Even a city as diverse as Toronto has representational challenges – specifically low numbers of female founders. While the city ranked ninth in the world on Dell’s Women Entrepreneur Cities Index for 2018, the report notes a dearth of role models and leadership of business associations that “skew towards older senior executive norms.” But the report is also highly optimistic that female-based startups are on the upswing due to positive developments such as federal loans and incentives for women entrepreneurs and the presence of organizations such as Ryerson’s DMZ accelerator, which is investing in making Toronto’s startup future more decidedly female.

“We clearly have a discrepancy in the level of male and female founders,” says Hussam Ayyad, the DMZ’s senior director of programs and partnerships. “We’re not seeing the same numbers across the board, from very early on from early stage startups to even later stage tech companies.”

According to Move the Dial’s benchmark report, just five percent of Canadian tech companies have a solo female founder; when you add the number of startups with male and female co-founders, that number only increases to 13 percent. “The gender gap stands between Canada as a global innovation leader or just another middling performer. We simply can’t bring the required talent into our growth firms fast enough, or build businesses that truly matter to people and our planet, with women on the sidelines. We need a serious reset — from the way women are engaged, treated, valued, funded and supported — at all levels, and across the full innovation life cycle,” said Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS Discovery District.

While much as been made about lower representation of females within STEM programs in school, according to Ayyad, technical expertise and training are just a couple of the barriers that can stand in women’s way. “At the DMZ, we’re more exposed to the fact rather than the cause,” Ayyad says.

“There are a lot of cases where the product is something (women) need more help with,” he says, noting that this is an area where cultivating earlier interest in STEM studies can help. But with similar representation gaps on corporate boards and within venture capital firms, women face challenges across the startup lifecycle. “How to sell their product, how to raise money. Women need coaches who really understand their challenges in the marketplace as women founders. They need to be a place that is inclusive and helps them overcome these obstacles,” says Ayyad.

To that effect, the DMZ is among a number of centres in Toronto and beyond that have launched programs to specifically meet women’s needs, from a four-month women-only accelerator, to mentoring and lectures by notable Canadian female entrepreneurs such as Arlene Dickinson.

“I think it is different for women out there either selling or raising capital,” says Monika Jaroszonek, CEO and co-founder of the startup Ratio.City. “I’ve been lucky in my career that I haven’t been exposed to explicit bias as a women, but I have been exposed to implicit bias. When I was younger I never noticed it but as I got older I realized that I was subtly treated different in meetings, my suggestions were discounted until they were reinforced by someone else.

SUH_RatioCity1“The value of these programs is that the recognize that the situation for us as women founders is slightly different as it gives us very specific tools that we can use to get ahead. The programs I’ve participated in at the DMZ do acknowledge there’s a funding gap, that women do undervalue their product – so how do you come up with a pricing scheme that reflects the value you are bringing to a customer? Those specific toolsets I found really valuable.”

Spotlight on Female Founders

Photo credit: Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real