Activism & Action Our Voices

Risky Business? Maybe Not




Pramilla Ramdahani, CEO and founder, Community Innovation Lab

“You are risk takers, don’t listen to that stuff. You are risk takers because, quite frankly, you raise families, you have children, you move countries, you move cities, you have had enormous risk in your life!”

That message from Women on the Move’s CEO Heather Gamble—to ignore such axioms as “women can’t succeed in business because they don’t take risks”—had particular resonance for this audience of women business founders, some of whom had endured extreme risk, such as immigrating to Canada, heading single households, and surviving intimate partner violence. And the point was particularly impactful coming from an entrepreneur who reached $1 million in revenue just 18 months after launching her first startup.

As a revenue accelerator devoted to helping other women entrepreneurs reach the million-dollar milestone, Gamble is also a faculty mentor of The Refinery, a unique business growth program designed by women for women out of the Community Innovation Lab (iLab), a hub for entrepreneurs based one hour east of Toronto in Oshawa, Ont., where it serves the Durham Region.

Pramilla Ramdahani started the non-profit iLab as a way to tackle community social issues through an innovative lens in an ethnically diverse region with pockets hard-hit by job losses. Ramdahani, who has an MBA in community economic development and studied social entrepreneurship at Stanford University, left her own successful enterprise and bootstrapped iLab for three years before landing any kind of substantial funding. Talk about taking a risk. Eventually, the Ontario Trillium Foundation funded iLab’s most in-demand seminar, which morphed into The Refinery and will support 1,335 women through 2020.

Ramdahani says she started The Refinery after noticing two needs in the region: entrepreneurial training for women and assistance for marginalized women. After seeking feedback from the community through roundtable events, Ramdahani realized that women wanted a founder’s program created and staffed by women, to serve women. Women said they felt safer in smaller rooms with doors rather than one large open hall. They also said they have different and more open conversations when the instructors are female. Plus, they like to support each other. According to Brenna Ireland, director of operations for iLab, the women wanted a program to strengthen “business and personal ties to better the community, not just compete against each other.”

So, no, a traditional male-led accelerator would not do.

Yet, The Refinery is more than an all-female accelerator

At the earliest stages, LiisBeth founder Petra Kassun-Mutch designed a curriculum for women-only programs that helped infuse feminist entrepreneurial values throughout iLab’s work—business counselling and training, building opportunities and networks, mentoring, and widening access to capital. (Researchers Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott define feminist entrepreneurship as “a mechanism to create economic self-sufficiency and equity-based outcomes for women, girls, and other gender-oppressed communities.”) All entrepreneurs at iLab are coached with the end goal of achieving autonomy, and by extension, strengthening their community with hiring and spin-off economic activity from new ventures.

Refinery Incubator participants in session

The Refinery includes a three-day boot camp, a year of intensive training delivered online and at the iLab centre, optional seminars on such topics as social media marketing, and opportunities to receive year-long mentoring from an established entrepreneur. Women learn how to access capital, build strong teams, scale processes, and generate sales.

The Refinery supports entrepreneurs working in a variety of sectors including business services, media, wellness and coaching, automotive sector, food, gift products, and human resources (note it’s not just tech). Women are guided to discover their own strengths and ideas, rather than the staff deciding which businesses would be best for them. According to Ramdahani, The Refinery is about “integrating empathy, social justice, and user-led techniques.”

The women-centric support and camaraderie is particularly important for abuse survivors, who face additional challenges when starting a business. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the U.S., survivors may have endured years of economic abuse, including tactics that damage their credit, deplete their resources, and prevent them from completing education and training. They may face ongoing threats of violence even after leaving an abuser, as well as legal issues and long-term mental and physical effects of trauma. Survivors may also have spotty employment records. Child care is often difficult to arrange after years of social isolation. And while all entrepreneurs may struggle with confidence, survivors must overcome low self-esteem brought on by years of abuse. They may also fear publicity or the idea of bringing their business online given that abusers often continue stalking and harassing their victims, in person and online. To top it off, survivors likely live under the poverty line and struggle to pay for food, shelter, utilities, and transportation expenses, leaving little to bootstrap a new business.

