Empowering Women Entrepreneurs Spotlight: Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy

Empowering Women Entrepreneurs Spotlight: Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy

Learn more about Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy, one of the three grant recipients funded as part of our Empowering Women Entrepreneurs project
Empowering Women Entrepreneurs Spotlight: Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy
Meghan Hellstern
Senior Projects Officer
June 26, 2019
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At the Brookfield Institute, we’re interested in exploring how we can support the development of an innovative and inclusive economy that taps into the talent, expertise and lived experience of diverse people. Canadians stand to benefit from a greater number of entrepreneurs and  greater diversity in the entrepreneurial pool.

Despite such benefits, women and other minority groups face barriers in starting, building and scaling companies. The Empowering Women Entrepreneurs project is one of the ways we’re exploring the barriers that entrepreneurs, particularly women, face in launching and scaling their businesses. Through this project we’re looking at how community-led interventions can address complex systemic issues, including increasing economic inclusion.

How did this come about? In 2017, we wrote about using a design-led approach to create and implement a Call for Proposals to improve support for women entrepreneurs in the province of Ontario. As a result, a Call for Proposals was launched later that year to provide grants for projects that would improve the inclusiveness of Ontario’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, with a focus on women entrepreneurs. In May 2018, we announced the three projects that were to be funded through to summer 2019. After this time, the lessons learned will be shared.

This is the first commentary in a series of three blogs that spotlight the three funded community-focused interventions. Read on to learn from a range of practitioners who are working to support good practices that can be shared across the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy

The following text is a lightly edited set of responses from Barbara Orser, project lead and primary investigator for the Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy, a joint initiative between Telfer Centre for Executive Leadership at the University of Ottawa and the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University. The Ontario i2 Action Strategy seeks to create the most inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem in the world. It has conducting a gender-based assessment of Ontario small business, innovation and social enterprise organizations, and advancing recommendations to strengthen good practices for intermediaries within the entrepreneurship ecosystem. The strategy includes an industry report on the status of  women entrepreneurs in Ontario, examines the state of women’s enterprise support in Ontario, and identifies strategies to build further the capacity of Ontario organizations to better meet the needs of diverse women entrepreneurs. The strategy has included six regional workshops with leaders of enterprise support organizations, and a one-day conference to showcase evidence-based practices for empowering women entrepreneurs.

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While equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are top-of-mind concerns for many ecosystem leaders, we cannot assume that practices at work in large corporations address the needs of diverse entrepreneurs.

Barbara Orser, Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy

What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned or surprises you’ve encountered throughout this project?

  1. The first lesson is that we know little about the impacts of entrepreneurship and innovation support services for women entrepreneurs, including the profile of who is at the table, both in decision-making within organizations that support women entrepreneurs and clients.  Part of the challenge is reflected in funding criteria for Ontario-based support organizations, for example:
    • Agencies mandated to fund innovation typically focus on advanced technology, patents, etc., innovations that are typically associated with enterprises owned by men. Few funders prioritize marketing, process and organizational innovations – the types of innovations that tend to characterize women-owned enterprises.
    • Agencies that fund support services for entrepreneurs prioritize job creation, revenue growth and wealth monetization, as organizational performance metrics, not social or community impacts and service excellence. Prioritizing job creation and the number of firms started systemically excludes women entrepreneurs who are more likely to operate smaller and newer businesses, and be self-employed without employees.
  2. The second lesson is that the gender gap in enterprise supports are amplified by limited gender-smart entrepreneurship education and training. Women entrepreneurs need programs and services that reflect their business needs and challenges. This includes an understanding of gender-related barriers to start-up and scale-up.
  3. A third lesson is that equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are top-of-mind concerns for many ecosystem leaders. We cannot assume, however, that practices at work in large corporations address the needs of diverse entrepreneurs. Creating a gender-smart and diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem infers understanding the gendered nature of venture creation.

What are some examples of the impact your Empowering Women Entrepreneurs project has had?

While the i2 project remains in development, two impacts have included raising awareness about the need for inclusive small business and innovation organization in Ontario, and connecting the dots. Dr. Wendy Cukier, Director of the Ryerson Diversity Institute (RDI), for example, is spearheading a survey of the Ontario support organizations. Telfer has led onsite interviews with 25 industry leaders. These efforts are not only gathering data, they are bolstering interest in learning more about action strategies to support diverse women entrepreneurs. We have also hosted 6 regional workshops to facilitate collaboration between mainstream and women-focused support organizations.

What are you hoping to see in the future when it comes to empowering women entrepreneurs?

This project will enable entrepreneurship and innovation support organizations to better support diverse women entrepreneurs. This project will establish benchmarks and identify good practices. It is among the most ambitious entrepreneurship gender-inclusion ecosystem initiatives in the world. Other regions in Canada and international business support organizations will have the opportunity to learn Ontario challenges and  practices.

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