Last August, Queen’s University announced it would receive $3.2 million in funding from the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) Ecosystem Fund through FedDev Ontario to strengthen capacity within the entrepreneurship ecosystem and close gaps in service for women entrepreneurs.
With Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) leading the project, WE-CAN was launched in October 2020. The mission of WE-CAN (Women Entrepreneurs Can) is to inspire and empower existing and aspiring women-identifying entrepreneurs by providing them with the tools, resources and community-building opportunities required to expand existing businesses and to launch new ventures.
News about the WE-CAN Project spread quickly through the Kingston region and QPI soon had a Project Manager to lead the initiative. Kerry Ramsay joined the QPI team in January 2020 and brought public engagement and community-building expertise to the role.
“Championing women entrepreneurs is my passion,” says Kerry. “My background in communications, community engagement and women’s advocacy made this role a truly great fit for me.”
“The Project wouldn’t be possible or successful without the help of our regional partners,” adds Janice Mady, Director of QPI. Internally at Queen’s, the WE-CAN Project partners formally include the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre (DDQIC) and Queen’s Business Law Clinic (QBLC); Queen’s Human Rights and Equity Office is also engaged. Externally, WE-CAN partners and collaborators include the City of Kingston, the Kingston Economic Development Corporation, St. Lawrence College, KEYS Job Centre, L-SPARK and Okwaho Equal Source which leads design and delivery of Indigenous programming.
During its first year, the WE-CAN Project has developed and delivered nearly 20 programs and services for women entrepreneurs in three distinct sectors: women entrepreneurs in technology sectors, women entrepreneurs who identify as Indigenous, and women entrepreneurs from diverse and underrepresented groups.
With the onset of the pandemic in March, WE-CAN partners had to quickly pivot their programs.
“Despite the challenges the pandemic initially presented for networking and program delivery, we have been able to create new opportunities through shared virtual spaces and have broadened our reach to and engagement with women entrepreneurs,” observes Kerry. “Our presenters, partners and clients have embraced the transition, and we are now more connected than ever!”
Over the past 12 months, WE-CAN has seen impressive results from programs such as the Compass North accelerator for women in tech, the Kwe-Biz program for women entrepreneurs who identify as Indigenous, the Rural Mentorship program, LEAD program, Your Way program and many others.
“Since becoming a part of the WE-CAN community of women entrepreneurs, my business has doubled its sales,” says Lisa Henderson, owner of House of Three and a participant in WE-CAN’s Rural Mentorship and LEAD programs. “My business has increased its efficiencies and I was recently able to hire a part-time employee due to the additional influx of client work. Many of the pivots I’ve made have helped me not only reduce timeframes on set tasks, but also create a more stable business.”
The WE-CAN Project continues to build momentum and attract clients and resources, which has enabled an expansion of programs. Demand for the Project’s unique women-centric programs and services grows each week. In just 12 months, the Project has supported hundreds of women in Kingston and surrounding areas. Active social media channels and more than 30 online workshops have led to maximum capacity for nearly every program the Project has offered to date.
“This is a pioneering program and leading resource for peer-to-peer learning, networking, knowledge sharing, coaching and mentoring for female entrepreneurs in the Kingston Region,” says client Elizabeth Hesp, owner of Elizabeth Hesp Coaching & Consulting in Kingston. “I am glad to be a part of the WE-CAN Project community where diverse women-owned businesses are celebrated and supported with relevant programming.”