Women led businesses get 4% of venture capital funding in Canada. This, despite the fact that they start 38% of the businesses. The problem is quite serious and widespread and nobody disputes these numbers. As a countermeasure, a number of organizations have developed initiatives to help tackle the problem. But now, there is a new approach to addressing the problem in Canada.
The Big Push, founded by Sharon Zohar in Toronto a year and a half ago held its “Pitch & Pair” night at Deloitte’s downtown Montreal offices on Tuesday evening. It was their first such event outside Toronto.
A group of 9 female-led startups were invited to pitch their business to a room full of about 100 executives from all kinds of businesses in and around Montreal. There is no prize. There is no panel of judges.
Instead, the experts in the audience will vote by secret ballot, letting the organizers know which of the presenting startups they would like to work with. This isn’t about capital investment. This is a form of sweat equity, whereby leading experts gain a stake in the startups they are paired with in exchange for in kind services and advice. Of course, once these working relationships are established, deals may occur down the road.
The Big Push is based in the MaRS discovery district in Toronto, and has done one Pitch and Pair event there so far, with Vancouver being the 3rd market they will enter some time this June. They also offer a virtual accelerator which currently has 5 portfolio companies. There is already a network of mentors participating in this program in Toronto, and this Montreal pitch night was also live streamed privately to those stakeholders, bringing the potential total audience for these pitches to somewhere north of 300 of business leaders.
Elaine Kunda is Founder and Managing Partner at Toronto’s Disruption Ventures, a brand-new early stage VC (seed) backed by ScotiaBank as a lead investor. Before she opened the evening with a keynote address, she told MTLinTech that initiatives like these are crucial for Canada’s innovation ecosystem. “We’re a country of 36 million people and we are currently investing in only half the population. That’s not going to cut it.” She also points out that women tend to solve different problems than their male counterparts and therefore can make important contributions in the field of innovation.
For her part, Zohar explained that as a female entrepreneur herself, she is all too familiar with the challenges female entrepreneurs face. And one day she decided to do something about it. “There was a tipping point. Someone asked me to discuss things further over dinner, and I thought ‘why are we going to dinner?’ No. Enough! I had been part of a number of different accelerators, some good, some not as good. I thought mentorship was coming from too many different angles and nobody was really giving me the things that I needed. So I decided to build something that made sense for me and hopefully makes sense for others.”
Zohar believes the Big Push is gaining momentum, with more and more people coming forward as mentors and some of them even refusing the equity and participating simply because they want to give something back.
Christina Camacho, CEO of Ivy Lender was contacted over the winter to participate in the Pitch and Pair night. She is 1 of only 66 female founders in Canadian FinTech. They provide small business loans, working capital, lines of credit… they essentially try to respond to the different credit needs of a small business at different stages of their growth. After graduating from the Holt FinTech Accelerator in late 2018, she has still found it challenging to raise the kind of capital she is looking for. “Our vision is very different than our peers. We want to use tools to graduate small businesses to less expensive capital over time” says Camacho, adding “I wanted to be looked at for the quality of my product. People say it should be easier because you’re a woman but it’s really not. When I’ve seen what others have raised based on napkin ideas… and I have technology, traction and I’m still having trouble raising. It’s been very challenging” If you’re looking to catch up with her, she’ll be pitching in Miami next week and then at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, site of this year’s Super Bowl.
No winners of mentor pairings were announced on site. The Big Push Team will compile the ballots and look at what kind of teams can be offered to each startup and those who pitched tonight should have news from the organizers in about 10 days.