But the same policy research group also notes that survivors have strengths and resilience that may serve them well in entrepreneurship. The reality of managing a relationship with an abusive partner may require the same skills exhibited by the most successful CEOs: calculated risk-taking, thoughtful action, tough-mindedness, the ability to read people, problem solving, and determination.

In Oshawa, where iLab is based, domestic violence calls to police increased by 15 percent between 2013 and 2017, but the actual rate is much higher, as 70 percent of spousal violence is not reported to the police, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

One survivor in The Refinery program (she asked to remain anonymous), who started a new business service while caring for elderly relatives, says she still suffers side effects from an earlier abusive relationship and has been grappling with relocation. She received much-needed sales, marketing, and financial training from The Refinery, but it was the all-female setting that was most critical. “It provides a safe spot,” she said. “Because after you’ve been victimized, you’re vulnerable and your confidence is shot. And so, any time a man is in the room, it’s a different dynamic than when you’re surrounded by women.”

She recommends The Refinery to “anybody that is looking to flesh out their business, anybody looking to ramp up their business, and who needs to build up a network of people. It certainly gives you all the supports that you need.”

The Refinery and iLab strive to create a safe space for all by requiring instructors to undergo police checks, as well as privacy and sensitivity training. The board of directors and staff strive to be as diverse as those they serve.

And here’s another appealing aspect for marginalized women: thanks to funding from Trillium, all fees are waived. Even optional seminars can be subsidized for those who need financial assistance. To help fund their startups, iLab partnered with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to widen the eligibility criteria for funding to help women entrepreneurs. Ramdahani also hopes to start a micro-lending circle at iLab to help women who don’t qualify for funding through banks, the BDC partnership, venture capitalists, or angel funding.

A safe space for women nurtures growth for all

Based on the success of The Refinery, iLab looked at other gaps in community services and launched entrepreneurial programming for additional under-represented groups. ILab started incubators for at-risk youth entrepreneurs called NEET (not in education, employment or training), Spice (seniorpreneurs who are 55 and up), and the Social Enterprises Accelerator that helps social entrepreneurs grow to the next level. Said Ramdahani, “If you cannot find employment, why not create your own business? That’s the pathway we see that participants can use to alleviate poverty.”


CiLab Women Finance Day

ILab also offers co-working spaces and rooms to rent for events and meetings—at a fraction of typical costs. Staff are quick to answer questions and find extra resources to accommodate attendees’ personal circumstances. And in order to create a community for entrepreneurs to grow and apply what they’ve learned, alumni from all streams are invited to join a Facebook group once they complete a program.

Elsii Faria, of The Hive Centre Bee and Bee, entered iLab’s social entrepreneur program to get much-needed support in a variety of areas. The business she runs with her husband offers overnight accommodation via a retreat centre that hosts nature, creativity, wellness, and spiritual events, as well as marketing and web design, and a platform called 1Community1 focused on community engagement. While building the business, Faria faced a life-threatening illness, took on a new mortgage for the bed and breakfast and office space, as well as cared for her one-year-old child. Faria says connecting with other social entrepreneurs at iLab gave her “really valuable support from other businesses with similar objectives.” It also introduced her to key partners such as Bear Standing Tall, their first Indigenous retreat leader. She had an arts education but needed to build up business skills. ILab helped her improve her sales skills and understand their business model. The business recently landed a grant that allows them to partner with Durham College to continue developing their 1Community1 platform.

Yet, for all of iLab’s success helping others, it has yet to receive solid funding support from any level of government—municipal, provincial or federal. Ramdahani is frustrated that governments favour investing in tech-based entrepreneurs and large urban-based non-profits. She is pleased that the Ontario Inclusive Innovation Action Strategy, released in June 2019, expands the government’s innovation definition to include “processes that are not tech-based.” But she points out that the strategy will only support women entrepreneurs at the high-growth stage only. “There is no funding for women who are marginalized, and who have just started a business, or have been in business for under three years,” Ramdahani said. Early-stage women founders often find doors for traditional loans closed. Without investment and cash flow to conduct business, Ramdahani wonders, How can they grow?

