You are visiting Liisbeth’s archives! 

Peruse this site for a history of profiles and insightful analysis on feminist entrepreneurship. 

And, be sure to sign up for’s newsletter where Liisbeth shares the latest news in feminist spaces.

Activism & Action Our Voices Uncategorized

How to unlock billions of unrealized growth led by entrepreneurial women

First, acknowledge that Canada’s one-million-plus female entrepreneurs are not mini-men. Then, make new federal funding available only to women-led incubators and accelerators

In September, Mary Ng, the minister of small business and export promotion, announced a new $85-million fund to support women’s entrepreneurship programming.

That comes a year after a 2017 McKinsey consulting firm study on gender parity in Canada said it will take 180 years before women entrepreneurs and business owners will achieve gender parity in this country. While Canada is viewed as a leading nation in advancing gender equality, support for its one-million-plus female entrepreneurs clearly lags far behind.

As a female serial entrepreneur, I welcomed Ms. Ng’s announcement, but it’s not enough to pinkify startup and innovation funding. Wiping lipstick across current entrepreneurial programs will not reduce the challenges women face. We must first fundamentally change the entrepreneurial ecosystem – how it views women and what we encourage in these programs. In short, we must grasp that women who start businesses are not mini-men and alterations to the one-suit-fits-all approach to gender works to oppress, rather than unleash new economic potential.

Currently, the majority of incubator and accelerator environments that receive government funding to attract women act more like “re-education centres.” The programs aim to change female entrepreneurs so we behave more like men, herding us to leap into flashy tech sectors, embrace masculine approaches to starting and quickly scaling a business, and even abandon the very motivations that inspired us to start a business in the first place.

For many women, starting a business may be less about status, destruction and gaming the system than creating meaning and advancing justice.

Too often pink marketing tactics that attract female founders into accelerator programs fail on the retention side: After a few months of segregation and patronizing coaching, they run screaming out the door. Many segregated programs close down – not because women-only spaces are not needed, but because a segregated approach in a co-ed environment doesn’t work.

While I agree all-women spaces are truly important in many circumstances, due to the silencing and intimidation many women experience while in the presence of men (even those they love), lace-glove ghettoization in otherwise co-ed settings is the last thing women entrepreneurs need. These programs rarely succeed; women perceive these watered-down and otherwise undifferentiated programs as being sideline; they are for those who can’t cut it in the main ring.

For these reasons, I am challenging Ms. Ng to do something bold with this new funding: Use it to change the narrative on female entrepreneurship. Direct these dollars to supporting and validating women’s authentic approach to entrepreneurship rather than trying to make us more like men or steering us away from work we’re passionate about.

For example, the vast majority of female entrepreneurs today are drawn to start businesses in human-centred sectors such as care-giving, culture-making, education, health and wellness, hosting/tourism, food, community building and what we might call human development – belonging, spirituality, capacity-building and meaning-making.

Currently, these areas are perceived as mature, low growth, unremarkable, expensive to scale, and not export friendly. They have poor prospects of generating high wages, fat exit packages or monetary wealth for investors. As a result, investors and innovation policy makers deem these sectors to be an economic still pond. They look away, dazzled by rowdy tech startups with hockey stick growth curves. But if you are only looking for the fireworks, you miss the amazing things that are happening on the ground.

As the next wave of the artificial intelligence tech sector explodes – replacing human labour and creating social upheaval – that so-called still pond will look awfully deep. Human-centred businesses will become more vital than ever, with high-growth prospects and enviable process innovations that garner intellectual property value exportable to nations mired in worsening social decay.

If future value streams lie in funding companies that excel at work only humans can do, now is the time to support and drive entrepreneurship and innovation in these areas which, at present, tend to be women-led.

To unleash women’s potential as entrepreneurs, we also need to support process innovation (not just product innovation) and fund the growing number of alternative, experimental, community-based women-for-women programs and create opportunities to connect them so they might grow from strength to strength plus share points of view and best practices.

Such incubators should be generously sprinkled across the land to ensure local relevance and easy access and sparkle with colours – green, yellow, purple and raspberry, rather than corporate grey.

When it comes to programming, instead of typical engineer dude-developed curriculums, fund applicants who could deliver innovative curriculums based on newer and more relevant ideas developed by under-leveraged female thought leaders such as Adrienne Maree Brown (Emergent Strategy), Saras Sarasvathy (Effectual Entrepreneurship), Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott (Feminine Capital) and CV Harquail plus Lex Schroeder (co-creators of the Feminist Business Model Canvas).

And, finally, this time let’s make the funds available only to women-led incubators and accelerators with a leadership team and mentor rosters composed of a minimum of 51 per cent women. Rather than trying to change women, they are more likely to work on overhauling inequitable political, economic, social and power structures in order to help women-led enterprises thrive. Systems changes can deliver huge benefits. For instance, working to get more women on boards is important in advancing women in the economy, but what about securing basic maternity leave benefits for women who own more than 49 per cent of their own incorporated businesses?

Female entrepreneurs are not mini-men clamouring for increased access to expensive, personally secured debt and willing to outsource care-giving of their loved ones in order to work 100-plus hours a week. The majority of us pursued entrepreneurship to escape a system that was not built to include us. It should be no surprise when we are not eager to give up hard-won control of our businesses, time and values by getting back into the patriarchal maelstrom, selling equity in order to drive up Canada’s GDP.

