Maximizing Potential: How Cisco and BDC are opening doors for women entrepreneurs



Women entrepreneurs represent just a small segment of business owners in Canada, but their numbers and impact are growing — and their potential is even greater. Cisco and the Business Development Bank of Canada have partnered to unlock it, using a unique internship program that’s now in its third successful year.


By Marie Moore



At first glance, the data is disappointing: just 16 per cent of Canadian businesses are majority women owned. They also tend to be smaller and earn less than those owned by men, based on 2014 data from Statistics Canada.

But the trend appears to be shifting. Today, 50 per cent of all new businesses are women-led, according to Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and the gap between earnings is steadily closing.

The lag that still remains is not due to a lack of ambition. Studies have found a greater proportion of women entrepreneurs plan to expand their business as compared to their male counterparts. Unfortunately, many women struggle to access the capital, technology, networks, and knowledge that they need for a successful expansion — or even to just get their business off the ground.

It’s an issue that needs to be addressed, and not just for the benefit of entrepreneurial women.

“Women-led businesses are good for Canada. A small percent of all Canadian entrepreneurs are female, but we know that these female-led businesses not only boost Canada’s GDP, but also increase national well-being and competitiveness, improve women’s employability, empowerment, and gender equality,” says Rola Dagher, President, Cisco Canada. “Cisco is committed to helping women to become more successful entrepreneurs by addressing some of the barriers they face in building their IT capability and business resilience in this fast paced environment we live in today.”              

Having technical knowledge will not only help Canadian women entrepreneurs sustain and grow their footprint, but it can also level the playing field for entrepreneurs to compete with larger organizations. That’s why Cisco has partnered with like-minded organizations, including BDC, to work together to bridge this technology gap — using innovative and impactful initiatives.

Now in its third year, the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle champions the success of Canadian women leading high-growth businesses by providing them with increased access to technology knowledge and resources. One of the key elements of this initiative is the Circle of Innovation program, which pairs engineering students from the University of Waterloo with women entrepreneurs to help build their organization’s digital strategy, scale and impact in the marketplace. BDC has been instrumental in identifying business owners for the program, which has seen 14 successful partnerships completed so far, with 12 more getting started in 2018.


“Having technical knowledge will not only help Canadian women entrepreneurs sustain and grow their footprint, but it can also level the playing field for entrepreneurs to compete with larger organizations.”


The 16-week program enables the intern and entrepreneur pairs to address key issues, from technical deployments and challenges to application development, systems administration and help desk functionality. Interns work from the new Cisco Innovation Centre in downtown Toronto, are given access to Cisco’s DevNet developer community, and are provided with Cisco engineer mentoring opportunities throughout. Entrepreneurs benefit from the sustained access to an IT expert — an invaluable resource that enables big picture solution-finding, innovation, and significant development.

“We want to help women entrepreneurs embrace technology and that is exactly what this is all about,” says Maggy Tawil, Assistant Vice President, Partnerships, BDC. “For a third year we are partnering with Cisco to offer this program to some of our women entrepreneur clients. We find it of great value that these entrepreneurs are able to receive in-depth advice for a whole summer from knowledgeable university interns as well as Cisco’s experts.”

The 2018 cohort of twelve women business owners represent industries ranging from fashion to environmental engineering. Each of the entrepreneurs are entering the program with their own unique challenges, and they’ll be looking to technology to help solve them.

Deborah Assaly, who participated in 2017, understood the benefits technology could have for her family business, Paramount Paper. She was paired with intern Deanna Danelon, who worked on creating a website for her new consumer division, a network refresh, and implementing cloud technology — a key goal of Deborah’s.

As Deborah said, “It’s definitely a competitive advantage. As a whole our industry is not very technology advanced. I was very excited to have this opportunity and be one of the first to have improved productivity through modernizing our overall structure with the cloud for internal use. This is sure to have a positive ripple effect to our customers and increase sales.”



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.



Wear it to Work: How four of Toronto’s top business leaders define their personal style


by Stephanie Ray, founder and designer, Grayes





I started Grayes because I believe you should feel like “you” in your work clothes, and love your 9-to-5 looks as much as your favourite pair of jeans. You shouldn’t have to invest in two separate wardrobes — one for work and one for the rest of your life. My solution — buy less, buy better. Invest in versatile wardrobe essentials that you can style for the office but also wear more casually off-duty or dress up for a night out. The key is to find a few thoughtfully designed everyday pieces that express your style, and empower you at the office and beyond.

Knowing how important it is for women to feel good in their workwear, we collaborated with four industry-leading Toronto women to design the Driven by Grayes capsule collection. Drawing on inspiration from their careers, each woman collaborated with our design team to create their version of the perfect piece of workwear. The result: four distinct garments designed to drive you through their day. (Best of all, the collection comes full circle, with a portion of the proceeds from the collection being donated to the charity of their choice.)




Laura McGee
Founder & CEO of Diversio

Laura McGee’s career has been remarkable, to say the least. Between her high-profile position in consulting and her latest role as Founder and CEO of Diversio, she still finds time for her charitable initiatives, Summit Leaders and #GoSponsorHer, a social media movement that champions high-potential women and unlocks female talent. Given her busy work life, Laura was craving something stylish and comfortable. She designed the Laura Dress for multi-hyphenates like her — women who need clothing to seamlessly adapt to their unpredictable days. Sales of the Laura Dress will benefit Summit Leaders, Laura’s own not-for-profit organization fostering interest in business and entrepreneurship among Canadian youth.





Michelle Khalili
Managing Director, Private Capital, Investment Banking

After 15 years of blazing her own trail in equity markets, corporate finance and investment banking, Michelle Khalili knows that success is created, not found. Her passion for helping companies look forward and grow is unstoppable. She currently sits on the board of directors for Women’s College Hospital, Ontario Brain Institute, and was honoured with the Women in Capital Markets Award. A classic staple well suited for the corporate world, the Michelle Dress can be styled in any direction, whether you keep it simple or opt to accessorize. Sales of the Michelle Dress will benefit the Canadian Cancer Society, Canada’s foremost organization devoted to those living with and affected by cancer.





Elena Mayer
Senior Manager, PwC and President & CEO, Women Who Rock

As the founder of Women Who Rock and just one of three female students in her global mining management program, Elena Mayer has made it her life’s work to support women moving into skilled trades. She works at PwC and instead of assimilating to the masculine status-quo, she embraces femininity in the workplace and expresses her own personal style. Inspired by the gem-stone hues that colour her career, the Elena Dress makes a statement Elena is not afraid of making. Sales of the Elena Dress will benefit Mining Matters, a charitable organization dedicated to bringing knowledge and awareness about Canada’s geology and mineral resources.





Kirstine Stewart
President & CRO, TribalScale

For Kirstine Stewart, no venture is off-limits. Named to Maclean’s list of powerful Canadians, Kirstine has made major career moves look simple. You may recognize Kirstine Stewart’s name from her time as a Vice President at Twitter Canada. She made her way through the highest ranks of media before diving into tech. Most recently, Kirstine is CRO & President of Canada’s top innovator, TribalScale which she hopes to transform into a globally focused, Canadian-based resource for digital strategies and product development. Kirstine designed the Kirstine Blazer to work just as well dressed up or down, comfortable in a casual tech setting or polished in the boardroom of a venture capital firm. Sales of the Kirstine Blazer will benefit Move the Dial, an organization devoted to the advancement of women in tech.



Shop the full Driven by Grayes collection and support four incredible charities at