Ottawa’s Shopify, Richard Branson join forces on female entrepreneurship initiative

From left, Ruma Bose, co-founder of the Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative, Michele Romanow of Dragon’s Den, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, serial entrepreneur Vicki Saunders and Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke. (Photo by Craig Lord)

Sir Richard Branson led the marquee on an all-star panel of entrepreneurs in Shopify’s Ottawa office on Thursday to launch Amplify, a new initiative aimed at promoting female entrepreneurship in Canada.

The billionaire founder of Virgin Group was joined by Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke, Michele Romanow of Dragon’s Den, serial entrepreneur Vicki Saunders, Minister of Small Business and Tourism Bardish Chagger and Ruma Bose, co-founder of the Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative, which launched earlier that morning.

The initiative aims to change the face of entrepreneurship in the country – from the images of old, white men such as Alexander Graham Bell to the diverse cross-section of Canadians leading businesses today. One of the ways it hopes to do that is through the Amplify program, an attempt to even the playing field for women-led businesses.

Amplify provides women starting their own businesses with access to premium Shopify subscriptions, workshops from Virgin Startup and financing from Romanow’s investment firm Clearbanc. Women-led businesses can receive preferential terms from Clearbanc, including zero-interest loans, access to a wide network of mentors and financing from a $1 million fund specifically for female entrepreneurs.

As the sole male entrepreneur in his family, Lütke talked about why helping women succeed in business was a personal mission of his.

“Building your own thing, in the face of great odds, was kind of the thing I grew up surrounded by,” he told the crowd, which was largely comprised of female Shopify employees. Lütke noted during the panel that a majority of businesses on the Shopify platform are now run by women, but the male-run stores are still more successful.

“What that reveals to me is that the difference is not in ambition… there’s simply a larger support network that’s available to men.”

Branson, whose presence on the panel included a fair share of humour and dance, expressed his own excitement in supporting female entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurs, female and male, are what have made the world a better place,” he said. “The more of us, the better.”

Branson suggested that the federal government might pursue legislation to enforce higher gender representation on Canadian boards of directors, as has been done in some Scandinavian countries. Minister Chagger echoed his ideas and confirmed that Bill C-25, introduced recently by the Liberal government, will explore options to increase diversity on corporate boards.