‘Baptism by fire’: New Startup Canada chief launching new resources for COVID-19 crisis

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Startup Canada CEO Kayla Isabelle weighs on the challenges facing Ottawa's tech sector. (File photo)

Already faced with big shoes to fill, Kayla Isabelle is getting a crash course in crisis management in her first two weeks as the new leader of Startup Canada.

The 27-year-old Carleton University graduate took over as executive director of the Ottawa-based organization dedicated to growing the country’s entrepreneurial community in early March after co-founders Victoria Lennox and Cyprian Szalankiewicz announced they were “passing the torch” to a new leadership team.

To say that Isabelle didn’t get much of a honeymoon period would be an understatement. In the span of just a few days, she went from hobnobbing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an International Women’s Day event to dealing with perhaps the greatest economic crisis this country’s small businesses have confronted in generations.

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As the escalating spread of COVID-19 has confined millions of Canadians to their homes for all but essential trips outdoors and provinces have shut down bars, restaurants and thousands of other businesses in a bid to cope with the crisis, Isabelle is seeking ways to help entrepreneurs across the country keep their heads above water.

“It’s been very much a baptism by fire,” she says, noting that many of the more than 250,000 entrepreneurs her organization aims to support have been “catastrophically” affected by the coronavirus outbreak. 

She says that while aid packages such as the $82-billion emergency response plan the federal government unveiled earlier this week will help cushion the blow, more needs to be done to assist startups that don’t have the financial resources to withstand a prolonged business drought.

Isabelle, who worked as a communications consultant and digital marketing expert for various organizations before joining Startup Canada last fall, says her group is launching a series of webinars to help small business owners navigate their way through the crisis. 

The digital seminars will feature seasoned entrepreneurs offering advice on things such as how to manage your brand and communicate effectively with customers during the outbreak as well as strategies for managing cash flow and planning for extended shutdowns. Isabelle says the webinars could begin as early as next week.

Startup Canada is trying to help small businesses get through trying times in other ways, she adds. 

Last week, the organization launched a program in conjunction with the Coca-Cola Foundation to train and mentor 10,000 women entrepreneurs, particularly those in rural areas and often marginalized groups such as the indigenous and LGBTQ communities, in an effort to support them as they scale their companies.

Startup Canada is also working with a pair of Crown corporations – Export Development Canada and the Business Development Bank of Canada – on webinars to help small businesses that are looking to sell products outside of Canada at a time when many countries are closing their borders. 

A passionate supporter of small business – “Anybody who knows me knows that I’m arguably one of the most energetic people you’ll find,” she notes with a chuckle – Isabelle says her long-term priorities will focus on making Canadian startups in all sectors more export-ready as well as giving marginalized groups such as indigneous entrepreneurs the tools they need to succeed in business. 

But right now, she says, “I think we’re just trying to support in as many ways as possible getting our entrepreneurs back on their feet.”

Asked for her advice to small business owners, she says everyone has a role to play in weathering the current storm and working together will help make a monumental task more manageable.

“I would say, be gentle on yourself and others,” Isabelle says. “This is an unprecedented moment for the entrepreneurial community. There is incredible support around you. Lean on each other during these very challenging times.”

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