What funding is available for women entrepreneurs?

The federal government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) has added millions to support women, including new funding for enterprises in the high-growth stage, organizations that help grow women’s businesses, and research hubs. Currently, there is a federally funded women’s business development centre in every province and territory except the Northwest Territories. Provincially, the non-profit Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise supports women-owned businesses and community economic development in northern, eastern, and central Ontario, excluding the Greater Toronto Area, through federal and Ontario Trillium Foundation funding.

In the U.S., the Small Business Administration (SBA) partners with non-profit organizations to fund and oversee 113 Women’s Business Centres. The centres offer entrepreneurs and small business owners free counselling and free-to-low-cost training. Men can receive services through these centres as well.

American women entrepreneurs are encouraged to register with the SBA for a Women-Owned Small Business or Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Business Certificate. This qualifies them to bid on contracts with the federal government to supply products and services. During 2017, $20.8 billion in contracts were won by women-owned small businesses. The U.S. federal government strives to award five percent of their supplier contracts to women-owned small businesses.

Like iLab’s innovative programming, these are ideas we can build on. ILab involves participants in curriculum and space design, “rather than building something and inviting them,” said Ramdahani.

Something for funders to chew on.

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This article was generously sponsored by Startup Here Toronto.


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Our Voices

Meeting a Feminist Icon: LiisBeth Publisher PK Mutch on encountering the leading feminist activist of her life

Gloria Steinem speaking to Farrah Kahn at the “Courage of A Movement” event, Toronto, Dec 12, 2018

Last week I heard, met—and got to put my arm around the waist of the amazing Gloria Steinem as she graciously posed for a photo with me after a keynote speech she gave in Toronto. As I stood beside her, my mind sparkled like a string of holiday lights, and my heart was on fire with hope, but to the touch, she felt breakable, delicate.

And there it was: The feminist movement, its power to inspire, and frail progress embodied perfectly in one of its most dedicated, creative and impactful voices.

Steinem, now 84, was in Toronto on December 12 to participate in “The Courage of a Movement”, an event organized by the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP). More than 700 people attended. While ticket prices were steep, there were many sponsored tickets available.

Steinem opened her talk by saying how much she admires Canada’s First Nations land acknowledgment practice and conceded that her homeland often has a huge influence on Canadians. “I promise to go back, and try to do something about the ridiculous situation we have.

“I would just ask you to remember that [Donald Trump] was not popularly elected. He lost by six million votes. Three for other candidates, three for Hillary Clinton. He’s just there because of our crazed institution called the electoral college, which just tells us we have to get rid of it. Incidentally, it is a legacy of the slave states. So we are trying to treat him as a great instruction on everything that we need to do, right? And we are woke. I just want to say. We are seriously woke.”

The audience erupted.

Other key points in her talk included the importance of understanding that history began in North America long people the Europeans showed up, and how many early cultures did not have gender pronouns, or words for race. “I mean, the paradigm was a circle, not a pyramid. It was really profoundly different.

“Our whole world is divided into two kinds of people, those who divide everything into two (or see things in binary terms) and those who don’t.”

She pointed out that normalized violence against women is the major determinant of whether a country is violent on its own streets and whether it will use violence against another country. In other words how a country treats its women is how it operates in the world.

The Courage of a Movement Panel

The Courage of a Movement Panel, from left to right: actress Patricia Fagan (Canadian Stage Company, Soulpepper), writer, lecturer, political activist and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, moderator Marci Ien, 15-year-old blogger and author of “Momentus: Small Acts, Big Change” Hanna Alper, and Manager of Consent Comes First, Ryerson University, Farrah Khan.

During the panel session that followed Steinem’s keynote, she was asked if she believed society has truly made any progress towards gender equality and social justice.

Steinem noted that gender equity is still far off and advancements are fragile, however, she believes we have made significant progress at a key and fundamental level. “We’ve actually changed the majority consciousness. Not the power structure. Not where the money is. But consciousness comes first. So, that’s big.”

