July 2011

The road to success is always under construction.”

Attributed to Lily Tomlin


This article describes a new program, Lead to Win for Women (LTW-W), created in Canada’s Capital Region to dramatically increase the number of women-founded businesses and to help existing businesses grow substantially. This new program is based on the existing Lead to Win program. LTW-W has four program elements. First, there is a session to help women foster ideas to launch and grow businesses. Second, there is an expert speaker series that encourages the development of practical knowledge for businesses. Third, there is a forum for owners of established firms. Fourth, there is an outreach program for college women to encourage them to start businesses.

In this article, we briefly describe some existing programs to support women founders in Canada and abroad. Next, we outline the founding principles of LTW-W and describe the program in detail. Finally, we conclude with a description of the program’s next steps.


There is a respectable and growing body of research documenting the lack of women founders of businesses in growth sectors and, in particular, high-tech firms. In support of this research, as Industrial Technology Advisors (ITAs) with the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), our role is to work with small and medium-size, growth-oriented businesses to provide advisory services, linkages, and project funding support for innovative R&D projects. Yet, women founders typically account for less than 5% of our caseload, and through an informal survey of our colleagues, this percentage seems to hold across IRAP overall. This imbalance disturbed us both, and as such, we felt we needed to do something to address it. Thus, in conjunction with Dr. Tony Bailetti, the Director of Carleton University's Technology Innovation Management program and founder of Lead to Win (LTW), we created Lead to Win for Women (LTW-W). LTW-W builds upon the existing LTW program for talented individuals or teams that want to launch a new technology-based business in Canada's Capital Region. The goal of LTW-W is to encourage many more women in the region to start businesses and to help existing firms grow substantially.

This article describes LTW-W, focusing on the practical aspects of developing a program to support women entrepreneurs. First, we explore other programs whose mandate is to help women entrepreneurs. Second, we outline the founding principles guiding LTW-W. Third, we describe the key LTW-W features. Finally, we outline plans for our launch and next steps.

Existing Programs to Support Women Founders

Below is a brief sampling of programs that already exist to support women entrepreneurs in Canada and abroad. We briefly describe the programs and the support they provide. This list is by no means exhaustive, but rather provides a flavour of the types of programs that currently exist.

Programs in Canada

There are several women’s enterprise centres located across Canada, including the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba, the Women’s Enterprise Centre of British Columbia, Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, and the Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise in Northern Ontario. The mandate for each of these centres is to be the leading resource for women who are considering starting, purchasing, or growing a small business in their respective regions. Each of the centres provides women with access to knowledge, networking opportunities, and workshops to build business skills. The BC Women’s Entreprise Centre and the Alberta Women Entrepreneurs additionally support women through access to working capital in the form of small business loans up to $150,000.

Réseau des Femmes d'Affaires du Québec (RFAQ) is a 2000-member private organization that is based in Québec, where it operates chapters across the province. The chapters support and promote women in business through a variety of programs and services. Their membership, however, is not limited to founders and includes entrepreneurs, business leaders, professionals, and self-employed workers across all economic sectors. They offer their members networking opportunities as well as personal and professional mentorship and coaching. They also maintain a database of women business leaders who would be suitable for positions on a board of directors.

The Women’s Business Network has chapters throughout Canada and is comprised of women who own their own businesses, whether they are professionals (e.g., lawyers and consultants) or own other types of businesses. The network provides opportunities for skills development and networking, and it provides a forum women can use to promote each other’s businesses. The network also provides ancillary services, such as insurance.

The Women Presidents’ Organization is a not-for-profit, but member-financed, organization located throughout Canada and the world. The mandate for the organization is to act as a peer advisory group for women presidents, addressing both strategic and operational issues. To be a member, a woman president’s firm must have at least $2 million in annual revenue ($1 million for service-based businesses). WE-Connect Canada is part of an international initiative that certifies women-controlled firms and connects them with corporations and governments that seek to diversify their supply chain. WE-Connect Canada also offers a variety of educational programs around bidding on large contracts. Finally, WE-Connect Canada also introduces women-controlled firms to procurement offices of large corporations and governments.

Additionally, in Canada there are programs run through universities. For instance, the mission of the Rotman Initiative for Women in Business is to help women develop the skills they need to become effective leaders. It does so through education, mentorship, and networking opportunities. As well, the program sponsors the Judy Project, a leadership forum for executive women. The Centre for Women in Business is a similar program run out of Mount Saint Vincent University. It offers one-on-one advisory services, business projects with students, networking, and education events.

Programs in the United States

Women 2.0 is based in the Silicon Valley and has a vision to be the premier global source for women founders of innovative technology companies. Women 2.0 offers a variety of programs including an incubator program, networking events, a startup competition, a video series where founders share startup and growth advice, and an active blog showcasing national events and members.

