Female B.C. CEO helps lead a global push to advance women in business

Quick, name a few male CEOs who founded the company they lead. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Tobi Lütke—there's no shortage of dudes. OK, now name some female founding CEOs. Not so easy, hey? Shahrzad Rafati is the right person to help change that...

Credit: Courtesy of BroadbandTV Corp.

BBTV founder and CEO Shahrzad Rafati with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

BBTV founder Shahrzad Rafati co-chairs G20 EMPOWER, which just released a playbook for companies aiming to develop more female leaders

Quick, name a few male CEOs who founded the company they head. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Tobi Lütke—there’s no shortage of dudes.

OK, now name some female founding CEOs. Not so easy, hey?

Shahrzad Rafati is the right person to help change that.

When her BroadbandTV Corp. went public last October, Rafati led the biggest-ever Toronto Stock Exchange IPO by a tech company with a sole female founder and chief executive. She also serves as co-chair of the G20 EMPOWER Alliance.

The group, whose full name is the Private Sector Alliance for the Empowerment and Progression of Women’s Economic Representation, recently shared a report that outlines best practices for businesses seeking to advance women to leadership roles.

Created with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the document is a playbook for companies that want to make an impact, says Rafati, who announced its release to Canadians with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “This is really important, because there are a lot of business leaders out there—female, and our male allies—that want to make a difference, but they don’t have the playbook.”

The situation is urgent. Over the past decade, the number of women in managerial roles in G20 nations grew a paltry 3.2 percent. When it comes to board seats, the share occupied by women has risen at a glacial pace, from 15 percent in 2016 to just 18 percent in 2019.

“There are obviously lots of great discussions around female economic empowerment,” Rafati says. “But the reality is that G20 Empower is needed because if you look at the last 10 years, almost no progress has been made in advancing women in leadership in Canada and across the G20 countries.”

The employment picture looks dire, too, especially in the wake of the pandemic. Among the G20 in 2019, the average gender employment gap for females aged 15 and older was a shocking 26 percent. And since last February, more than 80,000 Canadian women have left the labour force, versus about 25,000 men. Women also account for the majority of workers in sectors most affected by COVID, such as hospitality and tourism.

Action, activation and progression

To help advance women, G20 EMPOWER has also been working with the Geneva-based International Labour Office to gather data on where businesses currently stand when it comes to giving them leadership and managerial roles.

“G20 EMPOWER, the core of it is all about action, activation and progression,” Rafati says. “If you don’t measure it, if you don’t track it, if you don’t report on it, you’re not going to make progress.” For 2021, the group is also focused on building the female talent pipeline and improving training and development, she notes.

The economic argument for making real progress is compelling. Advancing women’s equality could add between US$12 trillion and US$28 trillion to global gross domestic product by 2025, a 2015 McKinsey & Co. report projects.

For business leaders, ensuring equal opportunities for women comes down to setting goals and being willing to spend money, Rafati maintains. “The same attention to detail that we apply to our budgets to achieve our financial goals, you need to apply that same attention to detail when it comes to your people KPIs.”

BBTV is setting a good example. For the past five years, the media tech company’s gender pay gap has been zero, Rafati says. BBTV also has 40-percent female representation across the whole business, from its staff to its management and board. 

Rafati encourages other companies to do what they can: “Even if you’re making small progress in your organization, it still adds up.”

Asked what BBTV’s $172-million IPO felt like for her, Rafati replies that it was a proud moment because the company broke new ground—and hopefully paved the way for others.

“My experience is unique, but we need more female role models,” she says. “We want to make sure that we set an example for other women and girls, and also for entrepreneurs, that no matter your gender, no matter what part of the world you’re from, as long as you’re following your passion and you’re putting in the hard work and you have perseverance and you assemble an amazing team and stick to your vision, you can actually be successful.”