Designing a Call for Proposals + Building an Ecosystem for Women Entrepreneurs to Thrive

By Alex Conliffe
December 13, 2017

By Alex Conliffe
December 13, 2017

Earlier this year, we announced that our Policy Innovation Platform team would use a design-led approach to create and implement a Call for Proposals to provide better supports for women entrepreneurs, including social entrepreneurs, in the province of Ontario.

We were excited to engage directly with women entrepreneurs and the ecosystem players who serve them in identifying what an impactful Call could look like. We’ve done and learned a lot over the last several months, which we’re pleased to share in advance of launching the Call before the end of 2017.

Assessing the Evidence Base

Our initial step was to pull together the latest literature on the barriers facing women entrepreneurs and to develop a framework that we could use to discuss those barriers with women entrepreneurs and ecosystem players. We grouped barriers along four dimensions: cultural barriers, access to capital, access to mentors and networks, and access to training. During our research, we also honed in on the unique challenges faced by women seeking to grow their businesses.

For more information, read our discussion paper.

Heading Straight to the Source

In late September 2017, we brought together women entrepreneurs and ecosystem players from across Ontario for a Design Workshop. We invited participants to respond to, critique, and build on our framework for understanding the barriers women entrepreneurs face, and to identify targeted opportunities to overcome those barriers within the context of the Call for Proposals.

We anticipated a vibrant conversation, and we were not disappointed! Complex challenges do not have simple or single solutions, and so unsurprisingly, participants to the workshop shared a wide range of opinions as to what exactly the root problems are and how best to solve them.

Despite some divergences in opinions, we were encouraged to see broad agreement in a few key areas. First, there was a desire to strengthen how the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Ontario supports women. There was also broad agreement that any initiatives supported through a Call for Proposals should build on and leverage the existing ecosystem within the province rather than create new infrastructure.

Second, participants agreed that supported initiatives should have as direct an impact as possible on women entrepreneurs. Ideas included: providing better business coaching for business growth, training advisors and mentors in unconscious bias so that their interactions with women entrepreneurs are more effective, and developing maternity and childcare solutions that enable women entrepreneurs who are also parents to thrive.

Participants highlighted several opportunities for policy improvements that, while beyond the scope of what can be achieved through a Call for Proposals, were nevertheless an important part of the discussion and that merit further consideration.

For more information, read our Design Workshop Summary Report.

What’s next

Since the Design Workshop, we’ve engaged in numerous conversations to translate what we’ve learned and heard into a Call for Proposals. We’ve looked at Calls for Proposals at both the federal and provincial levels that have aimed to strengthen and leverage the existing entrepreneurship ecosystem to provide better supports to entrepreneurs. We’ve had conversations with ecosystem players from outside of Ontario to learn more about some of the programming they offer, and we’ve further tested some of the ideas that emerged from the Design Workshop with additional women entrepreneurs.

An important learning from these post-workshop interviews is that best practices to support women entrepreneurs exist—within and outside of the province. Our policy innovation goal is not to re-invent the wheel, but to make sure that best practices spread across the ecosystem, enabling more women to access them and use them to successfully grow their businesses.

To receive updates on the Call for Proposals, sign up for our mailing list.

This project is funded through the Government of Ontario.

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

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