Identity Management: Entrepreneurial Women’s Edition

Updated: May 28, 2018

By: Shann McGrail

Executive-in-Residence, Innovation Factory

I have been working with Hamilton’s Innovation Factory (IF) (one of Ontario’s Regional Innovation Centres) on a series of events for women who have made the decision to be entrepreneurs. Given that great programs are already available for all entrepreneurs, we started by asking ourselves whether a different, female-specific approach was really required. Input from an advisory group representing organizations in the region, coupled with a review of available research such as McKinsey & Company’s “The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Canada, seemingly answered the question for us—there does in fact appear to be an opportunity to look at the needs of entrepreneurs through the lens of gender. Consider the following:

  • Ontario could increase GDP by an estimated 2% by addressing gender inequality. For Canada, the economic impact would be equivalent to that of adding a new financial services sector;

  • With only 20% of small and medium-sized businesses in Canada majority-owned by women, entrepreneurship represents a top priority in reducing inequality;

  • At the current rate of progress, it would take 180 years to reach gender parity in entrepreneurship.

With the above in mind, the team in Hamilton remained true to its tag line—“It Begins with IF”—and opted to enlist its creative forces and take action. To that end, the IF team committed to allocating some time and resources to focus on the specific needs of women entrepreneurs in the region.

A recently held event is a great example of what the Innovation Factory is doing to move things forward. A group of women was gathered together for a peer-to-peer session to discuss the concept of “Entrepreneurial Identity”. They explored the notion that how one views oneself as an entrepreneur can have a significant impact on exploiting opportunities and tackling challenges, especially as it relates to one’s ability to successfully grow a business.

The group started off with a discussion centered on “the why”—an exploration of their inspirations for choosing to pursue entrepreneurship. If intention drives action, then understanding the reason for starting a business shapes future decision regarding growth plans and helps keep focus where it should be. Borrowing from research and work done by Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott, (highlighted in their book, “Feminine Capital: Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs) it was interesting to see how closely our group in Hamilton mirrored the interviews and research conducted across Canada on the motivations women had for starting a business.

Having shared inspirations for business start-up and discussed some of the challenges they faced, the group then engaged in a conversation about ideas, experiences, and “best practices” that women have used to manage through tests they have faced on the way to establishing and growing their businesses.

The sections that follow provide highlights of the main discussion themes from the event.

Freedom, Independence, and Control

Included in this theme was the idea of working without corporate limitations, setting direction, making decisions, and creating a balance (or better integration between) work and life. Taking control of the quality of a product, a career, day-to-day freedom, and life in general also made the hot topic list of reasons why women start their businesses.

In reviewing the challenges associated with this theme, the ability to get valid feedback when working independently rose to the forefront. The group surfaced many different ideas for addressing this challenge, including:

  • The use of short feedback surveys along with making it a point to schedule and hold conversations with partners and customers and not getting caught up in “being too busy” to gather valuable input;

  • Actively seeking out potential clients and asking about their pain points;

  • Seeking out mentors or joining a mastermind or peer-to-peer group as an excellent way to get a different perspective on problems and business direction;

  • Leveraging tools like the Net Promoter Score which is an index ranging from -100 to 100 that measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company's products or services to others. It can be very valuable in removing bias from input and acts as a proxy for gauging the customer's overall satisfaction with a company's product or service and the customer's loyalty to its brand.

The net of this discussion is that there is much perceived value in the independence that is gained by taking the risk to establish and foster your own business. There is also the risk, however, that the freedom of owning your own business will potentially lead to isolating you from interacting with, and getting feedback from, others as you are consumed with getting through your daily to-do list.

Pursuit of Creativity and Passion

This theme revolved around the concept of putting one’s skills to use, uncovering an exciting product idea, and building a product or solution.

The pursuit of creativity brings with it the challenge of staying focused so that you are balancing passion and profits. Here again, engaging with others and tapping into a network of resources were provided as suggestions for meeting the challenge. Additional ideas put forward included the following:

  • Evaluate the merits of a co-founder who can bring different strengths to the business and share the workload. If a co-founder is not the right route to take, then consider outsourcing parts of the business that do not fit well with your abilities;

  • Solid business planning and goal setting helps to ensure focus is directed where it is needed and to ensure that an eye is kept on profitability;

  • “Know Your Why”—be clear not just on what you are doing but your personal motivation for doing it.

Problem Solving and Addressing Opportunity

Highlights from this discussion focused on seizing an underserved market opportunity by giving people solutions, products, and services that make a positive impact. The challenges identified with this included finding ways to really get at the root problem to be solved.

This discussion surfaced an array of strategies to get at the heart of business issues as well as approaches for developing and accelerating opportunities:

  • Be thoughtful in dealing with clients and curate the journey for them. Make sure not to overwhelm potential clients because it is about their experience, not everything you know;

  • Confidence is key. Do what it takes to demonstrate it, even if it sometimes calls for you to do a little “fake it ‘til you make it”—you will undoubtedly be learning as you go at some point but trust in your ability to absorb what comes your way and incorporate that into your plans (see next point);

  • Adapt to changes and stay flexible. When solutions and offerings are innovative, the road ahead is not always clear, and detours may be required to get to the ultimate desired end state;

  • Take action and always follow up with prospects and clients. As simple as it sounds, it does not always happen and can represent a missed opportunity when not done;

  • Regardless of the situation, own it—recognition for a work well done is yours to enjoy, but the mistakes and things that do not go well along the way are also yours to internalize and address with corrective actions.

One of the best outcomes from this session was the networking that took place and the connections it created. Each of the women met at least one other person to follow up with to potentially further advance their business.

Entrepreneurial Identity Payoff

The motivations and approaches that women bring to entrepreneurism are different. Viewing the needs of female entrepreneurs through a distinct lens has the potential to encourage more women to create new startups and to accelerate the growth of those already underway. In return, the payoff promised is a stronger economy, more innovation, and shortening the road to gender parity.

Hamilton’s IF fully believes in the benefits to be had from committing to support more women entrepreneurs. The “Entrepreneurial Identity” event was a great first step towards action in this regard. To keep the momentum going, the IF has already lined-up its next event which will be about the differences that exist for women when it comes to projecting executive presence and confidence. More details available here.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

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