In 1994, when the federal government recognized that women were at a disadvantage when it came to starting and expanding businesses, it opened the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba. The WECM was the first provincial program in Western Canada aiming to help women pursue their business dreams, and was part of a federal program from Western Economic Diversification Canada.
WECM’s CEO Sandra Altner has been with the organization for eight years, and notes the difference in what is available to women in comparison to their male counterparts.
“Women in business do not have the same resources as men, in terms of access to capital, as well as recognition and credibility within the business community. Women also did not have access to the same level of business school and education opportunities.”
The WECM works to close that gap by providing three basic services:
1. Advisory services provided by their team of business advisors, working in house to guide potential and current business owners in the decision making process, guiding them over any hurdle they might encounter. Legal, financial, personnel advice are just some of the services that the advisors provide.
2. Training seminars and workshops to help women to increase their management capacity, to develop high end business plans and feasibility studies and how to run their businesses based on the teachings of subject matter experts.
3. Loans up to $150,000, allowing women to gain the capital required to build or improve their businesses.
“We help close to 250 businesses per year, close to 1500 appointments, 2500 information services provided,” says Sandra. “We’ve provided 20 million dollars in loans since ’94 with a very low write-off rate. 75% of our loan clients are still around after five years. For every dollar invested into Women’s Enterprise Initiatives across the west, it generates 20 dollars back in economic impact, and 30 leveraged dollars.”
Some people come to the Women’s Enterprise Centre with only an idea. Others come looking for an idea, while others come with businesses that have been established for ten years or more.
“More women are starting businesses now than men. But they’re not starting at the same level of capitalization,” said Sandra. “They are not able to access the growth capital to the same extent. Women are just not there yet in terms of having the credibility with investment organizations, or having the confidence to approach venture capital and investment organizations for their initiatives.”
Sandra was once an entrepreneur herself, and notes how much things have change since she first ran her own business.
“I think back and I just wish I had had these opportunities and these resources when I was business,” said Sandra. “There was nothing to support entrepreneurs in general, much less entrepreneurial women. Now when you look around, you see the recognition of the importance of entrepreneurship to global economic growth is so much further along than it was. In those days, the idea of being in business was seen to be somewhat shady. Now it’s seen as the impetus for growth.”
A Landscape of Change
With different provincial centres running in different ways, they are often on divergent paths but with a common goal, Sandra says everybody benefits.
“With the regional programs evolving in slightly different manners which allow each other to learn from each other’s experiences and grow from each other’s discoveries.”
WECM has been involved with encouraging women at Red River College and the University of Manitoba to get into business and entrepreneurship, with scholarships at both institutions.
Sandra sees the business world changing to become more accommodating of women as business leaders, and hopes for a day in the near future where institutes like WECM no longer need to provide the services that they do.
“I hope that in the next five to ten years we see a level playing field, where organizations like ours don’t need to be around anymore because it’s not even a question have the same opportunities to start and grow their business, access capital and gain credibility within the larger business community. We’ve seen a major change in the time we’ve been around, and expect that it’s going to be exponential in the next few years. It’s already starting to happen.”
“The world has progressed in a very healthy way, and I think it’s only going to get better from here. When women take their proper place as generators of wealth and developers of assets, the world will be a much better place.”