Ottawa researchers to study female entrepreneurs’ exporting challenges

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Researchers Clare Beckton (left) and Janice McDonald are teaming up for another study on the challenges facing women entrepreneurs. File photo

A pair of Ottawa researchers who have authored two landmark studies on women entrepreneurs are now putting a spotlight on the barriers female business owners encounter when trying to grow their sales beyond Canada’s borders.

Clare Beckton and Janice McDonald plan to interview more than 100 female entrepreneurs across Canada for the new study.

McDonald, a longtime entrepreneur who now runs her own consulting agency, says women-led businesses produce only about 15 per cent of Canada’s total exports. She calls the lack of Canadian women doing business in foreign countries a “lost opportunity” for the country’s economy.

“We’ve got to identify the challenges that women entrepreneurs are facing,” she told OBJ on Friday. “We want to ensure that we can provide insights and guidance in terms of how they can best navigate the system and the resources that are available. This is a significant opportunity for Canada if more women entrepreneurs can think globally.”

McDonald and Beckton, the executive in residence at Carleton University’s Centre for Research and Education on Women and Work, plan to travel across the country to talk to women business owners in a range of industries and demographic groups.

Their research is being backed by the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, a federal government-funded initiative based at Toronto’s Ryerson University. The Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada are also helping to finance the study, which is expected to be released in February 2020.

McDonald said her previous research indicates female entrepreneurs have a harder time securing capital than men, which makes exporting more difficult for women-owned businesses that don’t have the budgets to woo international customers or collect proper intelligence on global markets.

“If your dollars are stretched, you’re having to make some tough decisions around how are you going to spend those dollars,” she said. “If you’re already tight for financing, that can make it difficult.”

Canada has free trade agreements with many of the world’s biggest economies, yet the vast majority of women entrepreneurs aren’t taking advantage of global opportunities, McDonald notes. She says the goal of the project is to find out exactly what is preventing women entrepreneurs from tapping into export markets and what kinds of assistance they need to grow their international customer base.

McDonald says her own research also suggests many women aren’t aware of resources such as BDC, EDC and the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, a network of more than 1,000 experts based in cities around the world that provides advice and mentorship to firms looking to expand into foreign markets.

“There is a huge upside if we can get women entrepreneurs orienting their businesses sooner to think export and to think global,” she said. “Those are huge markets in comparison to the size of Canada. What we’re interested in is understanding why is the number so low.”

Ottawa's business environment improving for women

McDonald and Beckton first began studying female entrepreneurship together four years ago and have since released reports on women’s contributions to the innovation economy and the barriers to funding for female business owners.

McDonald says the overall climate for women in business has improved substantially since she first began interviewing entrepreneurs in 2015.

As an example, she points to the federal government’s $2-billion women entrepreneurship strategy, which aims to double the number of women-owned companies in Canada by 2025.

Last year, the feds announced a series of initiatives aimed at boosting support for women entrepreneurs, including $1.4 billion in new financing from BDC and $130 million in additional venture capital for female-led tech startups.

Here in the capital, too, women are making gains, McDonald says.

A study released this week by the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management and Ryerson’s Diversity Institute found that the Ottawa region had Ontario’s highest concentration of female-led SMEs, with women holding a majority stake in 23 per cent of such enterprises.

McDonald also notes she and Beckton are part of an Invest Ottawa committee devoted to supporting women entrepreneurs.

“That wasn’t there when we started in 2015,” she said, calling it another sign that the broader business community is recognizing the vital contribution women make to Canada’s economy.

While “there’s certainly more work to be done,” McDonald says efforts to boost female entrepreneurship are on the right track.

“There’s a lot of momentum around women entrepreneurs and certainly a lot more support,” she said. “To actually get (women) thinking about entrepreneurship as a career path, I think that’s really exciting. Now we’re really starting to see the ripple effects of that.”