Calgary research centre for female entrepreneurship to address gender gap

MRU will soon be part of a federal research and outreach initiative for female entrepreneurs

Calgary web developer and coder, Laurie Gloge, has been running her company, Haathi, since 2002. JENNIFER FRIESEN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

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As a woman running her own web development business, Laurie Gloge is quick to confirm that tech is still “absolutely” a male-dominated industry.

Since launching her company, Haathi, in 2002, she’s moved more into coding, analytics and even a bit of game development. But, even with all the experience under her belt, she’s hit a lot of walls as a female entrepreneur.

“People look at me like I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Gloge.

“There’s no reason for it, it’s not like there’s a physical reason for technology to be male-centred, but it is. We all have brains, so I don’t know why this is still the case.”

And the discrepancy isn’t just in tech. According to Mount Royal University, only 16 per cent of small and medium-sized companies in Canada are majority-owned by women, with women running just 10 per cent of large-scale businesses.

In response, the federal government has announced a plan to open eight centres dedicated to researching female entrepreneurship and help women grow their businesses. MRU has been chosen as the only Alberta location for the initiative, dubbed the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH).

“Businesses have to reflect our population,” said Ray DePaul, director of MRU’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“And if it doesn’t, you’re missing out on positioning your company, product orservices. Having diversity of thought is a win-win … so we need to support ourentrepreneurs facing barriers.”

While research clearly displays a gap between male and female entrepreneurs, there hasn’t been a lot of hard data on why. Gender roles and biases have often been suggested to be a culprit, as well as barriers in accessing capital.

Challenges in accessing capital

The trials of accessing capital is something Karen Stewart understands well. As the founder and CEO of both Fairway Divorce Solutions and Bumble Bees Venture Capital Inc., the serial entrepreneur has had her hands in building businesses for decades.

Stewart launched Bumble Bees Venture Capital as a way to offer female investors a platform to finance companies that are led by women. She pointed to a recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal, which addressed the gender gap in venture capital funding in the United States.

Female entrepreneurs in the U.S. only receive 2 per cent of venture funding, despite owning 38 per cent of businesses. To try and find out why, the study observed venture capital interviews over six years and concluded that men and women were being asked different questions: Men were asked positive questions about the future of their businesses while women were asked negative questions about how they were mitigating risk.

“We’ve identified some of the statistical anomalies, and some of the statistical facts,” said Stewart. “But we haven’t got to the core of unconscious bias, and I think that issue is both in men and women. We have along way to go to change society.”

Gender roles in the family

Lindsay Jones, owner of Luxura Diamonds in Calgary, started her custom jewellery company small, so she didn’t require financing. She did, however, face a different set of challenges.

By the time she launched her company in late 2014, she was six months pregnant with her son.

“My biggest struggle, once I had my son, was how to balance putting everything I could into my business while also feeling like I was being the best mom I could be,” said Jones. “It was very, very trying, because I didn’t have the option of maternity leave. It was just me, with my son on my hip, trying to tying to work on the computer and take calls from clients.”

Similarly, DePaul noticed how differently male and female entrepreneurs addressed family roles while starting their businesses. He was an entrepreneur in tech before taking on his role at MRU, and said he was surprised to see how early the questions of family planning were raised by women.

“That was one thing that really hit me,” said DePaul.

“I came from a male dominated industry, so when I started having conversations with 19-year-old women who are trying to plan a career around the inevitable juggling they’ll have to do as a potential mother, I was shocked. I’d never had that conversation with a young man.”

Jones said that she hopes WEKH will address this in their community outreach and gather data to highlight the importance of accessible childcare for female entrepreneurs and offer outreach to those juggling their business and family life.

“For entrepreneurs who are moms, there’s a ‘mom guilt,’” she continued.

“So, it will be important to deal with the stigma around workingmoms, which unfortunately still exists.”

WEKH is being led by Ryerson University, and will receive $9 million over three years to build the initiative across the country. Details are still scarce on when it will be active, according to DePaul, but it will be open to the community at large to share research, provide services and to keep asking questions about the gender gap in entrepreneurship.

“There’s a serious unconscious bias that’s happening right now,” said Stewart.

“The good news is that there’s conversations that are happening, but really the only thing that’s going to change that bias is us taking action.”

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