Springboard Enterprises focuses on being the catalyst to venture capital for women-led businesses. To date, they have helped 445 women-led enterprises raise more than $5 billion and create over 10,000 jobs. The programs offered by Springboard include the Venture Forum, a six-month program that matches women entrepreneurs to experts who help them refine their pitch and access capital. Springboard also offers educational programs to teach women about the use of capital for growing their businesses. Finally, Springboard has an invitation-only, bi-annual caucus with advanced seminars and discussions for experienced entrepreneurs. There are also a number of regional programs, such as the Centre for Women and Enterprise in Boston. These regional programs provide very similar support to that provided by the Canadian programs highlighted earlier. There are also initiatives to support women from a particular ethnic background, such as the Asian Women Entrepreneurs.

As a final note, in conducting this research, we found one venture fund that is focused on women-led enterprises: Fund Isabella. Although the fund is not currently accepting applications, it is worth noting that its mission is to provide intellectual and financial capital to help entrepreneurs build vibrant businesses, in turn earning the fund above-average returns on investment. They consider entrepreneurial ventures that have female leaders to be an “untapped market in the venture capital industry.”

Programs in Europe and Beyond

The European Union’s Women Entrepreneurship Portal provides a useful directory of European organizations, networks, and projects whose mandate is to support women entrepreneurs. For instance, Prowess is a UK-based organization that offers similar services to those outlined above. In addition, they advocate for women’s entrepreneurship at the national and international levels.

Another range of programs support women founders for the purpose of elevating the status of women across a variety of countries. A good example is the Cherie Blair Foundation, whose mandate is focused on supporting female founders in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This foundation works with local partners in four key areas of support: business development, access to finance, technology, and network opportunities.

As a final note, Women Entrepreneurs GROW Global is a blog that has a comprehensive listing of partners and resources that support the growth of women entrepreneurs.

In summary, both in Canada and internationally, there is a broad spectrum of support for women founders, both for founders of small businesses, and for those who are more oriented towards growth. In developing LTW-W, we investigated these different resources to inform the development of our guiding principles (described below), focusing on what we aimed to achieve in Canada’s Capital Region.

Guiding Principles of LTW-W

When designing LTW-W, we were guided by five principles which are described below.

1. Growth. The primary audience for LTW-W is women founders who are oriented towards growth. We want to support women-owned firms whose goal is to grow regionally, provincially, nationally, and then internationally (not necessarily in that order). If a woman has zero employees, we want to help her to have one; if she has one employee, we want to help her to five; if she has five, we want to help her to 20, and so on. In focusing on growth, we are focusing on obtaining maximum economic value for our region, both in terms of future revenue and future employment. LTW-W is sector neutral; as long as the founders are focused on growth, we will support them in achieving their goals.

2. Staging. LTW-W supports women-founded firms across the spectrum of current revenue and number of employees, meaning that many of our members have zero employees, while others may have twenty. As such, in order to obtain maximum value for our members, we offer a variety of services depending on the maturity of their firm and the extent of their entrepreneurial experience. This is because the problems that firms face when they are in a start-up mode are significantly different than the problems faced by established firms on a growth trajectory. Because of this, we have created phases for the LTW-W program (described in more detail below). Networking and other opportunities are then defined by these stages.

3. Trust. LTW-W supports women founders. Because of this, we are being selective in terms of the women that we invite to participate in the program, so that events are driven and attended by founders and are not overtaken with the myriad professionals who support them (e.g., lawyers, marketeers, government personnel). This is not to say that we do not value those allied professionals, but we strive to create an environment where the women trust each other because they are trying to achieve similar goals and are alike in their founder status. In this way, we are striving to create an exclusive club that breeds trust amongst its participants.

4. Self-direction. The goal of LTW-W is to support women founders, not direct them as to what would be most beneficial. As such, we have sought feedback directly from women entrepreneurs at all levels to design our programs. Based on our experience, we offer some specific elements that we feel are appropriate even though women would not necessarily think to suggest them. However, the program is designed largely based on feedback from the women founders. As well, the program will adapt and evolve according to the program’s successes and the evolving needs of its participants. We will drop those elements that do not work and build upon those that do, trying new things as the women suggest them. We want to build a self-sustaining community, and we believe the way to do so is to involve women founders in the organization and leadership of the community.

5. Practicality. LTW-W provides advice and support that is practical and actionable. While we recognize the importance of personal and leadership development, LTW-W does not offer opportunities in this area. Our lecture series and other events are focused on skills and knowledge sets, such as protecting intellectual property, reading a financial statement, making an excellent pitch, understanding a term sheet, or simply creating an appropriate employment contract. Our goal is to provide women founders with basic business skills, which will provide the framework for them to recognize where they need to develop further and where they may need to bring in allied experts.

Building on Lead to Win

LTW-W is based on the LTW program, which was first held in 2002 in response to the economic downturn in Canada’s Capital Region, and it was re-launched in 2009. Its goal was to generate high economic value by creating a world-class ecosystem to spawn high-tech companies. In Phase I of the LTW program, individuals or teams apply to participate. If they are accepted into the program, participants undertake an intensive six-day development program (Phase II), which helps them harden and strengthen their business opportunities. If they can demonstrate that their opportunities are sufficiently developed, participants graduate into Phase III, in which they are connected to a business ecosystem that helps them launch and grow their technology businesses. For further details, see the article by Bailetti and Hudson in the December 2009 issue of the OSBR. For LTW-W, we are following the same basic format as LTW, with the intent to offer regular sessions of the program. Our sessions will have two critical distinctions:

1. Greater representation by women. LTW-W is designed to help women entrepreneurs, but the program is not exclusive to women. Through the acceptance process, we will ensure that at least 50% of participants will be women who are founders or hold equity in their opportunity. The reason we will accept male founders is based on the results of a survey we conducted with potential women applicants. Overall, our potential applicants desired a greater representation of women in LTW-W, not an exclusion of men. They saw men as valuable partners and sources for feedback. Moreover, women frequently create companies with men, thus the firm, and not just the individual, is the beneficiary of our services.

