Five things we learned about how we might better empower women entrepreneurs

Five things we learned about how we might better empower women entrepreneurs

How might we better empower women entrepreneurs? This blog explores what we’ve learned through our Empowering Women Entrepreneurs co-designed call for proposals
Five things we learned about how we might better empower women entrepreneurs
Meghan Hellstern
Senior Projects Officer
September 26, 2019
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At Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, we’re deeply interested in understanding how best to engage the full diversity of talent that exists in Canada. There are great benefits to be gained through the full economic participation of groups like women, newcomers and indigenous peoples, yet these groups face numerous barriers in their journey to participating in all that the innovation economy has to offer, including the economic, employment, and innovation-driving engine of entrepreneurship. 

How might policymakers, funders and others in the innovation ecosystem begin to break down these barriers and enable a more level playing field? That’s exactly the question that much of our research tries to answer, including the Empowering Women Entrepreneurs project that started in summer 2017 and wrapped up in summer 2019. This project sought to better understand the barriers that women entrepreneurs face as well as identifying potential interventions to address those barriers. 

We’re excited to share our learnings from this multi-year project with you, but first some background (you can read more about it here). Using a framework we developed based on the latest literature around women’s entrepreneurship, we hosted a co-design workshop where we invited women entrepreneurs, business support organizations and other key players in the ecosystem to validate and improve our framework as well as identify opportunities for overcoming barriers identified through our research

From there, we conducted interviews to help us craft a call for proposals that reflected the needs and opportunities surfaced through the co-design process. Working with a panel of judges, we selected three projects to fund from among the many exciting submissions. You can read more about each project in the Funded Projects section of the project page as well as hear from the people involved in each project in our spotlight series of blogs on the Accelerator for Women in Entrepreneurship (AWE), the childcare support pilot for women entrepreneurs, and the Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy. It is from our work selecting, funding and supporting these three projects – each special and unique in its own way – that the below lessons, in no particular order, are drawn.

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Finding women entrepreneurs can be more difficult than one might expect, owing to the fractured nature of the ecosystem and variable levels of alignment with the label of ‘woman entrepreneur.’

While there are many networks and communities for women entrepreneurs, these groups are scattered and require a strong understanding of the ecosystem in order to access and interact with them effectively. Even with this knowledge, many women entrepreneurs may not be included in these organizations, making reaching them more difficult.

Many of the women entrepreneurs who benefit from supports like those offered through this initiative, such as subsidized childcare and learning events, are balancing many priorities, including growing their business.

As a result, it was challenging in some cases for women entrepreneurs to find time to learn about and participate in the projects funded under this initiative. The value proposition for women entrepreneurs to dedicate some of their limited time to any given opportunity must be strong in order to overcome this challenge.

For a variety of reasons, women undertaking entrepreneurial activities may or may not identify with the ‘entrepreneur’ label and identity.

Drawing lines around what is or isn’t an entrepreneur can be more challenging than one might expect, and may lead to confusion on both the part of entrepreneurs themselves as well as the organizations that serve them. Furthermore, placing restrictions on the type of entrepreneur who can participate in programs, such as those with scalable businesses, experiencing high growth, or in specific sectors, may inadvertently exclude women entrepreneurs.

Supports, like short-term targeted programs and networking, are a good but incomplete first step towards helping women enter a domain historically dominated by men.

To make greater progress, efforts to reform and increase the inclusivity of existing systems and structures require sustained, ongoing funding, support and attention. Each of the projects funded under this initiative contributed to the health of the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem; however, in order to reach their full impact, systems-level strategies that prioritize sustainability are needed.

Experimentation through small-scale interventions can uncover different types of learning and knowledge than other forms of knowledge generation and research.

It was remarkable to see the diversity of the proposals that came through this process, as well as the different types of learning generated through the three selected projects. For example, it would have been difficult to understand first-hand the impact that programs like iF’s AWE have on women entrepreneurs’ confidence and access to networks without the opportunity to follow along in real time as the program was designed, delivered and evaluated.

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

Meghan Hellstern
Senior Projects Officer
September 26, 2019
Print Page

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