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Sprint Hurdles: Nina Gupta

Despite recent dramatic growth in the number of women-owned firms, and many success stories barrier to further growth still exist.

By: Himani Ediriweera


Here are the facts: Overcoming gender bias in the entrepreneurial world, women-owned and women-led businesses provide 1.7 million jobs in Canada, compared to 1.5 million jobs provided by Canada’s top 100 companies.

Despite barriers, like access to capital and financing, access to global markets and a lack of national and international networks that might have helped businesses grow, women are now taking an aggressive approach and are the fastest growing sector in the Canadian economy.

“I do not give any importance to gender and I don’t think I have ever encountered it,” said Nina Gupta (opposite page photo), president of Montreal-based Greenlite Lighting Corp., which distributes and manufactures compact fluorescent bulbs.

Gupta’s firm, which was founded in 1994, is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of energy-efficient lighting products.

“Maybe I am too thick-skinned for it to click in,” she says. “I am just like a bull in a China shop and do what I have to do and if you don’t like it, that’s just too bad. I belong to quite a few groups and it is not something I hear coming up anymore. I hear the contrary and I think men are more intimidated because the women are such tough cookies.”

Gupta, who belongs to many women’s organizations and a men’s group of 14 — which she infiltrated as the only woman — says women today are the next generation of business.

“It’s the typical profile (of a woman entrepreneur),” she says. “You have to be thick-skinned. It’s the most important thing you need.”

According to a 2001 Statistics Canada study, the number of women entrepreneurs grew by 208% compared to a 38% increase for men.

Government research shows the trend toward the rapid growth of self-employment in the country is continuing, with self-employment having grown faster in the past 25 years than paid employment.

Since 1976, the average annual growth rate of self-employment with women was 5.3%, compared with 2.2% for men, meaning that women entered into self-employment twice as fast as men during the same period. Between 1996 and 2001 the ratio increased even further, with women entrepreneurs growing by 8% compared to a 0.6% increase for men.

“We are here to make revenue and to run an ethical business,” Gupta adds. “I think women take corporate responsibility much more seriously and we run our businesses like we run our homes. It’s the same way a woman juggles her kids, the husband, the family, the cooking — everything gets done.”

With an unequivocal impact on the Canadian economy, the government’s 2004 Financing Profile shows 570,000 people were employed by majority women-owned businesses in 2001, and an additional 404,000 people hired on contract. Majority women-owned SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) brought in combined annual revenues of $72 billion in 2000, representing approximately 8% of all revenues from Canada’s SMEs.

Yet research shows that some women entrepreneurs still face gender specific barriers in the start-up and growth stages and grapple with business success.

The Prime Minister’s Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs found these obstacles impede the full economic growth potential of this segment of Canadian society.

In 2002 the Prime Minister established the first ever Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs in recognition of the growing impact of women entrepreneurs in Canada. The initiative included public and online consultations with all stakeholders across the country, including women entrepreneurs, associations, government agencies and departments at all levels and financial institutions.

Its mandate was to examine unique challenges faced by women-owned businesses and to provide advice to the federal government on broad policy issues on women’s entrepreneurship.

The report, released in 2003, identified a need for improved access to financial support, government procurement and export opportunities, maternity benefits to entrepreneurs, and more research on women entrepreneurs.

The study indicated access to capital for women-led and women-owned business, for the purposes of development and growth, was the top issue. Fifty eight per cent of SMEs that were majority-owned by women were in a slow-growth stage of development, mainly due to a lack of access to financing.

While 86% of Canadian businesses owned by women are in the service industry — slower growth and high risk like fashion, food and retail, where financing is known to be more challenging to acquire — women entrepreneurs have been segueing into less traditional roles like manufacturing, construction and other industrial fields in recent years.

In 2000, Statistics Canada reports women held at least 50% ownership in 31% of knowledge-based industry firms and 31% of manufacturing firms. According to RBC there has been an increase in the number of female entrepreneurs succeeding in “non-traditional” industries like finance, film, construction, oil and gas, and transportation.

It took a few blackouts, brownouts, world environmental awareness and government legislations to get Gupta’s business on track.

And while every woman entrepreneur may not experience all, or perhaps any, of these barriers or challenges, the Task Force report states that as long as they do exist, Canadian public policy must reflect and address them.

Gupta says perseverance, knowledge and passion is the driving force behind any successful business, regardless of race or gender.

