In 2016 my bebo mia inc. business partner Natasha Marchand and I were nominated for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. We were floored and excited and nervous as it felt like it was 3 to 5 years earlier than we would have expected to be in such a prestigious business competition. We loved hearing the the EY competition wanted more women and after almost 10 years in business, it was exciting to be playing on a bigger stage with previous Canadian winners like the powerhouse business Cirque Du Soleil.
The competition had multiple phases that involved applications, panel interviews, timed-video presentations and lightning-round judging with a couple hundred business owners vying for one of the 50 finalist spots for Ontario. While going through the competition steps we had to tighten up our messaging and get even more clear around our ‘why’, something that entrepreneurs typically do not carve out time for as they are busy working in their company rather than on it.
We made it through the initial application process and interviews and found ourselves at the judged lightning round event held at the Rotman School of Management on the beautiful University of Toronto campus. As we walked into the event space we immediately had the experience of ‘one of these things are not like the other’, well two, in our case. Our flowered dresses stood out amidst a sea of grey and black suits. We went right for the wine bar, grabbing a chicken skewer off the tray of a passing server and promptly broadcasted a Facebook Live video to our supportive community, giggling nervously as we updated them on the event thus far.
Sadly, we were not alone in our imposter feelings… According to François Tellier, EY’s Canadian Growth Markets Leader and National Director of EY’s Entrepreneur Of The Year program,
When we talk with women who are finalists or even winners in our Entrepreneur Of The Year program, they seem shocked to have gotten that far. But they didn’t win by luck – they deserve to be there, and they can go much further.
Spoiler alert: we did not make it as a finalist.
We left the event feeling optimistic about our chances of proceeding to the next level which would have included fabulous gowns at the black tie gala held in October. We planned our outfits for days, finding that easier than considering that we did not get through as a finalist. We had to wait weeks for our letter to arrive in the mail! Spoiler alert: we did not make it as a finalist.
I was disappointed for the 48 hours after receiving the letter… ego bruised, beat-myself-up kinda disappointed. Then Natasha and I started talking about what to do for the next time we were nominated and this put jet fuel in our tanks!
Fast forward 3 months to November 24th, 2016 and the winners for all Canadian regions, as well as the overall winner for Canada, arrived in my email inbox. After meeting many of the Ontario nominees at the event in the summer I was excited to see who went through to the National level. Low and behold the finalists and overall winner were men. White men. Our province, Ontario, was represented by Steven K. Hudson of the publicly-traded Element Financial Corporation (TSX: EFN) (TSX: ECN) with over $25 billion in assets. It was laughable to think that we were even in the same competition.
My first response reaction was outrage. I paced and ranted while Natasha and Alana (my other half) watched me over their lunches. We all started discussing where the heck the women were. Are they not interested in business? No, we know that women are starting businesses at a rate not that far off from our male counterparts, however, when it comes to having employees or expanding into international markets, that is where we fall off the charts. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) March 2013 Canadian report, women hold the majority for solopreneur and service sector businesses, which traditionally see lower growth potential and profitability.
Why are women in business staying so small and what can we do to change it?
One of the biggest barriers for women is education, without which scalability is less attainable, however, I feel like the answer is more simple than that. The gender gap is still present and continues to grow. According to the World Economic Forum, Gender Parity for Canada, which is ranked 35th in the world, is still 170 years away and we just keep slipping backwards, widening the gender gap! As far as education goes, according to the Disrupting the Disruptors report, Canada placed 5th in entrepreneurship education among G20 nations, behind the US, Australia, Japan and France. We can do better!!!
EY recognizes that gender disparity exists so they have a separate program called Entrepreneurial Winning Women. It is an executive leadership program that identifies a select group of high-potential women entrepreneurs whose businesses show real potential to scale — and then helps them do it. This is a really lovely idea… With only 2% of female-owned businesses with revenue over $1 million in the US, and an even smaller percentage in Canada, I feel like this program will not raise the overall female stats. It seems to be additional support for the female minority that would already have revenue exceeding $1 million.
Digital is evening the playing field
It is not all doom and gloom for women in business, especially with scalability and reaching global markets. How you ask? With the wave of digital businesses sprouting up we are seeing those start-up barriers to entry reduced for new business ideas and there is a fabulous platform for targeted fundraising. Through the digital channel you can offer mentorship, education and community. I know for my business, bebo mia inc. the online space allowed Natasha and I to access women all over the world and our business growth curve is almost a vertical line. We also have the pleasure of consulting for hundreds of women who can create viable businesses in the digital space while raising their children.
With the Women’s March on Washington in Toronto this week I also felt hopeful about women standing together to fight for equality. To fight for agency over our bodies, to believe survivors of sexual abuse, for equal pay, to close the gender gap, for maternity leave, for trans rights, for women of colour to have the same rights as their white sisters, to stop the objectification of our bodies, to stop violence against us.
Women succeeding as entrepreneurs is heavily intertwined with these complicated sociopolitical issues. Yes, there are days that I feel defeated and held down and limited by the system I have to work within but most of the time I feel excited and inspired and committed to seeing women kick ass in their businesses and with their families and within their communities. I feel proud to be from the city that is ranked number 1 in the world for having the culture to support female entrepreneurs. So ladies, let’s commit to marching everyday! Let’s march to get our hands on the education we want and deserve, the resources we will need to succeed and the recognition and pay we have earned. Let’s march to support one another and lift one another up. We will not rise, until we rise as one.