Canadian women entrepreneurs: Pioneers of new frontiers

“Going into business for yourself, becoming an entrepreneur, is the modern-day equivalent of pioneering on the old frontier,” according to entrepreneur and author Paula Nelson. I agree. It takes courage, know-how and perseverance to launch a business and make it succeed. Fortunately for our economy, Canada is home to more than 850,000 women entrepreneurs. Their numbers have increased more than 200 percent over the past 20 years. Today, they annually contribute more than $18 billion to our economy, employ more than 570,000 people, and continue to represent one of the fastest growing sectors. And even in these difficult economic times, they are discovering new markets, charting new territory and building new companies.

On February 17, more than 70 of these pioneers gathered at the Verity Women’s Club in Toronto to share their ideas, perspectives and insights at the first Ivey Women Entrepreneurs Connect event. Designed to encourage networking and mentoring among entrepreneurs, the event recognizes that enterprising business people often uncover exciting new opportunities during an economic crisis. With the phenomenal growth in woman-owned businesses here in Canada, women will likely propel that trend forward.

But given their unique challenges, Canadian women entrepreneurs need inspiring role models and advisors. This special meeting provided just that with moderator Beth Wilson, Canadian Managing Partner at KPMG. Beth brought her extensive experience in advising private companies and entrepreneurs as the executive responsible for KPMG Enterprise. She was joined by three exemplary business builders on the panel.

For example, panellist and Ivey HBA graduate Tara Longo left her budding career as an investment banker to start up The Healthy Butcher with her partner Mario Fiorucci in 2005. In just three years, this purveyor of certified organic meat and fine gourmet foods has expanded to three locations in Toronto, gaining legions of dedicated patrons.

Panellist Mary Aitken, a “serial entrepreneur”, moved to Canada from the U.K., first starting-up a courier company, then establishing an investment banking firm, and then co-founding Neo Material Technologies Inc., a high-tech company, headquartered in Toronto, that now has 1,300 employees in 16 locations across ten countries worldwide. In her latest venture, Mary took her intimate knowledge of the multi-tasking stress of most women’s lives to develop the Verity Women’s Club. It has since become the fastest growing private club in Toronto.

Arlene Dickinson, who is now recognized on the street through her appearances on the CBC television hit show The Dragon’s Den, also joined the panel. Arlene built her Calgary-based marketing firm, Venture Communications into a $40 million national company with offices in Toronto and Ottawa. Venture’s core philosophy is that “marketing must deliver measurable business value”. As such, marketing is about much more than advertising alone, but about the myriad of ways companies communicate with their customers. Today, Venture Communications is widely recognized as a thought leader in marketing accountability.

Arlene believes that what “drives a business forward are confidence in who you are and what you believe in and competency in terms of being able to deliver.” However, many Canadian women struggle with expanding their businesses, not because they lack competency, but often because they lack the confidence and therefore the ambition to grow.

For example, Industry Canada recently reported that women-owned companies are less likely to grow beyond small- or medium-sized, when compared to companies owned by men. Research further shows that women-owned firms tend grow slower than male owned companies, with only 37 percent of women-owned firms considered high-growth compared to 63 percent for men.

Both men and women business owners cite similar growth constraints, such as taxation, regulation and financing. However, women tend to see growth as less important, less likely and of lower value than men. And they view the personal demands related to growth as negative and stressful. Essentially, women believe that they lack the experience, family support and the peer support networks needed to grow. Consequently, 84 percent of women feel their businesses have reached a comfortable size and don’t want to grow. Only 37 percent of men feel the same way.

All three panellists at the Ivey Entrepreneur event believe that networking is paramount to elevating these comfort levels. Mary says that women fail to network enough and must take the time to regularly interact with others. Arlene echoed that sentiment, emphasizing the importance of “putting yourself out there”.

All the women on the panel – and several in the audience – also had stories about the difficulties of securing financing. After launching their first successful Healthy Butcher store, Tara said she and her partner wanted to expand, but were seen as too small for bank financing and too risky for other investors. In the end, she and her partner funded the second and third locations completely on their own.

Despite these discussions about challenges, however, the exchanges underscored the tangible excitement of starting a new venture and being your own boss. The panellists and participants shared their insights about the best ways to engage an advisory board, the pros and cons of accessing venture capital and angel investment, and other ways to seek guidance.

Toward the end of the evening, the conversation came full circle with a vibrant discussion about mentorship. I agree with Arlene who observed: “Mentors are everywhere. I spoke with women tonight and found mentorship. You find mentorship the same way you find opportunity.”

In other words, you find opportunity by consciously making an effort to discover it. And I believe that there are many new and exciting business possibilities for women entrepreneurs in the changing global economy. For example, the Internet not only offers access to new international markets, it is fundamentally transforming the practice of marketing. With the evolution from print and broadcasting media to interactive digital media, marketing is now a dialogue rather than a monologue. With digital interactivity, it has also become much more targeted and measurable.

In addition, new interactive applications are enabling companies to relate to their customers like never before. Customers are now co-creating new products and services with companies over the web. Through blogs and other social networking tools, many customers are also engaging regularly with the companies that carry their favourite brands. For enterprising women entrepreneurs, this presents a richness of innovative ways to cement customer loyalty and to capture new customers

Today’s tougher economic climate can also open up new opportunities because it is accelerating business life cycles. Firms suffering from low productivity can no longer hide their inefficiencies. There will be significant consolidation within some industries. And many established firms will be vulnerable to take-over. Entrepreneurs with their eyes open and their ears on the ground, however, will find more of the right acquisitions at the right price or new partners to strengthen their market positions.

At the same time, there are some very real impediments to growth created by our current economic crisis, particularly the credit crunch and a consumer lack of confidence. Add the mounting impact of technology and the increasing globalization of financial markets to these pressures. It’s clear that a perfect storm has arrived … and like any storm, it is clearing away the old and making way for the new. But that’s good news for entrepreneurs. As Peter Drucker once said: “The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”

Bright new vistas resplendent in exciting opportunities are now opening up for Canadian women entrepreneurs. Ivey’s goal is to help them to uncover these opportunities and exploit them to grow thriving companies. That’s because we know that just like the pioneers of past centuries, Canadian women entrepreneurs can usher in a new era of prosperity for our country. And we want to encourage them to rise to that challenge like never before.