Backed by $6 billion from the Government of Canada, innovative initiatives are fuelling women entrepreneurs.
The Women Entrepreneurship Strategy is improving access to financing, talent, networks and expertise.
Tanya Zurock’s journey as an entrepreneur started like many others: she was trying to solve a problem. She began making natural soap to improve the health of her young children’s extremely dry and sensitive skin. This led to a deep passion, years of meticulous experimentation, and eventually the Wild Prairie Soap Company, which produces small-batched, plant-based, body-care products for dry and sensitive skin.
Since establishing her business in 2000, Tanya has expanded her brand into over 200 retail locations, digital platforms, and international markets. In 2019, she received a grant through the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy Fund — a federal government program providing a total of $30 million to help women-owned and women-led businesses grow and reach export markets.
“I can honestly say that receiving the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy Grant in 2019 really was a pivotal point for us,” says Tanya. “It helped us to scale up our manufacturing, buy new tanks, new scales.” In the three years since, she’s had a rapid increase in revenue, enabling her company to expand its work force and production capacity, and to retain its visibility in international markets.
Tanya’s story shows how access to funding and support can unlock growth opportunities — and that’s true on a much broader scale as well. Studies show that by advancing gender equality and women’s participation in the economy, Canada could add up to $150 billion in GDP.
It’s a key reason the Government of Canada launched their Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) in 2018, with the goal of increasing the number of women-owned and women-led businesses in the country. The WES Grant Tanya received is just one element of the broad initiative, which on the whole totals more than $6 billion in investments and commitments aimed at increasing women-owned businesses’ access to the financing, talent, networks and expertise they need to start up, scale up, and access new markets.
“Almost 90% of private sector jobs in Canada are in SMEs, and entrepreneurship is a pathway to economic growth and jobs for all Canadians.”
Organized around four pillars — helping women-owned businesses grow; increasing access to capital; improving access to federal business innovation programming; and enhancing data and knowledge — the WES sets out a flexible approach to the delivery of nationally coordinated, regionally tailored programming that recognizes the varying needs of diverse women entrepreneurs across Canada. It pulls together multiple organizations, including Government of Canada resources, private sector corporations, and local community groups, and supports key programs such as the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) — Canada’s most comprehensive network and resource for supporting Canada’s women entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Four years after the WES was announced, the innovative initiatives it backs continue to positively impact not only women entrepreneurs and the organizations supporting them, but also the economy as a whole. “Almost 90% of private sector jobs in Canada are in SMEs, and entrepreneurship is a pathway to economic growth and jobs for all Canadians,” says Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute which leads WEKH. “We need an inclusive and sustainable ecosystem to support diverse women entrepreneurs.”
WEKH plays a key role in supporting that ecosystem, offering women entrepreneurs and organizations supporting women entrepreneurs with resources and tips on how to grow their businesses, access financing and navigate procurement and export systems and source opportunities. Everything takes into account the unique barriers women entrepreneurs face. “When we develop policies and programs we must apply a gender and diversity lens,” says Wendy. “Most of our entrepreneurial financing and support systems were designed by men for men.”
WEKH also leads the largest analysis annually of women entrepreneurs in Canada through its State of Women Entrepreneurship (SOWE) Report. “It’s key to ensure that strategies to reduce barriers of entry and scale up of women-led companies are data-driven,” says Wendy. “WEKH provides a one-stop source of knowledge, data, and best practices to help organizations help women entrepreneurs across the country succeed.”
And the impact goes far beyond the business case. As the SOWE Report points out, compared to men, women entrepreneurs are more often driven by the need to address societal challenges — from environmental sustainability to social and economic inclusion.
“It’s key to ensure that strategies to reduce barriers of entry and scale up of women-led companies are data-driven.”
Take Alisha Esmail, founder of Road Coffee. On a mission to tackle systemic injustices in the coffee industry, she sources quality beans from families of smallholder coffee farmers and sells them directly to the consumer, then invests back into the farmer’s land. Her BeyondFair® trade and microfinance program has led to an average increase of 25 cents per pound in the crop value for 11 farmers and their families.
Alisha has been helped with financing herself, receiving a WES Grant in 2019 that provided her with the resources to develop her E-commerce platforms, expand her business, and thrive during the pandemic while cafés and offices were closed. With the additional mentorship and training that Alisha has received, her business has created strong foundations in her community which has established the company’s reputation and opened doors to investors and coffee farmers.
“A lot of the local incubators or local hubs that are connected to what women entrepreneurs are doing really helps with, not only community, but it could be where to find funding,” says Alisha. “It’s super helpful, from mentorship to funding opportunities.”
Sylvie Ouellette and Rana Khartabil can also attest to the benefits of connecting with business communities. In 2010, they co-founded Versatil, an IT solutions and professional consulting services company, which holds the distinction of being the only Canadian company certified by four professional organizations: WBE Canada (Women Business Enterprises Canada Council), CAMSC (Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council), CCAB (Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business), and CGLCC (Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce).
“I’m proud to say that we are a women-owned, Indigenous, and LGBTQ company,” explains Sylvie, “so I am part of all the councils: WBE, CAMSC, CCAB, CGLCC. A lot of the networking is very good.”
Versatil operates primarily in Ottawa and Montreal, with expansion plans into Toronto and the United States. Since receiving support through the WES Fund, revenue growth has been consistently over 50% every year.
As the individual success stories illustrate, progress has been made since the launch of the WES in 2018 — but access to capital, particularly in smaller amounts, remains a significant barrier for many women entrepreneurs seeking to start or grow their businesses. To address the issue, the Government of Canada allocated $55 million in Budget 2021 for the creation of a new national microloans fund under the umbrella of WES.
The Women Entrepreneurship Loan Fund is delivered through not-for-profit organizations with existing loan programs, enabling them to provide additional affordable financing to women entrepreneurs — particularly start-ups, under-represented groups or sole proprietorships that experience more difficulty in accessing financing. Four organizations are now accepting applications for loans of up to $50,000, including the Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC), National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA), Northumberland Development Assistance Corp (NCFDC), and Coralus (formerly SheEO) Canada.
For women entrepreneurs looking to access venture capital funding, the WES added another ecosystem support initiative in April 2022. The Inclusive Women Venture Capital Initiative allocated $15 million to support new projects focusing on responding to barriers in the venture capital environment, especially for diverse, intersectional and/or under-served women. Rather than directly investing in ventures or funds, the aim is to help strengthen the capacity of women entrepreneurs’ access to VC funding, contribute to increasing the representation of women in the VC industry, or help ensure that the VC industry is sensitive to gender and potential unconscious bias.
From ecosystem growth, to entrepreneur funding and support, to critical data — the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy is directly and indirectly making more women entrepreneur success stories possible. If you’re among that group and wondering how you can tap into help, the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) is a great place to access and learn more about the resources and funding opportunities available.