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Dorothy Rhau, founder and chief executive officer of the non-profit organization Audace au Féminin.Alexandre Paskanoi/Supplied

Robin Kovitz thought she had all the skills and background to build her career as an entrepreneur, but there was one thing she didn’t consider – gender bias.

In 2010, while working in private equity on Bay Street in Toronto, Kovitz was advised by friends to hide her first pregnancy. Nothing was more career-limiting than having a baby, the reasoning went, especially in a male-dominated field. This didn’t come as a shock – but Kovitz didn’t bank on her gender being a barrier when she left Bay Street to buy a business of her own. In 2014, she acquired Baskits Inc., a gift basket delivery company, and set out to grow the business.

“When I bought Baskits, I didn’t expect access to capital would be difficult because that was my background; I had been raising capital for huge companies for over 10 years,” says Kovitz, who had spent her career in both private equity and investment banking and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. “I was surprised when I took over the incumbent banking relationships at Baskits. Every request for capital that I made was denied.”

Kovitz strongly believes gender bias was at play. She recalls, for example, being asked questions she knew a man wouldn’t be asked, such as how she was going to balance raising a family and running the business.

“Unconscious bias exists everywhere in our world ... and it does creep into the credit adjudication process, where people assess and decide on underwriting loans,” Kovitz says. “Entrepreneurs need a few things to succeed and access to capital is at the core. If there is a segment of the population who is not getting access to capital, that’s a big problem.”

In 2020, women-led startups received vastly less venture capital funding compared to men: 2.3 per cent of the dollars went to women-led startups versus 97.7 per cent to men-led startups. Fortunately, it’s a problem a leading Canadian bank is committed to help solve.

Launched in 2018, The Scotiabank Women Initiative (SWI) is a comprehensive program designed to increase economic and professional opportunities for women and non-binary people. To date, SWI has deployed more than $4-billion in capital, supporting nearly 13,000 women. Given the success of the initiative, Scotiabank announced today that it has increased its commitment to $10-billion in total by 2025.

“Women entrepreneurs face numerous challenges when they’re starting, sustaining and growing their businesses,” says Sloane Muldoon, senior vice-president of retail performance, Scotiabank, and co-chair of The Scotiabank Women Initiative.

“This was our motivator to create a program that raises awareness of unconscious biases and drives real change for our women entrepreneur clients, so that they’re successful today and in the future.”

How does SWI give women-owned, women-led businesses a boost? The program provides support through a three-pronged approach: access to capital and tailored financing solutions; specialized education in the form of events, workshops and boot camps to raise financial acumen and increase networking opportunities; and mentorship and advice, providing role models and like-minded peers to help women.

For example, SWI’s Un-Mentorship Boot Camps “unteach” traditionally held ideas about how to succeed as a woman entrepreneur. Through partnerships, SWI supports events such as StrikeUP, a virtual conference that brings together women entrepreneurs from across Canada. Most recently, SWI launched the Women in Auto Accelerator, a mentoring and networking program to help women build their careers in the Quebec automotive industry.

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Robin Kovitz, president & CEO of Baskits Inc.Marvin Lam/Supplied

Since the launch, SWI has expanded in Jamaica and Costa Rica. SWI has also broadened to serve emerging women leaders and executives among Scotiabank’s global banking and markets clients, as well as in the bank’s global wealth management division. “In addition to SWI’s capital deployment and $10-billion commitment, we’re very proud of these key milestones over the past three years,” Muldoon says.

Kovitz is among the thousands of women who have benefitted from SWI’s support. With additional capital, she has been able to grow Baskits through acquisitions and new talent hires, for example, as well as overcome recent global supply chain challenges. When she first heard about SWI, Kovitz recalls thinking, “Wow, where has this been all my life?” She immediately switched to Scotiabank and got involved with SWI.

“The initiative truly has enabled us to grow the business the way we have over the last seven years,” Kovitz says.

Breaking barriers for women entrepreneurs

Dorothy Rhau knew something needed to change when she went to the drugstore and found there was no makeup to match her skin tone.

