Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, women have struggled to balance career and home life; working remotely while simultaneously navigating their kids through virtual schooling or dropping out of the workforce altogether to care for their young children when daycare options were limited.
Some have dubbed it the “she-cession” and estimate that it has set women back years not only financially, but in their career aspirations as well.
For women business owners, these family obligations coupled with lockdowns and travel restrictions have made it all the more difficult to network and grow their companies.
“I think everyone has felt this (the pandemic) in such different ways but women have been disproportionately affected and there’s a lot of studies that supports that,” says WEtech Alliance President and CEO Yvonne Pilon.
Pilon says when a bi-national funding opportunity was made available for pandemic recovery programming aimed at assisting women-owned businesses, she and her fellow Southwestern Ontario Regional Innovation Centre partners came together to discuss how they could collectively maximize their resources and make the biggest impact.
“Interestingly enough, Southwestern Ontario has many linkages to the U.S. including Windsor/Detroit, Sarnia/Port Huron and Niagara/Buffalo,” says Pilon. “Building on our connections to the U.S., we know there’s a competitive advantage for companies in Southwestern Ontario to capture growth opportunities in new or adjacent markets.”
The result? The Canada/U.S. Power Panel.
The Canada /U.S. Power Panel program aims to expand mentorship and strategic connection opportunities for women-owned technology and innovation companies in Southwestern Ontario. Participating companies have the opportunity to accelerate their skills development and be able to leverage U.S. high powered, influential mentors from outside of their usual networks.
The CAN/U.S. Power Panel program is supported by the U.S. Consuls General in Canada’s Building Back Better Program aimed at strengthening support for women entrepreneurs during COVID-19.
Throughout the duration of the program, which culminates at the end of March, WEtech and partners have connected 15 women entrepreneurs from across Southwestern Ontario to pitch to the CAN/U.S. Power Panel.
Powel Panel advisors include a list of over a dozen U.S. and Canadian experts and professionals including Stephanie Spector, Senior Manager, Center for Consumerism at AVIA, Tricia Compas-Markman, Senior Program Officer at Venture Well Aspire Medtech, Jennifer Young, CEO of Technology Councils of North America (TECNA), Zeel Shah, Former Senior Manager of Partnerships and Live at JioSaavn’, and Shelley Martin, Retired CEO of Nestle Canada.
“What I appreciate most about this program is that it’s truly about collaboration and connections,” says Pilon. “It’s two countries coming together. It’s six Regional Innovation Centres coming together. It’s bi-national networks of founders, professionals and experts coming together to support each other.”
Pilon says the demand for the program was so great, it resulted in hosting an additional Power Panel. The group had originally hoped to connect 12 women entrepreneurs and are now connecting 15 business owners with even more advisors.
“We’ve engaged with advisors from Michigan, New York, Chicago, and California,” she says. “The first Power Panel saw advisors from three different time zones.”
“It’s truly power when you put a group of people together with a #givefirst mentality,” continues Pilon. “All panel advisors were keen on opening up their vast networks to support participating companies.”
Building Stronger Connections
“StrongerU” founder Emily Johnson is one of the 15 women entrepreneurs who were invited to participate in the program.
StrongerU Senior Fitness is an education company that specializes in working primarily with retirement communities and long-term care homes, training their staff to offer high quality senior fitness classes. Their online instructor course gives participants 30 minutes of brand new class content each month. In the space of seniors’ fitness, StrongerU has emerged as the only virtual platform to deliver a “Training as a Service” model.
Johnson says that prior to the launch of the Power Panel, she had already began to shift her focus to the U.S market, due mainly to the challenges presented by the pandemic.
“At that time, they (the American retirement communities) were much more receptive to having conversations about adopting programs like the StrongerU instructor course,” she explains.
“When I was invited to take part in the Power Panel I thought it was a really good opportunity because it was women entrepreneurs from the U.S and quite a few of them had backgrounds in healthcare or health tech organizations,” she continues. “It was super valuable to be able to tell them about StrongerU, tell them what my plans were, and for them to give me feedback on not just the pitch but the strategy of moving into the U.S.”
Johnson, who was recently named one of SheEO’s 2022 Canadian Ventures, and was previously involved with WEtech’s ScaleUP tech accelerator program, says she appreciates the chance to connect with other women business owners in her field.
“One thing I got from the program specifically was some really good advice for my pitch which resulted in me making some tweaks which have gone over really, really well,” she says. “I’ve actually reconnected with two of them (the Power Panel advisors) after the panel just to get some more insights and build off of the advice that they gave. Having extra time to build on those ideals was also super invaluable.”
Building these long-term connections between entrepreneurs and advisors/mentors was one of the main goals of the program, says Pilon.
“We hope the entrepreneurs and advisors will continue to build relationships and connections far beyond the program,” she says. “Equally, we hope to see more of these women entrepreneurs start to expand into the international marketing including the U.S.”
Johnson says the program has been highly beneficial and will assist her as she continues to branch out across the U.S.
“I definitely see StrongerU continuing to grow in the U.S. We’re currently in approximately 18 states at this point and hopefully in the next two years we’ll have an even stronger presence in the U.S, as well as internationally and in Canada,” she says. “We’re really trying to be the global leader in senior fitness education.”
“WEtech works with growth-minded entrepreneurs. Access to the U.S market and connecting to the U.S market is a great growth opportunity,” explains Pilon. “As Canadian companies look to grow, one of the easiest gateways is the U.S market. It opens them up to a lot more customers.”
Pilon says she’s looking forward to wrapping up the CAN/U.S. Power Panel program with an innovative bi-national networking virtual event hosted on Remo that will allow women entrepreneurs and professionals from both sides of the border to continue to grow these international connections. The event will feature remarks by Consul General Susan R. Crystal, a fireside chat with Spellbound Founder and CEO, Christina York moderated by Aislyn Laurent, and a networking session facilitated by Networking Expert and Author, Kelly Hoey.
Jen Brignall-Strong was born and raised in Windsor and is a graduate of the St. Clair College Journalism program. She has worked in the media for over 15 years, writing for multiple local publications including The Drive Magazine. Jen is currently a freelance journalist and enjoys sharing stories from the many remarkable individuals that make up our region.
Check out more of Jen’s stories HERE.