Day 2 of StartupFest 2018 will be remembered for 2 things, a near perfect day for learning, networking and outdoor deal making, and a whole afternoon dedicated to advancing women in tech.
BDC, which announced a major new fund for female entrepreneurs in Canada earlier this year, held a Women in Technology boot camp in the hopes of empowering more female entrepreneurs to start their own businesses in the tech space. The fund itself is worth nearly $200 million and follows a number of lenders from BMO to Evolocity, who are turning their attention to the shortage of women in tech in this country and taking steps to address unequal access to capital between male and female entrepreneurs. SheEO, a global initiative dedicated to supporting female entrepreneurs, has said that as little as 4% of venture capital investment in Canada goes to female-led businesses.
The bootcamp featured female entrepreneurs, mentors and executives from BDC, including Michelle Scarborough, Managing Director, Strategic Investments and Women in Tech at the bank, and Michael Denham, President and CEO of BDC. These bootcamps are taking place across Canada, and the objective is to equip more women with the tools they need to get funding and get started with their own startups. StartupFest even offered deeply discounted tickets to some women to encourage them to come and inform themselves at this event. It’s all part of the tech community’s ongoing efforts to increase diversity in tech, and especially to get more women into the industry.
“At the end of the day this is about building great leaders and great teams” says Scarborough. “I think venture investors are becoming much more aware of those unconscious biases and changing that behaviour. That is changing how the conversation goes. There’s new capital, and BDC has been a leader in getting some of these capital providers to expand their view on investing in women led tech companies. You’re seeing Goldman Sachs, you’re seeing BMO announce new programs for women entrepreneurs. These are the kind of things that are happening that start to change the dialogue and put more money into women led businesses”.
Many universities are trying to take steps to encourage more women to study tech or learn to code as well, which encourages female participating in the tech space. While education and financing are important factors, communities, startups and even big tech can do things like offer child care at their events, or stage demo days and other events at times that are more family friendly in order to generally make it easier for more women to participate.
Bardish Chagger, Federal Minister of Small Business and Tourism, also spoke at the bootcamp and says the government is doing all they can to correct this imbalance “Budget 2018 made an almost $2 billion investment in the women’s entrepreneurship strategy which is a first of its kind. We realize that we cannot maximize our economic potential when we’re leaving half of the country behind”.
With both the private sector and the government on board, things may be slowly correcting themselves when it comes to the number of women in tech in Canada and their access to capital. The Minister believes that there should also be more female decision makers allocating investment.
“What we’re asking businesses and organizations to do is look inwards. Look at who is on your board of directors, look at who is making decisions, and if that is not representative or reflective of the country perhaps you can see yourselves having a more productive bottom line by making sure that the country is properly represented”. She says this could be done by setting diversity quotas for boards, but that a more productive approach may be to empower organizations to revamp what their boards look like, citing data that demonstrates that having a more inclusive board or decision-making table has a significant positive impact on a company’s bottom line.
Right now, just 16% of Canadian businesses are female-led. And the government hopes to double that number by 2025. “We’re collecting data. We need to know what is the climate that we’re in right now so that we know that we’re setting targets that will benefit the Canadian economy and our communities” said Chagger, later adding “If women are not part of the decision-making process, it’s going to be more difficult”.
What’s clear is that the problem has been identified, the conversation on how to correct the gender imbalance in tech is ongoing and both the government and many financial institutions are now taking concrete action to make more funds available to women entrepreneurs. As Scarborough says, at the end of the day “maybe we’ll have a very different conversation where we’re just talking about technology leaders and the gender issue is not an issue anymore”.