Real Talk – Success Stories from Women Entrepreneurs Who Have Been There, Done That
For some, the desire to become an entrepreneur is an early driving force; for others, it’s the furthest thing from their minds until fate intervenes. All four women entrepreneurs participating in a special panel session of Innovation Factory’s Accelerator for Women in Entrepreneurship (AWE) took very different paths to running businesses; however, they also had key things in common: the desire to challenge themselves and to have an impact by solving real-world problems.
Here are their inspiring stories and words of advice, shared at the Success Stories event on May 15, moderated by Shann McGrail, Executive Director of Haltech Innovation Centre:
April Wright, vice-president and co-founder of Sniper Skin
April Wright went to Ryerson University for business and entrepreneurship, but it wasn't until after 20 years of corporate experience with Sears and Jockey Canada that she finally “got up the nerve” and took the plunge to run her own business. Today she is focused on introducing the world to Sniper Skin, a patented, Made-in-Canada premium sports grip her husband invented for hockey, lacrosse, baseball, golf and fishing.
Sniper Skin has been recognized with awards and funding, and is now partnering with local company Fox 40 to secure a retail presence in 240 countries around the world.
Wright’s advice? Ask for help to get you where you want to go and don’t let shyness stand in the way of your success – just get out there and do it.
Anita Grant, founder of Fleeky Inc.
Anita Grant founded Fleeky in 2017 with the goal of disrupting the beauty tech industry. The decision to leave a sales job to focus full time on her start-up came naturally: “I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Grant said. “There’s always been that drive in me.”
Today her company provides independent beauty professionals with an all-in-one solution to market their services, manage their business and be discovered by clients via location, price and reviews.
She believes that entrepreneurship is about believing in yourself and your passion, taking risks and being resilient.
“With entrepreneurship you never lose. Through every single step of it I’ve learned a new skill set. I feel strong and proud of what I’m doing.”
And she echoed Wright’s observation about asking for help: “Find people who are smarter than you … and play to their strengths. I don’t believe in micromanagement. I give them an opportunity to do what they do… it's a game, it’s a team. I’m only one person; I can’t do it all. I need them to be successful.”
Riya Karumanchi , founder and CEO of SmartCane
Riya Karumanchi founded SmartCane just before starting high school (she’s now in Grade 10). Her idea for the accessible technology company came after a chance encounter with a friend's visually impaired grandmother, who was relying on a white cane – a solution that hadn’t been updated in 100 years.
SmartCane is a reimagined assistive tech device with features such as GPS, object detection and narration, location sharing and an emergency button.
“I’m passionate about technology and focusing on areas in AI,” she said. “The big driver is I want to do something impactful. Entrepreneurship is a way to scale a solution you think will be impactful. It’s been an incredible journey.”
Next for SmartCane is more software development, building a prototype this summer, developing partnerships and getting to market as soon as possible.
Karumanchi also encouraged other women entrepreneurs to ask for help where they need it, prompting McGrail to point out that men are more comfortable doing so than women: “Men will ask way more often… and they’ll ask higher and for more.”
Dr. Asha Parekh, co-founder and CEO of Front Line Medical Technologies
“I did not ever think I was going to be an entrepreneur,” said Dr. Asha Parekh, a biomedical engineer. “It was not part of my expected journey, but it has been amazing.”
After completing her PhD in 2015, Parekh entered a post-doctoral program of Western University and The University of Minnesota focused on engineering new medical devices for unmet clinical needs. She then completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Clinical Neurological Sciences, again with a focus on medical devices. Along the way she met a surgeon with an early-stage medical device to stop bleeding in trauma situations and together they launched Front Line Medical Technologies.
While “it was not part of my original plan to be an entrepreneur …. I had to do it because I was so passionate about it. I was so motivated, I didn’t even think twice about it. It’s so important to love what you do and impact was a big driver for me as well.”
Her company is now focused on obtaining Health Canada approval for the device and entering the marketplace by early next year.
A final point: Embrace being different – it can help you stand out. And you never know who’s paying attention.
The panelists and some audience members also spoke about having confidence and overcoming biases – advising that being ‘different’ can be what helps you stand out.
As a woman of colour, Grant relayed an experience about feeling “invisible” at a pitch competition and overcoming those feelings by deciding “that’s not a reflection of me.
“When I speak they respect me and it’s really just separating the two, just realizing that people have different perspectives… You doubted me and now I’m going to show you.”
For Karumanchi, her young age can be a “big shock factor” for others, but persistence in pursuing meaningful conversations open doors, which has a ripple effect.
One audience member, Derescia Adams, recalled seeing Karumanchi at a pitch competition and being so inspired she stayed up that night until 3 a.m. working on her brand for a hotel project in the Bahamas.
“You have to keep doing what you do because you don’t know who’s watching,” she said to Karumanchi. “You have motivated me so highly.”
“When everyone is the same and you look different … use it to your advantage, don’t think of it as a negative thing,” said another women in the audience. “Being different is an advantage.”
The success stories capped a “terrific year of learning and networking together,” summed up Brigitte Huard, Innovation Factory program manager, at the event’s conclusion. AWE will live on as a peer-to-peer group in collaboration with Haltech – watch for new educational and networking opportunities to resume in the fall of 2019.