Growing their own way: High-growth women entrepreneurs in Canada

An in-depth survey of the experiences of women founders as they scale their companies, revealing divergent pathways to growth and new recommendations for better supporting women-led firms.
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Kim de Laat
SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Gender and the Economy, U of T
Meghan Hellstern
Alumni, Senior Projects Officer

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About This Report

In partnership with the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) conducted in-depth interviews with 30 high-growth entrepreneurs across Canada. The report, Growing Their Own Way: High-growth women entrepreneurs in Canada, explores the experiences of women founders as they scale their companies, revealing divergent pathways to growth, persistent systemic barriers, and funding challenges. Most importantly, the report presents opportunities and recommendations for government, policymakers, financial institutions, other funders, business support organizations and stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem who are seeking to champion the success of high-growth women entrepreneurs.

Why now?

Women currently comprise 28% of all entrepreneurs in Canada, according to a 2019 BDC study, but only a small percentage of high-growth firm founders. This is significant when we consider the important role of high-growth firms, also known as scale-ups, as a source of job creation and revenue growth. Scale-ups are defined as companies with an average annualized growth of at least 20% in the past three years, and at least 10 employees. The federal government’s Innovation and Skills Plan aims to double the number of high-growth firms in Canada by 2025. The unique priorities and challenges of women-led firms must be addressed.

Read this report to help you:
  • Learn about the distinct priorities and challenges of high-growth women founders, and the unique ways they are scaling their firms.
  • Understand the types of support that can help overcome persistent challenges faced by women throughout the high-growth phase.
  • Find ways to provide greater value to high-growth women entrepreneurs, whether you are a government body, a policymaker, a financial support organization, or a business support organization.
  • Identify opportunities for further research on how to support the success of women-led firms.

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Key findings from the report:

  • There’s more than one way to scale. Women founders often defy entrepreneurial stereotypes by developing unique pathways to high-growth.
  • Systemic barriers persist. High-growth women founders confront many of the barriers persisting in the wider entrepreneurship ecosystem; for those identifying as racialized persons, barriers that all women face in the entrepreneurship ecosystem are compounded.
  • The “growth at all costs” mindset is not for everyone. Many participants choose a growth process that is manageable and realistic for their own well-being and for that of others.
  • Funding options aren’t meeting founders’ needs. High-growth women founders face difficulties in accessing financing that accommodates their unique needs, both from venture capital firms and banks.
  • Family matters. Some take a life-course perspective—basing decisions about how and when to grow their companies around family planning. Those doing so are no less successful or ambitious than others.
  • Networking can take many forms. Part of creating different pathways to high-growth includes engaging in networking formats that factor in care responsibilities.
  • Bravado is not the same as confidence. Many of the women interviewed see a gap between how they convey their confidence (for example, through measured deliberation) and a perceived expectation that entrepreneurs are brash and arrogant.

Methodology

Our data consist of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 30 entrepreneurs, and two individuals working in business support organizations. To meet the study’s inclusion criteria, participants were asked to confirm whether their company met the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition of a high growth firm: a company that has an average annualized return of at least 20% in the past three years, with at least ten employees in the beginning of the period.

Interviews were conducted over the phone and lasted approximately one hour. Participants were asked about:

  • their personal understandings of growth;
  • experiences in obtaining resources from business support organizations and funding bodies;
  • relationships to their business network;
  • challenges and opportunities realized as a result of scaling;
  • experiences navigating Covid-19;
  • as well as personal challenges that may interfere with their ability to grow their companies.

In addition, participants completed a brief demographic survey.

Partners

Kim de Laat
SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Gender and the Economy, U of T
Meghan Hellstern
Alumni, Senior Projects Officer

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