Western Economic Diversification Canada
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Continued Need for Programming

Females represent an important yet still under-represented segment of entrepreneurs. Of all small and medium-sized enterprises in Canada in 2007, approximately 16 percent were majority female owned and almost half had one or more female owners.8 These proportions were largely unchanged from 2001. Economically,“majority women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises represented over $117 billion per annum of economic activity in Canada.9 In this context, programming that accommodates the needs and motives of women entrepreneurs supports economic development.

Western Canadians value and respect entrepreneurship and small business:10 1) over 70 percent believe the economy is powered by entrepreneurs; 2) over 76 percent believe governments undervalue the contribution of entrepreneurs and small business in Canada; 3) over 97 percent believe small business is somewhat/very important to Canada’s future; and 4) over 93 percent believe small business is vital to their community. When given a list of institutions, western Canadians indicated the highest respect for farmers and small business.11

Most research confirms that targeted programming effectively serves the needs of women entrepreneurs. Supporters of targeted programming highlight differences in needs of male and female entrepreneurs. A Canadian study involving the Woman’s Enterprise Initiative (WEI) concluded that further research into targeted programming is needed but “until then, gender-specific programs appear to mediate potential gender bias in SME training and policy interventions.12 More recently, another Canadian study13 of 212 clients of the Centre of Women in Business in Nova Scotia found that clients prefer women-focused small business training centres to other business advisory agencies because the targeted services meet their unique needs and motives. The 212 participants in the study were well educated, growth and export oriented, and from a wide range of industries, contradicting assumptions that women-focused small business programming attracts low yield businesses and marginalized clients. Furthermore, a recent evaluation that included Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency’s Women in Business Initiative reported substantial evidence in support of the targetted programming approach.14 Most key informants perceive a strong need for programming that specifically targets women entrepreneurs. They argue that women continue to face challenges in accessing capital and growing their business, technical knowledge and skills, or confidence to expand their business. The WEI supports well established, trusted and credible organizations that are well-positioned to support women entrepreneurs and promote women in business. Most clients confirm the strong, continued need for targeted programming. Although critics claim targeted programming attracts low yield businesses and marginalized clients, WEI clients tend to have some post-secondary education and at least five years of experience in business management.

Evidence opposing targeted programming. There is little published research on the effectiveness of non-targetted programming in meeting the needs of female entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the little research that does exist may be biased in terms of, for example, sample selection.15 Some respondents were of the opinion that the need for targeted services has diminished because all entrepreneurs have the same needs, and new entrepreneurs face similar challenges regardless of their gender (e.g., lack of capital, difficulties accessing capital, lack of formal education and business knowledge, confidence to grow their business and economy). Furthermore, gender is unlikely to be a factor in the decision-making process for traditional lenders. Key informants who were strongly opposed to targeted programming claimed that treating women differently is unnecessary, and to some extent offensive, and may disadvantage them in a business world that is comprised of both men and women that can be intimidating regardless of gender. Furthermore, targeted programming makes partnership and collaboration with other organizations difficult.

Women’s Enterprise Initiative fills an important programming gap in western Canada. Seventy percent of key informants, including representatives of other sources of funding, recognize the uniqueness of the WEI in increasing the profile of women entrepreneurs, influencing public perception, and encouraging other women to start or grow their businesses. Although there are a number of organizations in Western Canada that offer programs with similar objectives to the WEI and many that provide similar services (e.g., loans, business consultations and information), they are often tailored to a distinct target group (e.g., youth, Aboriginal and French speaking entrepreneurs). Over half of all key informants noted that, in the absence of the WEI, there would be a significant lack of targeted programming for women including training, seminars, advisory services and financial assistance.

Clients stated that the program offers much needed counselling, mentoring and training services to women in a comfortable and supportive environment, as well as vital financial assistance. Many clients noted that it was financial, emotional and motivational support that they needed the most when starting and growing their businesses. In the absence of the WEI, clients perceived major program gaps in business support services, female-focused training programs and services and financial assistance for women entrepreneurs. Apart from financing, WEI services were the only business services received by 74 percent of clients. More than half (53 percent) of clients who received loans considered the prospects of obtaining financing elsewhere very unlikely.