She added that at this time in history, people who been seriously deprived by hierarchy and patriarchy are increasingly mad as hell. This is also big.

To another question posed by an audience member – “Will things get better in the future?” – Steinem replied “I’m a hopeaholic. Yes, we do need to be realistic. But I do think hope is kind of planning. I have to say that part of the good thing about being old, and I am very old, is that we remember when it was worse. We can all see how bonkers [patriarchy] is and that’s why we need to work together. We each have something to bring. I’ll bring hope. You bring anger. And there’s no stopping us.”

Three wise women at The Courage of a Movement event, Toronto.

Left to right: Jan Borowy Cavalluzo, LLP; Shelly Gordon, and Manager of Consent Comes First, Ryerson University, Farrah Khan.

Outside the auditorium, I asked three wise women, Shelly Gordon, Farrah Khan (also a panelist), and Jan Borowy Cavalluzo why they attended. Gordon remarked, “Gloria still has a lot of advice for how to keep moving social change”. Borowy Cavalluzo said for her, “Gloria has been an inspiration to the feminist movement for decades. Her approach to the intersectional feminist movements is important and I am interested in what she has to say.”

So, while the 84-year-old Steinem may be frail in body, her power to fuel the feminist movement is still robust and relevant as ever.

Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

Black Foodie Turns The Table



It was meant to be a night out of fun dining with the ladies to celebrate Eden Hagos’ 25th birthday. But when she and her friends were ignored and disrespected at a local restaurant, Hagos, a longtime foodie, began to think about how the food industry treats Black people, and how Black-owned restaurants are regarded. And that eventually led her to launch Black Foodie, a blog spotlighting “the best of African, Caribbean and Southern cuisine and foodie experiences” through a Black lens.

On her 26th birthday, Hagos wrote about the incident that inspired Black Foodie’s creation — the blog post went viral. But the degree of online hate it generated shocked her – derogatory comments about her race, gender, looks. “People are telling me, oh Black people don’t tip,  Black people are bad customers, they don’t deserve good service,” recalls Hagos. “They proved exactly why we need this community – living proof that I could screenshot. It’s not even like you could try to say, ‘Oh, this is what you perceived.’ It’s real, and it’s literal, and you can feel that hate.”

For Hagos, the hate not only solidified her belief in the need for Black Foodie but strengthened her resolve to make it successful. In just over a year, she has built up 11,000 followers on Instagram, attracting readers from across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and several countries in Africa. Initially investing her own funds – the low-cost is part of the reason why she started with a website – she has since secured a couple of small business grants, including $1,500 from the School of Social Entrepreneurs Ontario’s Hook It Up program. She expanded from a website featuring recipes and restaurant reviews to a multi-pronged company that sells merchandise, offers brand and social media services to restaurants and hosts foodie meet-ups and events to generate revenue. In the future, once she’s grown her audience, she aims to sell advertising.

Black Foodie’s signature event, Injera and Chill – a play off the popular saying ‘Netflix and Chill’ – celebrates the classic Ethiopian bread injera that Hagos ate growing up. She started it in the fall of 2015 as a pop-up event in Toronto and drew about 50 people, predominantly Millennial Black foodies, to learn about and enjoy a traditional Ethiopian meal and coffee ceremony. Hagos then took the event on the road, organizing meet-ups for fans of Black Foodie in London, England and Atlanta, Georgia. Back in Toronto, she stepped up the summer 2016 event, expanding the celebration of food to a showcase of East African culture with a DJ, entrepreneurs showing their products and filmmaker Messay Getahun premiering the trailer for his movie, An Ethiopian Love. She charged $35 a ticket, and it attracted 150 guests.

Hagos, who was born in Windsor, Ont., credits her love for food to her parents, who immigrated to Canada from Eritrea, then a part of Ethiopia. Her father owned one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in Windsor. When she was growing up, she remembers him often cooking, which is significant, she explains, since in many Ethiopian households men don’t cook. Her parents knew the struggles of entrepreneurship firsthand and, like many immigrant parents stressed the importance of education. She attended both Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and York University in Toronto, graduating with a degree in sociology. She had planned on going to grad school in the U.S. but when she didn’t have the money or see a career path that appealed to her, her desire for “freedom” pulled her toward entrepreneurship.

