Entrepreneurs

3 Female Founders Share Their Stories For International Women's Day

 

The number of women-owned businesses in Canada jumped an incredible 38% between 2010 and 2018.

Why? We’re good at it.

But I don’t want to generalize too much. I think entrepreneurial qualities have little to do with gender, race or where you were raised. Instead, there’s a more obvious correlation between business intuition and how you were raised. Did your parents teach you about resourcefulness and drive? Were they themselves entrepreneurs? Did you watch them hustle?

But, then again, there’s something to be said for published research.

A study released by the Centre for Entrepreneurs found that women are better calculated risk-takers, are less prone to overconfidence, are more likely to take the long-term approach to running a business and succeed despite facing more barriers than their male counterparts.

“Female entrepreneurs have to work harder than the men to make a success of their businesses. Almost one in five women say they lack the technical knowledge required for their business compared to only one in 20 men. A quarter of women say they don’t have the networks necessary to build their businesses or receive funding while fewer than one in 10 men say these are problems. But these problems have not got in the way of women succeeding – in a marked contrast to normal pay structures, female entrepreneurs in the study take home twice as much pay as the men.”

Last year, BDC Capital injected $50 million into women-led technology firms as part of its effort to support female founders. All of the entrepreneurs it has invested in are doing amazing things and have built impressive businesses.

In honour of International Women’s Day, we reached out to a few of these inspiring female founders. We asked them about their successes, the books on their shelves, and the people who inspire them. Here are their stories:

Caitlin MacGregor
Founder and CEO of Plum

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“I didn’t know I was an entrepreneur until my first job,” Caitlin tells me. Caitlin MacGregor didn’t know about her natural ability to build and scale businesses until she was already doing it for someone else’s company. She eventually made the scary decision to give up job security and dive full-time into her own venture, Plum — a SaaS startup that matches businesses with the right job applicants. Six years, two children, and a couple fundraising rounds later, Plum is an award-winning solution that’s used by SMEs around the world. 

Tell me about a person who inspires you. 

Jodi Kovitz, the founder of MoveTheDial, inspires me. She recognized that diversity and inclusion are the fundamentals of innovation and global winning outcomes, and took action. She’s not just talking about the issues, she’s actively trying to solve them.

MoveTheDial is one of the few women's initiatives that is really organized by diversity by design. Jodi is redesigning the system to get a better outcome and it’s working.”
 

What’s your advice for women who are looking to start a business, but do not necessarily know where to begin?

If you don’t know where to begin, try getting a job in management or being an 'interim-preneur' before going it alone in an entrepreneurial venture. It’ll shorten your learning curve and give you the training wheels for learning how to run a business. There’s so much benefit from learning and doing through someone else’s business. Personally, I feel this experience will prepare you far better for entrepreneurship than any class or textbook ever could.

You have to really believe in your business and that the world needs it. You have to believe that no matter what, this product needs to exist. You will need to persevere much longer than you ever thought you'd have to. I can promise you that it’s going to take more resources, more money, and is going to be a lot harder than you think it’ll be, so it better be worth it.”  

What can we do to get more women into leadership roles in the tech industry? 

“Once women get into the pipeline, we need to make sure  that they stay there. There was a study done a few years back that noted that about half of technical women leave the industry within ten years. We need to do a better job of encouraging women to stay and rise to the highest levels in tech companies.

To achieve this, companies could consider ways to convene firm-specific groups for women in technology and build a sense of sisterhood and support. There really is a place for everyone at every stage of life in this industry. I just don’t think we’re doing a good enough job spreading that message and I think if we did then we’d see more women entering the field and staying long enough to enter leadership positions.”

Access to funding for emerging women entrepreneurs can be scarce. BDC is off to a great start, but what else needs to be done?

“We need more funders that are willing to partner with BDC Capital. Michelle Scarborough and BDC Capital are doing incredible work, but they can’t do it alone. We know deals are stronger when they have multiple participants, so what female founders like myself need are more investors who will step up and participate.   

