Laura Didyk has spent more than two decades at The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). The supportive environment has allowed her to achieve success — and now she’s paying it forward, acting as National Lead for BDC’s Women Entrepreneur Strategy, helping the next generation of women leaders excel.
by Shelley White
In her 23 years at The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Laura Didyk has had a lot of mentors, both women and men, who have inspired and guided her along her career journey. One piece of advice from an early mentor stood out:
“It was, ‘Do what works for you and your family, and never apologize for the choices you make,’” she says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. You have to decide what shape you want your career to take, and just go with it.”
It’s advice that appears to have worked. Laura is now Vice-President, Finance and Consulting, Alberta South, at BDC, the only bank in Canada dedicated exclusively to entrepreneurs.
“I had two kids, I’ve been on maternity leave twice, and BDC has been really supportive when it comes to work/life balance and helping me juggle both parts of my life,” says the Calgary-based executive on the challenges of being a woman in business.
“That’s what’s kept me really loyal to the bank — they ‘get’ the fact that employees do have lives outside the bank and they are as important, or more important, than their careers inside the bank.”
As National Lead for BDC’s Women Entrepreneur Strategy, Laura is “paying it forward,” by helping the next generation of women leaders succeed.
“BDC believes that women entrepreneurs have enormous untapped potential,” says Laura. “So we provide the financing, network and management advice they need to invest in their companies and grow.”
“BDC believes that women entrepreneurs have enormous untapped potential”
Laura first got involved in supporting women entrepreneurs in 2015 when BDC unveiled their initiative to better support women and their businesses. They committed to lending $700-million to majority women-owned businesses by 2018, and not surprisingly, ended up exceeding that goal.
With that in mind, they’ve kicked off their Women Entrepreneur Strategy for the next three years. It’s a comprehensive approach to supporting the needs of women entrepreneurs by offering a full spectrum of financing, advisory services and capital solutions. The lending target for women-owned businesses has been doubled to $1.4-billion, including a $200-million Women in Technology venture capital fund to help boost the number of women leading tech startups.
It’s an ambitious target says Laura, to match the ambition of women entrepreneurs across the country.
“Simply put, supporting women entrepreneurs is a priority for BDC,” says Laura. “Women entrepreneurs are becoming a driving force in the Canadian economy. About 50 per cent of all businesses started today are started by women. And women make up almost half of the entire workforce, a number that keeps increasing.”
Laura says that although she believes women have come a long way over the past few years, there are some hard realities that need to change. She points out that women are under-represented and under-funded, particularly in the tech startup ecosystem.
“We need to change the fact that only 5 per cent of Canadian technology companies have a woman CEO,” she says. “We need to change the fact that women make up less than 10 per cent of skilled production workers in Canada, and that only 16 per cent of all small and medium-sized businesses are majority-owned by women.”
Also, small and medium-sized businesses owned by women earn less than half the revenue of comparable male-owned businesses. Laura notes that part of this is a function of industry vertical — many women operate specialized consulting and service-oriented businesses that can be considered “boutique” in size.
“About 50 per cent of all businesses started today are started by women.”
“But that’s not the whole story,” she says. “Women often have a higher awareness of risk which can impact their decisions to seek the capital they need to accelerate the growth of their businesses. Negative perceptions about dealing with banks and other institutions lead many to avoid looking for external sources of funding.”
Laura says organizations like BDC can help change that negative perception. And BDC is ready to support ambitious women entrepreneurs.
“We want people to understand BDC’s role in supporting women entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses and that we are here to help them succeed in today’s competitive environment,” she says. “The real challenge is getting more of them to know that we exist and that we can help.”
To ensure they are accessible for women entrepreneurs, BDC surveyed nearly 400 Canadian women business owners in late 2017. Laura says one of the things they heard was that women entrepreneurs want help in managing and growing their business, but they are often too busy to seek it.
“It can be lonely being an entrepreneur. They have to wear a lot of hats and get stuck working in their business and not on their business,” says Laura. “For women entrepreneurs, it can be even worse because there aren’t a lot of women entrepreneurs, so they may not have the network that men have. Time is very important and if you own a business and have a family at home, it’s difficult to get out to networking events and associations.”
In response, BDC is offering one-day boot camps across the country to help women entrepreneurs develop their management skills. To accommodate women who might not be able to meet in person, they’re offering free online learning on bdc.ca, including articles and tools women entrepreneurs can use to fine-tune their business knowledge.
In an effort to increase coaching for women entrepreneurs, BDC is also supporting hundreds of networking and learning events across Canada, specifically for women entrepreneurs in all industries and all stages of growth, says Laura. For example, to extend BDC’s reach and create a cohesive ecosystem, they’ve partnered with the Women Enterprise Organization of Canada (WEOC), which has a network of more than 90,000 female business owners across the country.
“We are all working to put the puzzle pieces together and support women,” says Laura.
Another important part of BDC’s commitment is the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle program — a way for participants to adopt technology and keep ahead of the competition, says Laura.
“Women are able to receive in-depth advice for a whole summer at no cost, so it takes away that barrier right there,” she says. Internship students from the University of Waterloo are paired with women entrepreneurs to help build their digital strategy and scale their business. The interns get a “real-world” learning experience, and business owners get to learn from the sharpest young minds.
“We’re helping build stronger businesses and the next generation of women in tech, so it’s a win-win situation,” says Laura.
But while BDC’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy will go a long way to support women entrepreneurs, Laura points that this is not enough. A recent study — “Everyday Innovating: Women Entrepreneurs and Innovation” (sponsored by BMO, Government of Canada, Carleton University and the Beacon Agency) — found that all partners in the business ecosystem, including government and financial institutions, play a critical role in changing their practices to support women entrepreneurs.
“BDC is committed to doing just that and lead by example,” says Laura. “We will not shy away from using our size and market position to influence others to join us in our efforts to inspire more women to become founders and business owners.”
More organizations need to realize that these kinds of efforts are not just good for women, she notes.
“When women succeed, we all succeed,” she says. “At the end of the day, the Canadian economy as a whole is going to win.”
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 kick start your journey towards business success.