We are thrilled to be sharing a series here on L-SPARK’s blog that features incredible female founders and funders. While we are leading up to International Women’s Day, we believe that women should be celebrated all year so we’ll be posting these female founder and funder posts on a regular basis.
* * *
We pulled together four of the most brilliant minds across four VC firms in Canada to share with you their insights on the topic of female funders and founders and how we level the playing field.
Featured in this post:
Danielle Smith – Marketing and Operations Manager, ScaleUP Ventures
Katie Paterson – Director of Marketing, Espresso Capital
Nicole Kelly – Community Director, OMERS Ventures
Kate Grant – Analyst, Community and Ventures, Information Venture Partners
This post is a long one but it’s SO worth the read and it’s jam-packed with helpful advice and resources.
* * *
Which Canadian women entrepreneur(s) or women business owner(s) inspires you most?
There is a long long list of women I know and aspire to know that act as a constant source of inspiration to me. To focus in, I will look to my local community in Toronto. I am very much inspired by these women who are causing some great waves in the Toronto & Tech community:
Paula Kwan – Director of Civic Innovation office at the City of Toronto. She is tackling big civic problems with innovation and human-centered design.
Erica Pearson – CEO & Co-Founder of Vacation Fund. She took a leap from the corporate world to build Vacation Fund, an employer-matched savings tools for personal travel goals.
Laura Curk – Senior Marketing Manager at Hockeystick. She is leading marketing voice for Hockeystick and their brand in the FinTech community.
Oh, gosh. This is a really hard one to answer! One founder I am extremely proud and in admiration of is Eva Wong, co-founder and COO of Borrowell.
Borrowell is transforming the financial services industry, providing consumers with more transparent lending options and free credit scores. The company rocks. The culture rocks.
Not to mention Eva also became a founder when she was in her thirties and a mother – traditionally, not your typical founder profile. Her vision and tenacity are incredibly inspiring. #HugeFan
I don’t have a specific Canadian women entrepreneur who inspires me but instead, I’m most inspired by all of the women who are in the venture capital community.
There are some incredible women in venture who are not only changing the face of the investment community but also help invest in more women founded companies. They inspired me to enter venture capital, a career path that previously seemed hard to enter, and continue to inspire me daily with the work they are doing in the community.
* * *
How does empowering and investing in women entrepreneurs benefit communities & society?
One thing that I have always advocated for is diversity in voices. When we support a diverse group of people, including women, it is going to naturally benefit our society. By investing and empowering only one group of individuals, we are really only hearing one story, seeing one outcome. By diversifying, as a society we are able to adopt different ways of seeing things, different business practices and different policies that will help us grow and learn as a society.
* * *
We know that the proportion of SMEs entirely owned by women in Canada is increasing. But not fast enough. How can we speed up the process?
I believe that communication is one of the key factors to this. If you are not in the know about various initiatives then you cannot take advantage of them. While the tides are changing and there has been more awareness around funding, programming and breaking down barriers to entry there is still some work to be done.
The development of funding specifically for women entrepreneurs is good step in the right direction. Due to these funds I think women entrepreneurs are starting to enter the space because they are realizing there is funding for their ideas and they can make these ideas a reality.
* * *
What’s your advice for women looking to start a business, and do not necessarily know where to begin?
I’ll take the words I heard from Nancy Peterson, CEO & Founder of Homestars: “Just do it, You’ll never regret starting a business ever. Even if it doesn’t go as planned and you decide it’s not for you, it open more doors. So go for it!”
I cannot agree more with these words. I tend to overthink my next steps in life and it is reminders like this from successful women in the tech space that remind me that “taking a leap” can leap to new opportunities you could never have imagined or planned.
More often than not, successful businesses have started when an individual decides to tackle a problem they have encountered in their personal network or professional life. So, start there. Kick start the entrepreneur inside of you by trying to address challenges in your day-to-day life – it’s as much of a mindset as it is an ability – always think about how the human experience can improve.
Once you have some sort of a direction, you can tap into the resources that may be available to you locally. For those living in our larger metropolitans, there are a ton of physical networks and resources to assist you with getting your business off the ground (or your thoughts onto paper). Ottawa’s Startup Canada represents 80,000 entrepreneurs across 20 communities from coast to coast. Toronto’s StartupHere provides access to funding, space, tools, and a network of other SMB owners from across the city to learn from. For those in remote communities that may not have access to physical opportunities easily, there are a ton of quality forums and sites online to help you jump in.
Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for feedback and advice directly. While many business owners are busy building their empire, almost all of them carve out time to mentor the next wave of entrepreneurs – giving back the same mentorship that they obtained along their journey.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and mentorship! When I started my career, I set up as many coffee chats and lunches with people in the biz as possible. Use your connections, network and you will see things start to fall into place. It’s a lot of work but it also pays off.
