Old, white, male and quite possibly dead – that's the image most Canadians have of homegrown entrepreneurs, according to a survey conducted by the newly established Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative.
When asked to name Canadian business innovators, most of the 2,000 people surveyed pointed to figures such as Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph-Armand Bombardier or John Molson. Kevin O'Leary, at 62, was the youngest person to feature high on the list. There were no women near the top.
"In Canada, we do an amazing job celebrating our hockey players and our sports players and our artists, but not as much when it comes to our entrepreneurs," said Ruma Bose, former president of Chobani Ventures LLC and founder of the Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative, which is launching Thursday in Ottawa with the support of celebrity entrepreneurs Michele Romanow and Richard Branson.
"It's not the individual trying to start a business and disrupt a sector and mortgage out their home and sacrifice everything to believe in a dream. That's not typically what people are admiring and heroes that we uplift," Ms. Bose said.
We tend to celebrate foreign superstars such as Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, the survey found. "Strikingly, Elon Musk, ranked fifth-greatest entrepreneur in the world by our respondents, did not even make their top 10 Canadian entrepreneurs, suggesting they simply do not know of his Canadian heritage," the survey report notes.
Ms. Bose and the initiative's co-founder, Jonathan Glencross, want to change this by putting a younger, more diverse and more female face on Canadian entrepreneurship. At the same time, they want to help female entrepreneurs access capital and expand their businesses online.
Similar to Mr. Branson's U.K.-based Virgin StartUp – an inspiration for the initiative – the not-for-profit will help small-business owners obtain inexpensive financing. Ms. Romanow, a tech entrepreneur and star of CBC's Dragons' Den, has promised female entrepreneurs applying through the initiative a 10-per-cent discount on loans obtained through her financial services platform clearbanc.com.
"Eighty per cent of the aspiring entrepreneurs who doubted their chances said that access to finance was the reason why they had their doubts," said Mr. Glencross, citing the survey. "Objectively there is capital available in Canada, but the experience and the perception is there isn't, so we need to make it easier to access … and it needs to be better targeted to the communities that need it."
The initiative has also partnered with Shopify Inc. to provide female entrepreneurs with free subscriptions to the company's online retail platform.
"We found in the study that 40,000 retail businesses in Canada still don't have an online platform, and yet we see women, more strongly than men, suggested that retail and the Internet were aligning with their opportunities in entrepreneurship," Mr. Glencross said.
Beyond offering a leg up to early-career business women, both Ms. Bose and Mr. Glencross see their group's role as celebrating entrepreneurs and making entrepreneurship a realistic career choice for young people. Of the people who responded to the survey, four in 10 aspired to starting a business, but less than one in five had ever written a business plan and less than one in 10 had pitched to raise capital.
The not-for-profit will be conducting call-outs to communities across the country, asking people to nominate local business people to be featured on the initiative's various social-media channels.
"If I don't wake up as a five-year-old in Montreal saying I want to be an entrepreneur when I grow up because I don't have any heroes, but I want to be P.K. Subban or I want to be Arcade Fire, then my life path totally changes," Mr. Glencross said.
It's a sentiment shared by Ms. Romanow: "What we aspire to be and who we look up to in society, it changes everything. … It's really cool being on Dragons' Den and have a seven-year-old girl come up to you on the street and be, like, 'I want to be like you when I grow up.'"