”  

Having more women choose entrepreneurship is beneficial, but it isn’t always an easy path. As my own research has shown in two national studies on women entrepreneurs, doing business as a woman in Canada can be a challenge.

‘Subject to stereotypes’

“We are subject to stereotypes, discrimination and self-doubt,” says McGinn. “It is encouraging that the number of female entrepreneurs is on the rise, creating a growing support system for each other while closing the gap on gender inequality.”

She’s right. A strong and connected entrepreneurial ecosystem benefits all members and helps to offset the challenges women entrepreneurs face.

“Being involved in organizations such as Canadian Women in Communications and Technology as well as partnering with organizations such as Startup Canada – which has an extremely strong female CEO – helps in realizing the impact that women can have on business and society,” says Erdebil.

Access to capital is often a challenge for women entrepreneurs, so it’s no surprise there is a lot of interest in the $1.4 billion over three years from BDC outlined in the budget.  

Jackie King, the chief operating officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, says the bank has a strong track record of supporting SMEs and customizing programs for women and Indigenous entrepreneurs.

“Having additional dedicated funds targeted specifically at helping female entrepreneurs will help BDC build on the good work they are already doing to provide diverse financing instruments for women looking for financial support for the various stages of their businesses,” she says.

Still, many women I talked to have questions about the specifics of the new BDC funding. Others want to know how the money will be distributed down to the grassroots level.

St. Amand wonders if there is a “plan for engagement” and questions how many dollars will end up in the hands of the women entrepreneurs. Although she has not accessed funds from BDC in the past, she, like many other women entrepreneurs, is seeking specific details on how the money will be spent.

Overall, the women entrepreneurs I spoke to are encouraged by the elements in the budget that support their efforts. McGinn believes the federal government’s commitment  “to supporting women in business is an important step toward changing the landscape for women, opening doors and creating opportunity for growth and expansion.”

But, as St. Amand says, “the devil is in the details,” a sentiment shared by King.

Flexible working conditions

“These programs will only be successful if the government addresses the most basic issues facing our economy – the increasing costs of running a business in Canada and the regulatory burden, particularly on SMEs,” King says.

Many other issues are on the minds of women entrepreneurs in our region. These include sexual harassment in the workplace, accessibility and inclusion in superclusters for women entrepreneurs, childcare costs and availability, the desire for flexible working conditions and the continued need for mentorship.

It’s a long list. But the new BDC funding can immediately address one key area of concern for women in business, and that’s a positive start.