She applied for and won a spot in Studio Y, an eight-month fellowship program for innovative thinkers run out of one of Toronto’s leading entrepreneurial spaces, MaRS Discovery District. She says her thinking around education and diversity helped get her in the door. What she appreciated most about Studio Y was the opportunity to earn a stipend while developing and testing ideas. Early on, she considered creating a line of Ethiopian spices; by the time she left, she was on the verge of launching Black Foodie.

“I was encouraged by many of the staff and other fellows to dream big – nothing seemed out of grasp to that group and it was very inspiring to be in a community that valued this,” says Hagos. That said, she was often left thinking, “There are so many other people like me, why aren’t we in here?” She yearned to see more people of diverse backgrounds, as well as more conversations around her entrepreneurial mission to target her own demographic, solve problems within her community and be successful at it.

In the summer of 2015, Hagos attended a pitch competition for Black tech entrepreneurs in New Orleans, Louisiana, connected to the Essence music festival. Being in a room full of powerful, Black investors proved inspiring. Though she wasn’t ready to pitch her company then, the event made her see that the start-up world was not just for white men. She also realized that for her company to grow, she had to think beyond the borders of Toronto and even Canada. She sees more opportunities for Black-owned businesses catering to Black people to thrive abroad. Sheer numbers for one:  In the U.S., for example, there are more than 37,000,000 Black people as of 2010 Census stats; Canada has just a fraction of that.

She also sees opportunity in Black Foodie’s appeal to women. Some 70 per cent of her readership – as well as the vast majority of her contributors – are women who identify as belonging to the African diaspora. “It’s crazy to me because we’re the ones cooking. But when you see the ones who are celebrated, it’s usually men. In the Black food world, it’s usually men who are hosting these events.” She also points out that popular images of Black women and food are often associated with racist depictions rooted in an African American context, such as the nanny. “I’m a Black woman, so, of course, I’m drawn to stories of people who I can relate to and I think they’re also drawn to me.”

Indeed, special events coordinator Eden Zeweldi agreed to work with the company, without even knowing how much she’d be paid. She has since planned five events in collaboration with Hagos. “[Eden’s] passion and her excitement for it gave me so much energy,” Zeweldi says. “I could actually be part of a movement that would bring food that my mother makes into the limelight.” Food stylist and photographer If Ogbue also saw the opportunity to work on Black Foodie as “a breath of fresh air.” She sees huge potential in the Black Foodie brand and envisions it evolving into a web series or television show in the future.

That’s exactly where Hagos hopes Black Foodie will be in five years. She would like to develop several Black Foodie branded shows; spearhead a huge Black Foodie festival that brings together chefs, food writers and foodies; and publish a cookbook, perhaps the first of many. Still, Hagos is careful not to get ahead of herself. The key now is that Black Foodie is sparking an important conversation, both outside and within Black communities. “My goal is not just to teach other people that we exist,” she says. “I’m interested in encouraging this conversation to happen amongst each other. Some of the things we talk about in food, you can only understand if you’re a person of colour. It’s kind of like an inside joke, and I don’t always want to be trying to explain that inside joke to other people.”



One of Eden’s favourite things to make around the holidays is sweet potato pie. Here’s her recipe. Give it a try.



