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    Canada Releases Report on Women Entrepreneurs


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2003

    Scheduling is important for women entrepreneurs, who juggle work and family responsibilities.

    In late October 2003, Canada released the report of the Prime Minister's Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs. The task force was chaired by Sarmite Bulte, a member of Canada's parliament and former president of the Canadian Association of Women Entrepreneurs. For Trade Forum readers who design export strategies with women entrepreneurs' needs in mind, the report is a useful ref


    "Most of the issues that women face in Canada are the same in developing countries - it's a matter of degree," noted Andrina Lever, who contributed to the Canadian report; she also serves as a resource person for ITC Services Exporting workshops.

    Women entrepreneurs are the fastest-growing sector in the Canadian economy. Their number has increased 200% in the past 20 years and stands at more than 821,000 today. Women are creating three times as many businesses as men. These women entrepreneurs contribute over 18 billion Canadian dollars (US$ 14 billion) annually to Canada's economy. Yet they continue to encounter unique obstacles in achieving business success.

    The report­ - based on research with over 1,000 women entrepreneurs - calls on the federal Government to create a new Office of Women's Business Ownership; expand its programmes for women entrepreneurs across Canada; improve access to financial support, government procurement and export opportunities; grant maternity benefits to entrepreneurs; and support more research on women entrepreneurs.

    The Government, as a first response, is extending a number of regional initiatives to support women in business; organizing a national Women's Economic Forum; creating a Canadian Women's Innovation Award; expanding its research and publications programme, and taking steps to feed results to policy-makers; and integrating women entrepreneurs' issues more systematically in meetings between the federal and local levels of government.

    Issues and solutions

    • Advocacy: a voice for women entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs have different goals and life experiences. Many are primarily responsible for their families. They have less access to traditional networks and spheres of influence and have different training needs. Mainstream business organizations don't target women to become members, do not represent their interests or are often too expensive for small firms. The report offers recommendations to champion the needs of women entrepreneurs.

    • Access to capital. Access to finance is by far the greatest challenge facing women entrepreneurs. A 2000 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report on women entrepreneurs came to the same conclusion.
      "Ask the funding agencies to report the percentage of funding which  goes to women-owned businesses. I believe that just asking the question may cause enough embarassment to cause action," said one Canadian business owner. Sample recommendations include amendments to Canada's Small Business Financing Act, programme reviews at business development agencies and reviews of lending criteria.

    • Access to employment benefits and social safety-net programmes. The task force repeatedly heard that women entrepreneurs would gladly pay into employment insurance if they could have access to the benefits.
      Currently, self-employed women and those who own more than a certain percentage of their own companies are not eligible for insurance or maternity benefits. These owners have no protection in Canada's federal social safety-net programmes, while their employees do. "I have little protection if I lose my job or there is a disaster. However, my entire team (50 employees) is protected," said one owner. "It seems absurd that we employ over 20 people, who all have the opportunity to pay into an employment insurance plan... while we take all the financial risk and have no such option as employers," said another owner who recently adopted twins, and had to juggle family and business without maternity leave.

    • Access to mentoring programmes and networking opportunities. The task force found research showing that isolation was a major factorin impeding business growth, and that mentoring programmes have helped women counteract this challenge.

    • Access to business skills training. While women are creating businesses faster than men, theirs are not growing as quickly. Recent research showsthat when women had equal access to business training, their success rates increased. The challenge is to coordinate fragmented training programmes and make them more accessible to women.

    • Access to information - one-stop shopping. To help women identify opportunities and training, the right information is critical. The task force was frequently told that much online information is cumbersome to find, difficult to access, slow to download and hard to find a second time. They cite as a positive model the Online Women's Business Center, operated by the United States Office of Women's Business Ownership (http://www.onlinewbc.gov).

    • Access to government procurement. Women entrepreneurs are often unaware of opportunities with Canada's federal Government. The task force distributed pamphlets on how to do business with the Government at its subsequent meetings, and recommendations emerged such as the formation of strategic alliances for bids; databases that identify supplier diversity programmes and listings of women business suppliers; and policies with targets for women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

    • Focus on the service sector. Services represent 74% of Canada's gross domestic product, and 86% of women entrepreneurs are in services. Focusing on services will result in more accurate research, more sound policy decisions, a different branding of Canada, different financing criteria and a repositioning in national and international markets.

    • Promoting women entrepreneurs nationally and internationally. Because often women are not part of mainstream networks, they miss opportunities for national and international promotion. As a start, they can tap into existing opportunities, such as United Nations Women's Day (8 March each year) and OECD conferences on women entrepreneurs, notably the Women Entrepreneurial Best Practices Forum (Istanbul, June 2004). Nationally, the report recommends a variety of promotional awards, liaison initiatives and a case study handbook.

    • Encouraging and training women to be export ready. According to Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, only 9% of women-owned businesses are exporting; three-quarters of those surveyed felt that being a woman has a negative impact on a trade culture among women entrepreneurs.

    • Lack of research. The contribution of women entrepreneurs is not well understood because it is not well documented, and the research that does exist is inconsistent. The report encourages expanded research in a variety of existing programmes, and the formation of a network of researchers on women entrepreneurs, in partnership with the federal Government.
      "Supporting women in business is not charity," noted Ms Lever. "They
      are huge contributors to economic growth. Encouraging them to expand
      their businesses makes good economic sense."

    Andrina Lever heads Lever Enterprises and can be reached at andrina@attglobal.net

    The full report can be found online at http://www.liberal.parl.gc.ca/entrepreneur