In early 2019, Visa launched the “She’s Next, Empowered by Visa” initiative to boost women-owned small businesses (SMBs) around the world through shared research, experience and technologies. Since its launch in the U.S. earlier this year, the program has hosted workshops in New York, Atlanta and, most recently, Washington D.C. to connect like-minded women founders with industry experts for education, inspiration and networking opportunities to help them build out their entrepreneurial visions.
Though the launch was stateside, the program has always been envisioned as a global effort. Earlier this year, it made its first effort in that direction with an event in Cape Town, South Africa. Today (Oct. 22), She’s Next is making its next global leap forward with a workshop event in Toronto, which will give female entrepreneurs from Canada a chance to meet and learn from each other — as well as from representatives from Authorize.Net, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, FreshBooks, Google, Métier Creative, The Scotiabank Women Initiative and Square, among other participants.
Stacey Madge, country manager and president of Visa Canada, said that Canada in general, and Toronto in specific, was an ideal launching ground for the first steps of She’s Next outside the United States because of an ideal confluence of facts emerging in the nation. The interest in entrepreneurship among women of all walks of life has never been higher, a fact that can be demonstrated by the figures on Canadian startups. The rate of small businesses started by women, she told PYMNTS, is increasing at a much faster rate than the number of small businesses started by men.
However, she noted, all that interest hasn’t — as of yet — translated to women in Canada really changing the landscape of small businesses.
“When you check, only 15.6 percent of small businesses are run by women, and that figure has barely budged at all in about a decade,” Madge said.
When one looks more closely at the figures, she added, the reasons for that gap become apparent. About three-quarters of all women-led SMBs are entirely self-funded, mostly because they have to be. Only 14 percent reported being able to secure a bank loan, and 37 percent noted that funding was hard to find. Not much of a surprise, she noted, since the data also indicated that three-quarters of all dollars raised out of venture capital sources flow to firms with entirely male founding teams.
“We have a long way to go in respect to women entrepreneurs in Canada, and supporting women small businesses is one way we are really keen to make a real step change,” Madge said.
Getting A View Of The Whole Field
Small businesses are difficult to start, no matter who one is, or their gender. It’s a complicated job, where most of the training happens in real time on site. That, Madge noted, is a sunk cost of doing business. However, in Canada, there is an additional complicating factor, which is how fast the market is going digital.
Digitization — and the idea that consumers are looking for smooth and streamlined digital experiences — is a global phenomenon far from unique to Canada. What is unique, she noted, is the pace at which the market is evolving, and the speed at which Canadian consumers' normal baseline is shifting when it comes to commerce.
“When we look at Canada, Canadians are going to digital at a much more [rapid] rate than many of the other developed countries in the world, which makes it imperative that SMBs have that online presence, and are able to make those multichannel desires of Canadians. What we are finding when we talk to female entrepreneurs is that they are experts in their fields, but not in digital marketing or digital sales management, or consumer acquisition via social channels,” Madge said.
The goal of the She’s Next event today — at the simplest level — is to put these entrepreneurs in the room with the experts to connect them from the beginning of their educational journeys, and help them to develop the knowledge network they need to tackle the host of challenges they will certainly face.
The knowledge gap among SMB owners isn’t unique to female founders. Despite the fact that 90 percent of Canadian consumers have reported being more motivated to shop with a merchant that has a solid online experience on offer, only 32 percent of Canadian SMBs sell their products and services online — and, on average, reported netting only 12 percent of their revenues from digital channels.
What is unique among female entrepreneurs, however, is their interest in learning how to close that gap. Thirty-three percent reported interest in learning how to use social media to grow their revenues, and 30 percent reported a similar interest in using digital marketing.
“That really drove the selection of the partners we brought into today’s event,” Madge said, “because we often [find] the biggest steps to overcome are the first ones, particularly when building a knowledge network.”
Building Out A Better Future For Female Entrepreneurs
When one looks at the business leadership landscape across Canada, Madge noted, the picture in terms of female inclusion isn’t exactly inspiring. Only 15 percent of C-Suite workers are women, and only 3.8 percent of Canadian CEOs are female.
“This is a statistic I love to share with people: Of the top 100 most highly paid CEOs in Canada last year, two [were] women. And that represents a 100 percent improvement between 2017 and 2018,” Madge explained.
There is much to do in this arena, she noted, and She’s Next is only one of the ways Visa is looking to tackle this problem in the U.S. and around the world. Visa has a host of tools through the small business products it offers to women and SMB owners in general — reporting tools like Visa Business Reporting for tracking credit card spend, or digital management tools like Visa Payment Controls, which lets business owners manage employee spend.
The goal is to help small businesses — especially female-led small businesses — move forward and evolve along with a rapidly changing commerce ecosystem. She’s Next, Empowered by Visa in Toronto is the initiative's second step beyond U.S. borders. However, according to Madge, the growth will be ongoing in 2020, because the needs of women looking to join the ranks of innovative founders is a global issue.
It is one, she noted, that Visa will continue taking on at global scale in 2020 and beyond.