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What you should know about women entrepreneurs in Canada ahead of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day.

The Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub shares the challenges and opportunities for self-employed women.

During November the world and the United Nations celebrate Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. The movement which started nearly a decade ago in 2013 accelerates and educates the world on the importance of why it’s pivotal to empower women in business globally. The global goal is to ignite women leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and aspiring  entrepreneurs to spark start-ups, drive economic expansion, and advance inclusion in ecosystems worldwide.

Women’s Entrepreneurship Day is an opportunity to celebrate and spotlight the tremendous contributions of diverse women entrepreneurs to Canada’s social and economic development.

Research from the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) provides evidence to highlight opportunities and gaps in Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. The State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada 2022 finds, in part, that the number of new women-founded start-ups with a valuation of more than US$1 Billion (“Unicorns”) in Canada has almost doubled since 2019. And despite the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women-owned businesses, women entrepreneurs have demonstrated incredible resilience, ingenuity, and ability to innovate amid uncertainty.  

“Targeting funding for women entrepreneurs is critical but we also need to erode barriers in the ecosystem,” said Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute which leads WEKH. “We have anecdotal data from organizations like Coralus (formerly SheEO) that show dollar for dollar intelligent investments in women entrepreneurs produce higher returns and lower risks and are more likely to contribute to the sustainable development goals than other taken-for-granted investments in tech and manufacturing. We are currently undertaking research that we expect will show that this is true on a larger scale.”

“Targeting funding for women entrepreneurs is critical but we also need to erode barriers in the ecosystem.”

But, women entrepreneurs still face systemic barriers to starting and growing their businesses. 

Throughout November, WEKH is participating in numerous panels, presentations, and webinars which highlight the unique challenges that women entrepreneurs face in the innovation ecosystem and provide recommendations for moving the agenda forward including policies, practices, and capacity building.

The word “entrepreneur” tends to be associated with men in technology. Yet entrepreneurs operate across sectors — women are more likely to be in services, in arts and culture, in sustainable and social ventures. For example, a Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub study of applications to the BMO Celebrating Women Grant program showed women entrepreneurs often combine sustainable development goals with economic goals in developing their businesses. 

“Definitions matter: only 15% of small and medium enterprises or SMEs are majority owned by women, about 110,000 companies. But almost 40% of self employed Canadians are women (more than 1 million) Women entrepreneurs are less likely to incorporate their business and are more likely to be in services,” said Wendy. “We need to ensure policies and services support them.” 

While highlighting Women’s Entrepreneurship Day in November, WEKH maintains a focus on women entrepreneurship every day of the year. To challenge entrepreneurship stereotypes and celebrate the success of women entrepreneurs, WEKH launched the See it. Be it. Database in 2020 featuring over 1000 profiles of successful women entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, sectors, experiences, and regions across Canada. “Women need to see successful women entrepreneurs so they can dare become one,” adds Wendy. 

“Women need to see successful women entrepreneurs so they can dare become one.”

Women also need better access to financing. Men are four times more likely to receive venture capital and angel investor funding — in part because of bias as well as structural issues. While most entrepreneurs in Canada start their businesses with $5000 or less, it remains difficult to access seed funding.

Wendy notes that complex problems require complex solutions, requiring buy-in from actors across the entire innovation ecosystem. Governments, universities, incubators and accelerators, financial institutions and venture capital, and customers each have a role to play to create a more inclusive environment in which to grow women’s businesses. 

“Women do need access to loans and grants but most of all they need access to customers,” said Wendy. “Organizations that say they are committed to gender equality and diversity need to put their money where their mouth is. Ensuring women owned businesses get a fair share of procurement in government and the private sector is potentially a game changer.” 

WEKH works closely with Women Business Enterprises Canada Council, Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council, Black Business and Professionals Association, and the Canadian Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to ensure that women and diverse entrepreneurs are able to access markets. Organizations like RFAQ, in Quebec, also have innovative programs to help this happen.

You can find more insights about women’s entrepreneurship in Canada by exploring WEKH’s Research library.