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Nadine Spencer became an entrepreneur when she was 12 years old.

At SheEO, a redesigned ecosystem that supports, finances and celebrates female entrepreneurs, ventures are chosen by voting and supported by crowdfunding.SheEO

Nadine Spencer became an entrepreneur when she was 12 years old. Her mother moved from Jamaica to Canada and left her with a friend, who promptly took her out of school and instructed her to run errands. “She sent me to a place 24 miles away to buy cakes, but she didn’t give me enough money for the return trip,” Ms. Spencer recalls. “I guess she expected me to walk.”

When Ms. Spencer got to the market, she came to an agreement with a local vendor, promising she would become a regular customer if she could get a deal. She then bought a number of cakes and packaging paper, parcelled out the merchandise and sold the packages for a small profit.

“I made enough money for the bus that day and returned weekly,” she says. “Becoming an entrepreneur enabled me to take control of my future.” When her mother found out about the disrupted education, she brought Ms. Spencer to Canada to continue her studies.

That day at the market, Ms. Spencer’s passion for entrepreneurship was ignited – and it never abated. She is now the CEO of marketing and communications agency BrandEQ Group Inc. and the president and CEO of the Black Business and Professional Association. “My legacy is to enable women to achieve financial and personal freedom through entrepreneurship,” she says.

Women’s economic participation is not a new topic in Canada, but progress has been slow. Fawn Annan has been working for nearly three decades on shifting the balance of gender representation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

As the president and CEO of ITWC, Canada’s largest content creation and technology news source, she is familiar with the barriers faced by female tech entrepreneurs and the importance of creating systems of support. “Efforts to increase diversity and inclusion have delivered more optics than outcomes. We have seen much talk in the private sector, for example, but it has failed to put appropriate measures in place,” she says. “At the current rate, it would take Canada 52 years to reach gender parity. We need systems change.”

For Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, recent data shows deeply embedded biases. “Only four per cent of venture capital in Canada goes to women. Less than one per cent of corporate procurement goes to women-led businesses. And less than five per cent of women entrepreneurs are able to grow their business to over a million in revenue,” she says. “With women making up 51 per cent of the population, these numbers show that the system is skewed.”

The vast majority of people making funding decisions are men, who tend to support things that resonate with them, explains Ms. Saunders. “When women come with interesting ideas, they often get dismissed.” Take, for example, Toni Desrosiers, the founder of Abeego, who invented a breathable food wrap. Her quest for funding support was met with questions like, “Do you have a business degree? Have you run a business before?” says Ms. Saunders. “The men didn’t recognize the value of her idea.”

At SheEO, the reception was much different: everyone voted for Ms. Desrosiers’s innovation, since “Abeego is amazing,” says Ms. Saunders. “When you use conventional plastic food wrap to cover a cucumber, it turns to mush in a day. With Abeego, the cucumber lasts for 10 days.”

SheEO’s model is inclusive and supportive, with chosen entrepreneurs getting zero-per-cent-interest loans and access to a network of support. The organization also focuses on both social impact and traditional measures of economic growth. “We are tackling the world’s ‘to do list,’” says Ms. Saunders.

BBPA, ITWC and SheEO are among the hundreds of organizations supporting the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) – a new initiative led by Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, the Ted Rogers School of Management and the Brookfield Institute, which has nine hubs across the country. Its partners include diverse organizations supporting women entrepreneurs, financial institutions and investors, incubators and business organizations, and community organizations – all working together to build a more inclusive ecosystem that will connect organizations supporting diverse women entrepreneurs at every stage, across sectors and geographies.

“There are many organizations across the country supporting entrepreneurs generally and women specifically. Think of us as the B2B platform, connecting these organizations together, sharing research and best practices, challenging stereotypes, building pathways and developing a more inclusive and effective innovation ecosystem,” says Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute.

Ms. Anan is an enthusiastic supporter of WEKH because of its systems approach. “We have been working for decades to advance women in technology without achieving results,” she says. “We should not make the same mistakes in advancing women entrepreneurs.”

Ms. Saunders stresses the importance of WEKH’s strategy to combat the stereotypes of entrepreneurs and to support diverse women across the spectrum and at every stage. Data and research are key.

“With such a big focus on unicorns and winning the market, SMEs get starved of capital,” she says. “We miss important segments of the economy and the populations more likely to be in services industries, the arts or social ventures.”

By linking diverse organizations together to tackle the tough problems “WEKH and its partners will help to shift the balance,” believes Ms. Spencer. “You want to get behind women entrepreneurs to help them succeed.”


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.