Oct. 15, 2021

It’s time to capitalize on the potential of women entrepreneurs

Women in Entrepreneurship Week Oct. 18-22 celebrates an ever-growing presence in Alberta’s innovation ecosystem
Four entrepreneurs
Four alumnae — Janice Tran, Robin McCulloch, Jenelle Peterson, Shanika Abeysinghe — celebrate Women in Entrepreneurship Week

One issue has always steered Janice Tran’s career decisions — her impact on climate-change mitigation. So when an opportunity to launch and manage a startup came along, the Haskayne School of Business grad left her job as an investor and went all-in.

The year was 2020 and so the gravity and risk of launching Kanin Energy during COVID-19 was “scary,” she says, “but ultimately worth it.”

The biggest challenge for Tran, BA’11, BComm’11, was “creating and managing a startup team, entirely remotely.” With stay-at-home work orders in place, “creating a sense of camaraderie and community without seeing each other in person has been a unique challenge,” she admits.

While many Canadians have been forced to solve problems and mend careers in the wake of the lingering pandemic, women have been hit particularly hard. According to an RBC economics analysis published in March 2021, almost half a million Canadian women who lost jobs at the start of the pandemic in 2020 still hadn’t returned to work nearly 10 months later.

Whether it’s out of necessity or personal choice, many of these women have become entrepreneurs — which is precisely why we are saluting them during Women in Entrepreneurship Week, running Oct. 18 to 22.

Why bother with ‘theme’ weeks?

Of course, we celebrate entrepreneurs more than one week a year, but these theme weeks are often created to inform and inspire people, says Dr. Alice de Koning, PhD, academic director at UCalgary’s Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking. They also typically involve networking opportunities, educational programs and training support.

Applauding the resilience and ambitious nature of so many female entrepreneurs is the co-founder and CEO of Wild | Life Outdoor Adventures, Jenelle Peterson, BComm’09, who isn’t surprised that more women across all industries are opting to ditch their nine-to-five careers for something more entrepreneurial. In fact, a recent Intuit study reports that some two million Canadian entrepreneurs started businesses during COVID-19, including side hustles.

With an increase in family responsibilities or lack of child care during the on-again, off-again lockdowns, women are looking for more work-life flexibility, says Peterson.

“One of the reasons I decided to forego a more traditional job to pursue a startup was to allow for more control and flexibility, yet I wanted to be in a place that was agile and willing to take risks,” says Peterson, who launched the subscription-box company that packages outdoor-adventures for kids in March 2020.

She balks at the term “mompreneur,” finding it odd and somewhat disparaging, “as if to assume I lack the vision, tenacity or talent to grow a formidable company. However, I don’t let it discourage me . . . on the contrary, it motivates me to get there faster.”

With an Oct. 28 appearance on CBC’s Dragons Den, the mother of one daughter (and soon to be two) may find herself on that accelerated track.

Hear me roar

Eighteen months after launching Wild | Life, Peterson has garnered all sorts of attention — from winning the Tillywig Toy Award for parent’s favourite product to being featured in Explore Magazine as well as in the Huffington Post — and has shipped more than 8,000 kits to customers. She says the timing of these kits was a little uncanny and positive, but admits Calgary’s entrepreneurial ecosystem lacks “mentorship and training opportunities that accommodate women who want both a career and family.”

She’s encouraged, however, by new channels for accessing capital “that are based on data alone, platforms like Clearco and Shopify Capital. We are seeing more and more non-traditional ecosystems where female funders and founders can thrive.”

Shanika Abeysinghe, BA’16, co-founded Bessie Box (a home delivery system for curated meats and seafood that works with local farmers and fishers) in 2019. She admits that, at first, she suffered from imposter syndrome. Once she connected with the entrepreneurial community in Calgary, however, that quickly changed.

“The organizations and the people within them have supported me, encouraged me and told me when I was wrong,” Abeysinghe says, giving a shout-out to Platform Calgary’s nine-week residency program dubbed Junction and Calgary Economic Development’s Trade Accelerator Program (TAP). “They have essentially raised me.” 

Unlike Peterson, Abeysinghe says women in Canada need capital more than mentorship or training opportunities that already exist. “Venture capital was at an all-time high in 2020, but less money went to women-led businesses, even though women-led businesses outperform male-led ones,” she says, quoting a recent McKinsey & Company study.

Pain points

Businesses both new and well established have felt COVID-19’s wallop. HiTech Athletic Bracing & Orthotic Services Ltd. was launched 22 years ago by Kinesiology grad Robin McCulloch (nee Murphy). Like many entrepreneur-run endeavours, this Lethbridge-based business has weathered several crises, but no previous challenge has been as severe as COVID-19.

Lucky enough to have HiTech deemed an essential service, McCulloch was still forced to take a hard look at her business in 2020 and that’s when she decided to try new digital tools that would assist her in providing virtual knee-brace appointments.

“It was a bit of a crash course in new technology as we were all learning and innovating together,” she says. “Through Zoom, I could watch their gait pattern, take a digital image of their leg and still provide them with an appropriate knee brace for their medical needs.”

In fact, this approach has been so successful that McCulloch is now offering this virtual option to clients as far north as Fort McMurray and west into B.C.

Future solutions 

As to the future of entrepreneurship in Canada, de Koning is reticent to gaze in any crystal ball. “(I) think the biggest impact COVID will have on entrepreneurship will be the comfort level with online meetings through various platforms,” she says.

“This means people are now more likely to think about serving markets that are further away from home, perhaps even becoming international businesses more easily and, at the same time, working with suppliers in different areas.”

Redefining what entrepreneurial success looks like, by examining it through a gender and diversity lens, is just one of the areas that will be explored during Women in Entrepreneurship Week. Organizational cultures, everyday work practices, systemic discrimination and redesigning processes that have become embedded in work cultures are also on the roster. In light of the pressures that COVID-19 has placed on all employees, the week is bound to acknowledge how resilient, innovative and ambitious entrepreneurs are — and to celebrate its many pathways to growth.

Curious about other UCalgary alumni-built businesses? Check out the new directory.