Here, we explore the challenging business and economic landscape – and solutions for success for female entrepreneurs.
Cindy Gordon has a million ideas, but delving into why some salespeople outperform others led her to found SalesChoice, an analytics company that relies on artificial intelligence and data science to add to a company’s bottom line.
“Before a sales professional does anything, we can tell them if they’re going to win or lose, scientifically,” says Gordon, who won Startup Canada’s Senior Entrepreneur Award in 2017.
She founded the privately held company in 2011 while in her early 50s and spent four years on research and development, moving through alpha and beta testing to the point where they have applied for a patent and are working with customers.
Gordon doesn’t give a thought to her age, saying she’s just happy to be at the table with her peers. “If there’s a bias, I am moving past it so fast,” she says.
“Maybe doors are being shut, and I’m not thinking about it. I’m just moving on to the next door.”
Baby boomers are poised to make a massive contribution to Canada’s economy through the entrepreneurial ecosystem because, as Gordon says, they’re retiring in droves, and all those workaholic Type A’s are going to be bored. Boomers are training to serve on boards, they’re starting non-profits and they’re setting up new companies.
“Now at least you have possibilities in your 50s and 60s,” she says. “If you wanted to do this 50 years ago, people would wonder what planet you were from.”
As for gender bias, like many female entrepreneurs interviewed for this series, Gordon hasn’t felt any discrimination. Though there has been some Canadian research on the differences between men and women entrepreneurs, there is a dearth of data on older entrepreneurs and even less on experienced women entrepreneurs. That invisibility is due, in no small part, to ageist stereotypes, where next-gen entrepreneurs are widely envisioned as tech geniuses in hoodies, madly coding away in some university dorm room.
That is reflected in a lack of programs, mentorship and financial support for older entrepreneurs, but Wendy Mayhew, CEO of the Ottawa-based company Business Launch Solutions, is trying to change that.
After researching entrepreneurship as an encore career – one chosen later in life more for personal satisfaction than necessity – Mayhew also started Wise Seniors in Business two years ago, which offers resources for experienced entrepreneurs such as speaking engagements, workshops, podcasts and videos. In 2017, she put out a call for applications for the first Wise 50 Over 50 awards and got nearly 100 responses. Mayhew said 38 per cent came from women, 56 per cent came from men and the rest were a mix of partnerships.
Like Gordon, Mayhew hasn’t given much thought to gender discrimination as a 67-year-old woman entrepreneur.
“There have been a lot of times I’ve been turned down for stuff, and is it because I’m a woman or is it my personality, because I am pretty outgoing?” she wonders. “Maybe it is that old ‘because I’m a woman’ thing, so I’ve really started looking at it differently now.”
We know women entrepreneurs are on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s radar after he announced the creation of a Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders following his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington in February 2017. And the same year the prime minister spawned an internet meme – “because it’s 2015” – when he appointed a cabinet that was 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women, the federal government’s Expert Panel on Championing and Mentorship for Women’s Entrepreneurs produced a 15-page report containing recommendations on how to support and encourage women business owners. Then nothing happened. Panel chairwoman, super entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den judge Arlene Dickinson dismissed the whole exercise as “a disappointing waste of time” in an essay for Maclean’s magazine and announced she had started a non-profit accelerator in Calgary focused on launching businesses in consumer-packaged goods, a sector traditionally dominated by women entrepreneurs.
Women are taking it into their own hands, with programs like non-
profit Alberta Women Entrepreneurs making loans and offering advice to small start-ups, as well as SheEO, started by Vicki Saunders of British Columbia creating a self-perpetuating fund that provides members with interest-free loans and a ready-made network of like-minded women.
The landscape has to change fast because women entrepreneurs in Canada had the highest rate of early-stage activity (businesses less than 3.5 years old) in 2016 compared with 16 other countries, including the U.S. and Germany.
The latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Canada Report on Women’s Entrepreneurship shows 13.3 per cent of Canadian women are engaged in early-stage business, up from 10 per cent in 2014. By comparison, 20 per cent of men ran early-stage businesses in 2016, a ratio of three men for every two women. The new data, published in December 2017, also puts Canada fifth globally for established business ownership by women at 6.6 per cent, down slightly from 2014.
