Women-led businesses already face unique challenges, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the ripple effect on the economy has put added pressure on these entrepreneurs, who are now trying to navigate a dramatically altered landscape.

Physical distancing measures, necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, have dealt a blow to sectors which rely on in-person interactions, such as travel and tourism, restaurants and personal services, where women are more prevalent.

These extraordinary circumstances have prompted The Scotiabank Women Initiative and other women-focused organizations to boost the amount of practical resources and programs — such as free access to business and legal advisors — to help these entrepreneurs down an uncharted path.

“Women have worked so hard over the years in the face of adversity in business and have made huge strides to overcome them,” said Gillian Riley, President & CEO, Tangerine Bank and the executive sponsor of The Scotiabank Women Initiative.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many new obstacles for all small business owners, but especially for women entrepreneurs. In this incredibly challenging climate, it is important for us to respond to the unique and changing needs of women entrepreneurs to make sure they survive this crisis and thrive once it is behind us.”

22% of Quebec women-led businesses worried about survival: survey

It’s still too early to know the full impact of the pandemic on the Canadian, and global, economy, but some statistics point to a heavier burden on women.

A preliminary monthly GDP estimate by Statistics Canada for March pointed to a 9% drop, the largest one-month decline ever recorded. Women-owned businesses are more prevalent in many of the sectors that saw major declines.

“Emerging evidence on the impact of COVID-19 suggests that women’s economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately and differently from men,” the United Nations said in a recent report. “Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector… In many countries, the first round of layoffs has been particularly acute in the services sector, including retail, hospitality and tourism, where women are overrepresented.”

The Scotiabank Women Initiative, whose mandate is to support Canadian women-owned, women-led businesses through three key pillars; Access to Capital, Mentorship and Education, has built out its online Knowledge Centre with relevant content and is collaborating with other organizations across the country including Disruption Ventures, Visa, Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, Réseau des Femmes d'affaires du Québec (RFAQ) and Femmessor to help women entrepreneurs

One such collaboration is with Femmessor, a non-profit organization supporting women entrepreneurs across Quebec, to provide those businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19 free access to advisors on various topics ranging from legal matters, e-commerce, as well as available relief programs.

Sévrine Labelle, executive director of Femmessor, said a recent survey it conducted showed how heavily women-led businesses have been impacted. 

The poll of 1,080 female entrepreneurs in the province found that 22.3% of respondents say their business will have difficulty surviving COVID-19, and 49.4% are actively looking for financing.

Two out of three businesses were operating at 50% capacity, and one in five women entrepreneurs are concerned that their business would not survive the crisis.

“It’s quite worrying because we have been working so hard for 10, 15 years to build up a significant amount of women-owned businesses. It feels like we might lose some of those years and might have to start over again after the crisis.”

Femmessor program offers free advisor access to Quebec women entrepreneurs

Scotiabank, along with Quebec’s Department of Economy and Innovation and the federal government, is sponsoring the program, as well as providing five experts from within the Bank to lend their expertise.

The initiative, called Brigade Expertes Femmessor launched on April 7, matching women entrepreneurs in need with more than 65 available experts providing targeted, one-on-one advice over the phone or virtually.

Women have been seeking guidance from the Brigade Expertes Femmessor topics including relief measures, e-commerce strategy, as well as how to innovate and pivot their businesses to seize opportunities in this new normal.  So far, there have been 150 entrepreneur-expert consultations – much more than they typically averaged when the service was only available to Femmessor clients, indicating the urgency and scale of this pressing need for guidance, Labelle said.

About 90% of the experts are women, she added.

“It’s a great act of solidarity,” she said.

Advice may differ depending on the type of business, but broadly, women entrepreneurs should make sure to take advantage of the various government support programs and ask for relief on payments, such as loans, said Scotiabank’s Evangelia Chalkiadakis, a Small Business Development Manager for Laval and North and advisor for the Femmessor program.

As well, entrepreneurs must be proactive now to try and attract customers through marketing or other strategies in preparation for when restrictions do ease, she said.

“You need to plant your seeds today, so your flowers come out in September,” Chalkiadakis said. “If you don’t do that today… then you won’t be able to get a good pipeline of customers when the time comes.”

Pivoting business to new reality is key: webinar

It’s also key to pivot your business to this new and still-evolving normal, said Riley during a The Scotiabank Women Initiative’s webinar with Elaine Kunda, Founder and Managing Partner of Disruption Ventures, a venture capital fund focused on women-led businesses.

Riley pointed to examples such as restaurants moving to a takeout model or retailers posting and selling their wares via social media.

“It's really, really important to think about how your business can adjust in this environment and really adapt to the new reality,” she said.

This new context has also brought innovation to the forefront, as people have been forced to dramatically change the way they work over the last few weeks, and digital adoption is key, Riley added. 

Gillian Riley, President & CEO, Tangerine Bank and the executive sponsor of The Scotiabank Women Initiative, said digital adoption is key going forward.

“This pandemic has expedited the digital acumen for everyone, and I think it will be here to stay in the long term,” said Riley. “What probably would have taken five years to move the digital agenda forward has probably happened in the last six weeks through this pandemic. It's amazing some of the advances that we've seen.”

The Scotiabank Women Initiative is continuously working to identify improved approaches to remain relevant and provide meaningful, forward thinking support to women now, and post COVID-19, added Riley.

“Through efforts such as podcasts, webinars, online resources and sponsorships such as Femmessor, it is important that we ensure the program continues to provide meaningful support,” she said.

Overall, COVID-19 has been difficult for many people in different ways, said Riley, but “we will come out stronger.”

“Canadians are generally very resilient people,” she said. “And I think that we’ll take a lot of learnings from this and I think we’ll be stronger and better for it in the long run.”