Empowering women entrepreneurs: How to support the women entrepreneurs of Alberta’s economy
By ATB Financial 23 October 2020 7 min read
“When I jumped into entrepreneurship, I never would have considered myself an entrepreneur,” says Holly Atjecoutay, director of Indigenous business services for BusinessLink, a not for profit that supports Albertans starting a business.
“I was trying to make ends meet, pay my bills and take care of my kid. From an Indigenous standpoint, women have always been the backbone of our home and our communities,” she says, adding that finding innovative ways to support others is a natural thing to do, even if it’s not always called being an entrepreneur.
It’s typical for women like Atjecoutay to become entrepreneurs out of necessity, says a new report from the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub called The State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada. It found that 70 per cent of women entrepreneurs had an unexpected opportunity that launched their entrepreneurship journey while 57 per cent had difficulty finding employment. Last, 44 per cent started their own business because they needed flexibility to manage family responsibilities.
Given these needs, it is no surprise that women-owned businesses are opening at a faster rate in Alberta than those being opened by men. But according to Statistics Canada, the growth of these businesses over the last 10 years lags when compared to male-owned businesses.
To explore how to empower women entrepreneurs in Alberta, Atjecoutay, Devonne Kendrick, marketing lead at Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), and Carly Wells, senior manager at ATB came together for a discussion to share ideas on:
- How to overcome the barriers to growth for women entrepreneurs in Alberta
- Where women entrepreneurs get startup support
- How Alberta’s women entrepreneurs can fund their growing businesses
- How you can empower women entrepreneurs
Overcoming the barriers to women entrepreneurship in Alberta
When it comes to growing a small business in Alberta, women face a set of specific challenges that can have a negative impact on how fast they scale up.
One area is accessing capital for their businesses. There are three types of capital that female-owned businesses have a harder time securing:
- Financial capital. This is the money needed to grow the company. According to the federal government, women are “less likely to seek both debt and equity financing and are more likely to be rejected or to receive less money."
- Human/entrepreneurial capital. This is the element that helps you be the best entrepreneur you possibly can be. It’s general business knowledge and financial acumen required to write a business plan, for example.
- Social capital. This refers to the community, network and mentorship that all entrepreneurs need to take their business to the next level.
Atjecoutay says a lack of role models and mentors is a huge barrier for female entrepreneurs—and it shouldn’t always be on the entrepreneurs to find solutions.
“Sometimes it's on the role model to make that time for those entrepreneurs and other women in business to make them a priority. Give that expertise and helping hand because we're paving the way for the next group of women,” she says.
When a female entrepreneur does find herself in need of support, she should reach out and ask for help, says Wells. The worst thing that will happen is a no and you can move on and ask someone else. Once you land a meeting, make sure you go in with a plan.
“You're not just showing up with no expectations, no questions or nothing to discuss because it's a waste of your time and that potential mentor's time. So what do you want to achieve out of that conversation? Have an end goal for that,” she says.
Barriers to growth for Indigenous women entrepreneurs
Indigenous women entrepreneurs face all the challenges non-Indigenous female business owners do plus an additional layer of systemic barriers.
One of those is a misunderstanding of the diversity of Ingidenous women entrepreneurs, says Atjecoutay.
“There are so many different types. There isn’t one specific prototype or stereotype of an Indigenous entrepreneur woman,” she says.
Another is location.
“It might sound kind of silly, but a lot of Indigenous entrepreneurs living on First Nations have very, very limited access to the internet. That is a really big barrier because everything is online now. If you want to attend a webinar, or open a website, you need internet access to do that,” she says.
Perhaps the most significant barrier is access to financial capital to grow.
“A lot of Indigenous women who are living on reserve do not have the same access to capital that anyone else would who wasn't living on a First Nation,” she says.
One solution Atjecoutay suggests is for people to support Indigenous-owned businesses. When these companies get mainstream awareness and grow a larger client base they have a greater chance of growth and success.
“We have to support those small Indigenous businesses because it's part of the Alberta economy too,” she says. In fact, according to the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business, Indigenous businesses of all sizes contribute over $30 billion dollars annually to Canada’s economy and that’s expected to increase threefold over the next five years.
Where can women entrepreneurs get startup support?
When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, AWE saw a record number of inquiries for questions on how to start a business, says Kendrick.
“We were a little taken aback. But if you look at the business environment [at the time] it starts to make sense. Women take calculated risks. That risk calculation changed [with COVID-19]. You might have had a good business idea, but you had a stable 9-to-5 job and now that doesn’t look so stable. Or maybe you had a side gig and now you're ready to take out full-time because the climate is different,” she says.
So where can women in Alberta turn if they have a great idea for a company they want to get started on?
1. Business Link.
Kendrick, Wells and Atjecoutay all recommend BusinessLink. Known as Alberta’s entrepreneurial hub, it is a nonprofit organization aimed at supporting people as they start their own businesses. It offers one-on-one support and guidance, market research, access to experts, training, networking opportunities, and specialized support for Indigenous entrepreneurs.
“We're there for you to help you every single step of the way so don't feel you're alone,” says Atjecoutay. “You can definitely rely on us for that first point of contact to get you going.”
2. Alberta Women Entrepreneurs.
AWE also offers support for startup stage women entrepreneurs, says Kendrick.
“Go online and book an appointment with one of our advisors. We can help with putting together a really solid business plan for example,” she says.
How Alberta’s women entrepreneurs get financing for their growing business
Female entrepreneurs are less likely to seek and receive financing than men (32 per cent versus 38 per cent), according to The State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada report. Plus, firms owned by men are more likely to receive venture capital or angel funding and other forms of leverage such as trade credit or capital leasing.
While women’s access to these traditional financing avenues remains unequal, female entrepreneurs are excelling at a new way of raising capital: crowdfunding. A study from PwC found that women-led crowding funding campaigns were 32 per cent more successful at reaching their target than male-led campaigns and female-led projects achieve greater average pledge amounts than their male counterparts.
“It has opened the playing field for women because they don't have to battle those stereotypes with different investors or network with that boys club and try to fight to get attention. I think it’s actually the most gender-equitable way to finance for women,” says Wells.
Through crowdfunding platforms, entrepreneurs will raise money by pre-selling a product or service or experience by telling the story of their company, explains Wells.
“A lot of people, especially women, get nervous asking for money, but rewards-based crowdfunding means you’re selling something, not just asking for money. You’re giving them something in return and, hopefully, you’re getting a loyal customer out of that,” she says.
How you can empower women entrepreneurs
For those looking to support women-owned businesses in Alberta, the main way is to shop at their stores and buy their services.
“If supporting women entrepreneurs is important to you then be intentional with the choices you're making with your money,” says Kendrick.
When financial support isn’t a fit, provide constructive criticism, supportive feedback and information to the entrepreneur, says Atjecoutay.
“Give your time to that small business owner to really let them know how they can improve their business or what they should provide,” she says.
Lastly—and most easy—is to get on social media and follow, like, comment, tag and share content from your favourite women-owned businesses.
“Be a champion for that small business. Recommend them. Keep their contact information on hand and give it out whenever someone asks for a recommendation,” she says.
While it’s clear there are still barriers to growth for women entrepreneurs, there is plenty to be optimistic about, says Wells.
“I am really excited to see things grow. We can only go up from here. Women need to keep supporting each other and lifting each other up. Let’s stop competing against each other and collaborate together instead,” she says.