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The Best Resources for Women-Led Start-Ups

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Find the needed support for your start-up.

Despite a long history of systemic discrimination in entrepreneurship, Canadian women are continuing to develop exciting new enterprises across sectors and industries. According to the Women’s Entrepreneurial Knowledge Hub's annual report on the state of women’s entrepreneurship in Canada, “the number of new women-founded start-ups with a valuation of more than US$1 billion (“unicorns”) in Canada has almost doubled since 2019.”

As well, “case studies from organizations that support women entrepreneurs reinforce the positive impact of investing in women entrepreneurs and suggest that the return on these investments is more consistent and the risk much lower compared to other programs,” says the 2022 report.

However, despite the numerous benefits to developing women-led SMEs, it’s well documented that female entrepreneurs are less likely to receive funding from banks, private equity or institutional capital, and are often asked to disclose more qualifications and information than male entrepreneurs and men-owned businesses. 

Organizations across Canada, from banks to nonprofits and government-supported endeavours, have increased the resources available to female entrepreneurs in an effort to remove some of these barriers. Funding opportunities, leadership programs, and access to tech, equipment, and real estate will hopefully let female entrepreneurs compete more equitably in their industries.

Here is a list of credible, open-access, low-cost start-up resources for women-owned small and medium-sized businesses.

Government Grants and Loans

In 2018, Canada launched the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), a $6 billion initiative to provide women-led businesses with financing, talent, networks, and expertise.

The strategy aims to provide women-led businesses with mentoring, skills development and networking, increased access to capital, improved access to federal programming, and enhanced data and knowledge. 

The strategy includes:

  • The WES Ecosystem Fund aims to strengthen relationships between organizations within the entrepreneurial ecosystem while delivering supports that contribute to business development and growth. This program has no set funding limit allocated to it; the amount of funding a project can receive is determined case-by-case. Eligible projects must have a minimum budget of $250,000 and must not exceed an overall budget of $3,000,000. 

  • the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), a one-stop source of knowledge, data and best practices for women entrepreneurs, which aims to create a more inclusive and supportive environment to grow women’s entrepreneurship in Canada.

In addition to WES, the Canadian government created the The Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP) in 2020, a $221-million loan program, in partnership with eight financial institutions. The program provides $25,000-$250,000 for Black entrepreneurs to access funding, mentorship, financial and business training, and aims to help Black business owners and entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

The program includes: 

The AgriAssurance Program is a government-funded program for women-led businesses in agriculture to help implement assurance projects that address market and regulatory requirements. The programs provide funding for third-party assurance certification projects that address international market requirements. Find out more about eligibility and how to apply here

Banks

Banks across Canada have created programs to specifically help women entrepreneurs and start-ups with educational information and resources, networking, and other opportunities.

BMO for Women

The Bank of Montreal launched a suite of educational information and resources for women, called BMO for Women. The site offers information about starting, growing and managing businesses, including a toolkit and step-by-step-guide.There is also a suite of podcasts and videos and a variety of other resources including the BMO Alliance for Women, a community of employees who champion the inclusion, connection, development, advancement and support of women.

TD Bank: Supporting Women in Business

This Canadian financial institution offers many resources for women-led businesses, including Side Hustle, a program that offers collateral-free loans of up to $15,000 and pairs women entrepreneurs with a dedicated mentor. In addition, TD offers the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, a program that provides easier access to mentorship and connections, and four courses designed for women entrepreneurs in partnership with École Entrepreneur du Québec

The Scotiabank Women Initiative

Launched in 2018, this program was designed to increase economic and professional opportunities for women-led and owned businesses. It offers access to capital and ESG-focused services, education initiatives including live events, workshops, and boot camps,  advisory services and mentorship opportunities. Building on its $3 billion initial commitment, in May 2022, the Initiative announced it had increased its commitment to deploy capital to women-owned and women-led businesses in Canada to $10 billion by 2025. 

