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Ruth Bastedo, president of Experience Media.
Ruth Bastedo, president of Experience Media.

Guest Column

Female role models teach unique program Add to ...

I became an entrepreneur in 1997, when marketing departments were starting to take control of web sites from IT teams.

Medium One, the company I co-founded, serviced those marketing departments. It grew quickly, at one point ranking No. 13 on the Profit magazine list of Canada’s 50 hottest start-ups. Our clients were household names in Canada and the United States.

I had a child in 2000, sold the company in 2001, and then had another child. Looking back, the experience had a profound impact on me and my future. I had no idea how unusual my story was. I was a “woman entrepreneur.”

Ilse Treunich, CEO of the MaRS Discovery District, points out that only 6 per cent of tech start-ups accessing the Toronto innovation centre’s advisory services have a woman as founder or senior executive. “Young high-growth firms create the majority of new jobs. Women remain significantly underrepresented in this cohort, relative to their participation in the work force.”

The big question on the minds of policy makers, bankers and female entrepreneurs is: why is this the case, and what can be done about it?

Business leaders agree that with women starting four out of five of the new businesses in Canada, it serves all of us well to see them grow and thrive. “We need to encourage and support women to start and lead entrepreneurial growth businesses,” Ms. Treunich says. “It is critical for Canada’s economy.”

Is there a “right” time for women to start businesses? Is there a “right” kind of business for women to start? How does the “gender barrier” impact the potential growth trajectory of female-owned businesses versus their male counterparts? What skills are required to grow those businesses? The answers can be elusive.

Ten years into motherhood, I can’t get over the fact I won’t be working 24/7 any time soon. Maybe no one should, but entrepreneurs always think they should. I am fascinated by the way women’s business lives and career experiences differ from their male peer group.

When Beatrix Dart, executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, approached me to discuss collaborating on an entrepreneurship program exclusively for women, I jumped at the chance. Next Steps: A Program for Experienced Women Entrepreneurs was born, and it hosted its first cohort in 2009.

Prior to Rotman’s offer I spent six years running conferences, events and collecting research on the topic as a volunteer, and later as president of the then-active Women Entrepreneurs of Canada. I had also started another digital agency, Experience Media. I represented the target audience.

In my experience, women respond well to programs with a high level of peer-to-peer networking and content that is relevant and practical. They want their growth plans to be taken seriously, and they want to discuss these plans with people who champion them, who are interested in them, and who have a sense of where they are coming from.

They also want to hear from women who have “been there.”

“Women's groups or programs often do not appeal to me because I think half the working population is absent,” says Jacoline Loewen, a partner in the corporate finance firm Loewen and Partners and a first-time lecturer in the program. “Why would I want that?

“Rotman’s Next Steps program is a very different concept, as female role models who have “walked the talk” do the teaching. It is about learning practical tips and strategies from women who have achieved big results, and that is a very powerful motivator.”

One of the reasons Next Steps has resonated so well with its first three cohorts is that it confirms serious business growth is a real possibility. As a woman, if you meet other women who have built businesses, who have invested or bought into companies, or who have brokered deals with female-owned companies, you start to think “what’s the big deal? I’m going to go out there and find some private equity.”

It’s all about thinking big, and normalizing that “thinking big” process.

“My participation was incredibly valuable,” says recent Next Steps participant Victoria Sopik. “As we are a fast-growing business, the help with growth plan strategy was very key. I was especially impressed with the fact that the curriculum was applicable to businesses with a huge range in business size.

“The program provided support for growth-oriented women entrepreneurs through a combination of the right content, plugging them into the appropriate professional and private equity networks.”

Victoria Sopik has eight children, and she is president and CEO of Kids & Co., which records annual revenue of more than $15 million. No gender barrier there.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Ruth Bastedo, president of Experience Media, was the first Entrepreneur in Residence for Next Steps: A Program for Experienced Women Entrepreneurs, Initiative for Women in Business , at the Rotman School of Management. She is now program consultant, and she can be reached at ruth@experiencemedia.ca.

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