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Women Business Owners: Advancing Sustainability

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Sustainable Finance March 18, 2022
Sustainable Finance March 18, 2022
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At a recent event focusing on women business owners and sustainability, government leaders, educators and entrepreneurs joined us to discuss the importance of engaging women as agents of change. From implementing environmental, social and governance—or ESG—initiatives to understanding the type of support women business owners need, the intersection of gender equity and sustainability is a key to identifying the challenges and opportunities women face in running their businesses.

Joining us in the discussion were:  

  • The Honourable Mary Ng, Member of Parliament for the riding of Markham-Thornhill, and Federal Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development.

  • Dr. Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University

  • Tatiana Estevez, founder and CEO of Permalution

  • Brianne Miller, co-founder and CEO of Nada 

  • Patricia Fuller, senior fellow, University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, former Canadian Ambassador for Climate Change

The following is a summary of the event.

Boosting representation

Women remain underrepresented in the Canadian economy; only 16% of Canadian businesses are women owned. But studies show that advancing gender equality could add up to $150 billion to the economy in just a few years.

Minister Ng, however, is playing a leading role in the government’s attempts to increase women entrepreneurship. Along with spearheading such initiatives as the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, Minister Ng works tirelessly to ensure women have equal access to the benefits from international investment. As the country’s international trade minister, Minister Ng finds it unacceptable that only 11% of women-owned businesses are exporters, which is why Canada is taking an inclusive approach to trade by including gender-related provisions in all its free trade agreements.

“I always brag about the fact that Canada is the only G-7 country with a free trade agreement with every other G-7 country,” Minister Ng said. “We have access to a billion and a half customers. But if only 11% of women entrepreneurs are doing that, then there's only one way to go, and that is up. Our Women Entrepreneurship Strategy is a $6 billion strategy. The return on this investment is $150 billion.”

The business case for sustainability

The potential returns for investing in women entrepreneurship are substantial. That’s also the case in terms of focusing on sustainability. Dr. Cukier outlined the business rationale for promoting ESG principles, based on research from Ryerson University’s Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub(the study’s findings were based on an anonymous survey of applicants to BMO’s Celebrating Women Grant Program).

She noted that consumers are increasingly more concerned about the sustainability practices of the companies they engage with, and that many younger workers find ESG-focused companies to be more appealing employers. She also pointed out that ESG practices themselves can deliver tangible benefits to companies.

“We know that organizations with a higher green IQ tend to outperform others,” Dr. Cukier said. "This is partly because consumers are selecting organizations that are sustainable, but also because there are real business benefits to embracing sustainability. You reduce your costs, you reduce your waste, you reduce your carbon footprint. We also know you reduce risks because if you take this seriously, you're less likely to have some of the egregious environmental disasters that have destroyed brands.”

While small businesses often operate on razor-thin margins and without the resources of larger businesses, Dr. Cukier said they’re starting to look embed commitments to sustainability across their processes and supply chains. She also noted that women are overrepresented among businesses with sustainable goals.

“In spite of COVID, many of these women-led businesses were very forward looking,” Dr. Cukier said. “They had very ambitious goals, not just in terms of economic impact, job creation and revenue, but in terms of promoting equity, promoting environmental sustainability, promoting health and well-being.”

Two entrepreneurs leading the charge
Businesses that focus on sustainability provide a window of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. Minister Ng believes clean tech in particular is fertile ground for innovation, though she pointed out that only one in 10 clean tech company founders are women. Tatiana Estevez of Permalution, however, is bucking that trend.  

Permalution is a Sherbrooke, Quebec-based company that develops fog harvesting technology to combat drought, water scarcity and other water stress situations. After graduating from the University of Ottawa, Estevez took a backpacking trip in California. She learned about the drought while in San Francisco, particularly its devastating impact on the farming community.  

“I remember looking outside the window and I couldn't see anything because of the fog, and that's when it hit me,” Estevez said. “Technically, fog and clouds are tons of litres of water that pass above our heads. What are we doing with that water source?”

While the thought of milking clouds sounded outlandish to some, Estevez sought out input from other women involved in sustainability initiatives. They validated her idea and recommended other agencies she could work with. Eventually, Estevez was accepted into Cleantech Open, the largest clean tech accelerator program.

“Being surrounded by this group of amazing women that had the experience, that validated me—that was super important to me and that's what made us what we are today,” Estevez said.

Along with Estevez, Brianne Miller of Nada is one of our BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program 2021 recipients. At a basic level, Vancouver-based Nada is an omnichannel package-free grocery store and delivery company. On a deeper level, it's committed to supporting a regenerative food system by championing community food systems that remove waste from the supply chain.  

Like Estevez, Miller has experienced the benefits of networking with other women entrepreneurs. “I think the way that women tend to build companies is quite inclusive and engaged, especially at the local level, and there's a lot of power to that,” she said. “A huge part of our success has been deeply rooting what we do in both our community and our team.”

Case in point: one of Nada's first hires was its people and culture manager. That helped the company prioritize its values and how it would invest in the rest of the team. “Things like offering living wage jobs and increased flexibility, especially throughout the pandemic, I think have really allowed us to build a successful and resilient company,” Miller said.  

Women as agents for change

Along with providing invaluable support on the individual level, women entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to act as a catalyst for broad-based change. Based on her three years as Canada’s Ambassador for Climate Change, Patricia Fuller understands firsthand that climate change disproportionately impacts women.

They're more likely to shoulder the burden of gathering food and water, displacement means they’re often unable to work, continue their education or gain access to social services, and increased conflict driven by climate change puts their physical security at risk. But Fuller said there’s a flip side to the story.

“What I have observed increasingly is a change in this narrative toward one that's not only about women as victims of climate change, but around women as agents of change in climate action,” Fuller said. “This for me was in encapsulated in the words I heard on Gender Day at COP26 from a woman from the Global South who said, ‘We are not drowning. We are fighting.’ I think that was also borne out in the discussions I had with ministers from around the world, including from Africa and Asia, making commitments to increasing the leadership opportunities for women in climate action in their initiatives.  

“Of course, implementation of these kinds of initiatives has a long way to go,” Fuller continued. “But this is a theme that is definitely emerging, and one which is around greater participation of women leading to improved outcomes. And in the contrary case where women are not fully represented in implementing projects and policies, that this leads to increased inequality and decreased effectiveness. The transformations that are required to address climate change create opportunities for advancing gender equality.”

Transitioning to a socially inclusive net zero economy requires not only the adoption and scaling of new business models in existing industries, but the launch of entirely new industries. As this discussion illustrates, there is an opportunity to reform current business models, policies, norms and practices to make them more inclusive of all members of our society. Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to support women, because when women succeed, we all succeed.  

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Sharon Haward-Laird General Counsel and Executive Committee Lead for Sustainability at BMO Financial Group

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