If you were asked to name an entrepreneur, who would be the first person to come to mind?
According to Dr. Wendy Cukier, Founder of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, most people will name Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Jeff Bezos.
“There is a tendency to associate entrepreneurship with men and the technology industry,” Wendy explains. “But one could just as easily name Kylie Jenner, Oprah, or Celine Dion.”
This is just one example of the prevailing stereotypes of entrepreneurship facing women and other disadvantaged groups. These systemic biases are powerful, deeply embedded in our culture, and according to Wendy, they’re negatively impacting women in both their ability and desire to enter the entrepreneurial space, and their success within it.
As one of Canada’s leading experts in disruptive technologies, innovation processes, and diversity, Wendy has been working for decades to promote the participation and advancement of underrepresented groups, including overturning the assumptions and barriers facing women in both the technology and the entrepreneurial space. In November 2020, she co-authored a research paper for the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub entitled See it. Be it. Women Entrepreneurs Beyond the Stereotypes, where she dives into these stereotypes and the dramatic impact they’re having.
“The stereotypes of entrepreneurship are so prevalent in the ecosystem that they shape women’s expectations, they shape policies, and they pose significant barriers when it comes to accessing funding, loans, and government programs, among other things,” Wendy explains.
Take, for example, venture capital funding. “Research shows that women who pitch to VC investors are asked more questions about their track-record as opposed to their potential, compared to male counterparts, and are less likely to be granted funding as a result,” Wendy says. “Many first-time women entrepreneurs, therefore, don’t even apply, because they know what they’re up against going in.”
“Most of the programs and funding models are still created for men, by men, and those come with a certain set of assumptions baked in.”
In an attempt to change the landscape, we are starting to see the emergence of grants and programs targeting women and women-identifying individuals directly, as well as newer approaches to women-centered strategies for growing entrepreneurs — but they still represent a small slice of the ecosystem.
“Most of the programs and funding models are still created for men, by men, and those come with a certain set of assumptions baked in,” Wendy says. “The goal isn’t to have to create special streams of funding for women or minorities only, the goal is to drive inclusion throughout the ecosystem, and reduce the barriers and biases to access mainstream funding.”
Currently, many entrepreneurial support programs focus on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), but only 15.6% of SMEs, or about 110,000, are majority owned by women. On the other hand, nearly 1 million women are self-employed in Canada — representing 37.5% of this group — but self-employed individuals are often ignored by these support programs.
There’s also an imbalance in industry focus. “While entrepreneurship is still strongly associated with the manufacturing and technology space — both in the media and in research — women entrepreneurs are less likely to be in technology,” Wendy says. “Many instead focus on important sectors such as services, health and beauty, retail, social, and cultural — which tend to lack traditional exposure.”
Women also tend to have multiple goals for their businesses, such as sustainability and social impact, that go beyond the prevailing culture of entrepreneurship that values growth and profit.
“This culture comes straight out of Silicon Valley and is reinforced by shows like Dragons’ Den, which can be alienating to women,” Wendy says. “The notion that the ‘pitch’ is the be all and end all, and that starting a business is a cut-throat competition, and the ethos of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ — this doesn’t always work for women.”
Many women are more likely to identify with those social entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place, rather than just raking in millions. “We must recognize that being an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making money for yourself. Raising money for a charity, a social initiative, that’s still entrepreneurship and it matters,” Wendy says. “So, whether we reappropriate the word ‘entrepreneur’ or just focus on calling people ‘changemakers,’ it’s important that we shine light on those women who are making an impact.”
The way things are now, Wendy finds it challenging to encourage women to consider entrepreneurship, especially in North America. “The culture seems to be set against them,” she says. And the issues are amplified when you look at women with multiple layers of identity. “The barriers are even higher for racialized, Black, Indigenous, and other diverse women entrepreneurs — compound that with systemic discrimination at every stage and you’ll see just how much harder it is to be successful.”
Wendy likens the intersectional entrepreneurial experience to a famous quote by former Texas Governor Ann Richards. “She said, ‘After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.’ To be successful, these women need to be twice as good and work twice as hard — which is why we need to keep telling their stories,” Wendy says.
“What we aren’t seeing in the mainstream media is women entrepreneurs featured as part of regular news stories. And we’re especially not seeing Black women entrepreneurs and Indigenous women entrepreneurs.”
Reshaping beliefs can be a slow process, but it must start with the messaging girls receive from a young age, and continue through educational institutions. The media, at all levels, also has a significant role to play in challenging the stereotypes which shape the aspirations of women as well as the ways in which they are treated.
“What we aren’t seeing in the mainstream media is women entrepreneurs featured as part of regular news stories. And we’re especially not seeing Black women entrepreneurs and Indigenous women entrepreneurs.” While they are profiled in specific stories about diversity, they aren’t included in mainstream business media. That echo chamber, as Wendy calls it, must change to make room for more perspectives — and to ensure young girls see themselves in the stories being told. It’s the reason behind WEKH’s ‘See it. Be it.’ efforts. But it’s only one part of the solution.
“The only way to do things differently is to take a systems approach, set targets, maintain accountability, and not accept good intentions in the place of real action,” Wendy says, adding that everyone has a role to play. What she’d like to see is more accountability and transparency when it comes to financial institutions — specifically who they’re giving loans to and what their rates are. Organizations that say they support diversity and inclusion should put their money where their mouth is and invest in diverse procurement. She’d also like to see the government funding of incubators to be tied to gender and diversity commitments. And we, as consumers, can also do our part.
“Consumer choices still have a huge role to play in all of this,” she says. “What businesses are you supporting, where are you buying things from, and how can your spending continue to ensure women led businesses can remain successful?”
Despite the challenges, Wendy remains hopeful. Real action is happening, from small steps to big measures. “Canada has become a global leader with the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy and the 50-30 Challenge, and our new childcare policy is transformational — that is one of the most significant investments in women’s equity that we’ll ever see,” she says. “I’m actually more optimistic now, despite COVID, than I have been for quite some time, that change is possible.”