Canada can lead the conversation on women’s leadership in the economy

This article originally appeared in the Financial Post and Startup Canada


Courtesy of Financial Post

Courtesy of Financial Post

There’s a sea change in the air.

From Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, our collective assumptions are being called into question about the challenges and opportunities women get to take on in their roles in our economy.

Although more than half of Canadian university graduates are women, the statistics are dire in terms of women leaders in most industries — the Fortune 500 hovering around an average 14% for the past 10 years. To put it in perspective, for every six men, one woman is deemed eligible to lead. Gender equality issues are paramount, but we’re just beginning to grasp the business case for having gender parity at the top; especially in entrepreneurship.

So what can we do to steer this conversation toward measurable change and a better, more equitable and prosperous society for all Canadians? Here are some starting points:

Funding women-led ventures Discussions about why funding in general, and venture capital in particular, favours male-founded companies underscore the leading argument about why women are at the helm of fewer companies. According to one U.S. study, less than 13% of women-led ventures receive funding. Regardless of what the reasons are, it makes for poor business strategy.

Women can play a pivotal role here by becoming enablers and investors. There is a severe lack of women’s perspectives in the venture capital and angel investor communities. I know there are scores of successful, powerful women who can step in and change the dynamics by bringing to the equation their mentorship acumen, networks and cheque books.

Syndicates such as sheEO (a group of 10 women angels passionate about supporting the next generation of women-led ventures), and Pique Ventures (with a mandate to empower people, especially women, to be leaders as investors) need to become much more mainstream (Arlene Dickinson, Jennifer Lum – yes, I’m looking at you!)

Optics matter As it stands, women don’t have enough visibility in the upper echelons of leadership in business (and receive plenty of push-back for their pantsuits elsewhere…)

Individuals and organizations need to make a conscious commitment to an inclusive process that supports gender parity in the hunt for talent. This is neither tokenism, nor a suggestion for fastidious quotas (although that has worked in some nations). One of the most compelling reasons to support this notion is that not tapping into the unique strengths of half the talent pool makes for lower bottom lines, period.

Study after study shows that companies that wish to survive and thrive in this complex, globally connected future would be well advised to include women on their executive teams. Gender-balanced executive committees have a 56% higher operating profit than companies with male-only committees, a McKinsey report, Empowering Women, found. The time to lead conversations around long-internalized biases keeping women from attaining leadership roles is now. And the responsibility for this shift lies with both men and women.

Increasing the number of women on boards, panels and juries is a solid first step toward making gender parity in leadership the norm.

An initiative I hope will catch on in all sectors is ADC’s Let’s Make the Industry 50/50 – with its clarion call for industry organizations and associations to take immediate and measurable action by setting a goal of equal participation for women and men on award show juries, boards of directors, event panels and speaker lineups.

Ecosystems are essential Silicon Valley got to be where it is for one reason alone: The strength of its networks. We need to step up and back micro- and macro- networks in Canada that allow communities to rally behind entrepreneurship and create channels of support between public and private sectors; and in doing so, raise the probability of new business ventures that in turn create jobs and growth.

Startup Canada is one such grassroots, volunteer-run and entrepreneur-led movement that has swept across Canada to give a platform to all entrepreneurs. Get involved as a mentor or mentee, support programs and partnerships, and help raise the entrepreneurship profile and risk-tolerance around funding of new ideas to give them a fighting chance at becoming viable, thriving enterprises. Canadian Women in Technology (CanWIT) is another group women can get involved with to offer their support.

Read parallel sentiments from Catherine de Lange's piece Wasted Talent in The Guardian | The Observer

Saadia Muzaffar is a tech-entrepreneur who is passionate about equitable opportunities for her fellow seven billion on Earth. She’s also  founder of TechGirls Canada, leads a Lean In Power Circle, and is a Startup Weekend organizer. Connect with her @ThisTechGirl

Salute to Our Champions


I owe you a great debt of gratitude for coaxing me out of the shadows and into the light of what I was capable of doing. I owe you for making me see that not everything needs to be figured out a 100% - that taking chances is an amazing thing.