BDC Capital has had a tremendous impact on Plum. Our seed round was supported by the women’s fund and they are actively helping me secure our next round. The women’s fund has also performed very well — it has one of the best returns of all of BDC Capital’s portfolios. Since both sides are benefiting, I think that the $70 million pool could actually be bigger. It just makes good economic sense.” 

What should we read next?

“What Works: Gender Equality by Design”, by Iris Bohnet.

 

Dr. Narjès Boufaden
Founder and CEO of Keatext

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When Narjès moved from Tunisia to Canada in 1995 to study Computational Linguistics, she thought her career would be in academia. “I completed my Ph.D. in Computational Linguistics in 2004 under the supervision of Drs. Bengio and Laplame and worked as a researcher for several universities and then at CRIM (Centre de Recherche Informatique de Montréal) where I helped organizations deal with information management challenges.”

Her extensive knowledge of text mining and experience with information management navigated her into a new and unexpected career as a founder. “In 2010, I founded KeaText with the mission of helping organizations make sense of massive volumes of information to help them make better decisions and improve productivity. It grew to become a successful business, but I wanted to scale it and recognized that I couldn’t do that with a professional services company. So, I decided to pivot and sell a product instead. And, just like that, a SaaS business and tech entrepreneur were born.” 

Tell me about a person who inspires you.

“To me, Richard Branson is nothing short of inspirational. From starting his first business at the age of 16 to developing the world’s first commercial space line, he is one of the most iconic global businessmen. He truly rocks as a leader and inspires even people who are outside his team — people like you and me — to lift our games and aim higher. He’s exciting, original and motivating, and I love that he’s a rule breaker.”

What’s your advice for women looking to start a business?

“In my mind, being an entrepreneur is not for the fearful. Confidence is a crucial building block for being a successful entrepreneur, and embracing it fully will take you places you never thought possible.

Knowing that you need confidence is often half the battle. Hopefully, by educating one another on the importance of confidence and pushing one another to build this confidence, we can close the confidence gap and fuel more success for female entrepreneurs. I wish I had known more about the importance of confidence when I first started out."

"Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong."

- Peter T. Mcintyre, Philosopher

"Having a solid network is very important. Founding a company is exciting, but it isn’t easy. Keeping it running in the years following is often harder. As female entrepreneurs, we need to surround ourselves with people who understand what we’re going through — people who can challenge us because they’ve been there — and foster our personal and professional growth.

I recognize that this is harder for women, as these networks often feel like the 'Boy’s Club'. But, just remember that there are people who are part of these clubs who are willing to help and connect you to the best people. The first step is building a relationship of trust.”

What can we do to get more women on boards or help women gain more leadership roles in the tech industry?

“Everyone agrees that increasing the percentage of women in leadership roles and on boards is the right thing to do. But, general consensus isn’t enough. What’s often missing is a sense of urgency.

Meaningful change will come only when decision-makers (i.e. management) make fewer excuses and work together more effectively. What’s needed is purpose and intention — a set of goals and motivations that will underpin decision-making, such as making proactive changes to the hiring process.

That could mean establishing a target number of board positions for women, ensuring the list of candidates is diverse from the beginning and always having a woman in employee interviews. Women and men don’t necessarily express or behave the same way, but that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other — it’s just different and you need to have both outlooks at the table to make the best decisions.”

Access to funding for emerging women entrepreneurs can be scarce. BDC is off to a great start, but what else needs to be done?

“Taking advantage of the resources and mentors available can help you overcome the hurdles to financing your startup.

Entrepreneurs who build a strong network have a greater amount of resources and insight into funding opportunities. There are many women networking organizations that support business growth, provide financial advice and offer mentorship opportunities. Make a concerted effort to connect with powerful businesswomen and businessmen, and if you’re in a position to mentor somebody else, step up and do it.

