Cracking the Ceiling: Female-led Startups Get Unique Opportunity

By Diana Hart
Feb 16, 2018 10:05 AM ET

A dynamic new female-focused accelerator is launching in Toronto to help women founders break through barriers to better compete in the heavily male-dominated startup field.

With only a small fraction of Canadian startups led by women, the program is designed to help promising female-led startups in their early stages. The four-month initiative is a partnership between the DMZ at Ryerson University, the leading university-based tech incubator in North America, Scotiabank and Tangerine.

Interested entrepreneurs can apply to take part in this free accelerator program starting February 15. The 8 selected startups will begin the intensive program, moving into the DMZ, in April. Its focus is on helping companies find their product-market fit, defining their target customers and how to reach them. The program will largely take place in the DMZ’s Toronto location, but will also include a trip to its New York City location.

“Our goal with this program is to structure it in a way that it is a really good, quality program that anyone would want to participate in,” says Michelle Caers, founder and CEO of DesignedUX and lead entrepreneur-in-residence at the DMZ. “In this case, we just happen to be having a focus on women entrepreneurs in a way to level the playing field on other factors that we can’t control.”

Only five per cent of Canadian tech companies have a solo female founder, according to MoveTheDial’s Benchmark Report 2017. If you factor in companies where there are male and female co-CEOs, the statistic only moves up to six per cent.

So why are there so few female-led startups? It might partly be a pipeline issue, with fewer women graduating from postsecondary programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Female graduates are only earning 29.6 per cent of degrees in STEM faculties and disciplines, according to a 2016 report from Tech Toronto.

But focusing on the pipeline issue isn’t looking at the whole picture, according to Caers: “I find that a bit of an excuse. A lot of startups aren’t solely founded by computer scientists or engineers. There are a lot of companies that have been successful created by people from all sorts of different disciplines.”

Working in the technology space for 20 years, Caers says she’s often the only woman in the room. She thinks one reason more women aren’t pursuing the field is that there aren’t many female leaders in the industry for young people to be inspired by. She’s trying to help change that through her work at the DMZ.

“It is really important to me that we inspire more women to get into leadership roles and become founders in order to provide everyone with the best future possible,” she says. Her thoughts are echoed by her colleague, Hussam Ayyad, the DMZ’s Senior Director of Programs and Partnerships.

“If we want Canada to be a global leader, we need to focus on the progress of women in our startup ecosystem. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do. Companies with senior female leadership are better performing companies,” says Ayyad.

Ayyad says programs like this new accelerator are crucial investments in female entrepreneurs. The program builds to a “Startup Showcase,” where the companies will pitch their businesses to a panel of judges, with the highest performing startups eligible for cash prizes. One of the judges will be Nicole German, Vice President, Enterprise Digital Marketing at Scotiabank’s Digital Factory. German is helping develop the program.

“For Scotiabank, it’s about supporting innovation in Canada. There are so many great things coming out of Canada and we want to continue to be part of that innovation and the root of the next big thing,” says German. “We want to ensure that female entrepreneurs are supported, getting the same access to resources and support as their male peers.”

One of the main hurdles for female entrepreneurs is finding investors. German says, “It’s challenging in general to get access to capital in Canada. Studies have shown that it’s even harder for women to get funding. I think part of it is that there aren’t as many women trying to get access to capital.”

With fewer female entrepreneurs trying to secure investors, there is a substantial funding gap for female-led companies in North America. In 2017, venture capitalists invested over US$80 billion in American companies. Only $10.5 billion of that investment went to female-founded startups, according to the database PitchBook.

The idea that venture capitalists aren’t interested in funding female entrepreneurs isn’t accurate, according to Janet Bannister, General Partner at Real Ventures, a Canadian venture fund.

In the Benchmark Report, Bannister says, “The message I would want would-be female entrepreneurs to know is that absolutely they can get funded — in fact, VCs are actively looking for more female founders to fund. There’s never been a better time for women in technology.”

The founders who take part in the DMZ accelerator program will take away more than new skills; they’ll be helping build a stronger Canadian startup community. German says entrepreneurs can form relationships that will help their future success.

“I’m hoping the founders will be able to build a strong network within the Canadian community. They’ll have the opportunity to meet a lot of resources that they can lean on and leverage in the future,” she says. “Beyond the formal program, our hope is that a lot of these relationships will continue and that people will step in to support the startups along their growth path.”

For women thinking of applying to the program, she adds, “I think it is such a great foundation for success as well as an incredible community to support you through your business.”

Founders can apply starting February 15 by visiting