Sweet Potato Pie 


  • 1/3 cup of brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup of condensed sweet milk
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 stick butter
  • 2 large spoons cinnamon
  • 1 spoon Vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp of lemon juice
  • 2 large spoonfuls of cinnamon
  • 1/2 spoon ginger
  • 1/2 spoon allspice
  • 1/2 spoon nutmeg
  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • Brown sugar paste:
  • 8 Spoons brown sugar
  • 4 spoons Butter
  • 2 Unbaked pie shells

Brown Sugar Paste 

  1. Mix brown sugar and butter together to form a thick paste
  2. Spread half of the paste onto unbaked pie shell and bake for ten mins or until it forms a caramelized layer (don’t let the shell get brown)
  3. Let it pie shell cool as the filling is prepared


  1. Bake sweet potatoes (or boil) until they become very tender
  2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into small pieces
  3. In a bowl blend the sweet potatoes, milk and condensed milk
  4. Add all of the remaining ingredients sweet potato mixture and blend until it has a creamy consistency then place the half the filling into pie shell and bake for 40 mins on 350.

This recipe will make two pies. Or you can use the remaining filling to prepare a sweet potato casserole, topping the mix with marshmallows and baking for the same amount of time.


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Our Voices

Amy Brings LiisBeth Inside The Tent

For savvy corporate intrapreneur and author Amy Dorn Kopelan, entrepreneurship wasn’t a choice. Amy’s conference planning and executive coaching enterprise, Bedlam Productions Inc., is the producer and creator of The Corporate State Summits (US and Canada) and The Executive Studio. Amy is working to ignite a “Davos for Women Only” environment where the conversation is about leadership, business trends, and ensuring that women seat at any table and their voices are heard.

As one of our new contributors, we wanted you to get to know Amy a little better. Here is an excerpt of our interview.

LiisBeth: Amy, tell us your entrepreneurial story. Why did you leave a successful career in corporate television for the uncertain world of entrepreneurship?

Amy: Why does somebody jump the fence from corporate to entrepreneur? In my case, it wasn’t so much a choice. More like an unplanned push out the door!

LiisBeth: After 20 years of moving up the corporate ladder, what happened?

Amy: I was essentially what we now call an intrapreneur in a company that ultimately didn’t know how to support that. I saw market opportunities others didn’t. I recognized the need to work fast to respond. But corporations tend to make decisions about new things s-l-o-w-l-y. Management became uncomfortable with my pace, even though they applauded the vision, energy, and creativity. Ultimately they created an elite sort of “skunk works” team of five people to look at some new ideas and invited me to join.

LiisBeth: That sounds like it should have been an ideal outcome.

Amy: Well, there was good and bad. The good? I was in a fish bowl and people were very aware of what I was saying, thinking, and doing. The bad? You get a lot more scrutiny. At a certain point the COO of the company called me to say: “You have a way of thinking, a way of moving people, a way of seeing the landscape, and a way of making things happen that don’t necessarily work in a corporate environment. So young lady, it is time for you to leave this organization. It’s time for you to go out and change the world.” I’ve got to tell you, the jolt of that is huge.

LiisBeth: No kidding! What did you do next?

Amy: [Laughs] I first tried to get another job. And soon found a job opening that seemed like a perfect fit. But in my heart, for a lot of reasons, I knew I wouldn’t get the job. They gave me a lot of feedback and affirmed some things I felt I knew about myself, but was not so sure about. That third-party, objective feedback opened up my eyes and many other doors.

LiisBeth: So from job to no job, how did you come to start your now very successful, 14-year-old business, Bedlam Productions?

Amy: It wasn’t really planned. It came about as a series of steps and opportunities. The year before I left my corporate position, I had been loaned out by ABC to Fairchild Publications to launch a conference series. I would truck daily down town in New York to their facilities to help them develop a conference division. They needed my producing skills because they were publishers and they didn’t have producers on site. So after having a year of that experience, I suddenly realized that that was probably an opportunity I could build on.

LiisBeth: Did you ever attend any incubators or startup weekends?

Amy: No! I think there was less scripting around that than what exists now. I primarily got to where I needed to go by leveraging and building networks. One person introduced me to another. I also invested in research and started to go to conferences where I thought that I could see more and learn more of what mirrored what I had in mind. I recognized as I went along that one of my special skills was that I really knew how to initiate and manage partnerships well.

