Dr. Pooja Viswanathan is used to being the only woman in the room. She studied computer science, artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and UBC.
“I think I was probably the only woman getting a PhD in robotics at UBC at the time,” Dr. Viswanathan recalls.
When she transformed the learnings from her PhD dissertation – navigation assistance and sensor technologies for power wheelchair users – into a startup called Braze Mobility Inc., Dr. Viswanathan says the all-male, mostly all-white boardrooms she encountered as she met with potential funders and business partners were no surprise. “If I went into a room that had a lot of women, that would be an anomaly for me,” she says.
Dr. Viswanathan says that she stood out at nearly every conference and industry expo she attended. “I could probably go as far as saying I’m the only female CEO, let alone female CEO of colour in the [complex rehab technology] manufacturing industry,” she says.
Dr. Viswanathan’s experience as a female founder is not unusual in Canada’s startup world. According to the Government of Canada, only 16 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses in the country are owned by women. Women that do take the leap into founding a startup also face clear challenges when it comes to seeking funding, and that problem has worsened over the pandemic. Figures from a CrunchBase report show that the proportion of venture capital funding to female-only startup founders around the world dropped to just 2.3 per cent in 2020, compared to 2.8 per cent in 2019 – an already abysmal rate.
Kayla Isabelle is the CEO of Startup Canada, a non-profit organization that helps entrepreneurs network and build their businesses. Ms. Isabelle says funding is a significant barrier for the female founders she has encountered.
“Women receive less venture capital funding and less angel investment,” she explains. “[Women] often are more conservative with their approach to reaching out for loans, to connecting with their banks, to asking for money from various financial institutions. And that in turn results in less funding, less scaling potential for growing businesses founded through women entrepreneurs.”
Ashley Francisco works for Google as the head of startup developer ecosystems in Canada and echoes Ms. Isabelle’s concerns about women founders accessing funding.
“Most venture capital in Canada and the U.S. is controlled by teams with all-male managing partners,” Ms. Francisco says. “While these realities are changing, they still play a role in terms of how venture capital exists today.”
Addressing gender disparity
To help support women founders, organizations like Startup Canada and Google run accelerator and mentorship programs specifically for women founders. In March 2021, Startup Canada expanded their formerly day-long women’s entrepreneur programming into a month-long Women Entrepreneurs Program providing mentorship and advisory support. In September 2020, Google launched a three-month startups accelerator just for women founders. Dr. Viswanathan is one of 12 women founders selected to participate in this year’s program.
“Our goal is to help address the gender disparity that we all know exists in the startup ecosystem,” says Ms. Francisco. When it comes to funding, in particular, Ms. Francisco says the accelerator helps facilitate key connections to funders. “We really try to use these programs as a jumping-off point to make investor introductions coming out of our virtual demo days in any way that we can help support,” she says.
For Ms. Isabelle and Startup Canada, founder groups for women are an opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded individuals to share resources and contacts. Women also find opportunities for networking and mentorship in Startup Canada’s Women Entrepreneurs Program.
“There’s a huge benefit to having multi-year mentors that support your growth and that provide regular touchpoints,” Ms. Isabelle says. Guidance from experts also helps women founders be more ambitious when seeking loans and funding. “Mentorship is a huge enabler of that confidence piece, of really positioning your business appropriately,” she says.
Ms. Isabelle says there are “shifts in the ecosystem” happening. Funding pools, like the Toronto-based SheEO, have been created by women to support other women-founded businesses. Ms. Isabelle says it’s important for more of the people issuing funding to be women.
“We need these systems to be built by the people that they are intended to serve so that they actually meet the needs of that audience group,” she says.
Solutions the world needs
Ms. Francisco says that it’s a “disservice to society” when women-founded startups don’t receive the funding and attention that they deserve. She points to the 2021 cohort participating in this year’s Google for Startups Accelerator: Women Founders.
“We have everything from cleantech and water treatment companies through to companies focused on food safety to FinTech companies,” she says. “I don’t think anyone would disagree that these are all solutions the world needs.”
For Dr. Viswanathan, it’s been important for her to find great mentors that are aligned with her vision and believe in her company. While she didn’t necessarily seek out female mentors, she says they have helped her put her challenges into perspective.
“As a founder, there are so many struggles that it’s kind of hard sometimes to pinpoint why that struggle exists,” she explains. “Is it because I’m a woman? Is it just because I’m an outsider to the industry? I think the bottom line is to really find those allies and to turn anything that’s different about you into a strength.”
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