I love you for being so open and so honest about the mistakes that you said you'd made and ensuring that no one else made those same mistakes. Admitting to that vulnerability takes insane courage.  

Your loud rambunctious laughter made many dire situations bearable.

But most memorably, your spirit for championing others remains a cornerstone of what everyone mentions about you.  You taught many the value of being a true advocate.

Your dogged determination to beat cancer is, and will remain, an inspiration to me every day.

You'll be missed. So very much.


Until we hit a day like today where we find out a good friend and mentor succumbed to cancer at an age when most people just begin to start enjoying life post mortgage, kids' tuition, and grunt work; we don't really articulate what our champions mean to us.

This note is a small, small reminder of saying thank-you to your champions, whoever they are, wherever in life. Pick up that phone and make a call to just say thanks. Type up that e-mail and put into finite words your infinite gratitude. This is your moment to acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders you've stood.



3 Traits for Women's Success in Business

1) Take more chances to give serendipity an opportunity to strike:

Say hello to more people without agonizing over whether it would be conceived as a come on. Don't over-analyze. Connect people to others. Be generous.

2) Speak our minds, though kindly:

Kindness is important. You will never regret tempering something harsh. Snark is lazy. Be fair, be firm, but be compassionate. Especially about other women. Yes, because its sisterhood. Yes, because it's sacred.

3) Not be afraid to dream BIG:

If you shoot for the stars and fail, you will still probably land farther than you would've had you played it safe. Take that chance. Raise your hand. Walk through that fear. Abandon busy work. Question the meaning of what you do every day. Look hard. Keep looking. Then don't hold yourself back when you find that chance to shine.

Read more of these sentiments echoed in Margaret Wheeler Johnson's Women And Success: 26 Things Every Woman Should Know About Success


3 Reasons Why Being Resource-Strapped is Great for Startups

Thanks to 'Startup Professionals' for the Ramen!

Thanks to 'Startup Professionals' for the Ramen!

This post originally appeared on my RIC Blog.

The most common hurdle that all start-ups are concerned about is the lack of resources. Typically money and/or talent. And a lot of start-ups claim to have fizzled out because the right amount of capital and or talent wasn’t injected at the right time. And while that may be very true, not having enough can also be a great opportunity. Don’t believe me? Here are 3 reasons why:

Laser Sharp Focus:  Entrepreneurs in general, and start-ups in particular, tend to have hyperactive thought processes (!)

They are creative and feed off of the ‘high’ that building something provides. This could mean too many ideas percolating at the same time or too many features that sound great on paper but aren’t necessary for a sustainable product or business model. Being resource strapped creates deadlines, sets expectations and benchmarks that many would otherwise be too distracted or reluctant to enforce.

Evaluation Tool: Sometimes sacred cows make the best meatloaf.

For a start-up to be successful, it needs to be lean, mean, and in a constant state of Nietzschean existential examination (Why am I here? What is my purpose?). Having little in the way of resources forces entrepreneurs to shed those extra pounds of nice-to-have features, rigorously seek what the end user won’t do without, and chuck the rest - especially at the launch stage of the business.

Sparking Creativity: I’m told necessity is the mother of invention.

The necessity to stick to meager/modest budgets or limited number of people necessitates creating solutions outside the box. Forces you to question why should there even be a box? Makes you go out on a crazy limb because that limb could make the difference between the launch of a successful enterprise or an addition to the statistics of failed ideas. Being resource strapped makes fair game of any and all ideas that could help.

So take pride in your brilliant, resource strapped start-up. The sharper your focus on what will rock your customer’s world, the faster you evaluate your failures and cut your losses.

The more creative you are in what you’re building, the higher the chances that you will graduate from being a start-up to a thriving enterprise with staying power.