If She Builds It ... The challenges facing female entrepreneurs
and nurtures it and works it, will customers come? Kim Honey talks to female entrepreneurs and explores the challenging business and economic landscape and solutions for success
CINDY GORDON has a million ideas, but delving into why some salespeople outperform others led her to found SalesChoice, an analytics company that relies on artificial intelligence and data science to add to a company’s bottom line.
“Before a sales professional does anything, we can tell them if they’re going to win or lose, scientifically,” says Gordon, who won Startup Canada’s Senior Entrepreneur Award in 2017.
She founded the privately held company in 2011 while in her early 50s and spent four years on research and development, moving through alpha and beta testing to the point where they have applied for a patent and are working with customers.
Gordon doesn’t give a thought to her age, saying she’s just happy to be at the table with her peers. “If there’s a bias, I am moving past it so fast,” she says. “Maybe doors are being shut, and I’m not thinking about it. I’m just moving on to the next door.”
Baby boomers are poised to make a massive contribution to Canada’s economy through the entrepreneurial ecosystem because, as Gordon says, they’re retiring in droves, and all those workaholic Type A’s are going to be bored. Boomers are training to serve on boards, they’re starting non-profits and they’re setting up new companies.
“Now at least you have possibilities in your 50s and 60s,” she says. “If you wanted to do this 50 years ago, people would wonder what planet you were from.”
As for gender bias, like many female entrepreneurs interviewed
for this series, Gordon hasn’t felt any discrimination. Though there has been some Canadian research on the differences between men and women entrepreneurs, there is a dearth of data on older entrepreneurs and even less on experienced women entrepreneurs. That invisibility is due, in no small part, to ageist stereotypes, where nextgen entrepreneurs are widely envisioned as tech geniuses in hoodies, madly coding away in some university dorm room.
That is reflected in a lack of pro- grams, mentorship and financial support for older entrepreneurs, but Wendy Mayhew, CEO of the Ottawabased company Business Launch Solutions, is trying to change that.
After researching entrepreneurship as an encore career – one chosen later in life more for personal satisfaction than necessity – Mayhew also started Wise Seniors in Business two years ago, which offers resources for experienced entrepreneurs such as speaking engagements, workshops, podcasts and videos. In 2017, she put out a call for applications for the first Wise 50 Over 50 awards and got nearly 100 responses. Mayhew said 38 per cent came from women, 56 per cent came from men and the rest were a mix of partnerships. Like Gordon, Mayhew hasn’t given much thought to gender discrimination as a 67-year-old woman entrepreneur.
“There have been a lot of times I’ve been turned down for stuff, and is it because I’m a woman or is it my personality, because I am pretty outgoing?” she wonders. “Maybe it is that old ‘because I’m a woman’ thing, so I’ve really started looking at it differently now.”
We know women entrepreneurs are on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s radar after he announced the creation of a Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders following his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington in February 2017. And the same year the prime minister spawned an internet meme – “because it’s 2015” – when he appointed a cabinet that was 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women, the federal government’s Expert Panel on Championing and Mentorship for Women’s Entrepreneurs produced a 15-page report containing recommendations on how to support and encourage women business owners. Then nothing happened. Panel chairwoman, super entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den judge Arlene Dickinson dismissed the whole exercise as “a disappointing waste of time” in an essay for Maclean’s magazine and announced she had started a non-profit accelerator in Calgary focused on launching businesses in consumer-packaged goods, a sector traditionally dominated by women entrepreneurs.
Women are taking it into their own hands, with programs like nonprofit Alberta Women Entrepreneurs making loans and offering advice to small start-ups, as well as SheEO, started by Vicki Saunders
of British Columbia creating a selfperpetuating fund that provides members with interest-free loans and a ready-made network of likeminded women.
The landscape has to change fast because women entrepreneurs in Canada had the highest rate of early-stage activity (businesses less than 3.5 years old) in 2016 compared with 16 other countries, including the U.S. and Germany. The latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Canada Report on Women’s Entrepreneurship shows 13.3 per cent of Canadian women are engaged in early-stage business, up from 10 per cent in 2014. By comparison, 20 per cent of men ran early-stage businesses in 2016, a ratio of three men for every two women. The new data, published in December 2017, also puts Canada fifth globally for established business ownership by women at 6.6 per cent, down slightly from 2014.
The only age-related statistics in the report reveal early-stage businesses were dominated by women aged 25 to 44, while the biggest bulge on the graph of businesses more than 3.5 years old was in the 55- to 64-year-old age group.
“That makes sense,” says Karen Hughes, author of the report and a University of Alberta professor who studies entrepreneurship and women’s participation in the labour force. “These are businesses that have longevity; they’ve started them years ago and they’re established.”
As for what motivates older women entrepreneurs to go into business, Hughes says the report probed attitudes toward entrepreneurialism, which were highly positive in both men and women and showed that just over 80 per cent of early-stage entrepreneurs started a business out of opportunity rather than necessity regardless of gender, but it didn’t drill down on differences between age brackets. “It’s an area ripe for exploration,” she agrees.
who has co-founded four business ventures in Toronto, Europe and Silicon Valley before starting SheEO five years ago at age 50. “Something happens when you turn 50. You stop caring about trying to fit in and be the norm because we’re not the norm.”
Saunders says the SheEO net- work has uncovered some “completely missed opportunities” in the form of revenue-generating companies that pay back debt on time. “No one is paying attention. Everyone is chasing a unicorn,” she says, referring to the term used to describe a startup company valued over $1 billion.
Women-led businesses get to profitability quicker and are much more efficient with their capital because they are used to going without and doing more with less. “We tend to run revenue-generating businesses because we can’t get funded,” Saunders says.
And when it comes to experienced women entrepreneurs, she agrees that society is deeply ageist, and that is reflected in government programs that support economic development.
“As soon as you’re 39, you’re done, and if you’re a woman, you’re invisible when you hit your 50s,” Saunders says. “There’s nothing out there, and it’s a massive, massive market if you look at this aging population who have capital, who have ideas and creativity. And it’s completely untapped.”