In Canada, while we have made progress, women are still under-represented in leadership roles, in entrepreneurship, in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In spite of good intentions, there are fewer women in computer science and only marginally more in engineering than there were three decades ago and progress on women in leadership roles is proceeding at a glacial pace. 

Recently attention has focused on the need to grow women-led businesses and we need to avoid the mistakes of the past by developing a strategy grounded in evidence of what works. Entrepreneurship is defined as challenging the status quo yet it is strongly associated with STEM (where women are under-represented) and highly gendered. Think “entrepreneur” and the people that come to mind are Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk, not Oprah Winfrey or Kylie Jenner. We know women are under-represented in tech-based entrepreneurship and more likely involved in services.

We also know when we define entrepreneurs as owners of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) with at least one employee, only 16% are women. But when we include people who are self-employed the proportion almost doubles, to 30%. As SheEO founder Vicki Saunders says, “we need not just to level the playing field but to change the game.”

Redefining entrepreneurs

This is important because while resources are focused on tech based businesses, women’s enterprises are ignored even if they are technology enabled. Twenty-year old Jenner became a billionaire using Shopify’s platform. The male stereotypes of “entrepreneur” has become so strongly associated with tech geek billionaires that many women entrepreneurs do not see themselves as entrepreneurs. And social ventures are often missing from the mix entirely. We need to change the channel and celebrate women entrepreneurial success.

And we know that the barriers that women face generally – difficulties getting supports, financing, mentoring, sponsorship, training, coaching and access to the services needed to allow them to juggle their business and family responsibilities – are multiplied for racialized women, indigenous women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, LGBTQ2+ women, and older women.

We need intentional strategies using real levers – procurement, for example – with accountability frameworks, to drive change.

Creating an inclusive innovation ecosystem 

For twenty years, Ryerson’s Diversity Institute has led research and evidence based innovative programs to support diverse entrepreneurs. With diverse partners, like Scadding Court, we developed the Newcomer Hub to support immigrant entrepreneurs and We-Hub to serve low income women entrepreneurs including immigrants and artists.

With many partners our Magnet Export Portal is helping women entrepreneurs go global to scale and grow. Our newest venture, supported by the Canadian government, with the Ted Rogers School of Management, the Brookfield institute and a growing list of more than 100 partners, is the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH). WEKH is a national network which will erode fragmentation, build collaboration, identify and promote best practices. WEKH will not only strengthen connections and wayfinding among organizations designed to serve women entrepreneurs but will erode barriers that exist in mainstream organizations including educational institutions, incubators and accelerators, business support organizations, financial institutions and investors, and more.

This will help create an inclusive innovation ecosystem to grow women-led businesses driving our economic and social growth.