It’s a question we’ve been asked regularly in the 16 years since PROFIT first published its W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs. It’s a fair question, and our response has always been that we believe it’s important to celebrate the achievements of the remarkable women running some of the country’s most successful enterprises. And we feel there has never been a more important time to do it.
In many ways, entrepreneurship is having a moment. Hollywood blockbusters romanticize iconoclasts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg; celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake fancy themselves venture capitalists; Harvard Business School offers an MBA in entrepreneurship; and scrappy Silicon Valley startups are as likely to make the front page as Fortune 500 firms. And if there’s any doubt of the place of entrepreneurship in the zeitgeist, earlier this year, Mattel gave its most stereotypically feminine toy a smartphone and a boardroom-appropriate hot-pink dress, and dubbed her “Entrepreneur Barbie.” (She also comes with a kid-friendly PowerPoint on starting a business.)
Yet, even in this context, there’s a troubling tenor to the way female entrepreneurs are perceived—and it goes beyond Barbie’s stilettos. For far too many people, these women are thought to be running small hobby businesses on the side to supplement a family income. So pervasive is this phenomenon that Spanx founder Sara Blakely is regularly classified as a “mompreneur,” as if building a billion-dollar garment empire was something she did between soccer runs and PTA meetings. There is nothing wrong with the part-time business model; in fact, it offers an ideal solution for a lot of women. But to consider it the quintessence of what it means to be a female entrepreneur is erroneous at best and dangerous at worst.
Consider this: Even in a nation as entrepreneurial as Canada—more than 98% of registered companies are small- or mid-size enterprises—the number of female-run ventures remains shockingly low. Statistics Canada reports that less than 16% of all small businesses in Canada are solely or majority owned by women. That number drops by half when applied to mid-size firms.
At the same time, there’s ample evidence to suggest that women-run businesses perform better than those run by men. A 2013 McKinsey & Company report reveals that firms with female leadership deliver 47% more return on equity and generate 55% more earnings than those that don’t have women in the boardroom. The researchers assert that the leadership behaviours associated with women in charge—including a heightened focus on staff development, and clear communication of expectations and rewards—are closely linked to the traits that cause organizations to succeed in today’s economy. Female-run firms are statistically less likely to go bankrupt. When they are large and public, they consistently outpace the S&P average.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the health of Canada’s economy depends on women with the drive to grow ambitious, vibrant businesses; women who create good jobs, and develop innovative products and services and women who are committed to making significant contributions to their local and national economies.
In short, women like those on this year’s W100. The average woman on the ranking runs a business with more than $17 million in annual revenue. (Three notched sales of more than $100 million in 2013—these are no vanity projects.) She increases her company’s sales by an average of 66% every year: That’s nearly 33 times the current annual inflation rate. She employs, on average, 175 people. The 2014 W100 have wildly different experiences and backgrounds, from the 31-year-old who opened her chain of yoga studios at 24, armed with a few small-business loans and a ton of drive, to the 92-year-old who started a construction company in the 1950s as a recent immigrant, selling to men who believed she belonged in the kitchen. What unites them all is their deep, passionate commitment to creating companies that make a real difference. Theirs aren’t businesses meant to support a lifestyle; their businesses are their lifestyle.
And yet, the stereotypes persist. Take Susan Niczowski (No. 38), a W100 veteran whose salad and dips company brings in more than $50 million every year. “People tend to assume that building a family is our primary need, and that our businesses are just a complement. We are not seen as being as career-oriented as men,” she says. “I’ve had to prove time and again that I can be as motivated as a man. It’s taught me to work harder and show results year after year.”
These are important stories to tell. They offer irrefutable proof that female entrepreneurs are forces to be reckoned with—and just might inspire the legions of women and girls we need to follow their examples.
A note on methodology:
The PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs ranks female business leaders according to a proprietary formula that combines the sales, three-year revenue growth rate and profitability of their businesses. All data is verified through financial statements supplied by candidates. To qualify, candidates must be owners or significant stakeholders who at least share chief decision-making capabilities. For details, and for more on this year’s winners, visit PROFITguide.com/W100.