I feel like this BDC initiative is truly a great one and will have an impact on helping close the funding gap between men and women. Working with Nicole LeBlanc was incredible. She backed me in every decision and always offered to help — going above and beyond to help me succeed.

In my mind, the women’s fund will help encourage other Canadian investors to better support and fund female entrepreneurs. It’s like the chicken and the egg. If you don’t have the first one, it’s hard to have the second.

BDC Capital is really beneficial for women.”

What should we read next?

“From Impossible to Inevitable”, by Aaron Ross and Jason Lemkin.

 

Marie Chevrier
Founder and CEO of Sampler

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After spending two years in New York’s venture capital arena, Marie returned to Toronto to merge her passion for marketing and technology. She started Sampler with a vision to transform the way consumer packaged goods companies distribute promotional offers. Marie had a hunch that connecting brands with consumers through digital media brands, like magazines and websites, would be a hit. Marie trusted her gut and started Sampler small, but it grew quickly into the booming digital business that it is today — she’s preparing to triple her team size by the end of 2018.

“It’s all about finding the positive in sometimes not positive situations. That’s why I’ve always seen being a woman in tech as a really great advantage. When you’re starting a business, you want to stand out and it is true that there are fewer women in tech than men. So, oftentimes when I enter a room, I’m the only woman. I always use that to my advantage.” 

Tell me about a person who inspires you.

“April Dunford inspires me. I admire her ability to balance her career while lending her time  to support young, growing companies. April is such an amazing example for women looking to build a career in technology or venture capital and she makes a difference every day by leading by example.

One of the most valuable things every entrepreneur needs is a cheerleader. April is my cheerleader. With all of her incredible experience, it’s very energizing when she boosts me and the team up!” 

What’s your advice for women who are looking to start a business, but do not necessarily know where to begin?

“Just start! Go with a huge amount of determination but, make no mistake, starting a business is a lot of work. But, personally, I love hard work, as do so many of us. And, I much prefer to pour all of that work and all of those hours into something that my team and I own, and I know many women who feel the same way.

Starting businesses is risky, so you need to manage risk well and look around corners. It's also pretty darn complicated, so you need the ability to manage complexity and see things holistically. Build­ing businesses that last means focusing on the long term. We drastically im­prove our chances of success when we are committed to keeping up with the pace of change and are constantly open to learning what we don't know.”

What can we do to get more women on boards or help women gain more leadership roles in the tech industry? 

“This is a really tough problem to tackle and I’m super passionate about encouraging more and more women to get into tech. In fact, more than 50% of Sampler’s staff is female.

I remember being inspired by the entrepreneurial success stories I was hearing and reading about when I first started to think about starting a company. If they could do it, I could do it! These stories weren’t necessarily gender-specific but if I, and other female founders, can show others that it can be done then I think that’s an important first step!”

Access to funding for emerging women entrepreneurs can be scarce. BDC is off to a great start, but what else needs to be done?

“I’m excited to see more and more female funds appear. I’m also excited to see so many initiatives out there, like MoveTheDial that are raising awareness for the problem. Now, I want to see us women entrepreneurs come together. There are so many daily opportunities for us to push each other up, to be each other’s sounding board or to make introductions. I always try to connect with the other women in  the room, especially if we both find ourselves in a room filled with men. I’ve driven a younger female entrepreneur from a pitch event 1.5 hours out of the city instead of having her take the bus. I always stop and say ‘good job’ to the other women I pitch beside in business competitions and I always give out my business card and suggest we stay in touch.” 

Is there anything else we should work on as a community?

“One thing I’m really passionate about is having more conversations about mental health in the workplace. There’s a great amount of anxiety, stress and personal sacrifice that goes into building a business for everyone on the team. I feel like our community should talk about that more.”

What should we read next?

“Put down the business book and read some fiction! I seriously read the most corny stuff just to add some light-hearted fun to my day, like anything written by Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks.”

 

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