The scene Thursday during a panel discussion with Mary Ng, Canada’s Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion. “We can add $150 billion to the Canadian GDP just by adding female entrepreneurs,” Ng said. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

Canada must continue to streamline access to funding programs, invest in women entrepreneurs and STEM-related education programs and consider bold, new initiatives to move the needle on international trade and diversify its trading partners, a lunchtime audience heard during a panel discussion at Communitech Thursday.

“Canada’s known as a trading country. We’re not yet known as a country of traders. We’re going to change that,” said Mary Ng, Canada’s Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion, one of four panelists on stage during the “fireside chat”-style event hosted by Communitech CEO and President Iain Klugman.

Ng, paying her first visit to Waterloo Region since taking over the small business and export portfolio from Waterloo MP and Government House Leader Bardish Chagger last July, said the government is determined to help entrepreneurs sell their products outside of Canada and reduce the country’s reliance on the U.S. as a trading partner.

“For a lot of small businesses, figuring out how to get into a market other than the U.S. is overwhelming,” said Heather Galt, Vice-President, Marketing, at Waterloo-based P&P Optica and one of three panelists on stage with Ng.

“It’s really hard. It’s really complex. Companies end up narrowing their focus,” she said, and settling on the U.S. “because they can’t see the path to get into [a given] market.”

Ng said Galt was “absolutely right,” and said it was precisely why the government has committed to its “trade diversification strategy.” She said only 12 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses, or SMEs, engage in exports and “70 per cent of it goes to the U.S. [Yet] we have access to 60 per cent of the world’s economy.”

Another panelist, serial entrepreneur Dave Caputo, who is co-founder and former CEO of Waterloo-based Sandvine and chair of the Communitech board of directors, said it would be helpful for businesses to have access to a Canadian entity based overseas that could serve as a kind of agent capable of hiring foreign-based sales staff and looking after the logistics of operating outside of Canada.

Caputo used the example of PixStream, another company he co-founded, which was affiliated with an Ottawa-based company called Newbridge Networks. Newbridge provided that very kind of on-the-ground service for PixStream as it expanded overseas.

“That office could actually hire the salesperson and we would just pay Newbridge to pay them, and they would [take care of] the benefits and provide space,” he said.

Caputo expanded on the idea after the panel discussion had concluded.

“We [at PixStream] didn’t understand how ridiculously easy it was for us because we were a Newbridge affiliate,” he said. “With Sandvine, it was a year of debate over whether [we were] going to open in Singapore or Japan. You need a lawyer, accountants, a benefit provider, a payroll provider, [office] space.

“Imagine if all that is done for you.”

Ng said companies should remember they can access the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service for help when expanding outside of Canada. The Trade Commissioner Service has personnel stationed domestically and in more than 160 countries who are tasked with helping businesses gain a footing overseas.

Matt Stevens, CEO of Waterloo-based FleetCarma and the fourth member of the panel, told the audience that his firm made frequent use of the Trade Commissioner Service, and benefited.

“As soon as we started making use of it, we started kicking ourselves that we hadn’t before,” said Stevens. “It’s free. It’s easy. They get you in front you of who you need to get into.

“They make it so easy to do work abroad. If you’re not using the Trade Commissioner Service, you’re missing out.”

Capital is another barrier to expansion overseas, and Galt described the difficulty companies often have accessing federal programs due to long, labour-intensive application processes and drawn-out response times.

“We can’t have a 12- or 24-week wait period to get access,” said Galt. “It can’t take us months to figure out what funds to apply for.”

Ng agreed, and said the government was working “to fix it.

“I was just at a roundtable with a number of female founders who said the exact same thing. There is work we need to do. We’re very committed to do that. We’re going to try to be agile.”

And Ng said the government plans to lean in and continue to help women entrepreneurs. Klugman reminded the audience of the federal government’s support for programs like Fierce Founders, a Communitech initiative that helps companies led by women gain a footing.

“Today, only 16 per cent of our Canadian small-and-medium-sized companies are female led or female owned,” said Ng. “We can add $150 billion to the Canadian GDP just by adding female entrepreneurs.”

Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto.  This article originally appeared on their site.