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Canada's network for success

When you belong to a demographic that's generating 40 per cent of the new startups in Canada, it's probably time to see who's in your network.

Welcome to Women Entrepreneurs of Canada.

"What I found from the beginning was a very safe, nurturing environment to be with other women," says Dolores Pian, owner of Spaces Custom Interiors in Toronto. "In an ordinary environment, even with family, people think what you're doing in your career is insane."

For the sometimes maddening challenges for small-business owners and solo professionals, the WEC -- since 1992 -- has offered a particularly comfortable hearth for a female membership that meets monthly for a dinner with a guest speaker at downtown Toronto's Ontario Club.

"I've been to so many other meetings where you're being sold to, where a lot of the people are in sales and pitching things to you," says WEC president Ada Lee, president of Adan Group Ltd., which consults internationally in the pharmaceutical field. "WEC isn't like that."

With fledgling chapters in Montreal and Vancouver and a database of 3,000 women who have attended WEC events over the years, the group is hardly averse to members doing business with one another or anyone else (occasional meetings are open to men, who can become associate members). What members repeatedly emphasize, however, is the supportive, relaxed atmosphere at meetings, where a guest speaker such as the publisher of Profit magazine gets asked about her pregnancy along with her prognosis on the economy.

"We're out there in business and the professions," Lee notes, "but we're saying that, as women, if we have issues like balancing life and career, these are things we can really address in a private forum."

Although networking associations typically draw newcomers looking to get oriented and make some contacts, the WEC's special attractions for women have enticed such established business figures as Elen Steinberg, president and chief executive officer of SPP Marketing and ranked among the top 55 female entrepreneurs in the country.

"For me, it's really about being able to meet some of these incredibly accomplished people in a very informal atmosphere," says Steinberg, who was recently honoured by the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. "Even at my stage of career, I am so inspired there." The WEC has convened international women's business summits and helped to launch other networks. It makes sense: With an estimated one-third of self-employed proprietorships in Canada being owned or led by women -- representing 1.7 million jobs -- female entrepreneurs are hardly a marginal part of the Canadian economy. Yet they face particular challenges.

In its recent submission to the Prime Minister's Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs, the WEC stressed the difficulties in securing financing, citing a higher turndown rate on loans for women.

Significantly, however, the group did not ascribe the problem to institutional sexism: "This higher turndown rate," the submission says, "is due to the fact that women-owned businesses are on the average smaller, younger and concentrated on the risky service and retail sectors."

"A lot of women start their business in their garage on their Visa card," notes family counsellor and WEC communications chairwoman Jeannie Mackay.

Yet when women do get momentum with a business, Mackay points out, they often do well, something she attributes in part to being more "risk averse" and more willing to ask advice from a range of qualified people. (Statistically, less than 10 per cent of SMEs with a female majority owner are considered to be in a fast-growth mode of development, a far lower figure than for men.)

Sharing concerns in a forum such as the WEC has practical benefits beyond mitigating some of the stresses. WEC members aren't shy to draw on one another's knowledge and abilities, all in a manner participants find free of the posturing, ego and competitiveness they encounter in other business gatherings.

"All of the women have very strong personalities and strong wills, but here they are coming together," says Mackay, a baby boomer like many of the members interviewed. "I am getting a fantastic training from them."

Even women who weren't actually out looking for something such as the WEC get a sense of meeting a need when they somehow get there. Take WEC programming chairwoman Lise Christoffersen.

When she came to Canada from Denmark 30 years ago, Christoffersen found the social dimension of business here different.

"I was a little surprised by how much it was a man's world and a money-driven world," says Christoffersen, co-owner with her husband of NOVALynx.ca, a company that works with remote servers. "Now, there's not much difference between Canada and Europe."

Nonetheless, Christoffersen, although well-established, as are a number of other WEC members, was entranced after being invited to the WEC as a speaker.

"It was such a great group of people," she recounts. "I think that, as women, we have a different approach to how to do things. We can support each other in ways it might be difficult to do in a man's world."

WEC membership is $250 and available to women who are 18 and over with ownership of a business, personal capital at risk within it and responsibility in whole or in part for its financial commitments. Associate virtual memberships are available to women outside the Greater Toronto Area for $150. To learn more about the WEC, visit http://www.wec.ca on the Web.

© The Globe and Mail

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