* * *
Women-owned biz are growing fast. What systems are being created to help them scale up?
There are a wide array of opportunities available, everything from government-funded grants at the provincial level for SMBs, to private organizations offering funding for female entrepreneurs. For some of my favourites in the community: check out accelerators Fierce Founders (Waterloo, ON) DMZ’s Women Founders Accelerator (Toronto, ON), StandUp Ventures, a seed stage fund recently launched by the BDC and MaRS.
There are some fantastic systems and programs that are being created to help with female founders and business owners.
BDC Women in Tech Fund, The Fierce Founders Accelerator, it was recently announced in the 2018 federal budget there would be more dollars allocated for female entrepreneurs. Along with this allocated money, there are also some fantastic women led meet up initiatives such as Lean In, which brings women together to help them collaborate and learn from each other.
I also think that women themselves are creating grassroots systems to help each other. Gone are the days of the ‘dragon woman’ in business, instead we are helping and supporting each other in our work, by making introductions, leaning on each other when we need help and really just supporting the community as a whole.
* * *
Diversity Matters. What can we do to get more women on boards or for women to gain more leadership roles?
I was disheartened to hear that in Canada, 45% of companies have all-male boards and 55% have only one women on the board, based on the year end reports of 677 companies on the TSX.
Working amongst the many great male leaders are equally talented women supporting their initiatives and board responsibilities. One course corrector or action that can have an impact on increasing the number of females on boards and in leadership is finding an opportunity to hand the baton to a qualified women instead of the familiar faces you see making up the boards and executive rooms of today.
This is not an easy or silver bullet solution but I encourage people to take an honest look at those who are currently supporting today’s leaders and board members and offer qualified females an opportunity to shine and have a voice at the table. We all have to be accountable to look beyond the norm and challenge ourselves to bring new, fresh faces to have a voice and seat at the table.
For a very long time, companies could hide behind the excuse of not being able to find women to join their boards. Now, sites like theboardlist.com exist and have curated a candidate pool of over 2,000 qualified women available for consideration to any company.
Challenge and encourage those around you to step up. Those that have the ability to influence decision makers need to ensure they’re challenging biases that surface. You could be an existing board member, or an investor, or on the management team – if there’s failure in diversification, you need to be ready to address it and table it for discussion and action the same way you would if a company was faltering with any other strategic business direction.
Finally, oftentimes I feel as though strong executives (female and non-female) don’t always showcase their value-add or personal story with a strong digital footprint – myself included. I encourage all professionals to hone in on a sector or organization they’re interested in, and reach out to the company CEO or investors to introduce themselves and highlight their qualifications. While a cold introduction is unlikely to render a Board position immediately, it may open the doors of discussion and relationship building that can translate into such opportunities in the future.
* * *
Access to funding for emerging women entrepreneurs can be scarce. How can we fix this? Where can they go?
As the old saying goes, a rising tide floats all boats. As MovetheDial.ca reports, only 12 per cent of VCs have a female partner, and not surprisingly, women-led businesses are horribly underfunded. We will fix the imbalance of funding opportunities once investors represent and connect to those that are introducing new and innovative ideas. Obviously this isn’t a VC problem – generally, we need to see an increase of investors at all stages before and after, including individual angel investors and groups, growth capital via PE, female executives responsible for strategic partnerships, etc.
Released in the 2018 Federal Budget last week, as reported by BetaKit, the government will now ask firms to explain how they’re improving women’s representation within the industry when applying for VCCI funding, and asking supercluster applicants to include strong representation of women and under-represented groups.
Additional initiatives announced in the budget that should make a great impact on moving the dial include:
$1.4 billion over three years in financing for women entrepreneurs through BDC;
$10 million over five years to connect women with expanded export services and opportunities;
$200 million for investments in women-led technology firms;
$10 million over five years to connect women with expanded export services; and
Double the number of high-growth companies in Canada from 14,000 to 28,000 by 2025.
* * *
What women-centric entrepreneurship programs or STEM opportunities are available in Canada? How can those in remote communities access them?
A great example of a women-centric program is Fierce Founders, run by Communitech. The program has both a bootcamp and accelerator, which helps entrepreneurs streamline resources based on the stage their idea/company is at.
As quality programs do, Fierce Founders offers top tier mentorship, access to an incredible peer network, customer intros, capacity building (business modelling, pitching, market strategy etc) and, most importantly, access to funding upon completion of the program.
I’m a big fan of this one, because Communitech takes no equity, and really focuses on a gap in the program market: continuum programming. They help women build an idea into a market-ready business with the bootcamp, and funnel them into the accelerator to help their business scale it once it’s viable.