What we really want is access to diverse opportunities – to develop the opportunities we see, want to invest in, and pursue in our own way. It’s time we start looking at what we value economically, and how to create equity for and advance female entrepreneurs as they are, not what a system, arguably a broken system, wants them to be.

This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper on October 16th, 2018

Subscribe today!

Interested in learning how to do business differently? Join us at this year’s Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum!  Check out the agenda here.

Related Readings

Our Voices

Five Quotes That Sum Up The Toronto UN Global Compact Canada Gender Equality Conference

Photo by Stocksy-Gender Inequality– as Old as Rock.


Sometimes you can say a lot in just a few words or lines. You can also capture the essence of the talks at a conference in just a few quotes.

On April 3 and 4, LiisBeth covered the UN Global Compact Network Canada’s (GCNC) first-ever Gender Equality Forum held at the swanky new millennial-friendly offices of Deloitte Canada in downtown Toronto.

The GCNC was formed in 2013 to help the private sector (or more accurately the corporate sector based on membership fee levels and a $400-plus conference ticket) advance the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 10 Principles of the United Nations Global Compact.

There were over 300 well-suited participants (15% men) including 60 speakers (30% men) representing public, private and civil sectors. Close to 25% of those attending came from the US, UK, Germany, Africa, and as far away as China. Not surprisingly, the North American speakers seemed uniformly focused on the business case, or how a more gender-equal economy means more dollars for companies and countries. Interestingly, the European speakers seemed more concerned with how gender equality can help create a more just society and economy.

A look inside the GCNC Gender Equality Forum on April 3 and 4.

Speakers also talked about familiar issues at events like these including the need to close political representation gaps, the persistence of glass ceilings, the need to increase women’s labour force participation rates, the slow to change pay equity issue (full-time women workers in Canada earned an average of 74 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2014), and how violence against women are still at near epidemic levels worldwide, which creates a significant barrier when it comes to achieving a gender just economy. It is no doubt hard for women to worry about leaning in and climbing that career ladder in a mostly male-led work environment if they have experienced being beaten at home or assaulted on the streets. The Ambassador of the European Union to Canada, Marie-Anne Coninsx, said during her talk that violence against women was a priority concern for Europe given that one in three women in Europe are sexually assaulted after the age of 15. The Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that in Canada, the figure is one out of two women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16 and that this figure has not declined since 1999.

So apart from hearing about progress and setbacks in the gender equity space, what did we learn by being there? It can be summed up in these five quotes hand-selected from our transcript:

  • “For gender equity policy initiatives and efforts to be sustainable, to be effective, whether it’s ending violence against women and girls or gender equality as a whole, they have to be one, intergenerational; two, cross-sectoral; three, multicultural; four, they have to include men and boys; and five, they have to rely on the power of stories to shift culture and to build partnerships.” —Maryam Monsef, Minister for the Status of Women
  • “Absolutely I am a banker, so let’s be clear, I have no special academic credential as it comes to this subject.” —Michael Henry, HeForShe champion, and Executive Vice President, Retail Payments, Deposits and Unsecured Lending for Scotiabank
  • “We have to understand the relationship men have with feminism. In many ways, the discussion still gets articulated as a zero-sum game. I think we have to be honest about [that] and recognize there is something that men are giving up. It’s called the patriarchy. So yes, there are things that men will need to give up, but at the same time, I think we need to acknowledge that feminism is the greatest gift that men have ever received.” —Michael Kaufman, author, co-founder of the White Ribbon campaign, public speaker and consultant
  • “The European Union, for us, gender equality is a priority in our external policy. We are applying it in all our policies that we have dealing with peace, security in the general, sustainable development. Human rights is also a basic principle of the European Union. In conclusion, I also want to recall a quote by our president of the European Commission, [Jean-Claude] Juncker, who said on International Women’s Day that ‘gender equality is not an inspirational goal but is a fundamental right.’ I would add it’s a fundamental right, which we’d like to achieve globally.” —Marie-Anne Coninsx, Ambassador of the European Union to Canada
  • “Change is hard. Change is difficult. Just think about the patterns we all follow when going to work, who we talk to, what we eat and how we think. The skills we need as a society has changed, but the way we look at family patterns and responsibilities have not changed that much. This is a huge opportunity for the smart firms to help us see and respect new role models.” —Helle Bank Jorgensen, President, Global Compact Network Canada

The organizer of the conference, Danish-born CEO of GCNC, Helle Bank Jorgensen, 44, is passionate about the issue of gender equality and equity. Jorgensen was the first female partner at PwC, a global accounting and assurance firm, plus the first partner to have a child. While running her own company, B.Accountability, she took the steps to have the enterprise become certified by WeConnect as a women-owned business, which can open up opportunities for government contracts through diversity procurement policies.

Jorgensen came to Canada four years ago from New York, where she led PwC’s US Sustainability and Climate Change practice. When we asked Jorgensen about her views on why progress has been so slow despite decades of effort, she said, “It is both sad and hard to understand why companies and society are leaving a lot of talent and money on the table. The companies that will succeed in the future will learn how to make use of 100% of the available talent. Or as Richard Branson says: ‘Every company has the potential to change the world, and will not survive if it doesn’t.'”

Yes, every company can change the world, even those with two to 100 employees, which by the way, represents the vast majority of all incorporated enterprises in Canada.

For more information about the UN Global Compact Network Canada, its sponsors, members and programs, click here.