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Mary Ng grew up working in her parents restaurant, so she understands the challenges small business owners face.
Now, she's taking on a particular challenge: how women still face more hurdles than men do in launching and growing their own businesses.
"Ninety-nine per cent of all of our businesses in Canada are small and medium-sized businesses, but only 16 per cent are female-owned or female-led," said Ng, minister of small business and export promotion.
That means of 1.2 million businesses of that size, less than 200,000 are owned by a woman.
"We should be able to do a lot better," she said.
Increasing the number of women-led businesses has become an integral part of Ng's mandate.
Of Canada's 1.2 million small to medium-sized businesses, fewer than 200,000 are women-owned. Listen to Minister Ng talk about the government's plans to change that.
Since the federal government launched its Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) in its 2018 budget, Ng has been on the ground allocating funds to women's initiatives across the country.
Overall, the strategy invests $2 billion in doubling the number of women entrepreneurs by 2025.
Ng hopes it won't take much longer than that to level the playing field completely.
"The energy is there. The women entrepreneurs are there," she said.
In fact, she said there's more energy than resources. After announcing a $20-million fund to be spread between about 200 women-led businesses, Ng says the government received about 3,000 applications.
The WES doesn't only provide direct capital, but it's meant to build support systems. On Jul. 22, Ng announced a $3.2-million investment into the WES Ecosystem Fund, which helps women build a network of organizations to help them access resources they need. This allotment is Calgary-based, and invested in programs for Indigenous women, vulnerable women and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
"We're investing in what we call ecosystems of support, which is getting access to mentorship, getting access to capital, getting access to the customer networks that a female entrepreneur needs," said Ng.
She said women still face more barriers to access mentorship and investment.
"Male entrepreneurs, when they make a pitch for funding, are funded 68 per cent of the time. The very same pitch, made by a woman ― same words, same pitch ― it's only funded 32 per cent of the time," she said.
Other investments include $2.5 million towards businesses led by Indigenous women in the Vancouver area, and $3.2 million to École des entrepreneurs du Québec.
Ng says she tries to practise "positive politics," but things don't always remain positive. She recently faced criticism for tweeting about her visit to Cows Ice Cream in Beijing, a Canadian company founded in Prince Edward Island. But many people responded spoke out on social media saying the post was inappropriate while two Canadians have remained detained in China for seven months.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China on Dec. 10 in response to Canada detaining Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive who is facing extradition to the United States. Her extradition hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20 for fraud-related charges.
When in #Beijing, you dropped by @COWSICECREAM – a true Cdn #smallbiz success story from #PrinceEdwardIsland! The 🌎 needs more of all the great things 🇨🇦 has to offer, 🍦 included, and that’s why I am dedicated to helping #SMEs start-up, scale-up, & access new markets. #CdnPoli pic.twitter.com/3jSL4Ck9Qz— Mary Ng (@mary_ng) July 2, 2019
Twitter users responded that the post was "insensitive" and "tone-deaf."
Ng said getting Kovrig and Spavor home is a top priority, but that "it's easy for a tweet to be taken out of context," and she was in Beijing with the purpose to speak at the World Economic Forum in China and "to show support to Canadian companies that are growing all around the world, including China."
"That's my job," she said.
"I want everyone to know that that is absolutely a priority. But also, as the minister for small business and expert promotion, it's also my job to support, to advocate for Canadian businesses here at home and abroad," she said.
Ng said one of her goals is for businesses to grow enough to export abroad. Statistically, less women-led companies export their goods ― only 21,000 businesses across the country.
But Ng says she has met many women entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas that could be used internationally.
One successful example is a business called Deep Trekker, founded by Sam MacDonald in Ontario, which develops electric underwater robots that include high-definition cameras and lights.
She also mentioned Lunapads, a Vancouver-based company that ships washable, eco-friendly menstrual pads and period underwear around the world.
But she admitted capital is not all that it will take to create space for women entrepreneurs. She says it will take cultural and policy change, including affordable childcare, more flexible parental leave, and introducing legislation to close the wage gap between men and women.
Though, she says, empowering women entrepreneurs may do just that.
"This does come out in the data. Women-owned businesses don't have a pay equity problem. They pay their women the same that they pay their men," she said.