Cana­dian In­no­va­tion Week: Cel­e­brat­ing Women En­trepreneurs

Policy - - In This Issue - Michael Den­ham

It’s no se­cret that sex­ism is ram­pant in tech cul­ture; there’s a Wikipedia page ti­tled “Sex­ism in the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try,” among the plethora of con­tent that has chron­i­cled the prob­lem in re­cent years. As an­nounced in the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s Bud­get 2018, the Cana­dian Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Bank has in­creased the size of its Women in Tech fund to $200 mil­lion. It is now the largest VC fund in the world ded­i­cated ex­clu­sively to in­vest­ing in women-led tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies.

Cana­dian In­no­va­tion Week is an op­por­tu­nity for us, as a country, to cel­e­brate in­no­va­tion and mo­bi­lize around the goal of strength­en­ing a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion in Canada. With this year’s in­au­gu­ral edi­tion of Cana­dian In­no­va­tion Week, it is im­por­tant to look to in­no­va­tion bright spots with the po­ten­tial to make Canada the most in­no­va­tive country in the world.

One of these ar­eas of po­ten­tial, which re­mains a rel­a­tively un­tapped source of in­no­va­tion, is Cana­dian women in STEM, more specif­i­cally women tech en­trepreneurs. Carol Lea­man, CEO of Ax­onify, is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple. Ax­onify is a rapidly-grow­ing Water­loo, On­tario-based com­pany that cre­ated an e-learn­ing soft­ware plat­form to bet­ter train employees through gam­i­fi­ca­tion (the ap­pli­ca­tion of typ­i­cal el­e­ments of game play­ing—point scor­ing, com­pe­ti­tion, rules of play— to other ar­eas of ac­tiv­ity).

The com­pany had just two employees when Lea­man and a part­ner bought it in 2011. Ax­onify now em­ploys 140 peo­ple and has $21 mil­lion in an­nual sales. Cus­tomers in­clude Wal­mart, Toy­ota and Bloom­ing­dale’s. In 2016, Lea­man was named one of Canada’s top 100 fe­male en­trepreneurs, and she con­trib­utes reg­u­larly to For­tune mag­a­zine. Her many awards in­clude the Sara Kirke Award as Canada’s lead­ing fe­male en­tre­pre­neur in 2010. Un­for­tu­nately, suc­cess­ful women en­trepreneurs such as Lea­man are not easy to find in Canada’s tech scene. Only five per cent of tech com­pa­nies have a solo fe­male CEO, and women make up just 13 per cent of the av­er­age tech com­pany’s ex­ec­u­tive team, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 re­port by #movethe­dial, a Cana­dian non­profit. This is less sur­pris­ing when we look to where the pipe­line for women in tech be­gins. Lower lev­els of par­tic­i­pa­tion al­ready man­i­fest them­selves at the high school level. Later on, we see that—de­spite rep­re­sent­ing the ma­jor­ity of young uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates—women are un­der­rep­re­sented in STEM fields. Tech com­pa­nies need un­in­ter­rupted fi­nanc­ing—ac­cess to capital at all stages of their growth. This is the game changer when it comes to growth and scal­ing up, as well as out­sized con­tri­bu­tions to job cre­ation, par­tic­u­larly in STEM fields, and to the econ­omy. For women tech en­trepreneurs specif­i­cally, sys­temic gen­der bias com­pounds the chal­lenge of ac­cess to capital. Only 10 per­cent of ven­ture dol­lars glob­ally be­tween 2010 and 2015 went to star­tups with at least one woman founder. Anec­do­tally, we have all heard sto­ries of gen­der bias in ven­ture capital (VC)—sto­ries of the “old boys’ club”. Un­for­tu­nately, the re­search seems to bear this out. In the case of men and women en­trepreneurs us­ing the same pitches, men en­trepreneurs were more likely to get funded than women. Women en­trepreneurs also see them­selves awarded ap­prox­i­mately 25 per cent of the asked amount of ven­ture capital as com­pared to 50 per cent for men en­trepreneurs.

Only five per cent of tech com­pa­nies have a solo fe­male CEO, and women make up just 13 per cent of the av­er­age tech com­pany’s ex­ec­u­tive team, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 re­port by #movethe­dial, a Cana­dian non-profit.