Born in Montreal and of Haitian descent, Rhau has always been passionate about diversity. She started a diversity committee in high school and championed diversity in her early career in human resources, long before everyone was talking about the topic. At the age of 37, the Montrealer made the jump to standup comedy, rising to prominence as the first French-speaking, Black female comedian in Quebec and Canada.

It was a shopping trip to get makeup in 2016 that inspired her to drop the mic and take to a new stage. “I was looking for a foundation at a drugstore and they told me there’s no foundation for women of colour,” Rhau says. “I was in shock because, ever since I was young, I would hear there’s a lack of diversity in politics and in movies and so on. And now, going to a drugstore in a neighbourhood with a lot of Black people and being told there’s no makeup for women of colour? It was too much.”

She vented her frustrations on social media and received responses from many women with similar experiences. That sparked the idea for the Salon International de la Femme Noire, a national celebration of the social and economic empowerment of Black women.

Inspired by the event’s success, Rhau decided to focus her career on social enterprise, and became founder and chief executive officer of the non-profit organization Audace au Féminin.

“Our aim is to highlight Black women who shine in the shadows,” Rhau says. “We want to fight against the invisibility of Black women and ensure we get to see and hear Black women in all areas of society.”

With SWI, Audace au Féminin has financial support for its mission and was able to host its fourth Salon International de la Femme Noire.

“As our partner, The Scotiabank Women Initiative gives us an opportunity to make sure our voice will be heard and our mission will be seen across Canada,” Rhau says. “It’s powerful to have an ally and it makes a huge difference because going alone is more difficult. You’re going to advance, but you cannot reach the next level by yourself.”

In addition to having allies, Rhau says it’s important for Black women entrepreneurs to be authentic. “Don’t erase yourself. Believe in what you’re doing,” she says. “And if someone doesn’t believe in you, you will find someone else who will. Don’t change to satisfy the other person who doesn’t understand your market.”

Grit, determination and necessary support

If being an entrepreneur was easy, everyone would do it. That’s the thinking of Ana Stevens, co-founder and vice-president of business development at Pepper North Artisan Foods, a 100 per cent Canadian-sourced brand of hot sauce she launched in 2013 with her husband, Drew.

Stevens was born in Managua, Nicaragua and immigrated to Canada in 1988 with her family. She came from humble beginnings and was the first member of her family to receive a post-secondary education.

“For me, giving up was never an option: My family’s livelihood depended on the success of Pepper North,” Stevens says. “Having the background that I have, I knew I had to put in the work my whole life so that one day I could give my children the life I never had.”

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Ana Stevens, co-founder and vice-president of business development at Pepper North Artisan Foods.Supplied

The idea for Pepper North arose from Drew’s interest in growing and cooking hot pepper varieties. One year, the couple sold their hot sauce at a farmer’s market in Port Credit, Ont., and their brand took off. With Stevens’ previous experience in B2B sales and her husband’s in operations and recipe creation, they eventually decided to focus on Pepper North full time. They secured their first large retail client in 2017 and have since expanded their reach to more than 1,500 retailers across the country.

“At the time, we were in need of capital, as we needed to secure a loan to produce more inventory,” Stevens says. “We submitted an application for a credit line through The Scotiabank Women Initiative to help fulfill purchase orders. This helped us produce inventory and fulfill larger purchase orders.”

Stevens says that Pepper North’s success didn’t happen overnight, and the company continues to overcome obstacles as they arise, such as supply chain issues. But, she says, they learn daily and, when they don’t have the answers, they’re not afraid to ask for help.

“Trust and believe in yourself,” she advises other women entrepreneurs. “Customers respect when brands are authentic and have integrity in everything they do. I can proudly say that growing Pepper North has been challenging at times, but I wouldn’t change a thing, because I am a better entrepreneur for it.”

To learn more about The Scotiabank Women Initiative, visit their website or contact a program expert in your region.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio and The Scotiabank Women Initiative. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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