Mary Ng
Credit: Government of Canada

The federal government is investing $2 billion in its push to double the number of women business owners in Canada

Mary Ng’s marching orders from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau come with plenty of actual legwork. The federal minister of small business and export promotion has been criss-crossing the country to boost the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), a new $2-billion national program with an ambitious goal. On the eve of International Women’s Day, we caught up with Ng in Vancouver, where she attended our first annual B.C.’s Most Influential Women event to meet local business leaders.

What brings you to Vancouver?
We’re heading into International Women’s Day, so I am meeting with women entrepreneurs literally across the country and talking to them about the programs that we have in government to help support their growth.

I have a mandate from the prime minister to double the number of female entrepreneurs in this country by 2025. And the reason for doing that is while 99 percent of our businesses in Canada are SMEs, only 16 percent are women-owned and women-led. So there is work to be done, and we have put a significant investment to help reach the goal of doubling the number of female entrepreneurs by 2025.

Can you talk about the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy?
Studies like those prepared by the McKinsey Institute tell us that we can add up to $150 billion of incremental GDP to the Canadian economy by 2026 just by adding women’s economic participation in our national economy. So there’s a great business case for doing that.

We know that getting access to capital, for example, is a challenge for women. We know that women who are in technology need additional support. We know that women who want to pursue and grow their businesses, particularly into the global marketplace, and have to access things like supply chains and those businesses networks need the assistance.

So the $2-billion strategy includes giving women entrepreneurs access to capital through the Business Development Bank. There is a venture capital fund to help with women entrepreneurs; it’s actually one of the largest venture capital funds to help women in technology in particular. We are helping women in international trade so that they can get at this whole supply chain and become export-ready so that they can grow into those international markets.

We are also putting out a [WES] Ecosystem Fund so that there is greater ease of access to the range of support and investments that are out there for women. And then direct funding to women entrepreneurs who already have started and are growing their businesses. So they’re two years old, and the want to grow it—they’re looking for some additional capital. So we’re going to fund just a little over 200 businesses to help them with that growth.

How can female-led B.C. businesses take advantage of these opportunities?
I’m going to do a plug for one site. The idea here is to help entrepreneurs so that we can be responsive as a federal government and give them a range of services, because every business is different. Innovation.canada.ca is their one-window portal to just fly in.

It’ll ask you about a dozen questions—how big is your business? What are you looking for? Are you looking for talent, looking for capital? Are you looking to export? So it’ll guide through some very simple questions and then come back with resources that are available to you. Maybe you’re a research business looking to commercialize your idea. So you may access a different program depending on the type of business that you are.

Are there any programs specific to B.C.?
The programs are national in nature, so they will apply across the country. But absolutely, B.C. will be seeing ecosystem funding. B.C. will see direct funding for women entrepreneurs who are looking to grow. There are amazing women entrepreneurs here in the tech space, extraordinary women who are looking to grow through exporting.

In your experience, what do women bring to the business world that would give companies an advantage?
There’s data that already tells us that by having a company that has diversity and has women, there’s a direct correlation to productivity. But we know that women-led businesses contribute to the economy. I just talked about the business case—women’s economic empowerment will increase the number of jobs in Canada, and we are going to grow the Canadian GDP.

But I should draw your attention to the fact that it isn’t just financial investments that our government is making that is going to in itself alone help women entrepreneurs be successful. Social policies like affordable child care and putting 40,000 [spaces] out there. Making changes to parental leave so that a woman, when she starts her family or wants to grow her family, can make a choice with her partner to share the domestic responsibility. She can decide, I can just keep going and being the take-charge female leader that I am. And so I think parental leave is really going to make difference.

Bill C-25, which is going to require federally regulated companies to disclose the makeup of their board and their senior management. Representation matters, right?

So seeing women leaders and having a national housing strategy that considers women, having a national strategy that deals with domestic violence—all of these social policies that we have made very deliberately as a government. Including, by the way, the Canada Child Benefit that is helping families. I just saw the poverty numbers last week: 800,000 people have been lifted out of poverty. That’s three years ahead of schedule. Half of those are children. When you help families and children, you’re going to help women.

What else can we do as a society to ensure that female entrepreneurs have a level playing field?
I work with a lot of great male entrepreneurs as well, and I think that it’s going to take everyone. I think the access to networks and the mentorship and sponsors, for example—there is something a successful executive can do for a female entrepreneur or executive. Take her hand and walk her into that boardroom and help her be successful.

So there are things that everyone can be doing, and that’s essentially what this strategy is. It’s an entrepreneurship strategy that puts financial investment, but it’s complemented by social policies, but it’s also complemented by working with other business leaders so that we really are working in that kind of ecosystem approach. And frankly, there isn’t anyone that I’m meeting these days who is not enthusiastic about doing this, because they see the value to the Canadian economy. But the value to the Canadian economy simply means better communities, more livable communities and the quality of life that we Canadians want to see continue.