In ad­di­tion to the too-shal­low pools of avail­able capital, ven­ture capital firms lack di­ver­sity in their in­vest­ment teams. While the num­ber of women part­ners in Cana­dian VC firms is in­creas­ing, women still only oc­cupy about 12.5 per cent of in­vest­ment roles. While the ecosys­tem is be­gin­ning to cor­rect sys­temic bi­ases through women-led ac­cel­er­a­tors and women en­tre­pre­neur- ded­i­cated capi-

tal (e.g. Cre­ation of StandUp Ven­tures Fund ad­min­is­tered by MaRS IAF, Fierce Founders Boot­camp, Pique fund, etc.), it needs to be hap­pen­ing faster. We have a great op­por­tu­nity to up our col­lec­tive in­no­va­tion and eco­nomic bench strength as a country by pro­vid­ing women tech en­trepreneurs with the sup­port they need. We need to first ex­pand the size of the pipe­line of women in STEM by im­prov­ing STEM ed­u­ca­tion for girls and pro­vid­ing them with more role models. Just last year, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment launched #ChooseS­cience— a cam­paign to en­cour­age young girls and women to en­ter STEM fields and to pro­vide them with op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­gage in the sciences. By cel­e­brat­ing women lead­ers in STEM, we can over­write out­dated stereo­types. The shar­ing of their sto­ries pro­vides young girls and women con­tem­plat­ing STEM and en­trepreneur­ship with real role models, al­low­ing them to see them­selves in sim­i­lar roles. When they en­ter those roles, they con­trib­ute to the shift­ing of the tra­di­tion­ally male-dom­i­nated cul­ture found in STEM fields, in­clud­ing in tech com­pa­nies. Build­ing a cul­ture of in­clu­sion is key to cre­at­ing a stronger sense of be­long­ing for women and mak­ing STEM and en­trepreneur­ship fields in which they can see them­selves fit­ting and thriv­ing.

At BDC, we are up­ping our game to pro­vide women-led tech firms with the sup­port they need at all stages of their life­cy­cle. As an­nounced in the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s Bud­get 2018, we have in­creased the size of our Women in Tech fund to $200 mil­lion. This is now the largest VC fund in the world ded­i­cated ex­clu­sively to in­vest­ing in women-led tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies. We be­lieve this is the kind of in­vest­ment with the po­ten­tial to truly make a dif­fer­ence. With a fund of this size, BDC has the ca­pac­ity to make mul­ti­ple in­vest­ments in women-led tech firms along their life­cy­cle to en­sure they have the capital they need at all stages of their growth in order to un­leash their full po­ten­tial. Non-fi­nan­cial sup­port is also key to the growth of these com­pa­nies. By also pro­vid­ing men­tor­ship, peer-to-peer train­ing, con­nec­tions and other re­sources, we hope to equip women tech en­trepreneurs with the tools and skills they need to be­come Cana­dian in­no­va­tion suc­cess sto­ries and role models.

To con­tinue ex­pand­ing the tech ecosys­tem, through the Women in Tech Fund, we will also be sup­port­ing and grow­ing the base of emerg­ing fe­male in­vestors and fund man­agers through men­tor­ship, ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. Ad­di­tion­ally, women-led firms stand to ben­e­fit from an in­creased num­ber of fe­male VCs across the ecosys­tem. They are not only more likely to get funded but also to have a suc­cess­ful exit when they are fi­nanced by VCs with women part­ners. The hope is that with a grow­ing num­ber of women in­vestors, women tech en­trepreneurs will not only have bet­ter ac­cess to ven­ture capital, but that their grow­ing pres­ence will chip away at the un­der­ly­ing sys­temic gen­der bias. We all stand to ben­e­fit from a cultural shift to­ward a higher stan­dard of eth­i­cal con­duct and a cul­ture of di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion. By en­sur­ing a safe, fair, and eq­ui­table work en­vi­ron­ment within the Cana­dian tech ecosys­tem and the VC com­mu­nity, more and more women and girls will be able to see them­selves in this space.

To make Canada the most in­no­va­tive country in the world, we must not only look to to­day’s in­no­va­tors, but also to those of to­mor­row. By pro­vid­ing the sup­port they need to­day, we hope to pro­pel Cana­dian women tech en­trepreneurs so that those com­ing up be­hind them can see them as role models and see them­selves in STEM and in en­trepreneur­ship. It is through pow­er­ful ini­tia­tives like Cana­dian In­no­va­tion Week that we can take a mo­ment to pause and cel­e­brate the suc­cesses of women like Carol Lea­man. Cana­dian In­no­va­tion Week cel­e­bra­tions also fuel our drive to roll up our col­lec­tive sleeves to im­prove con­di­tions and sup­port the next wave of women like her.

IStock photo

Bud­get 2018 in­creased the BDC’s Women in Tech fund to $200 mil­lion, mak­ing it the largest ven­ture capital fund in the world ded­i­cated ex­clu­sively to in­vest­ing in women-led tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies.

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