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Shut Out and Shut Up: Canada’s Feminist Recovery Plan Excludes Voices of Women Entrepreneurs

A photo of diverse women holding up a sign that says womxn entrepreneurs
Womxn in an inclusive term that includes all women-identified people. Photo by Jacob Lund

The Canadian government used International Women’s Day 2021 to announce a new “Task Force on Women in the Economy” to advise the government on creating a “robust and inclusive” and “necessarily feminist” pandemic recovery plan.

The roster of diverse women-identified experts named to the task force is impressive but hardly inclusive. It leaves out participation of a group not only hard hit by the pandemic but key to building back a better, more gender-just economy: womxn entrepreneurs.

Womxn’s entrepreneurship is a means of creating social change, especially redressing systematic gender barriers, argues Dr. Barbara Orser, co-author of bestseller Feminine Capital: Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs (Stanford University Press, 2015) and professor at Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa.  It’s also the means by which 1.5 million womxn earn their living and create freelance income opportunities or waged employment for an estimated 3 million others. Approximately 80 per cent of those entrepreneurs operate micro enterprises of one to four people or work as unincorporated solopreneurs, gig workers and freelancers, the majority not eligible for government pandemic support programs.

So why were womxn entrepreneurs shut out of the task force? And what will the government miss in not hearing their critical voices?

The composition of the task force was shaped by a letter penned by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) representing more than 60 women’s and equity seeking groups and sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. FAFIA implored the government to centre women’s rights and gender equality organizations in its economic recovery plan. It recommended a task force that did not focus, as usual, on “business, boards, entrepreneurship, and STEM” as a pathway to women’s economic empowerment. Rather, it should address “the immediate needs of women workers marginalized by the pandemic” and acknowledge “the centrality of care to the well-being of society and the economy.”

The government heeded their call and created a task force that includes expertise in healthcare, not-for-profit, childcare, labour, academia, advocacy and also business.

But “business” is not the same as “entrepreneurship.” Indeed, the two are often poles apart.

Too often government privileges tip-of-the-iceberg “big business” in its consultations — private sector self-made millionaires, C-suite representatives of multi-nationals and finance sectors, in this case, corporate womxn, often white. It ignores the unique voice of ordinary womxn entrepreneurs that make up the base of that iceberg — solo and micro entrepreneurs, often invisible and, in this pandemic, drowning in debt.

We cannot lump “womxn entrepreneurs” in with “business.” Doing so will lead to short-sighted policy and missed opportunities.

Meet Womxn Entrepreneurs

Womxn entrepreneurs are diverse, intersectional and multifaceted in their pursuits. They are nomads rather than settlers, moving like water between systemic barriers and institutional blocks. They erode classic distinctions between civil and private sector, with how they do business, the nature of services and products they offer and the people and communities they support.

In fact, most womxn entrepreneurs have far more in common with civil society workers and wage-earning sisters than with traditional private-sector business leaders so often preoccupied with tax cuts, reducing regulation or putting women on boards as way of advancing diversity.

Prior to the pandemic, one-quarter of womxn pursued entrepreneurship out of “economic necessity.” They take on entrepreneurship because standard employment is not an option. They may be criminalized womxn, womxn with disabilities, womxn with mental-health challenges, trans or nonbinary womxn, non-status immigrant womxn, women over 55 made invisible, single womxn raising kids. They carry an oversized knapsack full of intersectional barriers and responsibilities. More than 80 per cent of single parents raising children are womxn, and entrepreneurship may be the only option to generate income while providing childcare in the home.

The precarity of womxn entrepreneurs demands consideration in any feminist recovery plan.

Despite media glamorization of entrepreneurship, most womxn entrepreneurs earn an average income that is closer to the wages of healthcare and social-assistance workers, about $68,000 after expenses or $34 per hour compared to $29.17. Yet, they shoulder additional risks, business debt and unpredictable incomes. Many womxn entrepreneurs barely achieve thrive rate incomes, often unable pay to be eligible for employment insurance, making them extremely vulnerable to personal economic collapse.

Yet, the majority of womxn entrepreneurs are critical to the cohesion and functioning of our communities. They create products and services in retail, hospitality, food, government, health, education, and social services. In other words, they do “women’s work” and are deeply essential to the “care economy,” which was disproportionately affected by the pandemic. FAFIA implored the government to recognize the care economy as a priority sector. The output and resilience of this sector depends, in large part, on the personal investment, work and health of womxn entrepreneurs.

A sampling of statistics show how hard the pandemic hit womxn entrepreneurs:

Why Does Representation Matter?

Without the input of womxn entrepreneurs, The Feminist Economic Recovery Task Force will most certainly overlook opportunities for stimulus and key issues to redress.

For example, we know from the 2008 economic crash, that personal bankruptcy impacted womxn entrepreneurs disproportionately to men. In 2020, personal insolvencies in Canada increased by 8.9 per cent.  

Most womxn entrepreneurs face resource barriers and, out of necessity, finance their startups with credit cards and personal savings, leaving them vulnerable to crushing debt costs and personal bankruptcy. This pandemic has the potential to wipe out thousands of womxn entrepreneurs and keep them sidelined for up to seven years. Incorporation does not protect entrepreneurs from having to repay all debt.

Women entrepreneurs march with other sisters on IWD2020-with thumbs up from NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh

“I want to see the immediate revision of the scope of the task force and the addition of individuals to represent women entrepreneurs”

Nancy Wilson, Founder and CEO, Canadian Women's Chamber of Commerce Tweet

It’s important and refreshing to have feminist civil and labour organizations lead and inform a feminist pandemic economic policy. Certainly, it will address key concerns: the catastrophic drop in womxn’s participation in the labour force, the lowest in 30 years; the need for universal high-quality childcare.

