Wisdom: A Conversation with Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100™ Award Winner and 2018 Wisdom™ Mentor, Sara L. Austin

In today’s work culture where there is constant evolution and innovation, it is important to connect powerful women together to advise, empower and motivate the next generation. Because of this important aspect of career growth, the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) created our Wisdom™ Mentorship Program, which pairs mentees with Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100™ Alumnae, like Sara L. Austin.

WXN: Reflecting on your incredible journey from participant in the WXN Protegee program in 2014 to being recognized as a Canada’s Most Powerful Woman: Top 100™ Award Winner and Hall of Famer, can you describe how your journey was positively influenced through your affiliation with WXN?

SARA: I have had the tremendous honour of benefitting from the WXN’s Wisdom™ Mentoring Program, and it’s remarkable to look back on the trajectory as a Protegee in 2014, to being inducted into the Top 100™ Hall of Fame in 2017. The opportunity to take part in the Wisdom™ Mentoring program allowed me to benefit from the professional development of the learning modules, whilst also being mentored by a Top 100™ winner who encouraged and supported me to take big risks that led to huge changes in my personal and professional life that have led me places I never could have anticipated.

WXN: Thinking back to notable mentors that you have had in your personal and professional arc, can you describe the value those relationships produced for you during challenging periods of doubt or frustration?

SARA: The biggest benefit I’ve gained from mentors has been their faith in me, and their ability to see things in myself I didn’t think I was capable of. They helped me have the courage to step far outside of my comfort zone, and stood by me when I took great leaps. Knowing that they had my back and would stand with me no matter what helped me to achieve things I wouldn’t have imagined were possible.

WXN: As a successful female professional who has achieved so much, what advice would you give to aspiring females who are looking to engage a mentor?

SARA: Look for mentorship opportunities in unlikely places – sometimes the best mentors you can find are outside of your workplace and your professional domain.

Listen to the feedback and advice of others with an open heart. It can be hard to be vulnerable enough to hear both the good and the constructive feedback, and to see yourself through someone else’s eyes.

We can be incredibly hard on ourselves and filled with doubts – in those moments, sometimes it helps to fuel yourself with the faith that others have in you.

About the Women’s Executive Network (WXN)

WXN delivers innovative networking, mentoring, professional and personal development to inform, inspire, connect and recognize our global community of more than 22,000 women, men and their organizations. WXN enables our partners and corporate members to become and to be recognized as employers of choice and leaders in the advancement of women.

Founded in 1997, WXN is Canada’s leading organization dedicated to the advancement and recognition of women in management, executive, professional and board roles. WXN is led by CEO Sherri Stevens, owner of the award-winning, multi-million-dollar Workforce Management Company Stevens Resource Group Inc., which she established in 1990.


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About Sara

Sara is the Founder & Lead Director, Children First Canada and Chief Executive Officer, Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre. A passionate champion for women and children and an established senior leader with 20 years of experience in the non-profit/charitable sector, Sara has led global advocacy campaigns and shaped major public policy efforts. Her advocacy on behalf of children resulted in the UN General Assembly adopting groundbreaking legislation. Through Children First, a national non-profit, Sara is on a mission to protect and empower Canada’s children. She was recently appointed CEO of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre and also serves on the Board of Dalhousie University’s Alumni Association.

Everywhere, Every Day Innovating. Women Entrepreneurs And Innovation

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Executive Summary

Women entrepreneurs are innovating everywhere, every day across Canada. Current policies and discourse that equate innovation solely with advances in technology exclude much of women entrepreneurs’ innovations. The result is a lack of recognition of the significant contribution that women entrepreneurs make to Canada’s innovation and a lack of access to funding to increase their innovation capacity and implementation. This needs to change as women-led businesses today represent 50% of all new businesses (BDC, 2017). Among all small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), 47% are entirely or partly owned by women (Statistics Canada, 2012). Businesses owned by women entrepreneurs make significant contributions to the Canadian economy. Although women-led businesses tend to be smaller than men-led businesses in general, they create more jobs (Statistics Canada, 2012) and have higher survival rates (Benavides-Espinosa and Mohedano-Suanes, 2012; Statistics Canada, 2012).

Contrary to the current discourse around science and technology and funding criteria, innovation is much broader, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and accepted by Canada 2020’s work as the “implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations” (2005, p.46). As a consequence, an innovation can represent many things in an organization. However, in Canada, innovation is often equated to goods, rather than services, and especially in science and technologies. Most of the businesses started by women entrepreneurs are concentrated in the service sector (90%, according to TD Economics, 2015) and women are underrepresented in the science and technology sector (Bahmani & al., 2012; Move the Dial, 2017). This explains partly why women entrepreneurs are seen as less innovative and benefit less from funding opportunities that are concentrated for innovation in high technology as reported by Canada 2020.

In our study, we set out to better understand how and where women entrepreneurs are innovating in Canada. We knew from our previous study, A Force to Reckon With: Women, Entrepreneurship and Risk, that women entrepreneurs are ambitious and want to grow their businesses. Yet there was little information with respect to women entrepreneurs’ innovation and what the factors are that impact their ability to be innovative. After an extensive literature review we realized the insights were limited and would benefit from qualitative interviews that seek to understand the lived reality of women entrepreneurs relating to innovation. Facing overwhelming interest, we interviewed 146 women entrepreneurs throughout Canada, in all sectors and all stages of business from startup to multimillion-dollar businesses, including Indigenous women entrepreneurs who have not received a lot of attention in the literature. Those interviews showed us that women entrepreneurs are innovating in all sectors and in every aspect of their business and are very aware of the constant need to innovate to stay competitive and grow.

From the interviews, we found that innovations of women entrepreneurs are often inhibited by lack of access to capital for startup and growth, ageism (as women tend to start a business in a later stage of their life and age out of funding programs) and sexism and harassment from investors and clients. Funding opportunities do not always match women entrepreneurs’ goals as they were not available in their sectors or would not take into account their desire to help their community by promoting local products, for instance. Collaboration and partnerships are also key elements for women entrepreneurs. Mainstream networks, incubators and accelerators are often not welcoming to women entrepreneurs, yet networks, mentoring and growth opportunities are considered to be important to entrepreneurial success.

As for Indigenous women entrepreneurs, the literature is not abundant. In the interviews, we found that Indigenous women entrepreneurs are also innovating in all aspects of their businesses. They view collaboration as essential and want to support their communities. Indigenous women entrepreneurs face the same challenges as all women entrepreneurs with the additional burdens of prejudice, possible lack of support from their family and community, lack of role models, often more child and family responsibilities, lack of business training and lack of access to high-speed internet on more isolated reserves.

Governments, cities and financial institutions have both the opportunity and responsibility to include and support women entrepreneurs by developing inclusive innovation policy and programs that enable all innovation, no matter what sector, to be supported and recognized. Women must be involved from design to implementation to ensure their perspectives and experiences shape the policy and programs to be inclusive to all. While there is a very important focus on encouraging women to enter the STEM fields and technology and supporting advances in technology and sciences, recognizing and valuing women’s innovation in all areas is equally vital. Canada needs an innovative society, which can be fostered through recognition and support of innovators in all sectors. A number of recommendations are offered to build a truly inclusive innovation strategy that embraces innovation in all sectors, not only those involving new technologies.

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Authored by:

Clare Beckton BA, LLB, MPA

Janice McDonald BA, MA, ICD.D, MFA

Maude Marquis-Bissonnette MPA, PhD candidate