My networking efforts took me to Deloitte, coincidentally at the very time they were looking to launch a women’s conference. I sat next to a woman at a symposium who asked about my business plans. I explained what I did, and she suggested that the timing was uncanny. Deloitte wanted to launch a summit for women leaders, but did not have any idea how to produce it. They did have the money, though. I knew how to produce and of course needed a sponsor. The gal, who was with Deloitte in California, suggested she make an intro for me. It was her idea that Deloitte should fund me and that I’d have a corporate partner. That’s exactly what happened.

LiisBeth: Why did Deloitte want to create a women’s conference?

Amy: They wanted to create something different for women in leadership positions and not just another report. They wanted a conference designed to explore critical global trends. There wasn’t anything out there like this. We all felt strongly that this new conference couldn’t be just one more “women’s conference.” It had to be about global issues, and to get in the door you had to be a woman leader.

We had a very deep belief there was room in the market for a “Davos” for women only. Many times, I must be candid, people would say: “Oh, I don’t want to come to that. That’s a women’s conference.” The stress on the word “women’s” was distasteful, as if we were going to discuss “how do you colour your hair?” We had to show that this was a summit, not just another women’s issues event. And that’s what we’ve been producing for the past 16 years.

LiisBeth: Wow. Sixteen years! Has anything changed?

Amy: There have been many changes. But I’ll mention this as distinct. In 1998, there was an acceptance of the idea that women were global leaders, but somehow many women still saw themselves as being a good “guide on the side.” They would never admit to having husbands at home who took care of the children. And they would duck the idea that they made more money than their mates. Now, those walls are gone! Now, there’s a tremendous shift in women’s roles in society. Now, more and more women want to lead loud and proud, not just quietly guide.

LiisBeth: Are there too many women’s conferences these days?

Amy: No. I think women, globally, really are tapping into the idea that being in a room full of women leaders, discussing world issues, educates you differently.

LiisBeth: What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs?

Amy: I think to start any business you need a very strong board of advisers. I can’t stress that enough. Nobody on that board should be a significant other in your life, but instead people who have very specific skills to advise, guide, and help you make critical decisions about your company. Secondly, be in a business you love. And thirdly, be in a business where there’s a need for the service or product.

LiisBeth: Are you coming back to Toronto next year?

Amy: Our last Corporate State 2016 Summit sold out! So yes, we’re back on May 17, 2017, in Toronto.

Bedlam Productions Inc.
Corporate State 2016 – Toronto
Corporate State 2015 – Montreal
Corporate State 2013 – Vancouver

Publisher’s Note: For more information about the Toronto Corporate 2020 Summit 2017, or how to get involved, please check out Bedlam Productions.


Activism & Action Systems

Confronting Gender Inequity And Inclusion in The Innovation Space

Many people seem to believe that innovation capacity is any economy’s secret sauce. The more of it, the better. According to many experts, achieving top tier results in the innovation race is as simple as focusing on getting more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating. In other words, it’s a numbers game.

If this is truly the case, then surely solving Canada’s innovation under-performance is a cinch. Just offer relevant support for ambitious, talented women in the innovation space and the number of entrepreneurs and businesses innovating could increase by 30 per cent overnight. The economic impact would be seismic.

Yet the $200-million-per-year innovation strategy now being touted on the conference circuit by Minister Navdeep Bains, which highlights many ways to drive more innovation output, says nothing about gender parity, let alone mentioning it as a big opportunity. Additionally, the documents circulating online about the initiative also gives no indication that it is even a priority.

Improving on Canada’s glacial innovation advancement record is an important pursuit but so far, this new plan isn’t hot enough to unleash its benefits, especially if it continues to leave female innovators chilly, and potentially out in the cold.

Are Today’s Incubators and Accelerators the Solution?

The Bains mandate states “expanding effective support for incubators [and] accelerators” as a key solution. But how well do today’s incubators and accelerators serve women?

Let’s take a look at an example up close.

One of the most prestigious, well-resourced, young talent–seeking incubators in the country, The Next 36, proudly announced on June 15 a new venture capital fund led by BDC Capital in participation with Globalive Capital and private investors. While this may sound like good news for innovation, one must ask why more money is being spent to support a program run by a 92 per cent male leadership structure?