But we also need womxn entrepreneurs at the table, someone who represents ordinary, front-line solopreneurs and micro-enterprise founders who are precious and precarious workers too.

I know one thing from my 30+ years as a serial entrepreneur, corporate employee, and gig worker: we need entrepreneurship to be part of a feminist recovery plan. Because at some point in our lives, nearly all womxn will undertake entrepreneurship as a result of finding ourselves unemployed, unemployable or traumatized by workplaces shaped by abusive systems — patriarchal, colonial, racist, extractive macho capitalism that privileges power and profits over people and the environment.  

Womxn need economic independence to be free and flourish. Employed and self-employed, we need to join hands and seize this opportunity to create a gender-just and care-centred economy. To be holistic, intersectional and feminist, the recovery plan must include the voices of womxn entrepreneurs.

Publisher’s Note: In this article, we use the term “womxn” to indicate that when we say women, we are including all women-identified people.  However, when a quote or text uses the term “women” we do not alter it. 

Call to Action: If you would like to see a representative from the women’s entrepreneurship space added to this task force, write to Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance here: Chrystia.Freeland@parl.gc.ca.  Or consider signing this petition.

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SheEO Funds First all-Black cohort in U.S.

An image of Vickie Saundersin a blue scarf holding a microphone surrounded by women, text behind her reads "we are gonna start the revolution"
Vickie Saunders (centre) "US SheEO Activators voted!"

Five U.S. ventures led by five Black women entrepreneurs will get a major injection of cash from SheEO’s global community of radically generous investors.

SheEO announced today that, for the first time in its history, all five enterprises that activators chose to fund for its U.S. cohort of investment are owned and led by Black women and non-binary people.

Vicki Saunders (she/her), founder of SheEO, says the organization made a targeted investment because of the lack of funding and support available to women entrepreneurs.

“If you’re a woman of colour, it’s virtually impossible [to get funded]—it’s less than point 0.01 per cent,” she says. “But all of a sudden, you have a huge community of people who are like, ‘We love you, how can we help?’”

Saunders launched the Toronto-based non-profit in 2015 with a goal of building a global community of “radically generous” activators to build a fund to invest in women entrepreneurs building equitable and sustainable ventures.

In the U.S., 500 activators every year, gift $1,100 to a perpetual fund that provides zero-interest loans to the selected Ventures, voted by the Activators. As the loans are paid back over 5 years, they are loaned out again and again to more women-led Ventures, keeping the Activators gift in perpetual flow.

The “one activator-one vote” democratic, participative and non-hierarchical selection process is what sets SheEO apart from other non-equity fund initiatives.

Since the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement following the George Floyd protests last summer, Saunders says the activator community has been engaged in conversations about how they can better support Black entrepreneurs, including creating the Racial Justice Working Group within the SheEO community with S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective, a U.S. SheEO Venture.

This year’s announcement of the first all-Black U.S. cohort, she says, is an example of how successful those conversations have been.

“I think the original reckoning is really a gift to all of us to step back, pay attention to our role in keeping the world the way it is—and to decide to shift that.”

One of the activators is Jamie Gloshay (she/her), a Navajo White Mountain Apache and Kiowa entrepreneur and co-founder of Native Women Lead. This year, she voted for ventures she felt had under appreciated potential while keeping in mind the significant challenges so many women have faced due to COVID-19. She says she hopes the selected entrepreneurs feel supported in their journey.

For Gloshay, value comes not only in investment but in building community – and inviting entrepreneurs into it. “I often find that entrepreneurs feel like it’s a lonely journey,” she says. “Being able to access tools and resources and a community—especially with women who have already committed to being radically generous—I think that is so supportive and so needed in the world that we’re currently living in. With COVID-19, a lot of women are having to carry their families and their communities through, so it’s necessary to have that extra support system.”

Terri-Nichelle Bradley (she/her), CEO and founder of Brown Toy Box, is one of the five ventures selected for funding this year. She’s thrilled to join a community of women supporting other women leading enterprises focused on working on the World’s To-Do List, co-creating an equitable and sustainable equitable world, together.

Terri-Nichelle Bradley, founder and CEO of Brown Toy Box.
Terri-Nichelle Bradley, founder and CEO of Brown Toy Box.

“I love the fact that it’s women investing in women with capital, but also with their time and their expertise,” says Bradley. “I thought, just to have that affiliation with really impact-minded women—how cool would that be?”

Bradley leads a multimedia company that produces and curates STEAM toys, media, and experience for Black children. Through STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, math) education, cultural representation and educational play, Brown Toy Box aims to normalize Black excellence and create prosperous career pathways for Black children.

Bradley is excited to join a community of women who share similar goals. “I definitely believe that you should cultivate people who share the same values and same priorities in as many ways as possible. The fact that these are women that are really focused on changing the world for the better […] that’s exactly where I want and need to be.”

The five ventures by Black women (see slide show below) announced as part of SheEO’s U.S. cohort are: Brown Toy Box by Terri-Nichelle Bradley, Courtroom 5 by Sonja Ebron, Makher’s Studio by Wanona Satcher, 100K incubator by Arielle Loren Palmer, and CIO Energy by SaLisa Berrien.

SheEO’s U.S. venture announcement is open to the public. Activators, ventures and guests can attend the event and meet the five women entrepreneurs by registering here

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