Women entrepreneurs and workers will play a key role in the post-pandemic economic recovery, yet, in the interim, they are bearing a disproportionate amount of the stress and strain caused by the pandemic, a group of women tech founders and business leaders said today during a roundtable with Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s Associate Minister of Children and Women’s Issues.

“What I am noticing right now with our staff is that every single one of us is facing some sort of mental health issue,” said Olga Pawluczyk, CEO of Waterloo-based P&P Optica. “I never thought that as CEO I would be speaking so much about mental health and providing resources for my staff.”

Charmaine Dean, Vice-President of University Research at the University of Waterloo, is seeing the same thing among young women researchers and entrepreneurs.

“I can tell you that they are past exhaustion,” she said. “The passion that drove them to establish new initiatives, (they are) being torn between that and taking care of the needs of the family and the home. It’s just heart-wrenching.”

Dunlop, a mother of three, acknowledged the disproportionate burden that women have been carrying throughout the pandemic.

She said the Ontario government’s recent budget, tabled March 24, “did focus a lot around women.” She cited child care and job-retraining tax credits, as well as a women’s economic task force, which she is creating with Peter Bethlenfalvy, the Minister of Finance and President of the Treasury Board. 

“I’m looking forward to… hearing women’s voices around the table on what that (post-pandemic work culture) is going to look like moving forward,” she said.

Pawluczyk said 40 per cent of her team at P&P Optica are women. One challenge she has noticed is how difficult it is for women to find employment after taking a few years off for child raising.

“One thing that we’ve been thinking a lot about is how do we support women coming back into the workforce after all of this is done,” she said. “I find that women are very hesitant to enter the workforce after taking care of their children for several years…. Just as we have programs for new grads and new immigrants, and people relocated, having a support for women re-entering the workforce, whether it’s education or salary matching, I think would be fantastic.”

Another issue raised was the difficulty women founders face in securing angel investment and other forms of early-stage capital.

“In general, there really aren't a lot of women in angel investing,” said Amber French, Communitech’s Director of Strategic Capital and Managing Partner of investment firm Catalyst Capital.

“When I started to get into it a couple of years ago, I remember walking into a meeting room and I was literally one of two women in a room full of 70 men. It was a bit jarring and shocking to see, but it’s really reflective of whose voices are at the table as far as funding goes at the early stages. And I think everybody at this table can attest to the fact that angel capital is so important to the early stages.”

French said that as government looks for ways to support the post-pandemic recovery, an obvious asset is the potential of women founders to start and grow companies that will then hire employees and fuel prosperity.

“Anything that helps founders at early stages to get more capital – so, grant funding, any type of co-investment or investment-matching programming,” she said. “I think that it’s super important, especially as we’re getting back into the recovery phase. We really want to bring women up through the tech ecosystem and just help them in any way that we can, and I think the government can play a huge role in doing that.”

In addition to calls for support, participants in the roundtable shared a number of stories about their experience working through the pandemic.

Lucrezia Spagnola – founder of VESTA Social Innovation Technologies, a platform that provides survivors of sexual assault with an impartial, independent and unbiased platform for reporting – said she has been surprised at how quickly a recently released beta version of the platform has been noticed by survivors, law enforcement and resource providers.

Spagnola said that, since starting VESTA, she and her colleagues have been making the case that a digital reporting platform could act as a bridge that helps change attitudes and improve awareness and sensitivity around the reporting of sexual assault.

“Some of the challenges we were having before COVID was the role technology could play in this space,” she said. “COVID actually illuminated a lot of those conversations and facilitated and brought along quite a bit of opportunity because, all of a sudden, organizations that were used to doing a lot of in-person, one-on-one counselling had to turn to technology.

“And so it accelerated the acceptance of the idea. And as months progressed they also realized that it was useful and it could be a bridge,” she said. “And that’s what we have been talking about for the longest time – was that technology is not necessarily the answer but it could be a bridge between where we are now and where we would like to be. And so we did end up seeing quite a bit of an acceleration, which was fantastic.”

The virtual roundtable discussion included a number of graduates and others affiliated with Communitech’s Fierce Founders initiative for women-identifying and/or non-binary founders.

Communitech began providing specific support to these entrepreneurs in 2014. Since then, more than 240 entrepreneurs have gone through Communitech’s renowned Fierce Founders programs, said Lisa Cashmore, Communitech’s Vice-President of Start & Scale initiatives.

Fierce Founders has evolved over the past few years. Today, it consists of three main programs: Fierce Founders Bootcamp, Fierce Founders Intensive Track, and the recently created Fierce Founders Uplift for women-identifying and/or non-binary founders from under-represented groups.

Graduates of all three programs continue to be part of the Fierce Founders family and are encouraged to stay connected with Communitech and one another as they strengthen and scale their companies.

Also in attendance at the roundtable was Mike Harris Jr., MPP for Kitchener-Conestoga. He said he was proud to have Dunlop attend the event and hear about the great programs and individuals in the Waterloo Region tech community.

“I'm really excited for her to see what’s happening here in Waterloo Region,” he said. “Our batting average is usually a little bit higher here in the region than in other parts of the province and, realistically, other parts of the world.”