Research from Ryerson’s Diversity Institute finds male-focused and misleading definitions of entrepreneurship a barrier to women

Toronto, ON, November 23, 2020: As Global Entrepreneurship Week and Women’s Entrepreneurship Day conclude, the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) is releasing a new report Women Entrepreneurs Beyond the Stereotypes and awareness campaign to celebrate women entrepreneur success stories and crush male-dominated stereotypes of entrepreneurship.  Over the last few months, WEKH has built a database of more than 700 award-winning and successful diverse Canadian women entrepreneurs from across sectors which will grow and be shared with Canadians in the coming months. Called See It Be It, the awareness campaign and database will profile successful women entrepreneurs with a goal of challenging stereotypes.   

“We know that most people associate “entrepreneur” with people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg,” said Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute and Academic Director of the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub. “The stereotype is strongly associated with men and with technology. We also know that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

The report provides an update on the research and an analysis of how the deeply rooted stereotypes of entrepreneurship create barriers to entry, acceptance and growth of women entrepreneurs. It has been estimated that closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship alone could add up to $81 billion to Canada’s GDP.

“Much has been written about the barriers women face in getting the support they need to establish and grow their ventures whether in technology, services, the arts or social entrepreneurship, says Cukier. “Structural issues, systemic discrimination, unconscious bias and stereotypes of entrepreneurs underpin many of the barriers.  Stereotypes also shape the way programs are designed, who they serve and how financing and investment decisions are made.  Even more importantly, the strong association between entrepreneurship and men in tech shapes the aspirations of young women, most of whom do not see themselves as entrepreneurs even if what they dream of doing is actually entrepreneurial.

When people think of entrepreneurship, many think of a technology company led by a Caucasian man. Tech start-ups may play a prominent role in the entrepreneurship ecosystem, but there are other entrepreneurs – especially women – working in every sector and community across the country.  Simply put, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Women Entrepreneurs Beyond the Stereotypes shares dominant notions of entrepreneurs and systemic bias are among the most significant and challenging barriers women entrepreneurs face. Previous research has shown that when “entrepreneur” is associated with majority ownership of an SME, only 16% in Canada are women (114,000) but when self-employed Canadians are considered the proportion increases to 38 per cent and to more than 1 million. Research also shows women are less likely to be in technology and are more likely to be in services, but most programs  and services are designed around the needs of tech entrepreneurs. 

Many of the Canadian women entrepreneurs who are approaching billionaire status are not what we commonly associate with entrepreneur. For example, Celine Dion has an entertainment empire and for decades has engaged in entrepreneurial endeavors from restaurants and clubs to fragrances and a talent management company, Feelings Inc, with an estimated value of $800 m and her perfume sales exceeded $850 million.

There are successful Canadian women entrepreneurs in all sectors from food and construction, to transportation and media and technology. Mandy Rennehan’s construction empire, Freshco Inc. has an estimated value of $650 million and scientist Susan Niczowski, co-founder with her mother, Summer Fresh which sells salads, spreads and appetizers has sales over $100 million a year. Other women such as BBTV Holdings and Broadband TV founder and CEO, Shahzrad Rafiti are competing with global tech giants like Google and Tessa Fraser, founder and CEO of Iskew Airline has shattered the glass ceiling in aviation.  Building her brewery and distillery business into a massive success is Manjit Minhas who is also reinvesting in other women as the youngest Dragon of investors on the ‘entrepreneur maker’ show Dragon’s Den. And, many women entrepreneurs put their energy into tackling ‘the world’s to do list,’ like tech investor turned social entrepreneur, Zita Cobb, founder of the Shorefast Foundation who single-handedly with support from the community transformed her birthplace, Fogo Island, into a luxury tourist destination and is also helping to revitalize Newfoundland and Labrador.

Cukier adds, “the perception of “what entrepreneurship is or isn’t” has led not only to a skewed view – it has created barriers for the entrepreneurs who do not fit the stereotype.  Seeing successful women entrepreneurs across industries, represented in media, politics and academia and business is what shapes and reflects culture, attitudes and values. This, in turn, influences behaviour.”

With so many Canadian women entrepreneur success stories available to choose from, it is hard to choose who to feature in the See It Be It campaign. By International Women’s Day in March 2021, the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub will showcase 1000 women entrepreneurs so that when Canadians are asked to identify successful entrepreneurs, instead of picturing white men from Silicon Valley, they will think again and think about Canadian women.

About WEKH: Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) is a national network and accessible digital platform for sharing research, resources, and leading strategies. Led by Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, in collaboration with Ryerson’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship and the Ted Rogers School of Management, WEKH has ten regional hubs across Canada and is leading a team of researchers, business support organizations, and key stakeholders to create a more inclusive and supportive environment to grow women’s entrepreneurship in Canada.

For more information, please contact Kathleen Powderley,, 416-803-5597