While mentorship opportunities for women entrepreneurs have grown in recent years, there is still a support gap when it comes to what women really need to start and grow their businesses: funding.
“When we look at the barriers women and other underestimated groups face, we know that access to financial, social and entrepreneurial capital are intersecting and compounding barriers,” says Shannon Pestun, Calgary-based CEO of Pestun Consulting and co-founder of The Finance Cafe, a business financial literacy platform.
“There is way more support for women seeking mentoring than funding,” Ms. Pestun says. “Canadian women still aren’t getting their share of external capital.”
As of September, 2021, Crunchbase reported that only 2.2 percent of VC funding went to women-led businesses globally – a lower share than any of the previous five calendar years. There is an even larger gap when it comes to access to capital for founders who are Black, Indigenous and women of color. In Canada, women entrepreneurs receive 4 percent of VC funding and women are under-represented among equity investors, representing only 15.2 percent of Canadian VC partners and 16.7 percent of Canadian angel investors.
Meanwhile, organizations and ecosystems are often more willing to provide mentorship, advising and coaching to help support women, rather than investing in and providing capital for women-led businesses.
Challenges facing a new venture
Monique Harewood and Tara Drennan are co-founders of SALT leisure wear, an eco-friendly athleisure and adaptive clothing line that launched this year. SALT focuses on inclusive wear for everyone no matter their gender, size, ethnicity or ability.
The two London, Ont.-based entrepreneurs encountered challenges when they were looking for funding for their business during the pandemic.
“Banks were unwilling to provide loans as this was an unknown territory economically. This left us with a challenge to gain capital for our business during this time,” says Ms. Harewood. “Fast forward to now, the effects of inflation have also hampered our opportunity to access funding.”
The duo have been able to take advantage of a number of support programs with a focus on underrepresented founders that emerged during the pandemic from government and incubator programs, including the Libro Social Enterprise Incubator, VERGE Capital Startup Fund, eCommerce North Innovator Challenge and the RAISE program, a grant initiative to help Indigenous, Black and other racialized entrepreneurs in Ontario start and scale their businesses.
And while their search for substantive funding continues, these programs have helped move their venture forward. “These programs allowed us to see the importance of networking, especially for women-owned businesses,” says Ms. Harewood.
Making funding part of the conversation
Sheri Griffiths is SVP and head of Ontario, corporate finance, Canadian commercial banking at BMO Bank of Montreal and executive sponsor for BMO for Women. Ms. Griffiths says that when it comes to barriers women entrepreneurs may face when looking for funding, unconscious bias may play a role.
“I [also] see that women often wait much longer to ask for capital,” says Ms. Griffiths. “[Women] often self-fund much longer than necessary, because they don’t realize they could access capital sooner than they expect in the stage of their business.”
While Ms. Griffith sees the value in mentorship and coaching programs for women entrepreneurs and other underrepresented groups, she notes that funding should also be part of the conversation.
“I think these programs should be designed to provide resources on access to capital and funding, as well as introductions to people and businesses who can actually provide the funding.”
A focus on equity and power dynamics
While programs supporting Canadian entrepreneurs may seem plentiful, Amanda Ottley says that inclusive and equitable mentorships can still be difficult to access. Ms. Ottley is the Toronto-based founder of The Pamoja Institute, a non-profit organization that uses storytelling techniques to connect with members of the Black community, share information and support decision-making.
“It was so hard,” says Ms. Ottley of trying to find programs to take part in during the pandemic. “I called and e-mailed so many places. I Googled, searched blogs and discussion forums, all while breastfeeding an infant and online schooling a kindergartener.”
Ms. Ottley says that many of the programs she connected with “seemed more interested in seeing if I could fit [the] criteria required by funders rather than really being interested in what we do and our vision for the future.” She is currently enrolled in the Parkdale Center for Innovation’s incubator program for early-stage entrepreneurs, which also includes a one-on-one mentorship component.
The Parkdale Center provides access to micro-financing to entrepreneurs, in addition to the RAISE grant program. The mentorship component is tailored to individual businesses and their needs, while being mindful of equity and the power dynamics of the mentors and mentees that are matched together.
So far, the incubator seems to be a good match for Ms. Ottley.
“[The Parkdale Centre] is trying to learn about us and what we see as our purpose,” she says. “I felt seen and heard.”
Ask Women and Work
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Question: I’ve recently had to take on an intense caregiving role with my mother after she had a stroke. She is in an independent living facility but still needs a lot of help and attention. I have siblings but no one else has stepped up to help. I’m struggling to manage caregiving with my work duties, but I’m not in the financial position to hire a full-time personal support worker for my mom. Are there (government or other) resources I can access to help me do this work? Am I entitled to take time off to care? I’m an Ontario resident.
We asked Karen Henderson, founder and CEO of the Long Term Care Planning Network in Toronto, to field this one:
The first thing I would suggest is to have a meeting with the director of care at your mother’s independent living facility/retirement home and ask for a detailed account of any care hours that your mother is receiving on a daily basis. In other words, are you getting what you are paying for? Work with the director to try and solve the problems your mother is having. Be sure to request that your siblings attend this meeting because you are all responsible for your mother’s care.
Talk to your employer. Find out if there is an employee assistance program (EAP) that might help you find caregiving resources. Ask about taking time off to care. At this point, you would not qualify for a government benefit because your mother would have to be critically ill or at the end of life.
Contact your local health integration network (LHIN) to see if they would provide any personal support worker (PSW) support. Make sure that you are very clear that you are struggling financially, you’re working full time and you can’t be there to help your mother.
If your mother needs a full-time PSW, it sounds like she needs to be in a nursing home where she will get 24/7 care and supervision. You can also work with the LHIN to determine if your mother needs to be in long term care. I don’t know the age of your mother or other health issues she’s coping with. But at this moment, it does not sound like she is in the right level of accommodation.
Finally, family dynamics can be tricky at the best of times. However, you need to stand up for yourself with your siblings and say, ‘This is your duty. I’m not doing it alone, I’m sorry, I can’t.’ Your siblings need to contribute time or money; you should not be expected to carry the caregiving load on your own.
Have a family meeting with your siblings. Explain how you are stressed at your job and ask how they will contribute either money or time to your mother’s care. Don’t wait for them to ‘step up.’ Remind them of their responsibility to their mother.
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