In August 2019, Queen’s University’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) received $3.2 million from the federal government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) Ecosystem Fund, administered by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, to support women entrepreneurs in starting and/or growing their businesses. Two months later, QPI launched the Women Entrepreneurs Can or WE-CAN project.
The WE-CAN project is an initiative designed to equip, engage, and empower women-identifying entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses in the greater Kingston region. All WE-CAN programs and services prioritize underrepresented groups, namely women in technology, Indigenous women, newcomer women, visible minority/racialized women, women with a disability, rural women, women from the LGBTQ+ community, and women under 40 years of age.
Tailored programs and services
In the past 18 months, WE-CAN has worked closely with its community partners – Kingston Economic Development Corporation, L-SPARK, KEYS Job Centre, St. Lawrence College, Okwaho Equal Source, and the City of Kingston – to deliver a wide range of programs and services to more than 800 clients. In addition, the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre (DDQIC) and the Queen’s Business Law Clinic have provided support and services as two key internal partners.
Together, QPI and its partner organizations offer a wide range of programs and services which meet the needs of its core service groups. Key programs include the Compass North Accelerator for women in technology, the Kwe-Biz Program for Indigenous women entrepreneurs, the Hire Yourself Program for newcomers to Canada, the YourWay Program for local newcomers, visible minority/racialized women, and women with a disability, the Rural Mentorship Program for rural women, the LEAD Program for women in C-suite positions, the Fast Track Exporting Program for women entrepreneurs, and The Hive and Konnect programs for women under 40.
The WE-CAN Project also hosts regular online workshops and virtual cafes on topics ranging from marketing and finance to creating businesses that are more inclusive, accessible, and diverse.
“From my very first connection with WE-CAN, I felt supported and an immediate sense that I had met specialists who understand the unique challenges of women of colour in doing business and could help me expand and grow my work,” says WE-CAN client V. Ophelia Rigault, a Kingston grief counsellor and speaker. “I am so excited to be on this journey.”
Building a resilient community
For 2020/2021, the WE-CAN Project received a further $250,000 in funding to run an additional suite of programs and services to further meet the needs of women entrepreneurs from the BIPOC community and women with a disability. The funding also made possible a series of specialized sales coaching programs for women with existing businesses negatively affected by COVID-19.
As a part of the WE-CAN Project, women entrepreneurs across the greater Kingston region have reported feeling less isolated and more in tune with the local business ecosystem. Besides receiving weekly e-bulletins updating them on relevant news, information, and funding opportunities, WE-CAN clients are also able to access a private Facebook group where they can share resources and provide peer support.
“WE-CAN has given me the opportunity to network even when we can't meet like-minded businesswomen in person,” shares Denise Oomen, owner of Creekfalls Creative in South Frontenac. “The networking and educational opportunities they offer are extremely important to my mental health and my business growth.”
Finding success in the midst of a global pandemic seems unlikely; yet for hundreds of women entrepreneurs in the Kingston region, growth has come as a result of making new connections, uncovering new business methodologies, and mindset practices.
All this comes at a time when women entrepreneurs in Canada are experiencing greater financial losses than their male counterparts due to lockdown closures, according to the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH). The WEKH also reports that women are less likely to seek and receive financing than men and firms owned by men are more likely to acquire venture capital or angel funding and other forms of leverage, such as trade credit or capital leasing, than their female-identifying counterparts.
By responding in real-time to the needs of women entrepreneurs across the region, WE-CAN has been able to provide timely resources, supports and programming to help businesses address and overcome the challenges of the day.
“With the right tools, mindset and support network, any business can flourish,” says Kerry Ramsay, WE-CAN Project Manager. “Our WE-CAN programs and services are infused with the diverse voices of the women who live and work right here in our community. They are our workshop leaders, coaches, cheerleaders and sounding boards. Supporting and learning from these resilient and hard-working women has been a life-changing experience for us all.”