A closer look at the organization’s leadership (as advertised on its website) finds that men make up six out of seven of its founders, 13 of its 14 board members, 13 of its 14 faculty members, and 19 of its 22 mentors. And the number of female innovators selected annually to participate in this elite program ranges from five to 11 out of a total of 36 per session over the past four years. Go a level deeper and look at seven of the companies that the current board members of The Next 36 work for as their “day job” collectively. The boards and senior management of these companies have just five women in a total of 48 positions (that’s just 11 per cent).

It doesn’t seem to get any better when it comes to the leadership of the principal partners involved in this newly announced fund. Government-owned BDC Capital lists eight men and just one woman on its executive team. Globalive Capital and Alignvest, both self-described “world-class” investment management firms, are made up of 100 per cent men in their partner ranks.

Gender inequality at work in this incubator is more than skin deep. Sadly, The Next 36, an idea with exceptional potential, is starting to look more like The Past 36 at a time when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a self-declared feminist, managed to achieve gender parity in cabinet in one fell swoop.

Moreover, The Next 36 example is not an isolated one. Here in Ontario alone, many regional innovation centres themselves acknowledge and report sub-optimal performance in the gender equality department with participation level ranging from a low of four per cent to a high of 25 per cent.

The innovation eco-system has a long way to go to meet Kathleen Wynne’s and Justin Trudeau’s standards of gender parity.

Back to Canada’s Innovation Strategy

If we truly believe gender diversity has a business case when it comes to realizing enhanced performance, then we must also believe that gender diversity matters in innovation policy.


LiisBeth has four ideas to offer:

  • First, government-funded incubators should be asked to pledge to achieve gender parity within management and mentor ranks by the end of 2017 and be given one year to get there.
  • Innovation policy should encourage and support the creation of autonomous, women-led, female founder–focused incubators and innovation programs. It’s nice to think a gender-blind approach is a pinnacle of form, but if we are honest we know it typically means a male-led and male-centred approach to a masculine culture environment that—by the way—also welcomes women. The research is clear. This works for some, but not many.
  • Unleash innovation at the margins by developing a complimentary demographic-based incubator strategy. Innovating something new and forgoing income to do it is scary enough, let alone trying to succeed in a space that doesn’t make you feel like you belong. Many talented innovators simply do not feel comfortable or motivated by being a part of a culturally or socially alien space, including Indigenous, trans, new Canadian, or age 50-plus entrepreneurs. It might be interesting to note that other nations seem to have figured this out. For example, Israel now has an ultra-orthodox tech incubator. If we want more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating in Canada, we cannot arrogantly insist that they all participate in an environment “we” think is best for them. A little support for demographically specific incubators would go a long way.
  • Finally, we should also require all private venture capital firms seeking government-matching funds to disclose their gender equity and diversity state, and submit plans for improving them within 18 months if they are below the water line. We all know this: equal access to capital is absolutely critical if we are to truly leverage our talented female and other marginalized innovators.


There is room for optimism. For example, the Bains Ministry’s recently published backgrounder states: “Only by mobilizing every sector of society to do its part will all Canadians have the opportunity to participate fully in an innovation economy.”

In addition, Bains’ mandate letter from the prime minister says expressly that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is expected to “help ensure gender parity.” As his mandate marching orders—and common sense—dictates, Bains must work to correct a no longer acceptable gender gap in the innovation space.

How much he has taken to heart in this arena is unclear. Bains’ recent eight-minute speech at Canada 2020 covered the usual: the importance of tech; being kinder to failure; his father’s $5 self-made entrepreneurial journey; the value of universities; and how to become a global innovation leader. But there was nothing said on the issue of gender parity in the innovation space.

If Minister Bains wants to succeed where others have failed, and if indeed, winning at innovation is a numbers game, then fostering gender equality and broader inclusion overall are two significant opportunities that should not be overlooked.

Want to write to Minister Navdeep Bains to voice your opinion on his innovation strategy? He is looking for input. Details on how to contribute to the discussion have not yet been announced, but in the meantime, you can email him at

Our Voices

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