With the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle entering its second year, we spoke with Bernadette Wightman, President of Cisco Canada, to find out how the program has progressed since it’s launch, and what’s in store ahead.


By Marie Moore



When I ask Bernadette Wightman, President of Cisco Canada, for her best advice for female entrepreneurs, her response is quick and direct: “Understand your passion. Have the courage to follow it. Take action. And be unafraid to be yourself.”

Her own passion for the topic is immediately clear. She’s a strong supporter of female business owners, pointing out their innovative contributions to the economy and their community ― as well as their struggle to access capital, technology, networks, and knowledge, and the unfortunately small size of their group. “We still only have 15% of all Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses majority-owned by women, and we’re 50% of the population, last I checked.”

Plus, there’s the bigger picture. By encouraging women to follow their passions and helping them to thrive as business owners, Bernadette sees how the impact can reach far beyond one group. “If we can make it better for female entrepreneurs, we’re going to make it better for all entrepreneurs. And if we can make it better for Canadian women, we are going to make it better for all Canadians.”

Under Bernadette’s leadership and with the commitment and support from Willa Black, Corporate Social Responsibility leader, Cisco Canada is helping to make it better in a big way. The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle launched in January of 2016 with the goal of helping female business owners gain access to the tech expertise and understanding needed to grow their digital presence and drive future growth, collaboration, and success.

In the inaugural year, Cisco paired six female entrepreneurs with three interns from Waterloo University, covering the full cost of their employment. It was an opportunity for the growing Canadian companies to better integrate technology in their businesses. To expand the reach beyond these selected entrepreneurs, Cisco also offered seven online courses totaling ninety hours of free learning. The rich curriculum covered topics ranging from the basics of a business-class network to mobility.

“In our first year of registrations, we have over 200 people participating,” says Bernadette, although she quickly adds she wants that number to be 2,000. “We shouldn’t put limits on what we can do here.”

In actuality, the program already extends far beyond a few thousand. The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle has reached over 300,000 people through social media, events, and content. It’s a result that Bernadette and her team are proud of, and that’s helping to grow the program as it moves into its second year.

“The more people who have heard the message, the more we have people wanting to work with us ― whether that’s female entrepreneurs wanting to get involved, or partners that want to help, like the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Communitech. In fact, BDC is joining us in the funding of the program this year.”

Through BDC’s additional funding, the program will be bringing another intern on board in 2017, allowing eight female entrepreneurs to benefit from the specialized help, rather than six. Bernadette is hopeful to attract more organizations willing to commit at the exceptional level that BDC already has. “We’re really good at partnering. I would love to make that invitation. The more we can rally behind this cause, the more we can do.”

In the meantime, Cisco is focusing on improving the program for its second year. A key change is the streamlining of the Entrepreneurs’ Learning Academy. The courses being offered are divided into four streams: Entrepreneurship, Internet of Things, Cybersecurity, and Programming. By enabling entrepreneurs to focus on specific areas, the free learning becomes more approachable and manageable, while still delivering key information. “The reason we’re focusing on these strands,” says Bernadette, “is we really believe they are the most important areas to be knowledgeable in if you want to be in the business environment today.”  

She also firmly believes that a business cannot be successful without taking advantage of technology and what technology can do for them, which is why she sees it as so important that this program not only continues, but continues to grow.   

“Yes, we achieved our goals, but every year it’s important that we make those goals more audacious. The opportunity of working with our female entrepreneurs, the opportunity for innovation in Canada ― it is so enormous. Our goals need to be beaten, and then made bigger.”


The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle addresses some of the obstacles female-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. In partnership with organizations including the Business Development Bank of Canada, Cisco is connecting women to the expertise and knowledge needed for their entrepreneurial ventures to thrive. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for the free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy, and kickstart your journey towards business success.

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