October 13, 2020

Women in innovation and why it matters

Illustration by Scott Carmichael

Why do gender diversity and equality matter in the world of business and innovation?

It’s simple, says Arielle Gross Samuels, head of Global Business Strategy and Engagement at Facebook. “Diversity is good business, and the data and research show us that time and time again,” Samuels notes.

“According to McKinsey, companies with leadership in the top quartile of diversity are producing 21 per cent better profit [and] 33 per cent better performance. According to the World Economic Forum, if we closed the gender pay gap, we would inject $28 trillion into the global economy by 2025,” she recently told the Women Leading Innovation virtual conference presented by SHEInnovates, Alberta chapter, and Alberta Innovates.

“Whether or not this is a priority for you, those are real numbers.”

One way to advance diversity is to address gender stereotypes, and the way to do that is to accelerate better stories about women in innovation so this becomes more mainstream, Samuels says. The work of organizations such as SHEInnovates is critical in that regard, she adds.

Alberta Innovates is an active participant in and strong supporter of SHEInnovates. Laura Kilcrease, CEO of Alberta Innovates, put it another way. Women innovators and entrepreneurs are an under-represented market for early-stage capital, Kilcrease told the SHEInnovates conference.

Kilcrease, who lived and worked as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and innovation leader in Austin, Texas, prior to joining Alberta Innovates in Edmonton, said Austin’s drive to become a top technology centre in the world started in 1989 when they created the Austin Technology Incubator. “To date, the incubator has added about $3 billion to the local economy and launched more than 300 companies, though only a fraction led by women,” Kilcrease said.

Now, imagine if deal flow and the innovation system worked better for women and other under-represented entrepreneurs. What would be the upside for economic growth, jobs and technology development?” she added.

As it turns out, Austin has the second-highest number of female entrepreneurs when comparing U.S. cities, with Austin women owning about one-third of startups, according to Forbes.

Women entrepreneurs represent a fraction in Alberta. But Alberta, too, does well compared to the other provinces. A study reported in 2019 that 30 per cent of tech startups in Alberta were founded by women, more than twice the national average.

Effects of COVID-19

It has been widely observed that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women adversely, since they tend to work in higher numbers in sectors most greatly affected by pandemic closures – including retail outlets, bars and restaurants, and personal-care services.

But COVID-19 also offers new opportunities for women innovators and all innovators. Whereas traditional businesses have had a difficult time operating during the pandemic, others – particularly digital companies – have thrived. One example is Virtual Gurus, a digital startup offering virtual assistants. The Calgary-based company, founded by Bobbie Racette, received Alberta Innovates entrepreneurial support. Virtual Gurus has experienced enormous growth after initial difficulties raising investment capital.

Women entrepreneurs can tap into Alberta Innovates Entrepreneurial Investments suite of programs. These are designed to help high-potential, high-growth technology or knowledge-based small and medium enterprises (SMEs), including two new programs – the Innovation Relief and Recovery program which provides up to $10,000 of funding for technology based businesses to maintain and grow new innovations during and beyond the COVID pandemic, and the Alberta Innovation Network GrowthX program which helps knowledge-based SMEs develop their marketing and sales plans to scale their business.

The Government of Alberta also offers several supports and resources, including these:

“Alberta is the strong, innovative province it is today because of visionary women who build our economy every day by creating jobs and promoting diversification and growth,” says Doug Schweitzer, Alberta Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation.

“Supporting women entrepreneurs and fostering the development of small- and medium-sized businesses is vital to our future, particularly in the technology and innovation sectors. We will continue to grow these sectors because we know they will play a key role in helping to jump-start our economic recovery,” Schweitzer says.

A place for women in STEM

The main thing for women to remember is that there is a place for them in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), says Lori Adams, an Alberta Innovates Technology Development Advisor based in Calgary. “You don’t need a degree in STEM. You just need to have an appreciation for technology.”

For example, Alberta Innovates, a technology-based organization, has a high proportion of women working in various capacities across the organization, Adams notes. “We’re all women in STEM,” she says.

Of 432 employees at Alberta Innovates and InnoTech Alberta, more than half (223) are women. Of those women, 75 work in research or technical positions and 90 are in management or classified as business professionals.

Additional resources

These sites have a collection of useful links to other resources:

Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub

Calgary Economic Development – resources for women