Venture Capital

In Canada, women-led businesses only receive four per cent of VC funding. And, just 15.2 per cent of partners in Canadian venture firms are women. It's clear that there is a support gap when it comes to venture funding for and by Canadian women. That said, it's another avenue for funding for women-led businesses. Here are a few to consider:

Women in Technology Venture Fund

This $200 million fund from the BDC supports women-led technology companies across a wide range of sectors and aims to help build a strong ecosystem. The fund provides start-ups access to resources, venture partners and networks. 

Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (VCCI) 

Announced in 2021, this federal government program has allocated $50 million targeted to increasing access to venture capital for under-represented groups, including women and racialized people. 

 

Leadership programs

Startup Canada webinars

Startup Canada, Canada’s leading entrepreneurship organization, offers webinars geared towards early-stage entrepreneurs. The organization offers specific programming for women entrepreneurs. 

Five professional women smiling in a business environment.

Canadian Women’s Foundation

The Canadian Women's Foundation is a nationwide non-profit organization with a focus on girls and women. The foundation funds programs such as Empowering Girls and Inclusive Leadership, provides grants to women and initiates projects such as Gender Equality Network Canada.

Minerva BC

Minerva BC is a non-profit organization that supports women in developing leadership skills. Programs include The Face of Leadership initiative, Learning to Lead and Women Leading the Way.

Working Women Community Centre

The Toronto-based Working Women Community Centre is a women-focused settlement agency that provides support to newcomers and offers leadership development training

SEED: Immigrant and Newcomer Women Exploring Business

The SEED program for immigrant and newcomer women is a free eight-week training session followed by one-to-one business consulting and support with launching a business. It is available to immigrant and newcomer women who are on a low income and have a business idea, and includes free childcare, snacks, and bus tokens for training sessions. SEED is based in Winnipeg and also offers a separate stream for Indigenous Women Exploring Business.

Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE)

Alberta Women Entrepreneurs' Bold Leadership Program supports Alberta-based women entrepreneurs to strategically incorporate digital strategy in their business across a broad range of areas, including Strategy & Leadership. 

RBC Alliance of Young Women Entrepreneurs (AYWE) 

The RBC Alliance of Young Women Entrepreneurs program empowers young women to become entrepreneurs through connection and learning. The program is free and includes leadership coaching, business training workshops, and one-on-one advisory sessions. 

Black African and Caribbean Entrepreneurship Leadership (BACEL)

The Black African and Caribbean Entrepreneurship Leadership (BACEL) training program provides free skills building, networking, mentorship, and leadership training to over 400 Black entrepreneurs across Canada.

Incubators and Accelerator Programs

Incubators and accelerators for businesses offer services and supports for start-ups, including workshops, training, networking opportunities, coaching, and business advising on everything from scaling up to product development and marketing. Studies show that incubators and accelerators can be a good resource for women-led businesses, as they help stimulate growth intentions and achieve growth

A recent UK-based study examining incubators and accelerators revealed that participation in accelerators was associated with greater employee growth, increased fundraising and survival rates. 

Sound promising? Here are a few to consider:

Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub

The Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) is a national network and accessible digital platform for sharing research, resources, and leading strategies. With 10 regional hubs and a network of more than 250 partners, WEKH is designed to address the needs of diverse women entrepreneurs across regions and across sectors.  

ELLA

ELLA is Ontario's first accelerator focused on supporting women-led product and service-based businesses. Created by York University and hosted at YSpace, York University’s innovation hub, ELLA's mission is to reduce the gap of gender inequality in entrepreneurship by providing tailored training and support programs women entrepreneurs need, 100% free of cost.

Velocity Incubator

Based at the University of Waterloo, Velocity Incubator equips and guides entrepreneurs to build companies that scale at the earliest stages of business building. Since 2008, Velocity has incubated more than 400 companies. Velocity offers entrepreneurs business expertise, space to build a team and develop products, and risk-tolerant capital through the Velocity Fund, as well as a list of external funding opportunities

Women’s Entrepreneurship Hub (WE-Hub)

In partnership with the Toronto Metropolitan’s Diversity Institute, The WEHub is based out of Scadding Court Community Centre and offers education, mentorship, networking and supports for low-income women who want to learn about the foundations of entrepreneurship, the local entrepreneurship ecosystem, and how to start a business “on their own terms”.

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