Skip to content

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.