Laurel Douglas

Laurel Douglas, head of the Women’s Enterprise Centre, has matched thousands of B.C. entrepreneurs with female mentors

Laurel Douglas knows how crucial it is for women entrepreneurs to have female role models. “Women start businesses for slightly different reasons than men do,” says the CEO of the Kelowna-based Women’s Enterprise Centre. Although money is important, independence and flexibility rank equal or higher, Douglas explains. “So that’s often how they structure their business.”

With that in mind, the WEC runs a program that matches individual clients with more-experienced female business owners. The provincial non-profit service provider agency, which was founded in 1995 and also has offices in Vancouver and Victoria, delivers business advisory services, loans and skills training. Douglas describes it as a cross between a commercial lender, a post-secondary training institution and a management consulting firm. Besides one-on-one mentoring, the WEC offers a peer mentoring program on financial literacy with the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia.

Douglas came to the agency with finance and other skills honed in the corporate world. Before moving to B.C. in the mid-1990s, the Ontario native, who is from a family of entrepreneurs, earned an MBA at European B-school INSEAD. She spent almost a decade working in Frankfurt, London and Paris for telecoms such as France’s Alcatel NV, where she was head of strategic planning. On her return to Canada, Douglas went into economic development. Among other posts, she led the tech startup accelerator now known as Accelerate Okanagan.

“I had a real soft spot for helping women in business because I worked in male-dominated environments almost all my career,” Douglas says. “I wanted to not only help in the economic development sense but also help women do better in their careers.”

Douglas took the helm of the WEC in 2004; since then its mentorship efforts have served almost 2,500 women. In the one-on-one program, which launched in 2007, about 1,000 mentees have worked with some 200 volunteer mentors who came to the centre with at least five years’ experience in business for themselves. The WEC has also provided more than $33 million in direct and leveraged financing to female-owned companies, Douglas says, generating roughly $1 billion in economic activity throughout B.C. and helping create and maintain nearly 1,600 jobs.

Outside her WEC role, Douglas is a mentor herself. Just ask Tammy Moore, CEO of the ALS Society of Canada. A former chair of the WEC board, Moore met Douglas more than 20 years ago while running her own business in Kelowna. “She has continued, throughout the rest of my career, to find opportunities and [be] somebody I could go to,” says Moore, who began mentoring a WEC client last fall. “Our relationship has been a wonderfully organic mentoring relationship that’s grown over time.”

For business owners, the big challenge is the isolation of being the boss, Douglas notes. “Having a mentor who has experienced that and come out the other end is very useful,” she says. “One of the things it helps do is increase confidence, because you can see that somebody else has been there and done that and you’re not alone.”