With four out of five businesses launched by women, it would seem to be entrepreneurship. Here are the challenges they face...
Debbie Gracie-Smith isn't easily deterred in her business goals. So when Gracie-Smith, who made Profit Magazine's Top 100 Women Entrepreneurs list three years in a row, had a hard time closing a deal after day long negotiations with 23 men and one woman in Switzerland, she didn't panic.
Instead, she brought in her secret weapon: a man. "The minute my male partner came into the room, they confirmed everything with him," she laughs now. "The smartest thing I ever did was get a 'flip side'," she says of her male counterpart.
Like many women entrepreneurs - who Statistics Canada says launch four out of five new small businesses in Canada and contribute $18 billion annually to Canada's economy - Gracie-Smith has learned to roll with the punches sometimes directed at women business owners since she launched a computer servicing and software company, Cratos (named for the Greek symbol of strength and domination) in '99. Otherwise, she'd never have grown the business to $8 million in sales from $400,000 in two years, earning her a No. 4 spot on Profit's Hot 50 Emerging growth companies in 2003.
"You can either spend a lot of time bucking it and losing the business," says Gracie-Smith who is now CEO (she sold her shares and now heads up the company she launched), "or you can suck it up and let someone else do it who can."
Over the years, she's learned that Singaporeans prefer to do business with women, and that she might as well not waste her time even trying to do business in Japan, where they "only want to talk to my male business partner".
But the sexism women entrepreneurs sometimes endure is only one of many challenges female entrepreneurs face - though that hasn't deterred the more than 821,000 female business owners in Canada (at last count) from sticking to their guns.
Here are some of the challenges they face:
Female entrepreneurs still face challenges at the bank, says Gracie-Smith. "Even though there's a lot of lip-service out there, it's most helpful talking to women in the bank," she's found, especially if that woman's job is actually to go out and attract female business clients for the bank. "Go to the bank and say you need $1 million, and it's almost impossible," she says, remembering an earlier request for a bridge loan, after clients took longer than expected to pay. "They wouldn't even look at it. It's definitely tougher as a woman."
On the other hand, Sherri Stevens, president of Stevens Resource Group and winner of the 2005 RBC Momentum Award last year, says she didn't encounter any difficulties when she was first launching her business. But then again: "My first bank manager was a woman," she says. "She was really good with us and helped me grow the business," which now employs 600 temps, as well as launch a new business, QSI, which provides companies with a complete work force.
Part of the problem, acknowledges Anne Day, who launched Company of Women three years ago, is that female entrepreneurs may not be as well versed in preparing business plans the banks will approve. The founder of BB Bargoons, Bonnie Bickel, once acknowledged in a speech that she was two years into her fabric and home furnishings retail business before she realized she needed a business plan, says Day.
And that's where mentoring comes in: it provides a culture in which entrepreneurs can exchange information and meet others who can help them. But women, says Day, aren't as good at it as men. Nor are they as direct about asking for help when they meet people at events.
But consider the gains to be had:
- When Steven's first bank manager at CIBC balked at providing additional loans, she was rescued by a mentoring contact she had made at the local Chamber of Commerce - the head of RBC's business centre. "I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't given us the financing," she says.
- And Gracie-Smith says her initial efforts at launching her business would have been easier if she had met RBC's Betty Wood, whose job it is to help women start businesses, earlier than she did.
In fact, mentoring and networking would have helped her when she was starting out on a Top 10 list of things to get a business started. That list included such things as the legal requirements, what your tax base is, and where you can hire consultants. Gracie-Smith learned them all the hard way.
And just talking to her about what she's learned demonstrates what she could teach at a networking session if anyone asked. She's learned the necessity of buying insurance on her receivables from Export Development Canada - because so many of her clients are foreign - which made it much easier for her to secure loans from banks, and buying errors and omission insurance. Before she learned that lesson, she lost potential clients because she didn't have it, she says.
- Stevens says she networked by surrounding herself with mentors, including some of her clients, who could teach her what she didn't know - the operations and finance side of the business, for one. And by taking time to learn from mentors, she has grown her business with good advice. Her latest mentoring program is, in fact, teaching her how to relax. She's joined a group called The Strategic Coach. "They teach us how to take time for ourselves and our families and enjoy life and what we've reaped so far."
Meanwhile, Gracie-Smith is a member of Company of Women, as well as of a new mentoring program for female entrepreneurs at the University of Toronto's Rothman School of Management called "Step Ahead," which matches entrepreneurs with mentors.
But perhaps, one of the biggest concerns other female entrepreneurs can mentor their colleagues on is how they managed to launch a business and care for children - since the majority of childcare and household duties still seem to fall on women's shoulders.
Day says she's often called by young mothers on maternity leave who don't want to go back to the corporate world and want to know what type of business they can launch. They also have to figure out how many hours they can devote to a launch - while they're caring for young children - and factor in the childcare costs they will take on when the hours heat up.
But kids can also be an asset for female entrepreneurs, says Gracie-Smith, who used to take her three boys into the office on days off school. "They're what keep me grounded. If I didn't have kids, I couldn't do this job," she says. "There's lots of egos involved when you deal with consultants. And from a negotiations and diplomacy point of view, having three boys in three years has helped me see the other side."
It also taught her about being a flexible boss. A lot of her staff are mothers of young children, working from home. "I don't care when you do the work as long as it gets done," she says. And because she can tell immediately when someone is pulling their weight, she can go back to focusing on the "sheer business side," rather than the personnel side, of her company. In fact, mums have turned out to be such good hires - "they are much better at multi-tasking" - that the ratio of men to women in her workforce has dropped to 50 per cent from an initial 80 per cent.
And entrepreneurs with children shouldn't be concerned that they can't get benefits without a corporate job, she advises. You can buy it now from several different companies for you, your growing staff, and your growing family.