The only age-related statistics in the report reveal early-stage businesses were dominated by women aged 25 to 44, while the biggest bulge on the graph of businesses more than 3.5 years old was in the 55- to 64-year-old age group.
“That makes sense,” says Karen Hughes, author of the report and a University of Alberta professor who studies entrepreneurship and women’s participation in the labour force. “These are businesses that have longevity; they’ve started them years ago and they’re established.”
As for what motivates older women entrepreneurs to go into business, Hughes says the report probed attitudes toward entrepreneurialism, which were highly positive in both men and women and showed that just over 80 per cent of early-stage entrepreneurs started a business out of opportunity rather than necessity regardless of gender, but it didn’t drill down on differences between age brackets. “It’s an area ripe for exploration,” she agrees.
Alone at the Table
Taking on ageism, access to capital and networking.
Mayhew of Business Launch Solutions and Wise Seniors in Business was speaking to a guest at an event last year. When she said she had recently switched her focus from entrepreneurs in general to older, experienced entrepreneurs, the man put on a slobbering face and pretended to walk with a cane.
“It was thoroughly disgusting,” says Mayhew. “I had done some business referrals to him but, after that statement, I quickly advised he wouldn’t be getting any more.”
Mayhew says a report from the U.S. covering 104 countries, including Canada, shows experienced entrepreneurs are the fastest growing demographic. But ageist tropes prevail, not least of which is the out-of-touch, befuddled, middle-aged technophobe who calls the help line only to find the computer isn’t even plugged in. Add to that, well-documented barriers to women in business, such as trouble getting access to capital, lack of mentors and spotty networking opportunities, and it all adds up to long odds for women of a certain age who want to start a business.
That has to change because the economic potential of women in business is enormous. In a 2013 report by the Royal Bank of Canada, the estimated contribution of woman-run small- and medium-sized enterprises, which make up 15.6 per cent of all SMEs in Canada to the economy, was pegged at $148 billion.
That’s why SheEO’s Saunders started the non-profit organization, now a network of 500 businesswomen who paid $1,100 into a perpetual non-profit fund that makes interest-free business loans to five high-potential member businesses each year. Though they don’t ask the age of members, Saunders says it ranges from 30s to 70s. She knows from personal experience as a serial entrepreneur that the playing field is not level when it comes to women running businesses.
“I witnessed 25 years of having an incredibly difficult time getting funded, difficulty getting into the door of a lot of places and feeling like I didn’t fit in,” says Saunders, who has co-founded four business ventures in Toronto, Europe and Silicon Valley before starting SheEO five years ago at age 50. “Something happens when you turn 50. You stop caring about trying to fit in and be the norm because we’re not the norm.”
Saunders says the SheEO network has uncovered some “completely missed opportunities” in the form of revenue-generating companies that pay back debt on time. “No one is paying attention. Everyone is chasing a unicorn,” she says, referring to the term used to describe a start-up company valued over $1 billion.
Women-led businesses get to profitability quicker and are much more efficient with their capital because they are used to going without and doing more with less. “We tend to run revenue-generating businesses because we can’t get funded,” Saunders says.
And when it comes to experienced women entrepreneurs, she agrees that society is deeply ageist, and that is reflected in government programs that support economic development.
“As soon as you’re 39, you’re done, and if you’re a woman, you’re invisible when you hit your 50s,” Saunders says. “There’s nothing out there, and it’s a massive, massive market if you look at this aging population who have capital, who have ideas and creativity. And it’s completely untapped.”
A Room of Her Own?
Ruth Klahsen was 47 when she started Monforte Dairy, an artisanal cheesemaking business in Strat-ford, Ont. Because she knew the business was too high risk to ever get a loan from a bank, she came up with an innovative way to fund a new dairy. Every customer could buy a future and, in return, they get a share of cheese. This year, she needs to make $2 million in sales and futures in order to make a profit.
Cheesemaking was historically women’s work, as it was part of the farm family’s diet. But when it moved from farm to factory in the late 1800s, men took over. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago, when an artisanal cheese movement was born in Ontario, that women reclaimed the hairnets and the cheese moulds.