Federal program for women entrepreneurs urged to do more to help firms scale up

Business leaders say Liberal strategy needs work

The Trudeau government marked International Women’s Day on Friday by touting its collection of measures designed to support — and boost the number of — female entrepreneurs.

But a year after the Liberals unveiled about $2 billion worth of commitments under its women’s entrepreneurship strategy, some business leaders say the effort needs work if it’s going to benefit female-led companies on the rise.

On Friday, the government announced a first group of recipients under the strategy’s female-entrepreneurship fund. The list includes 13 businesses that will each receive up to $100,000.

“We’re helping them grow their businesses,” Mary Ng, the minister responsible for small business and export promotion, said in a recent interview. “My mandate is to double the number of women entrepreneurs by 2025.”

Ng said only about 16 per cent of Canada’s small- and medium-sized businesses are female-owned or -led.

But business leaders like Audrey Mascarenhas, CEO of Questor Technology Inc., argue the federal strategy needs improvements to truly help women entrepreneurs and, by extension, the broader economy.

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“I’m zero for 12,” Mascarenhas said of her own application success rate for the female-focused programs. “So, I don’t apply any more because it’s just a waste of my time.”

Questor is an Alberta-based company that makes incinerators for waste gases in settings such as landfills and refineries.

Mascarenhas knows the federal effort well — she served as chair of the Liberals’ economic strategy table on clean technology. The table was one of six industry-government groups assembled by Ottawa to find ways to ensure Canada takes full advantage of its strengths and reaps the economic benefits.

In her case, Mascarenhas said she’s been told her clean-tech company, which has gone public, is too successful to get any of the support.

She said her challenges are the same as those of high-growth tech firms in general. The sector has voiced concerns that Canada offers little support for emerging companies already beyond the fragile start-up phase.

“How are we going to create the role models for future women if we only focus on the ones that are struggling?” asked Mascarenhas. “We’ve got to start to be strategic — not sprinkle fairy dust on everything, not focus on the people that are struggling and give them all the money and never expect a return on that investment.”

She said 98 per cent of her company’s business is now outside Canada and it’s increasingly difficult for her to stay in the country.

In recent years, she said, high-ranking American government officials have tried to woo her to the United States. Former U.S. ambassador Bruce Heyman and former U.S. commerce secretary Penny Pritzker have contacted her to ask what they could do to help Questor grow south of the border, she said.

Connie Stacy, president of Growing Greener Innovations, said she’s also had difficulty accessing Ottawa’s funds for women entrepreneurs. Her swiftly expanding Edmonton-based company makes portable power packs meant to replace generators and she said it’s been attracting significant international interest.

She recently secured $30,000 in federal support for the first time to develop web material and to attend trade shows in the United States. Stacy also lauded the work of Canada’s trade commissioners.

But she said the funding is a small sum when one considers the high costs of manufacturing.

Stacy has been trying to access financing through the Business Development Bank of Canada, from which Ottawa made available $1.4 billion over three years in new financing for women entrepreneurs.

But for the most part, it’s been frustrating, she said.

“The other federal programs, we’ve been flat-out denied on every one,” said Stacy, who also wants to keep her firm in Canada, but sees opening up to foreign investment and, possibly, moving as the only ways to continue growing.

“I certainly know lots of women business owners. I don’t know that I’ve really come across any that have really been successful in accessing some of these programs.”

Asked about support for middle-stage companies, Ng said she’s heard concerns that much of the funding has been directed to start-up firms.

She insists the government is acting on it. She said the Business Development Bank, for example, will fund firms that are already scaling up.

Ng said she’s also listening to her special adviser, former Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy, on what’s needed to support scale-ups — and added that under his guidance the tweaks and changes are already underway.

The government will also hear from a newly formed panel of experts on women’s entrepreneurship.

Asked about calls for more help for firms already scaling up, panel co-chair Laura McGee said the answer can’t just be about government funding. It should also involve Canadian venture-capital firms, banks and possibly asset managers, she said.

“I think that is something we’re getting better at as a country, but something there’s certainly lots of room for improvement on,” said McGee, the founder and CEO of the data analytics firm Diversio.

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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