Skip to main content

As the ecosystem for innovation-driven companies grows in Halifax, one component that is evolving is the system of supports for female founders.

Several organizations are now offering programs specifically for female entrepreneurs, both in general entrepreneurship and in the innovation space. The Centre for Women in Business just launched its Grow Now program specifically for women tech founders. And Sandpiper Ventures, a venture capital fund run by women for women, has got off the ground and has already backed a few companies in Halifax and elsewhere.

Tanya Priske, Executive Director of the Centre for Women in Business (CWB), said in a recent interview that there’s no difference in the skills men and women need to succeed as entrepreneurs. But women do face challenges that men are spared, and these programs help women overcome these gender-based hurdles.

“Women have a different but equally valuable set of qualities and we have to develop programs so that they can use those qualities so they can succeed,” said Priske. “We’re teaching the same skills but the approach is different, like bringing in more peer-to-peer instruction.”

There’s a general acceptance that women are under-represented in the legions of entrepreneurs. Research by Entrevestor found that in 2020 only 14 percent of the innovation-driven startups in Atlantic Canada were headed by women. More worrying, these companies attracted only 3 percent of the equity investment raised by Atlantic Canadian startups in 2020.

Thus, several organizations are working to increase women’s participation in the formation and growth of new businesses. In May, then-federal Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly announced more than $5.8 million in grants through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) to nine organizations to support women entrepreneurs. The federal government wants to double the number of female entrepreneurs in Canada by 2025.

This funding has helped to launch new programs, and some organizations have announced initiatives independent of the federal government’s campaign. For example, Halifax startup hub Volta offers its WTWT (Women Taking Over the World with Tech) program, which includes its WTWT Pitch Competition.

To improve the overall ecosystem, there is also an Advancing Female Founders group that is working with ACOA to ensure the ecosystem across Atlantic Canada is meeting the needs of female founders. It brings together leaders from organizations throughout the region as well as founders themselves to coordinate the delivery of programs.

CWB’s Priske said that in preparing the new Grow Now program her team reviewed the existing programs for entrepreneurs and tried not to duplicate what was already out there. But they learned there were gaps in the suite of available programs.

So they have launched Grow Now, an online accelerator to help between five to seven entrepreneurs. The program will be held over a six-month period starting in late February. The target market is female-led companies that already have sales. The Grow Now team led by Project Lead Nasil Nam found that what female entrepreneurs really want is to be taught business basics – such topics as how to read a financial statement or understand how marketing can drive sales.

The curriculum features material from Investoready, a program headed by Dr. Ellen Farrell of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University. Investoready helps novice entrepreneurs understand what investors are seeking and refine the messaging and vocabulary they use in pitches to potential investors.

“There are many funding opportunities for tech companies but a few criteria really set barriers for female founders to access funding,” said Nam in an email. “We need to identify what those barriers are especially for SMBs (in the mid-growth stage) and lower the barriers so that they can tap into the capital to grow and scale up their businesses.”

The funding of young companies – especially innovation-driven companies – is absolutely essential to their development, and more attention is being paid to directing investment to companies led by women. Priske said women founders need capital from an array of sources, including micro-financing and subsidies for hiring staff, as well as greater access to venture capital.

To that end, a group of Atlantic Canadian businesswomen has established Sandpiper Ventures, which funds female-led businesses. It has already invested in several startups, including such Halifax-based companies as Coloursmith Labs, led by Gabrielle Masone, and DeNova, led by Brianna Stratton.

The founders of Sandpiper believe there’s a great business case for investing in women-led companies because studies have shown that female entrepreneurs produce stronger returns and suffer fewer failures than those led by men.

“Investing in female founders is simply good business,” Founder and Managing Partner Rhiannon Davies said in announcing the fund’s first close earlier this year. “Statistics show that female founders experience greater successes than their male counterparts, but traditional VC doesn’t yet reflect this fact. Sandpiper is disrupting this. The operator-led fund invests in impactful women-led start-ups across tech-enabled companies.”