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, the University of Waterloo and UBC.
“I think I was probably the only woman who got a doctorate in robotics from UBC at the time,” recalls Dr. Viswanathan.
When she turned the lessons from her doctoral dissertation – navigation aids and sensor technology for electric wheelchair users – into a start called Braze Mobility Inc., Dr. Viswanathan says that the all-male, mostly all-white boardrooms she encountered when she met potential financiers and business partners were no surprise. “If I went into a room that had a lot of women, it would be an anomaly for me,” she says.
Dr Viswanathan says she excelled at almost every conference and trade show she attended. ”I can probably go so far as to say that I am the only female CEO, let alone a female CEO for color in [complex rehab technology] manufacturing industry, she says.
Dr. Viswanathan’s experience as a female founder is not uncommon in Canada’s start-up world. According to the Government of Canada, only 16 percent of SMEs in the country are owned by women. Women who are taking the step to start a start are also facing clear challenges when it comes to seeking funding, and that problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Figures from a CrunchBase The report shows that the proportion of venture capital financing for founders for women starting around the world fell to just 2.3 percent in 2020, compared with 2.8 percent in 2019 – an already abominable rate.
Kayla Isabelle is the CEO of Startup Canada, a non-profit organization that helps entrepreneurs network and build their businesses. Isabelle says that funding is a significant obstacle for the female founders she has encountered.
“Women get less venture capital and less angel investment,” she explains. “[Women] are often more conservative with their approach to reaching out to loans, joining their banks, asking for money from various financial institutions. And that in turn results in less funding, less scaling potential for growing companies founded by women entrepreneurs. ”
Ashley Francisco works for Google as head of startup ecosystems in Canada and reiterates Mrs Isabelle’s concern that female founders will have access to funding.
“Most venture capital in Canada and the United States is managed by teams of male management partners,” says Francisco. “While these realities are changing, they still play a role in how venture capital exists today.”
Dealing with gender differences
To support female founders, organizations like Startup Canada and Google run accelerator and mentoring programs specifically for female founders. In March 2021, Startup Canada expanded its former day-long women’s entrepreneurship program to a month-long female entrepreneurship program that provided mentorship and advisory support. In September 2020, Google launched a three-month start-up accelerator just for female founders. Dr. Viswanathan is one of 12 female founders selected to participate in this year’s program.
“Our goal is to help address the gender gap that we all know exists in the start-up ecosystem,” says Francisco. When it comes to financing, in particular, Francisco says that the accelerator helps facilitate important connections to financiers. “We’re really trying to use these programs as a starting point to get investor introductions out of our virtual demo days in some way that we can help support,” she says.
For Isabelle and Startup Canada, founding groups for women are an opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded people to share resources and contacts. Women also find opportunities for networking and mentoring in the Startup Canada Women Entrepreneurs Program.
“There is a huge benefit to having multi-year mentors who support your growth and who provide regular contact points,” says Isabelle. Expert guidance also helps female founders be more ambitious when applying for loans and financing. “Mentorship is a great enabler for that piece of trust, to really position your company in the right way,” she says.
Isabelle says that there are “changes in the ecosystem”. Funding pools, such as the Toronto-based SheEO, have been created by women to support other women-founded companies. Isabelle says that it is important that more of those who issue financing are women.
“We need these systems to be built by the people they are meant to serve so that they actually meet the needs of that audience,” she says.
Solutions the world needs
Ms Francisco says it is a “bear service to society” when women who are started do not get the funding and attention they deserve. She points to the year 2021 that participates in this year’s Google for Startups Accelerator: Women Founders.
“We have everything from cleantech and water purification companies to companies with a focus on food safety to FinTech companies,” she says. “I do not think anyone would agree that these are all the solutions the world needs.”
For Dr. Viswanathan, it has been important for her to find amazing mentors who are in line with her vision and believe in her company. Although she did not 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 is sometimes difficult to find out why that struggle exists,” she explains. “Is it because I’m a woman? Is it just because I’m an outsider for the industry? I think the end result is to really find the allies and turn everything that is different with you into a strength. ”
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