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Despite overwhelming odds, Newmarket women overcome barriers to start businesses

Successful female entrepreneurs like Vicky McGrath and Stella Grinfeld are a rarity, with fewer than 16 per cent of business owners in Canada being women

Vicky McGrath says she is "still successfully managing" her own Newmarket-based business after enduring a pandemic and other overwhelming odds.

When McGrath's mother passed away in 2012 from Alzheimer's, her experience with the publicly funded system wasn't a good one — especially for her father. She knew there had to be a way to make the experience better for others and, in 2016, she started Here To Help, a private home care service.

As a successful female entrepreneur, McGrath is a rarity in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, in 2017 fewer than 16 per cent of business owners in the country are women.

Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement at the Canadian Women's Foundation, said that while many women have an entrepreneurial spirit, barriers are high for women who are trying to go into business for themselves.

Barriers can range from a lack of access to information and support and training, she said, to women simply not being able to secure a loan.

"The stakes are very high for women who are in business because they just don't have the support to succeed. Especially with small business and it very much has to do with gender barriers."

Women — especially racialized ones — are not able to secure bank loans as easily as men because they tend to have less experience.  

"If you don't have the experience you can't get the loan but you can't get the loan if you don't have experience," she said.

Women who are working "have responsibilities for their money beyond what they can control" and can't give up those financial responsibilities to start a business, said McGrath.

"Also, they just don't try because there's a fear of failure, among all people, and the outcome of that is greater than the determination to go forward."

Another major challenge for women entrepreneurs is that they are often forced to balance their career aspirations with unpaid care work, said Gunraj.   

Whether they are single mothers taking care of children, daughters taking care of parents or family members with disabilities, in the family dynamic women tend to take on the burden of unpaid care work, she said.

"Time is money and time is a factor women often don't have access to because they are, by and large, preoccupied with unpaid care work. There's expectations that are cultural and social that play into it and women may take it on because they feel the pressure to take it on," said Gunraj.

McGrath agrees that women tend to juggle many roles within the family along with trying to have a career.

"Women definitely feel responsibly as the primary caregivers whether that's the actual situation or not. I believe we have that innate sense of responsibility for the well-being of others," she said.

"If you're looking after your own parents — even if you're not a mother you're still a daughter — maybe your parents or other family members need your help, you would do that because you feel responsible to do that. I would say that's a big one."

According to a 2015 report by Statistics Canada in 2015, 2.6 per cent of women were absent from work for reasons that include personal or family responsibilities versus 1.9 per cent of their male counterparts.

Stella Grinfeld is the owner of Newmarket-based Stella Graphix, a graphic design firm, and mother of three children under the age of seven.

She said that juggling her responsibilities as a mother and business owner can be a challenge.

"Sometimes you say 'I just have to be with my kid' and you drop what you're doing and it becomes a little bit challenging to balance that and you also don't want to not be there for them."

Studies show that women-owned businesses — which tend to be service-oriented — are taking twice as long to recover from pandemic-related financial setbacks than those owned by men.

A study by the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce conducted in May 2020 found that 61 per cent of  women entrepreneurs reported a loss of contracts, clients and customers compared to 34 per cent of small businesses overall.

Grinfeld said that business slowed significantly at the start of the pandemic but with so many people motivated to change careers, create new start-ups or shift their existing business to adapt to digital technologies, her company has flourished.

The pandemic has been somewhat of a blessing, Grinfeld said, as it has allowed her to work from home — something she plans to continue post-pandemic — and spend more time with her kids.

Even without the constant travel to meet with clients, Grinfeld said that time management at home was a big challenge after having to take on the additional role of teacher to her young kids.

"I've been saying throughout the pandemic if there's one thing that's ever happened in history, it's that kids have been out of school for a year and a half. Essentially having to take the role on as teacher full time as well as a business owner — that's a lot," she said.

McGrath said that because so many people were home with their families, the need for home care services was lessened but the demand from nursing homes and hospitals increased.

"The fact that people were home and able to care for family is probably why our services for staffing were so in demand. We struggled with finding caregivers, the demand for caregivers far exceeds the ability to have them working, there's no question about it," she said.

The benefit of private home care versus working in long term care, she said, is that staff can choose when they want to work and can choose to work as much or as little as they want so employees were spared from the burnout faced by many other caregivers.

In 2018, the federal government allocated $30 million to the Women Entrepreneurship Fund to fund over 200 projects and, in 2021, Ontario announced it was appointing a task force on women and the economy to advise on how to break down barriers in a post-pandemic economy.

Like the Women Entrepreneurship Fund, there are many grants and government assistance programs available to women entrepreneurs that are not being utilized, said Grinfeld.  

"I think what's really lacking is communication to the public. Even on a town level, there's not enough communication. I think if more people knew about these things and how to do this and there's a bit more education — there's a lot of resources sitting there not being used."

But according to Gunraj, many women don't have access to the assistance or information. Women in rural and remote settings are less likely to have access to programs and may not have the ability to access announcements due to a tech-gap that is higher in remote areas.

"There are definitely programs that we never had even five years ago for women — that's a positive thing — but the evidence shows people don't know about programs necessarily," she said.

McGrath said the government tends to fund only capital infrastructure and not operating infrastructure, which is a challenge for businesses that are service oriented like hers and other women-owned businesses or those that don't need to set up a "bricks and mortar" location.

"Thankfully everyone has benefited from the financial supports put in place by the federal and provincial governments during COVID but certainly no one should rely on that funding as any long-term sustainable option," she said.

Federal or provincial spending would be best spent on women mentorship programs, McGrath said, where women can provide support and guidance and frameworks for other business owners. 

"It would be really beneficial for existing successful women business owners to mentor and support other women in business. That would be a real value for women to know there are other women out there that they can ask questions of and turn to," she said.

"That's another women challenge — we feel like we have to do everything ourselves and go it alone and that doesn't help us when we're in a position where we don't know what to do and we don't know where to turn and if you turn to men it's not the same as turning to another woman and getting a woman's perspective." 

According to Gunraj, the government programs and funding announcements are helpful and things are moving in the right direction, but it comes down to a social shift.

"We have to think of it as a systemic change that's bigger than just programs, bigger than just putting money into it; it's also a cultural change."

She said support for women has to start early on when girls are in school so they can "find their ambitions and get support for those ambitions" and continue on when they are seeking out loans and grants.  

"There are areas that need development in lot of different ways simultaneously over a long-term horizon — a five, 10, 15-year horizon and even beyond," she said.



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