2. A focus on growth, not technology. The second critical difference between LTW and LTW-W is that LTW-W allows women founders from any sector to apply as long as they are focused on growth. We do so because we are looking to build a critical mass of women founders to get the program off the ground. As our membership and members’ firms grow, we anticipate that innovation will also be a required characteristic of the firms we support, in that innovation leads to growth.

Program Details

During the application process for LTW-W, qualified applicants will be invited to meet with a recruiting committee. Based on the founder’s experience, commitment, motivation, and the ecosystem’s capability to add value to the founder, applicants will be invited to participate in Phase II. In Phase II, founders will participate in an intense six-day program where they harden and strengthen their opportunities. The first three days of Phase II emphasize the development and clear articulation of customer and partner (ecosystem) value propositions. The second three days of Phase II focus on other aspects of entrepreneurship including financing, legal considerations, and attracting talent. External reviewers examine the opportunities on Day 3 and Day 6. Day 3 reviewers assess whether or not proponents of a business opportunity can: i) clearly articulate their customer and value propositions and the key differentiators for which customers are willing to pay and ii) are ready for Days 4-6. Day 6 reviewers assess the strength of the business opportunity and participant's readiness for Phase III.

If a founder has passed both gates for Phase II, they are invited to join Phase III, where a variety of incubation services are provided to participants to launch and grow their business. In Phase III, the founders have become part of the LTW-W ecosystem, which will be bridged to the LTW ecosystem that already exists. Each startup in the ecosystem: i) is expected to create a minimum of six jobs in Canada’s Capital Region; ii) can utilize the keystone's infrastructure to co-create value with its customers, partners, and other organizations; and iii) has access to a variety of services designed to help companies grow. Phase IV will also be open to women who have already established firms and are looking for support to help their firms grow, even if they have not participated in the previous three phases.

Participants will also benefit from an expert speaker series, which is an opportunity for women to gain insight into the practical skills relevant to running a business, whether they are in the start-up phase or are running established enterprises. Each month, a speaker will be invited to talk on a topic of interest, for instance, protecting intellectual property, reading a financial statement, managing operations, or generating leads. The talk is meant to provide women founders with an overview of the topic. The overview allows the women founders to determine whether it is necessary to gain additional knowledge, or whether they need to bring in an allied professional to help them develop a plan or strategy, or potentially hire extra expertise in a particular area. The expert speaker series also provides women an opportunity to network in an informal setting.

Because the requirements of founders of established firms are significantly different than those of startups, we are exploring various formats to serve their needs with the ultimate goal of accelerating the growth of their firms. Based on feedback from our members, we believe that it is necessary to hold regular (but not too frequent) meetings of established founders of firms with more than five employees, whether they have participated in the six-day sessions or not. In these meetings, it is necessary to create a climate of trust, so that the founders create a network of real value. One idea we have been exploring is to hold a forum where the founders can act to solve each others’ problems through coaching based on mutual experience. We believe this element of LTW-W is as important as the creation of firms. Many women-run businesses are not able to achieve the ultimate growth targets that are possible – either because the founders do not have the necessary skills or because they are simply unaware of the possibilities.

Finally, we intend to establish an outreach program for college women to encourage them to start businesses.


This article described the LTW-W program, which we developed in conjunction with Dr. Tony Bailetti, founder of the original LTW program. LTW-W was created because we observed a fundamental lack of women founders in our IRAP caseloads, and more generally speaking, because women are not represented adequately as founders in high-growth sectors, including high-technology. This lack of women founders was reflected in the original LTW program as well. The goal of LTW-W is to substantially increase the number of businesses owned and launched by women and to grow the revenues of established women-led firms. Our next steps include a formal launch, an analysis of additional services that may be necessary, and the development of metrics to measure our program.

LTW-W was informally launched in May with our first expert speaker series on intellectual property rights. In the fall of 2011, we will formally launch the LTW-W program as well as an established founder program. Our goal is to create the infrastructure necessary so that the program, if successful, can be replicated elsewhere. As well, we aim to create an organizational structure that is ultimately self-sustaining. In order to do so, we need to create an ecosystem that adds value to businesses. We plan to evolve our offerings as necessary to continue to attain that goal. In the short term, we will launch, evaluate, and refine. There is an abundant amount of excitement in Canada’s Capital Region for LTW-W, and we are learning to harness it to get the program off the ground.

Financial assistance for LTW-W is being provided by the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program. IRAP is Canada’s premier innovation system for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

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