When it comes to women in business, we tend to hear a lot of doom-and-gloom things. And according to Statistics Canada, women in Canada are still less likely to become entrepreneurs, and when they do, their ventures tend to be smaller and less profitable.
Even so, women entrepreneurs in Alberta are saying that although there is work to be done, the opportunity has never been better for women in business. Last month, Alberta celebrated some of its top female entrepreneurs at the AWE Awards reception, which celebrated exceptional women entrepreneurs who have built businesses in Alberta.
“The awards are a way to recognize the accomplishments of women entrepreneurs in Alberta,” says Marcela Mandeville, the CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE). “Often, their accomplishments reach out farther than Alberta. We wanted to share those success stories.”
The 2019 awards went to four women who ranged from emerging entrepreneurs to owners of growing businesses and those running thriving businesses that have achieved huge success.
“A lot entrepreneurs are focused on the things that aren’t going right in the day-to-day,” Mandeville said. "By being part of the awards process, we’re asking people to be proud of what they’re doing. I enjoy hearing those stories and celebrating what people often don’t celebrate.”
We talked to this year’s finalists to learn more about their perspective on being female entrepreneurs in Alberta.
Now Is a Great Time for Women Entrepreneurs
“I think that people have this mindset that it has to be hard because in the past, we didn’t have the same rights. Like, it was a struggle,” says Staci Millard, who was awarded the Emerging Entrepreneur Award for her work with her Fort McMurray accounting firm, S. Millard Chartered Professional Accounting.
“I think what’s really tough now is that there’s sort of a shift and people are slow to respond. Mindset is everything. If we think everything has to be a battle, we actually make everything way harder for ourselves than it needs to be.”
As it turns out, Fort McMurray women are leaders in small business, and Millard is plugged in to the support and inspiration that community provides.
“I think we actually live in a time where we’re really lucky to be women entrepreneurs. We have such a community (even men!) rallying around women in business,” she said.
There Will Be Hard Times
Allison Grafton, the founder and president of Rockwood Custom Homes, has been in business since 2009, a period during which the economy - and housing - took a hard hit. As a more established business that continues to grow, she was presented with the Upsurge Entrepreneur Award.
“We’ve really struggled in Alberta for the last three to four years,” Grafton said. “The last four years have been the biggest challenge of my career, so being recognized by my peers in Alberta is very rewarding.”
As the head of the only sole female owned residential construction company in Canada, Grafton said she’s seen men feeling threatened by having a woman in the room.
“Women should understand that they will threaten some people in this industry and just have to be willing to get past that and walk through the fire,” she said.
She says the biggest challenge for women in business today is still access to capital, and she counsels women to stay focused, to persevere and to seek out mentorship.
“Stay very focused on your goals. It’s very challenging being an entrepreneur, but it’s also deeply fulfilling,” she said. “Find the courage and strength to carry on through difficult times.”
Assumptions Are the Enemy
“I often tell people that we have to be careful what we let our mind say and the stories we create,” said Karina Birch, who was awarded the Celebration of Achievement Award at AWE for her work as the CEO of Rocky Mountain Soap Company, a business Birch purchased with her husband 15 years ago and is now a multi-million dollar business with retail shops across Canada.
“At the end of the day, we’re just making assumptions into what the future holds. But at some point, you just have to start doing it to really know what’s involved and what the opportunity is,” she said.
Birch says she has had very few negative experiences as a woman in business.
“I think it’s a great time to be a woman in business … I don’t see any major challenges,” she said. “For women going forward, I think we’re having the right conversations. I think there’s definitely still more work to be done, but we’re in a good place in my opinion.”
In fact, Birch hopes to see a future where women’s organizations are no longer needed - or are even seen as awkward.
“I’ve seen the shift - it’s so noticeable over the last 20 years. I think women have to embrace that,” she said. “Twenty years down the road, it might feel very awkward to be holding a women-only organization that supports female-focused organizations … and wouldn’t that be great?”
Birch did say that being a female entrepreneur requires a shift on the home front, one she has seen happening over the span of her career.
“Looking into the future, we have to move away from some of the traditional roles from our parents’ generation,” she said. “It’s not about balance anymore. Instead of fitting it all in, it’s about deciding how you want to spend your time and giving up those things that aren’t hitting those priorities.”
There’s Still Work to Be Done
Despite all the positive things happening for women in business, some industries have it harder than others.
According to report released by Salesforce in 2018, women make up one-third of the entrepreneurs in Canada - except in the tech industry. Only 13 per cent of female-led small businesses focus on tech, science, engineering or mathematics, and even those who start these businesses face more challenges than their male counterparts.
“There’s quite a profound kind of gap and different experience for women in the tech space,” says Myrna Bittner. “But I’m older now - and quite stubborn - so I don’t let that daunt me."
The CEO and co-founder of RUNWITHIT Synthetics, a company that develops and applies “synthetic intelligence,” or artificial-intelligence driven agents that help companies optimize complex systems into the future. She was awarded with the Emerging Innovator Award at this year's AWE Awards ceremony.
“I think there needs to be some kind of re-examination of why and how we actually promote and represent the possibilities for women in this space,” Bittner said. “It’s been really quite male-definied for a long time. In fact, when I started in the tech space in 1992, there were far more women engaged at all levels. So it’s disappointing to see that kind of retraction.”
Bittner says the key to helping nurture women in business and close that gap starts with good data.
“I think data is really important, Bittner said. “And then I think the community as a whole are coming to understand that it’s actually a competitive disadvantage in the world now, globally, to not have representation at all levels in a company … and then it comes down to really overtly embracing the steps necessary to change that.”
Overall, Mandeville says she's seen a lot of innovation among women in business in terms of their aims around growth. "Initially, our goal with AWE was to provide aspiring women entrepreneurs with capital. Now it's come to be involved in all stages of the business," she said. "There are businesses where we've been a part of their whole business cycle. We want to make sure there continues to be great opportunities to become an entrepreneur and that there are great services for women who aspire to it."