Failure to ignite

The Ignition Fund, launched in 2014 and delivered via Innovation PEI, is a competitive annual program providing up to $25k to start or expand a business in PEI. The fund is unique in PEI as it does not require matching funds and is non-repayable. There are up to 10 grants funded every year. To be eligible, products or services must be innovative and have the potential to be sold outside of the province. 

I’ve been working in and with the small business and startup community in PEI and across Canada since 2014. I can tell you that starting a business is hard.Fifty per cent of new startups will fail in their first few years of operation. One of the many barriers to startup launch and success  is access to capital (cash). This is why this fund is so welcome to the entrepreneur community in PEI. 

What isn’t welcome at the Ignition Fund, it seems, are women-owned companies.

Let’s just look at the numbers for the past three years. Remember, there are 10 awards each year:

  • 2020 – one woman-owned business and one business with a woman partner
  • 2019 – two woman-owned businesses and two businesses with women partners
  • 2018 – no women-owned businesses, two businesses with women partners 

It’s not like there is a shortage of women entrepreneurs and small business owners in PEI. If you look at just Empower PEI and PEI Business Women’s Association, you’ll find over a thousand women in business. Add in Etsy PEI and you’ll find hundreds more. Women are building incredible businesses, employing locally and contributing to our economy. But if you look at the Ignition Fund, you’ll have to play Where’s Waldo? to find them in the press release and photo op. 

So why are more women not getting through the funding process for the Ignition Fund?

The data and experience of women business owners make the answer to that question pretty clear: 

  • Women-owned businesses are smaller and less likely to scale up rapidly. They are focussed more on stability rather than growth.
  • Women are risk-averse in business and investment.
  • Women are more likely to have businesses in services rather than product manufacturing. This makes it harder to export in traditional markets.
  • Women are less likely to be extended debt-financing or business loans; often they can only do so with a partner. 
  • Women are less likely to self-identify as an industry leader, or to enter a competitive process. This is related to what is referred to as imposter syndrome – the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications.

Add in criteria that consistently emphasizes innovation as technology and export as manufacturing and you close a lot of doors to truly innovative businesses. Finally, when the pitch panel jury is 75% men, additional bias is introduced to the process. 

Key questions remain unanswered

In November 2018 I asked then-Minister for Economic Development Chris Palmer: 

“Why do Ignition Fund grants so heavily favour men over women? About 70% of the annual grants in recent years have been awarded to businesses owned by men only. How many times have you met with the Minister for the Status of Women to discuss improving the number of grants for women entrepreneurs under the Ignition Fund? What changes do you intend to introduce to the Ignition Fund program as a result of performing a gender and diversity analysis?” (Watts, F, 29 November 2018, Hansard, Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, pg. 4299)

Looking at the latest list of award winners, the problems clearly remain unaddressed and persistent from when I asked my questions more than two years ago. This government has been loud in its vocal commitment to program delivery that includes a gender-based lens. But if I’m asking exactly the same questions for the third year in a row, and hearing from Island women entrepreneurs that yet again they have applied and been screened out with no explanation, then we are way past due to actually review this program and make it accessible to all Island business owners – regardless of gender.

 

Hannah Bell, MLA for District 11 Charlottetown-Belvedere, is the Official Opposition Critic for Economic Growth.