“One thing people have no patience for … is if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Everybody has very little time, be it financial institutions, other business people, customers. Nobody wants to talk to you if you are winging it,” Gupta says. “You need an in-depth knowledge of what you’re doing so you don’t get side blasted, which has happened to me in the past. [You need] a real commitment and passion for your project — and I mean you have to bring it home.”

She discards sexual bias.

“It has become somewhat of a crutch, ‘Oh I couldn’t do it because …’ I don’t believe that at all. I think they (the government) are helping. I think they are going out of their way, helping women, which is still considered minority- owned. I do think they are going out of their way as far as financing, start up money.

“If you have a good business plan they are not looking at gender. I do not find anyone discriminates [because] I am a woman.”

Still, sexism remains a booming business. Whether the individual is an entrepreneur or a salaried employee, the mores and attitudes from the Mad Men generation – frat boy, private club, patriarchal — still thrive openly, although more subtle among many in the younger set.

A May article in Harvard Business Review, based on a Catalyst research study, punched holes in the theory that despite the fact women represent just three per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 15 per cent of corporate executives at leading companies worldwide – and despite the fact that the ranks of women in the global workforce is growing, dramatically in some countries — things will change over time, that more women are poised to make it to the top ranks.

The study showed that among graduates of elite MBA programs worldwide from the years 1996 to 2007, women continue to sit behind men at every career stage. Any reports of advancement up the corporate ladder, progress in compensation levels, and overall satisfaction are overblown. Inquity remains entrenched, according to the study. Assumptions about demographics and life choices have become handy excuses, the article said. A presumption that men are qualified and women have to prove themselves? That’s the question.

As an entrepreneur, Gupta says she has overcome any obstacles, perceived or real, because she’s a proven businessperson – period. Export Development Canada has been there for her, when she needed money, mainly because her business plan was solid.

“If I was a monkey, they would do it,” she says. In 2007, Gupta won the RBC Canadian Woman Entrepreneur Trailblazer Award for being a visionary, a leader, a successful businesswoman, in all elements a trailblazer in her field. In 2008 she was recognized again by RBC with the Momentum Award for successfully overcoming obstacles and capitalizing on opportunities, recognizing that Greenlite’s annual revenues in 2007 had risen to $30 million, up from $300,000 in 1996.

She now has offices in Canada, China and the U.S., with factories in China. Ninety-five-per-cent of her business is in the United States.

There are other studies that are more optimistic.

Services to Global Markets: a profile of Canadian Women Who Export Services, a study in response to the 1999 Canada/USA Businesswomen’s Trade Summit, shows businesses started by women are more likely than average to survive past the first three years, partly due to making more careful decisions about finances.

The same is true in exporting services. Women succeed more frequently than men though their average revenue volumes tend to be lower. Sixty per cent of women attribute their success to patience and persistence, 52% to wide networks of well-connected contacts, 51% to a willingness to adapt to the local culture, and 49% to innovative services that meet unmet needs.

According to the study, the main challenges these women face are finding the time required to travel abroad, other responsibilities, a lack of well-connected contacts, funding the repeated market visits necessary to acquire new business, and difficulty in finding suitable local partners.

The same study shows women rely primarily on referrals from customers and strategic partners to identify market opportunities and target market contacts.

The study finds managing growth without jeopardizing the quality of service they provide to clients is a major challenge for women entrepreneurs, especially when trying to develop export markets.

Best Practices for Women Entrepreneurs in Canada, May 2004, shows gender-specific characteristics exhibited by women’s SMEs as an economic cluster including “a strong commitment to their local community, particularly in terms of sourcing and employment.” The study also said women SMEs, “Perceive themselves to be at the centre of their business organization with teams and working groups emanating from that central position, rather than develop rigid hierarchical structures in which they are positioned at the top.”

Gupta is a walking testimonial to that, filling her business and fulfilling her social objectives by helping out her fellow women.

“When I was young woman I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have experience and I couldn’t get experience if I couldn’t get a job. So I always made it a point that Greenlite will hire any woman who wants to join the workforce,” she says, adding all she requires is a two-year commitment. “We have an open office environment. We’re 15 girls, drinking margaritas Fridays. We’re pretty cool.”

Cool, and with a sense of humour, apparently.

She adds, laughing: “We had to hire a couple of men because I was told to stop telling everyone I only hire women because I sound sexist. Then I said, ‘Well I am sexist.’ So I was told, ‘You better hire some men before someone slaps a lawsuit on you.’ So I did, but only two.”