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Women entrepreneurs are missing out on the growing opportunities of procurement — here’s how to change that.

Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub and RFAQ, leaders in Canada’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, are addressing key issues.

By Sarah Kelsey


Over the last few years, as more organizations are asserting their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through concrete actions, there’s been greater investment in supplier diversity programs — resulting in a large and growing opportunity for women and diverse entrepreneurs. 

The problem? Even though governments and corporations are among the largest buyers of goods and services in Canada, their procurement processes are not well understood and not often on the radar screens of women entrepreneurs. In addition, while governments and large organizations are increasingly setting procurement targets for women, Indigenous and diverse entrepreneurs, their procurement processes are often exceedingly complex and difficult to navigate. Fortunately, leaders in the ecosystem are stepping in with new programs and resources to help women entrepreneurs tap into this tool for growth. And WEKH is working to encourage large organizations to rethink the barriers and bias in their procurement processes and to embrace best practices from global leaders. 

In 2010, after a retirement she “didn’t like,” Ruth Vachon took on the role of  Présidente-directrice générale of Réseau des Femmes d’affaires du Québec (RFAQ) — the Quebec Business Women’s Network. Since then, she’s been advocating for businesswomen to take the right steps to achieve their entrepreneurial aspirations. One of the biggest knowledge gaps she’s seen is in procurement. 

“The problem is most entrepreneur organizations or startup networks don’t offer support around procurement, and how to build a customer base,” Ruth says. “It’s all about promotion and getting started and accessing capital.” 

This hasn’t been the case with RFAQ under Ruth’s leadership. Over the last 12 years, the organization has created solutions to enable women-owned businesses to access the supply chains of large companies, including assisting them in obtaining women-owned certification to qualify for supplier diversity programs, as well as promoting a responsible supply approach to buyers. 

Her latest effort kicked off not long before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) called her asking if, because of her procurement knowledge, she would be interested in building an initiative to support the growth of women-led businesses (especially those led by Black and racialized women). The new program, RFAQ+, launched in February, 2020. 

“So many women entrepreneurs have an interest in sales; they want to sell to large suppliers. With RFAQ+ we can build their skills but also give them a different way to secure contracts.”

Today, RFAQ+ is a unique, bilingual, virtual community and program that connects women-owned companies to the procurement services of major corporations with a goal of issuing contracts. Member businesses develop a profile that’s then listed in a directory equipped with artificial intelligence, so large national and international companies can easily get to know their service offering, with minimum effort on both sides. There’s even a news feed informing entrepreneurs about calls for tender, training sessions, all-important networking events, and more.  

“Counselling women on how to secure contracts really makes a difference. It’s putting real money into the pockets of entrepreneurs and showing them how to do things one day at a time,” Ruth says. “So many women entrepreneurs have an interest in sales; they want to sell to large suppliers. With RFAQ+ we can build their skills but also give them a different way to secure contracts.”

Since its inception, the program has been tremendously successful. “In the first few years, I said we were going to bring 500 women entrepreneurs into the program, but we already have close to 400,” says Ruth. “The results show corporations want to buy from women entrepreneurs — they just didn’t know how to reach them.”  

According to Dr. Wendy Cukier, Founder of the Diversity Institute and Academic Director of the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), it’s tailored and effective programs like RFAQ+ that need to be replicated. “A lot of the emphasis for women entrepreneurs is on access to financing, which is clearly important, but access to markets and customers can be even more important when it comes to business growth and success,” she explains. “When we talk about rebuilding better, procurement is — without question — one of the largest strategic levers we have.  And it’s not just a supply issue, large organizations need also to make their procurement processes more accessible by asking hard questions about why they do things the way they do them. Managing risk is of course important. But sometimes the request for proposal (RFP) for a $200,000 job is as complex as an RFP for a billion dollar construction project. We are examining the processes being used by global leaders like AT&T to manage risk while providing opportunities to women and diverse entrepreneurs.”

“In procurement, knowing where you might fit in the supply chain and how the process works is key to helping you target new opportunities, build your networks, and ultimately win contracts.”

WEKH is the most comprehensive network and resource supporting Canada’s women entrepreneurship ecosystem, with 10 hubs across the country to better respond to regional needs. It was through evidence-based research about barriers faced by women entrepreneurs from the Diversity Institute and discussion with these hubs — and with women entrepreneurs — that WEKH found that procurement opportunities often fly under the radar for this group, and there’s a lack of understanding of the basics

“In procurement, knowing where you might fit in the supply chain and how the process works is key to helping you target new opportunities, build your networks, and ultimately win contracts,” says Wendy. “Even if you aren’t ready to be a tier-one supplier providing products and services directly to large corporations, there are still contracts to be had providing services or products indirectly to the large corporations through a tier-one or higher supplier.” 

WEKH developed a procurement resource guide that covers everything women entrepreneurs need to understand the supply chain, navigate procurement systems, and to start sourcing new opportunities — from defining specific terminology to links to supplier diversity initiatives and programs. You’ll also find a webinar series on Demystifying Procurement & Diversifying the Supply Chain, research on perceptions of supplier diversity, and more targeted resources to empower diverse women entrepreneurs seeking and competing for procurement opportunities. And WEKH works with supplier diversity councils like CAMSC and others to help large organizations modernize their approach to procurement.

WEKH has also partnered with RFAQ and other organizations to create new resources. Since the inception of the federal government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, RFAQ has actively collaborated with the knowledge hub, as a member of its governance committee and particularly through its Quebec regional hub. A new collaboration between RFAQ and WEKH will see RFAQ’s support offerings extended to a new cohort of 100 Black and newcomer women in Quebec, extending the promise of market access to underrepresented and underserved women entrepreneurs. 

Programs designed to help women entrepreneurs land big-market deals are key, but Ruth notes that the entrepreneurs themselves also have a role to play. An expanded customer base can only come when sales and procurement are a core part of a business’s development strategy. 

“It’s about networking and showing up,” says Ruth, “and if you do that, contracts will follow.”