By Sarah Kelsey
Traditional systems for funding a business, from bank lending to venture capital, weren’t built with women or Indigenous business owners in mind. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see tides are turning within the financial industry, especially here in Canada. Paving the way is Shannon Pestun, a former banker turned entrepreneur, financial educator, social justice advocate, and senior advisor to the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH).
Shannon, a Métis woman who grew up in the Treaty 7 area of Alberta, says she stumbled upon her career as a financial barrier breaker by happenstance. In fact, she has a vivid memory of a junior high school guidance counsellor telling her to avoid doing anything with math because she “wasn’t good at it” — an experience which understandably left her fearful of numbers.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, Shannon pursued a career in marketing. Ironically, her marketing career led her to work at an Alberta-based financial institution, where she was encouraged to start a new career as a business banker. It was during that time that she began to see the cracks in the financial system’s approach to the funding of women- and Indigenous-owned businesses.
“A woman was trying to buy a daycare, and I remember seeing all of the hoops she had to go through to prove her business case and thinking things would never have been as hard if she was a man.” Shannon also noticed there were no women in the portfolio of entrepreneurs she managed.
“That was a moment of awakening for me. When you see something, you can’t unsee it. I became relentless about understanding the gender gap in entrepreneurship and seeking meaningful ways to close it,” she says.
Shannon began to educate herself by looking at the research — and going deeper into the frontlines. Under an anonymous twitter handle, A Girl’s Biz Banker, Shannon started new conversations with women entrepreneurs and innovators to better understand their needs as entrepreneurs. She also looked to banks from around the world to identify best practices for meeting the needs of women entrepreneurs. The deeper she went, the more she saw how and where the financial system was failing women.
“Canada’s banking system was never designed with women in mind. Today, women remain the single largest underserved group of customers in the financial services sector.”
Working inside the financial system, Shannon knew that there was opportunity for change. The challenge, however, was finding a way to drive that change forward. “Canada’s banking system was never designed with women in mind. Today, women remain the single largest underserved group of customers in the financial services sector.”
Shannon’s passion for change led her to be one of the first women in the country to lead a women’s banking strategy. “It was a role I lobbied for,” says Shannon. ”Not everyone was supportive of the work I was leading.” But tenacity and a desire for change kept Shannon on her path to reimagine banking for women, which included helping women access the financial capital they needed to start and grow their business, connecting them to networks and professionals, and building learning opportunities to support them in their journey.
While Shannon’s work included creating new funding models, such as introducing a cohort-based, rewards-based crowdfunding initiative, she also introduced a new training for frontline team members to better understand the gendered differences in money and entrepreneurship, and brought together team members from across the bank to create a holistic value proposition that was centred on breaking barriers and closing the entrepreneurial gender gap.
“The most cited barrier for women entrepreneurs is financial capital,” says Shannon, adding that on a funding level, more needs to be done to address the way risk is assessed and how that shapes lending and investing decisions. Her lived experience was validated by much of the research led by the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub. According to The State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada 2022 from WEKH, the processes used to make decisions about financing — the “five C’s” (capacity, collateral, capital, character, and conditions) — are based, to a large extent, on historical patterns that disadvantage women and other underestimated groups.
In 2018, Shannon was appointed to serve on a panel supporting Canada’s women entrepreneurship strategy. In 2020, she became an entrepreneur herself, with a focus to deepen her work in closing the entrepreneurial gap as a financial consultant. From there, she became WEKH’s Senior Advisor – Business and Finance, where she has helped the organization develop research and networks to improve women’s access to financial, social, and entrepreneurial capital. Shannon notes that her lived experience not only enables her to inform research, policies, and practices, but also helps her connect with other entrepreneurs.
“On an individual level, many women entrepreneurs are socialized, just like I was, to believe they aren’t good with money or numbers.”
She has also brought her skills and experience to a new venture — co-founding The Finance Cafe, Canada’s first gender-focused business financial learning program designed to help women entrepreneurs — and those who support them — explore what’s behind the numbers to find greater confidence and build greater capacity in financial decision making. Over 200 women entrepreneurs and advisors have gone through the program.
“On an individual level, many women entrepreneurs are socialized, just like I was, to believe they aren’t good with money or numbers,” so they shirk responsibility for the monetary management of their businesses to someone else, Shannon says.”But that’s not true. If you can understand the numbers better and beyond just reading a financial statement, you can shape your own financial story.”
Recent reports from WEKH show that while there are societal and organizational barriers, one of the individual level barriers to success for women with small businesses is financial literacy and confidence. Organizations like The Finance Cafe and WEKH are expanding how they support these groups. New bursaries (including one created by Shannon for Indigenous women entrepreneurs) and funding opportunities are being granted by the government, and financial institutions are waking up to the gender gap within the entrepreneurial space.
There’s still work to be done, but Shannon is optimistic. “A lot has changed since I started this work. Things are still changing. But there’s more ahead,” she says. “I care deeply about this work, and I’ll continue working towards a more inclusive financial system — and building new ways for women to navigate a system that wasn’t designed by them, or for them.”