Although women entrepreneurs generate a sizable portion of Saskatchewan’s economic output and job creation, there are barriers holding women back from contributing even more to the health of our provincial economy. But work is being done to eliminate these obstacles.
Barriers to growth
Women-led businesses tend not to scale up as quickly or as much as businesses led by men do. This is because women face unique barriers such as lack of access to capital, mentors, networks, and several other factors, as identified in a 2018 study that examined national data on entrepreneurship among women in Canada.
Prabha Mitchell, CEO of Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan (WESK), feels the barriers have multiple implications. “[Breaking down] barriers that prevent women from scaling up their businesses is not only a social and moral imperative; It is also an economic issue. Saskatchewan faces a lost economic opportunity.”
Businesses led by women represent a significant portion of the province’s economy. WESK commissioned a report, prepared earlier this year by PWC, called Women Entrepreneurs in Saskatchewan. It showed that women entrepreneurs contributed $23.1 billion in GDP to the provincial economy in 2019 and created 192,000 jobs. However, there is a disparity between businesses led by women and those led by men. Women-led businesses make up over 80% of companies with fewer than 10 employees. This proportion decreases as the size of the business increases. Women-led businesses tend to have lower revenue and smaller asset bases. The findings also suggest that women-led businesses are more concentrated in the lower-productivity and less technologically oriented sectors of the economy.
The Saskatchewan government’s long-term vision for growth projects 100,000 more jobs within 10 years. Women-led businesses will contribute significantly to reaching the province’s goal and this contribution could be even greater with the mitigation/elimination of barriers to growth. The province’s growth rate will be hindered by these roadblocks that women-led companies face.
All entrepreneurs need support. Running a business is hard. Founders of companies need new skills as their businesses evolve, particularly when a business is in a period of growth. They need support from people who have been through similar experiences, they need access to capital to fund their growth, and they need connections with people who could be suppliers, customers, and industry peers. The same situation exists whether the entrepreneur is male or female. What is different is that women face unique challenges that limit access to these aspects that enable growth. That is the entrepreneurship gender gap.
In May of this year, the provincial government announced the creation of a WESK-led advisory committee to prepare recommendations that will enhance the business climate and help enable women entrepreneurs to scale up their businesses. This committee is addressing the gender gap in entrepreneurship head on.
The committee has just released a report titled Enabling Scale in Saskatchewan. The report contains four recommended actions for impact; enhancing access to capital, developing scale-enabling policies, streamlining access to data, programs and networks, and enhancing awareness and support by building momentum.
The Saskatchewan Advisory Committee worked with data from the 2020 PwC report to develop these recommendations for removing barriers. Given that 80% of women-led businesses have fewer than 10 employees, one key recommendation is to tailor programming and supports to help smaller women-led businesses scale up to a larger employee base. This is particularly important given that women-led businesses tend to be more labour-intensive and therefore have a greater ability to create jobs.
As part of the efforts of WESK and the Saskatchewan Advisory Committee to address the gender gap in entrepreneurship in Saskatchewan, WESK commissioned PwC to estimate metrics that describe women’s entrepreneurship activity in Saskatchewan: the number of businesses with employees, the number of employees, revenue, sectors of operations/business activity, location, ownership type, majority women-owned and women-led businesses, and aggregate economic contribution.
Download the full Women Entrepreneurs in Saskatchewan: Economic Statistics report, published in May 2020
One way to understand the importance of the committee’s recommendations is to consider an example of someone who has experienced success. WESK recently presented Katherine Regnier with its Celebration of Achievement Award. Regnier founded a local technology company and has considerable success in scaling up her business. She has raised millions of dollars in capital, has successfully exported outside of Canada, and has grown her team to over 50 employees. Regnier has found a way to break down the barriers holding her back. She’s a model for other women in businesses.
Regnier reflects on her experience as a woman entrepreneur. “When I started this journey, I didn’t know how hard the mountain would be to climb. I didn’t realize how much support and encouragement, how many helping hands I would need to keep going. And last but not least, I didn’t foresee being a role model to other women entrepreneurs or being noted as one of the few women leading a tech company in Canada. But what I do know now is that it takes a community to come this far, and I feel so privileged to be receiving this award from WESK’s collection of strong women right here at home.”
WESK has supported women entrepreneurs for many years through programming, mentorship, financing, and creating a vibrant community of peers. Mitchell has worked hard with her staff to help women start and scale up their businesses, acknowledging role models and promoting local success stories. A community of peers and mentors has formed, helping to engage with aspiring entrepreneurs and those who are working hard to grow their companies.
Most recently, WESK launched a new 3-year program called The Exchange which supports women entrepreneurs as they rebound from COVID-19, and then prepare to scale up operations. The program provides knowledge, tools and strategies from people who are experts in their field. It also creates partnerships with local businesses so people within the community can support each other during these periods of change.
Mitchell is excited about the work of the advisory committee. “The data in the 2020 PwC report is revealing. There is such an opportunity for women-led companies in Saskatchewan. It’s important for the business community to understand the considerable economic impact women have and the benefit of supporting women as they grow their businesses.”
The data clearly indicates an opportunity for women-led businesses to play a vital role in helping the province to reach its goals for long-term growth. Mitchell is excited about the future. “It’s right in WESK’s mission statement,” she explains. “Our mission is to close the gender entrepreneurship gap through economic and social empowerment of women in Saskatchewan.” We are passionate, zealous, and deeply committed to making progress on this. While recognizing the challenges entrepreneurs experience, we are also optimistic about the opportunities for women owned businesses with the development of the right business climate.”
PwC. Women Entrepreneurship in Canada. Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan, Oct. 2018. https://wesk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/WESK-Report-Oct.-15-2018-PwC-1.pdf
WESK. Enabling Scale in Saskatchewan: Report of the Saskatchewan Advisory Committee on the Gender Entrepreneurship Gap. July 2020. https://wesk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Enabling-Scale-in-Saskatchewan_July_27.pdf