Building community resilience through women-owned and women-led enterprises

Throughout the month of March 2021 CEDEC highlighted women in business, politics, and community leadership positions as part of our Leveraging the Power of Women to Rebuild Canada’s Economy series in honour of International Women’s Day (March 8, 2021). For our first guest, we were delighted to chat with Barbara J. Orser, M.B.A., Ph.D., Full Professor, Deloitte Professor at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa.

Q. How will women-owned and women-led enterprises offer a distinctive competitive advantage to Canada’s economy during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic recovery phase?

Last week, the co-owners of Capital City Luggage & Repairs in Ottawa announced that, after 35 years, they are liquidating inventory, closing their doors and handing the business over to a daughter who will focus on online sales. The announcement captures some of the challenges facing small businesses during the pandemic and opportunities in the post-pandemic recovery.

Many have read similar news stories about the devastating impacts of the pandemic on small businesses, particularly consumer-facing services, such as retail and travel. Capital City Luggage and Repairs appears to tick both boxes. Many are also aware or perhaps living with the toll of managing a business while struggling to juggle family responsibilities associated with virus-containment measures.

Given that women are more likely to operate in sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, it is not surprising that Statistics Canada has reported that, compared to all small and medium-sized enterprises, women business owners are more likely to have pivoted products or services, closed temporarily or cancelled contracts as means to adapt. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women are over-represented in digital main street programs. The transition of Capital City Luggage & Repairs to online sales mirrors the efforts of many women who are reskilling to enhance productivity and expand their customer bases.

This is good news for Canada’s economy as women entrepreneurs bring experience-based innovations to the market and help secure local supplies. A growing network of women-led social enterprises is creating jobs, often by employing women, while addressing community needs. For example, a 2020 Women Entrepreneurs Knowledge Hub report noted that majority women-owned social enterprises are nearly 10 times more likely to be a not-for-profit or charity organization than a social for-profit venture.

Q. How will women-owned and women-led enterprises offer a distinctive competitive advantage to Canada’s economy during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic recovery phase?

McKinsey Global Institute (2020) estimates that a gender-regressive scenario in which no action is taken to counter effects of the pandemic will dilute $1 trillion in global GDP. In contrast, taking action to advance gender equality will contribute $13 trillion to the global GDP in 2030.  Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that the first scenario may be playing out in Canada.

This week [March 2021], RBC reported that almost half a million Canadian women who lost their jobs during the pandemic had not returned to work as of January 2021. More than 200,000 have slipped into the ranks of the long-term unemployed, reflecting a threefold increase over last year. These are early warning signals of the fallout of women not being engaged in the recovery.

Q. With an eye to the future and maintaining Canada’s competitive edge on the world stage, how can society better support women in business/women leader?

The CEDEC community is well positioned to support women in business as emergency-relief measures abate. This includes through regional business support organizations and local training programs. As the RBC report points out, the pandemic has demonstrated the value of digital competencies across all sectors.

Studies conducted by the Telfer School of Management has found that, prior to the pandemic and compared to men, women are less likely to adopt technology in business operations and access community-based training. Responding to the needs of women entrepreneurs is now a litmus test of the ability of business support organizations to respond effectively to post-pandemic recovery. This includes offering skills training to all types of businesses, including co-operatives, not-for-profit and social enterprises. Priority should also be given to those sectors in which women-owned businesses predominate. Program performance measures must extend beyond traditional economic outcomes to including social outcomes and the engagement of women entrepreneurs.

Businesses and consumers can also play a role by purchasing from women-owned and women-led enterprises. WBE Canada, a Canadian non-profit that works with corporations and governments to include women-owned enterprises in supply chains, has made this role easier. In March 2021, WBE Canada launched “Canadian Women Brand” – a logo that identifies whether a product or service is made (or offered) by a Canadian women-owned business.

Such measures will help to ensure that we all play a role in, and benefit from, maintaining Canada’s competitive edge by supporting women entrepreneurs.

About Barbara Orser​

Professor Barbara Orser is a Full Professor and the Deloitte Professor in the Management of Growth Enterprises at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa.  For related Telfer studies, visit Women Entrepreneurs Research Exchange