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How to empower women in business during the pandemic — and beyond

Jamie Hoobanoff, Founder of The Leadership Agency, shares her Lessons Learned.

While just about every business has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, some organizations found themselves in more critical situations than others.  Start-ups and small businesses felt the impact most acutely. Statistics Canada recently reported that it was small businesses that were most likely to see a drop in revenue, have to lay off employees, and seek credit just to cover operating costs during the pandemic. 

From what I have observed, conducting business through the coronavirus outbreak, I would say that even among those struggling small businesses, the hardest hit were women entrepreneurs and their women-led businesses. 

Women entrepreneurs in Canada have been the most deeply affected by the pandemic because women-led businesses have always been more vulnerable to economic downturns and have had to struggle harder to launch and to stay afloat. As with most aspects of business, it comes down to money. 

Women entrepreneurs often don’t have access to the same funds available to their male counterparts. VCs, investors, the business community at large have a — not surprising — tradition of putting their money in projects that are familiar to them, business leaders they can identify with and relate to. And even with the number of women-owned businesses on the rise globally, only 2.7% of total capital invested in the US were allocated to companies with a women CEO. Because the financing community remains largely male dominated, all too often this means bankrolling other men. 

So, we need to support each other. 

Women need to use their voices to lift and empower other women. Because that is the only way it is going to happen. 

Let me give you a couple of examples of the alternative as I experienced in a single recent meeting. I was reached out to by an investment firm because my company had recently done work, great work I might add, for one of their portfolio clients. I met in their board room with three male and one women executives representing the firm.  

In this particular encounter, I wasn’t looking for financing, but to initiate a partnership. As we have with many other leading investment firms.

When I addressed a question to the women member of their team, one of the male execs answered on her behalf, explaining, “She’s only here because we couldn’t have three men in a closed room with a woman.” 

I didn’t know what to say. It was a shocking admission. Not only was the only other woman in the room a symbolic gesture — just there because she was a woman with no actual input or impact on the decision making — but they also didn’t have the decency to at least pretend she was an equal participant. 

Blatantly telling me — in front of her — that she was merely a token woman, invited because I was a woman, disempowered us both. Men couldn’t meet with me alone because… Because what? I don’t even know. They seemed to be under the impression that something bad would happen. However, there wasn’t even a woman leader to include in the discussion, so they brought along a placeholder. A mute, powerless, non-participating team member to tip the gender balance. 

Believe me, that does not tip the balance. 

The meeting did not end well. I think their exact words were, “I wanted to let you know that we won’t be working with you; our clients tend to be on the conservative side, and you just have too much personality to be a good fit.” 

I can’t imagine this captain of industry telling a successful male entrepreneur, a CEO of an award-winning agency, that he wouldn’t recommend him to colleagues because he had “too much personality.”

That is only one example of a pattern I have noticed throughout my career. Conversations that should be peer-to-peer that aren’t. This wasn’t founder-to-founder etiquette. It wasn’t business-leader-to-business-leader dialogue. It was a man-to-woman speak. We hear it all the time.

It seems not to be any particular aspect of my character that is a negative, merely the fact that I display a discernable one at all. Or perhaps the issue is that my personality is different. Woman. Not powerless, non-participating, not fearful, or a token. 

We need to use our voices. Here are three ways to get started. 

Expect more

Expect more from those who want your business or want to work with you. Ask tougher questions. Ask potential clients, partners, or vendors what their commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is. What have they done to demonstrate their commitment? What are they doing to empower and support women and BIPOC? Who do their teams consist of? What about their leadership? Do this to determine if they will be worthy of your time and effort. 

Speak up and Reach out. 

If you yourself are a leader, reach out to women entrepreneurs. Show your support. Show up for them. How can you as a leader positively impact your team members and others around you? 

We all have a voice — and I don’t mean just on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. 

It’s about how we network, run our businesses, and choose our partners. Think about what you and your business can do to empower women leaders. 

My advice for other women business leaders is to reach out to your peers. Ask other women entrepreneurs, “How can I help you? How do we support each other? How can I promote your products or services to my network?” 

Show Empathy. 

Leadership starts with empathy. Understanding the challenges of our collaborators, colleagues, and clients is the key to successful sales, effective marketing, and generally conducting good business. Empathy and understanding are fundamentals of my personality, and I suspect this is true of many women — perhaps even more so than men. Throughout this COVID-19 crisis and down the long road to recovery that will inevitably follow, I suggest that we embrace this difference. Women need to reach out and back each other. Factor this support into our business decisions. 

The rebuilding of the economy will be an opportunity to implement change. And I submit that it is better to conduct business with too much personality than with too little character. 

About Jamie Hoobanoff

Jamie Hoobanoff is Founder of The Leadership Agency , the recruitment partner of choice for North America’s fastest-growing startups. With a mission to help build the most impressive companies of our generation, The Leadership Agency helps startups find and hire best-in-class talent. With years of impressive leadership in HR and recruitment, Jamie continues to contribute her expertise to notable publications such as Forbes, CBC, The Globe and Mail, Inc., and HRD Magazine.