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Erminia (Ernie) Johannson.Courtesy of BMO

Erminia (Ernie) Johannson is group head of North American personal and business banking at Bank of Montreal.

There is no such thing as a “typical” female entrepreneur. Across every sector of our economy, we find businesses that are as dynamic, varied and innovative as the women who lead them.

We also see, time and time again, that common challenges for all small businesses hit women-led businesses particularly hard. The burden of child and elder care is a case in point, one which is magnified by the pandemic and driving too many women to put their professional lives on hold.

This is a challenge that businesses and government can overcome together. The recent announcement of a national child care framework is an important step in the right direction. But just as there is no one kind of female entrepreneur, there is no single policy that can address all of the access and equity challenges that women-led businesses face.

This is borne out by the data. Within our own business, while 24 per cent of business banking clients are women, they represent more than 30 per cent of applications for the Canadian Emergency Business Account. Further, a recent poll of applicants to the BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program found 65 per cent of respondents saw significant negative business impacts as a result of the pandemic – or had to shut down completely.

Over and over, respondents used terms such as diversity, culture, gender and inclusion to describe their business values. Recent numbers reveal that support is not aligning with those values. In its own survey, the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce found 66 per cent of business founders from underrepresented communities reporting decreases in revenue, with 16 per cent of those respondents reporting declines of up to 80 per cent. The same intersectional challenges we’ve battled for decades are only intensified today.

There are also nuances in the diversity of businesses themselves. An emerging business without a well-established customer base might struggle in the transition to e-commerce. Microbusinesses, typically nimble, lack resources for a dramatic shift in process. Considering microenterprises make up more than half of Canadian businesses, a hit to these owners across the board could impact thousands of jobs.

Improving access to child care, while critical, is not on its own sufficient. As we work toward a strong recovery, we must commit to keeping female entrepreneurs in business and contributing to the wider economy. We have to match the right mix of supports to the right people. More can be done.

Mentorship, access to startup funding and networking opportunities – especially now, with widespread supply-chain constraints – are just a few examples of what basic supports can look like.

With online connections now the norm, there are webinars to help female business clients keep learning about accessing capital, cash management and business and tax planning. There are digital workshops that focus on personal resiliency, stress and financial management, relationship marketing and strategic business planning. There are also grant programs developed specifically to help female entrepreneurs who’ve shown resilience in getting their business through COVID-19. We will do more to be better-informed allies for female business clients. Governments can do more, too.

The current suite of relief programs can be complemented with more targeted measures to help female entrepreneurs continue serving customers, paying staff and planning for the future without taking on more debt.

Support for small business must especially take into account sectors with a higher number of women-led businesses, such as hospitality and personal services. This could take the form of tax deferrals, mentoring programs, consultancy and industry-specific supports.

I would also encourage government to aggressively continue the push to update its own procurement policies to see more contracts go to female suppliers and businesses with women in leadership roles.

Support for women in business, and female entrepreneurs in particular, requires action that reflects this group’s diverse needs and aspirations. Canadian women have worked too hard to lose ground now.

Striking the balance of children and careers is only part of the solution. Ensuring access to funding, mentorship, networking, sound advice and targeted, systemic support will better position this cohort of entrepreneurs to come out stronger in the space they’ve fought so hard for.

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