Crossing the glass divide

December 12, 2011
in People
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New generation of women entrepreneurs ready to grow small business into big business

Out of necessity or passion, women throughout history have been active entrepreneurs. In Canada today, it’s reported that up to 50 per cent of small businesses are women-owned. But as plentiful as women-led small businesses may be, there are challenges. A 2009 University of Ottawa survey sums it up like this: women-owned businesses are “significantly smaller, less profitable and less likely to grow compared to firms owned by men.” At face value, the current extent of the ‘glass divide’ separating the success and size of men-owned business from those owned by women is discouraging. But I see a fundamental change underway: women are increasingly ready, willing and able to grow their small businesses to the next level.

I believe much of this can be attributed to the significant increase in post-secondary education over the past decade. Statistics Canada reports that more women now graduate from post-secondary education programs than men. As a result, a new generation of women has emerged—one that is well educated in business, financially sophisticated, more risk tolerant, well networked and ready to go big with their businesses.

These women are also not afraid to ask questions. Frequently, I’m approached by female entrepreneurs here in Surrey and greater Vancouver and asked what I see as the key attributes for owners wanting to take their small businesses to that next level. Without hesitation, I tell them to draw on those qualities that launched them on their entrepreneurial journey:

Tenacity: Be tenacious. Persevere. You faced obstacles getting your business started—you’re going to face new ones as you grow it. You didn’t quit then; don’t give up now.

Pragmatism: Make practical choices, establish efficient processes, set challenging but achievable goals. Seek out and listen to trusted advisors before making decisions and then make choices you can live with. Remember, not everything has to be perfect and not everyone has to agree with you. It’s your company, after all.

A broad range of communication techniques and styles: In today’s interconnected world, effective communication is king (or queen!). Moving from a one- or two-person operation to a multi-person, multi-cultural, multi-regional team requires you to connect with your stakeholders like never before. Make good use of the communication skills that you already possess and tailor your communication style to each situation and audience.

The ability to say “I don’t know”: Saying you don’t know gives you the permission and freedom to learn more about yourself, your business and your customers. Asking, learning, and re-calibrating: these are essential qualities to successfully to growing your business.

Good, old fashioned elbow grease: All successful entrepreneurs share a tremendous work ethic. But be careful of this derailer: as you add more staff, the type of work you’ve done in the past must change. Getting bigger means entrusting important parts of your business to others. You will still work hard—very hard—but the nature of the work will become increasingly strategic as your business scales.

Optimism: Every successful entrepreneur I know believes that things can be done better. Never lose your faith in and commitment to continuous improvement.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working alongside a business woman here in Surrey who I believe epitomizes these attributes: Meeru Dhalwala of Vij’s.

Meeru—together with her husband Vikram—had a vision to bring the best flavours and foods of India to the North American marketplace. Her beginnings were humble—fuelled only by a passion for what could be. Today, Meeru has diversified her business—it has rapidly grown into two (soon to be three) restaurant concepts, a cookbook series, a well established media presence in the North American ethno-food industry and a new packaged foods manufacturing operation. In fact, the New York Times applauded Vij’s as “one of the best Indian restaurants in the world.”

It’s women like Meeru—ones who have crossed the glass divide—who continue to inspire the emerging generation of women entrepreneurs. With Surrey’s healthy business environment, good mix of demographics and access to strategic local and global markets, I’m confident we will continue to attract more of these enterprising women to our city and hear of more home-grown successes. Entrepreneurs who are thinking big about their business are good for the health and overall well being of the entire Surrey business community. Because when local businesses succeed, we all succeed.

Kristi Miller, MBA, is Vice President of First West Capital—the only subordinated and mezzanine debt fund based right here in Surrey. With more than 15 years of financial industry experience, Kristi is also the immediate Past President of the Association of Women in Finance (AWF) and an enthusiastic supporter of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. Learn more at firstwestcapital.ca or by e-mailing kmiller@firstwestcapital.ca.

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