Five Reasons Why Entrepreneurial Programs Fail Women

~6 min read
Forum Panel Panel Members sitting on stools, posing and smiling

On April 26, I took part in a panel discussion entitled, “The importance of support structures and programs adapted to women entrepreneurship.” Organized by the Fédération des gens d’affaires francophones de l’Ontario, it was gratifying to see such a group have a conversation with women-focused groups about what needs to be done.

Between the three panelists – Fayza Abdallaoui of Next Level Inc., Raymonde Beugré of the Mouvement Ontarien des Femmes Immigrantes Francophones, and myself representing Business Sisters – we’ve helped hundreds of women start and grow their enterprises. We’ve witnessed plenty attempts by government-funded organizations to help women. My colleagues were diplomatic with their opening comments. Though I’m not sure that the organizer would say the same about me.

You see I’m tired of the premise that women lack what they need to become entrepreneurs, so we need to tweak programs to get them up to speed. That we are fearful of risk. That we need to dream bigger with our businesses so we can scale and make more profit. The language of entrepreneurship is also macho and out of date. It’s bad enough that many don’t identify with the term entrepreneur, even though they are successful business owners – “I’m not an entrepreneur," they say. "I’m a café owner,” etc.

As opposed to “adaptation,” how about we dismantle barriers in entrepreneurship? "Blow it all up and start from scratch," was the opening advice I offered, not at all in jest. I will not suggest that my colleagues or the audience did not agree with me. There were many nodding heads all around. In the end the panel was a wonderful opportunity to hear various points of view. So it made me want to clarify my position.

Here therefore are the ways I believe entrepreneurial training and support programs fail women, with some ideas how to remedy these failures:

1. They don’t account for family – Entrepreneurial training programs ignore the fact many women start their business to accommodate family circumstances. Whether they start a business as a side hustle during a maternity leave or choose self-employment for more flexibility (as I did), women often adapt their professional life around family. So why don’t business start-up programs include conversations around family and the support that is needed from one’s partner, relatives, and friends? Let’s talk about work-life balance and mental health in business programs! Incidentally, this would help all parents, not just moms.

2. Lightening up the load – As soon as we talk about family and caregiving, we need to address the unpaid labour women perform at home (where women do 50% more hours of domestic chores than their male counterparts). There’s also the mental load of caregiving; who keeps track of medical appointments, the grocery list, school activities, and social engagements? More women than men.

What does that have to do with entrepreneurial support, you ask? Plenty. As women, we take on too much, I believe. Beyond the subconscious beliefs we must keep the neatest house and cook every meal from scratch, when it comes to child and eldercare, society still fosters the view that it’s a woman’s job. If delegating is one of the keys to success in scaling a business, the first lesson for women just may be learning to delegate to family members (yes, partners and children themselves!). Or to paid professionals. Any which way, delegation is a must, but the challenge is not to feel guilty about it. It's a set of societal and personal barriers we need help to overcome.

3. Shifting business metrics – Many government programs measure success by the number of jobs a business creates. With current labour shortages, perhaps we should shift what we measure to improved productivity and financial stability. But more than that, we need to stop judging when an entrepreneur doesn’t want to hire. Rightly or wrongly, for many women, taking on employees becomes the equivalent of adopting more children. We feel responsible for their wellbeing and worry that if we need to make a business decision and lay off. Women have told me how they’ve been criticized for wanting “a lifestyle business” because they didn’t want to hire employees.  How about shifting to the contribution of the business to the community?

4. Debt-averse, not risk-averse – Economists keep warning that households have too high a debt level. Yet in business we encourage entrepreneurs to get loans. The real push for business plans is in fact to prepare entrepreneurs to get financing, whether it’s at a bank or through an organization like a CFDC. We could talk here about how the system is biased against women because we often have fewer assets to qualify for loans. But it’s not just that. Many women see debt as a threat to their household’s stability. But in entrepreneurship it doesn't mean they shy away from risk, a myth feminist entrepreneurship researchers have debunked. They simply prefer affordable risk – a more moderate level of growth perhaps, but not one that will threaten their family’s wellbeing if things go south. How about we look beyond traditional loans and banks, and encourage community business funding? Microfinancing at low or no-interest that rewards community economic development?

5. Focus on financial education – The last two points above point to the need for better financial education. Government programs and supports just don’t do enough to educate entrepreneurs about the impact of debt, financial resource management and cash flow planning. If we really want to do better in this area, we need to start in secondary schools, if not sooner. This is where social finance and innovation could come together for more impact. One innovative private program I’ve just learned about enrolls business owners in a financial education module before they are approved for a loan. If they choose to apply and are approved for a loan, the organization assigns them a mentor to support them through the life of the loan. Imagine your financial institution offering you support like that!

For the betterment of our society, entrepreneurial programs and supports must be reinvented to account for family roles, encouraging more equitable workloads, followed by a shift to measure personal wellbeing and promote financial stability. This reinvention is entirely possible when we refocus resources to begin with financial education, risk management and community-based economic development.

At Business Sisters, we are committed to advancing the above positions, hopefully creating more sustainable entrepreneurial development for women and men.

What are your thoughts, dear readers?

Doreen Ashton Wagner
Doreen Ashton Wagner
Founder | Fondatrice

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