Resilience & Innovation: Women Entrepreneurs During COVID-19

By Kayla Isabelle

If you were to ask Canada’s small business owners one year ago today what they thought their largest challenge would be in 2020, likely none could have predicted a global pandemic and the massive disruption it has brought to countless sectors across the country.

Small businesses and start-ups within Canada have been hit hard, leaving many in vulnerable financial positions. In fact, nearly 60% of the country’s small businesses reported declines in revenue of 20% or more. Despite these difficult times, adversity is fueling innovation in the nation’s entrepreneurial landscape.

Canada’s women entrepreneurs have been disproportionately impacted – the industries most heavily hit by COVID-19 including hospitality, tourism, and education – tend to host higher concentrations of women. According to a recent Canadian Labour Force Survey, employment levels among women (particularly those with children) dropped more than among men at the outset of the lockdown. Of about one million Canadians who lost their jobs in March, 60% were women, leading to many dubbing it a “she-cession.”

In the technology industry, there is often a failure to finance women entrepreneurs despite their positive performance. This underfunding makes surviving COVID-19 difficult.

“It’s a sad and shameful fact that gender bias has been a severe obstacle for women-led companies securing investment,” says Suzanne Grant, CEO of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA). “Government investment matching programs are largely available to top up people already ‘in the system’ which means a majority of the bridging investment will exclude a lot of women.”

In our 2019 Canadian Entrepreneurship Census, Startup Canada found women entrepreneurs were more than 20% less confident about their future success, as they struggled with accessing support, resources, finance, training, and global markets. Additionally, women deal with unpaid caretaking, household labour, and wage inequality, according to CEO of The Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CanWCC) Nancy Wilson.

“These issues have only been exacerbated by the current crisis and social distancing,” she says. Keeping businesses running and employees on the payroll is difficult, especially with increased domestic and caretaking responsibilities they are taking on in the home.

The Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), recently implemented by the Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade, promises to provide $15 million in additional funding to support women entrepreneurs across the country. This new program will focus on supplying women with business workshops, mentorship, and skills training to adapt to the new digital marketplace.

The resilience of women entrepreneurs is inspiring. Women-owned start-ups have pivoted business models, altered products to match the changing societal landscape, and implemented new client connection strategies all while going above and beyond to develop innovative solutions to help their communities.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed – the 2020 Canada Innovation and Entrepreneurship Awards (CANIE Awards), powered by the Innovators and Entrepreneurs Foundation, highlighted numerous start-ups from coast to coast that have risen to the challenge of finding unique ways to navigate the hurdles brought on by COVID-19. A few of these innovative women-led start-ups include:

Deep Trekker

Deep Trekker adapted its services to address shortfalls in sanitation and hygiene technology. Based in Kitchener-Waterloo, they are the winner of the CANIE Ontario region Product Innovation Award. Established in 2010 by entrepreneur Sam Macdonald and her partner Jeff Lotz, Deep Trekker specializes in developing underwater robots for a number of industries, including aquaculture, search and rescue, military defence, and energy. As a response to the pandemic, Macdonald and her team developed a new product that capitalized on a gap in the market – sanitization robots. Controlled remotely, these robots have the ability to clean close spaces using UVC light and hydrostatic sprayers.

Vital Tracer Ltd.

We have also seen start-ups pushing to innovate medical technology that will directly impact COVID-19 testing and treatment. One of these companies is Vital Tracer Ltd., a Quebec-based start-up founded by Azadeh Dastmalchi, which won the CANIE Quebec region Product Innovation Award. Vital Tracer specializes in vital sign tracking watches aimed at reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Initially intended to help customers easily track their general health, the company has pivoted during the pandemic to address early detection of COVID-19 by monitoring decreases in oxygen levels – often the first warning sign of virus contraction.

Clear discrepancies lie in the fact that only 16% of small and medium sized enterprises are majority women-owned. At Startup Canada, we are committed to supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs, namely women, throughout this current crisis. Our THRIVE Podcast, research reports, and International Women’s Day campaigns aim to recognize and uplift women’s experiences as entrepreneurs.

Despite women starting new businesses at 1.5 times the rate of men in Canada, only 11% of women-owned small and medium sized enterprises currently export. During the recent Startup Canada Women Going Global virtual accelerator, Jennifer Cooke, the Corporate Lead of Women in Trade for Export Development Canada (EDC), said the hurdle of accessing the global market not only negatively impacts women entrepreneurs, it harms the national economy.

Providing both a platform for and promotion of women entrepreneurs and exporters, Startup Canada is celebrating their contributions to Canadian business through our 2020 Canadian Export Challenge (CXC). CXC supplies women entrepreneurs with the tools, market intelligence, and trade knowledge necessary to take their businesses to the global stage through a series of regional and national workshops, accelerators, and pitch competitions.

Women owned and operated start-ups carry immense potential for restarting the national economy, continuing innovation, and strengthening Canada’s global competitiveness. According to Jennifer Cooke, a modest increase in women-owned small and medium businesses would add roughly $150 billion to Canada’s GDP.

For all women interested in going global with their start-ups, apply to the Canadian Export Challenge at startupcan.ca/cxc, and help us increase women representation within the Canadian entrepreneurial landscape. Together, the entrepreneurial community, the federal government, and Canadian consumers need to continue acknowledging and supporting women entrepreneurs to ensure they are able to not only survive, but also thrive.

Kayla Isabelle is the Executive Director of Startup Canada, the national rallying community supporting and giving a voice to Canada’s 3.5 million entrepreneurs.

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