About two-thirds of businesses that were not approved for a loan under the WEI reported obtaining financing from other sources; half obtained loans through commercial lenders or federal agencies. However, the majority of the respondents indicated that they reduced the scope of their business operation or delayed the establishment or development of their business because they did not receive WEI funding.

The focus of lending and services differs across regions and groups. The focus groups highlighted some regional differences in lending and services. In British Columbia, the Women’s Enterprise Centre has adopted a more traditional role in its lending activities, as it uses the same criteria as other funders such as banks. Becoming more risk averse, the WEI organization in British Columbia does not accept loan applications for riskier business ventures. Furthermore, women request more training opportunities to help them run and grow their businesses. Conversely, in Alberta, the organization has tried to reduce its lending activities and focus more on networking and promoting business and contract connections in an effort to encourage growth. The WEI organization in Saskatchewan has reported increased demands for services and loans for a variety of reasons. Saskatchewan takes advantage of partnerships with other organizations, participating in joint loans and extending loan referrals. However, Saskatchewan reports less participants in WEConnect16 compared to other regions. This lower WEConnect participation rate is also evident for the WEI organization in Manitoba. Despite this, Manitoba supports more start-up businesses and promotes business growth with the ‘My Gold Mine’ program for financial acumen training.

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Alignment with Departmental and Federal Government Priorities

The WEI supports the department’s strategic outcome of developing and diversifying the western Canadian economy by creating a competitive, diversified business sector in western Canada. The program’s Performance Measurement Strategy states that the program aligns with the federal priorities as outlined in the Government of Canada’s Advantage Canada: Building a Strong Economy for Canadians document.17

Consistency with Federal Roles and Responsibilities

Government plays a key role in optimizing conditions for Canadian businesses and organizations to develop and grow. Growth-oriented start-up businesses create jobs and new industries, thereby increasing the prosperity and living standards of Canadians.

Over 90 percent of key informants indicated that the WEI is consistent with federal government roles and responsibilities. The Department’s mandate for economic diversification in Western Canada promotes equal economic opportunities for men and women and support for entrepreneurs. The objectives and activities of the WEI are perceived as consistent with the federal government’s agenda in Western Canada, although a few department representatives were unsure if the WEI remains a departmental priority. A few key informants indicated that the WEI is not consistent with federal roles and responsibilities because there is no clear need for such programming. They noted that the role of government is to foster diversification and not to support one group or special interest groups.


[8] Industry Canada. "Small Business Financing Profiles". October, 2010.

[9] The Canadian Taskforce for Women's Business Growth. "Action Strategies to Support Women's Enterprise Development".

[10] Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co. and Intel of Canada, Ltd. "Perspectives on small business in Canada". This publication summarized results of two public opinion polls conducted in April and May of 2011: 1) online survey of 2028 Canadian adults; 2) online survey of 1160 Canadians who are business owners or senior employees in small businesses.

[11] Respondents were given the following list of institutions and asked: "how much respect do you have for each of the following in Canada". Institutions included: banks, education system, farmers, government, healthcare system, labour unions, large companies, legal system, small business. Institutions were rated on a 10-point scale (0 being lowest and 10 being highest).

[12] Orser B., Riding AL. "Gender-based Small Business Programming: The Case of the Women's Enterprise Initiative". Journal of Small Business and Enterpreneurship 19, 2 (2006): 143-166.

[13] Orson B., Elliott C., Finlay-Thompson S. "Women-focused small business programming: Client motives and perspectives". (2012). International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship, 4(3). In print.

[14] Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. 2010. "Evaluation of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency's Entrepreneurship and Business Skills Development Program Sub-activity". This evaluation included several initiatives that support business skills development including the Women in Business Initiative.

[15] Orson B., Elliott C., Finlay-Thompson S. "Women-focused small business programming: Client motives and perspectives". (2012). International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship, 4(3). In print.

[16] WEConnect was part of the Access to Supply Chains Program delivered by the WEI organizations and funded by the department. The Access to Supply Chains Program was a certification and global supply chain access program. providing women entrepreneurs with in-depth business development services targeted towards accessing global supply chains, diversity certification and access to a database of companies looking to employ diverse suppliers.

[17] Advantage Canada is an economic plan published by the federal government. Accessed at: http://www.fin.gc.ca/ec2006/pdf/plane.pdf