How Women Are Thriving In the Startup Ecosystem: Spotlight on Canadian Founders

A talk with three women founders from Antler Canada on the gender gap in the startup ecosystem and women’s role in tech.

Antler in Canada

March 8, 2023
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According to Women in Tech Network, it will take about 133 years to close the economic gender gap. A recent report by Crunchbase found that only 2.2% of venture capital funding went to female-founded startups in 2020, highlighting the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship. Our own 2022 Canada Unicorn Founder Roadmap also pointed to the fact that there is less than 5% female representation in Canadian unicorns and soonicorns. Despite these challenges, countless women have broken through the barriers and succeeded as startup founders. 

As we celebrate International Women's Day this year, we acknowledge the significant gender gap that still exists in the startup ecosystem and women’s role in tech.

In this article, we speak with three successful women founders from Antler’s Canadian community about their experiences in the startup world. They share their insights on the gender gap, how they’ve made success inevitable in their founder journey, and offer advice for other women thinking of starting their own businesses.

What inspired you to start your own business, and what challenges did you face in the early days?

Tanika McLeod: I experienced many barriers in the labour market after completing my BA & Master's. It seemed like it didn’t matter that I had excelled academically or that I had years of experience managing teams. For most employers, unpaid volunteer and academic experience didn’t carry any weight, and my perceived age, gender, and racialization outweighed much of my perceived legitimacy. I felt like I was wasting my potential—my productive, creative, and motivated energy. It was around the summer of 2019 that my brother and co-founder Nathan Knight came to me and said, “Hey, wanna start a company together?” It was his ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that inspired me to full-heartedly say, “F*ck yeah, I do!”

In the earliest days of our entrepreneurial experience, the biggest challenge for us was learning. There’s so much crap on the internet, it’s really hard to discern what’s real and valuable from the hype or fluff. Especially in the innovation sector, many guru-grifter types sell nonsense. So for us, it was a matter of figuring out what was reliable and where to invest our energy to learn what needed to be done. 

Emily Farrar: I started Genuine Taste partly out of frustration. I felt guilty about consuming animal products due to their impact on the planet—estimates put industrial agriculture as responsible for 15-18% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. I wanted to incorporate more plant-based options in my diet, but I was frustrated with disappointing meat alternatives. I love cooking and experimenting with recipes, and I wanted to help create products that mimic the juiciness and texture of real meat.

In the early days, I struggled with confidence. Even though I have industry experience in cleantech and have worked hard to develop expertise, it can be challenging to be confident when you are one of the few women in the room. I felt pressure to know the answer to everything, which created a lot of stress. Now that I’m further along in my startup journey, I know that it’s more important to be resourceful and reach out for assistance.

Liza Akhvledziani: For me becoming an entrepreneur was not something I was actively seeking, rather I came across a problem that was deeply personal to me and I didn't find anyone else trying to solve it. That's when I thought—if nobody else is going to do it, maybe I can at least give it a go. Looking back and being a first-time entrepreneur, the biggest challenge is you have no idea how or where to start, how to validate your problem, or how to decide how much validation is enough. That is why residencies like Antler can help put you on the right path.

According to recent statistics, women receive less funding and support compared to men in the startup ecosystem. How have you navigated this gender gap?

Tanika: I believe there are a whole host of dynamics and expectations that make it more difficult for women to participate and be taken seriously in certain spaces—this is a reflection of our broader society, of course. I believe it comes down to the many visible and invisible ways that women are continuously dehumanized in our society, which inform legitimate stereotypes and biases. 

I believe the best way to navigate this terrain is to become critically aware of it through education and sharing experiences, and I believe we should become more comfortable with calling the systems that produce it. Bias is normalized so much that it can be unconscious. Having critical conversations and calling out the absurdity of bias can help to bring more awareness to issues that are still taken for granted. 

Also, seek people with like-minded values. We’ve been lucky to grow such a robust community of love and support around us. Staff, founders, and partners at Antler, YSpace, the BEA, Treefrog, the DMZ, and ventureLAB have not only mentored, invested in, and educated us along our journey, but they’ve also empowered me as a woman in tech. In these spaces, I’ve never once felt the consequences of my perceived gender. Quite the opposite—they have gone out of their way to nurture my growth as a leader in my company and in the tech space more generally. These are the kinds of people you should spend your time with and dump anyone who makes you doubt yourself because you’re a woman. 

Emily: Here I will have to promote MaRS’ RBC Women in Cleantech Accelerator. I was one of the 10 founders selected for the program, and it has been the single most useful resource for navigating the gender gap in funding and support. When I started working on my venture, I did not have an extensive network in place to help me navigate the startup ecosystem. The Women in Cleantech program has been instrumental in connecting with like-minded founders and mentors, understanding existing public resources, and connecting with key investors and commercialization partners.

Liza: I've spent my entire career in traditionally male-dominated industries, so these gender gap stats are not new to me and I never actively thought about that number, nor let it define me or stop me. I proceeded with how I would with anything else, with hard work and determination to succeed.

Do you think any inherent biases in the startup ecosystem make it harder for women to succeed? If yes, how can we address them?

Tanika: Absolutely. Women still have to navigate centuries-old assumptions that we’re less intelligible, less rational, and overly emotional. And in far too many circumstances, women’s intrinsic value is reduced to mere sexual value. An example that comes to mind was a woman who had gone viral on social media recently for sharing her experience in a sales call where the all-men sales team accidentally screen-shared a group chat where they were talking about her in extremely dehumanizing and sexually inappropriate ways. Now, this wasn’t a startup, but it’s an example of some of the absurd sh*t women have to navigate in particularly male-dominated spaces like business and tech. 

I don’t think there is a simple answer for how to address this, unfortunately. I think we address this problem by addressing the deeper structural factors and social dynamics in our society that reproduce patriarchy and misogyny as norms daily. Unfortunately, there is no simple, clean way to do this, and a fuller conversation would need more time than this article can allow. 

There is room for improvement in how we treat each other with dignity, understanding, and respect. So until we figure that out—why it’s so easy for us to dehumanize one another—I don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to think that this issue can be resolved for women as a standalone category. 

I believe we need to address the interlocking nature of dehumanization, particularly racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, which creates the present conditions of our lives. Let me be clear: this is not an “all lives matter” argument in the way that phrase has been weaponized. This is a recognition that my experience as a woman cannot be separated from my experience as a Black, racialized, young, and low-income person.

This perspective is informed by many Black feminists, particularly the Combahee River Collective—check ‘em out!

Emily: In my experience, the biggest challenges for female founders are structural. Entrepreneurship, particularly in the early stages, requires a lot of financial risk tolerance. Early-stage founders may have to work long hours with little or no pay, which is an enormous entry barrier for those without existing support systems. Women are more likely to have unpaid care work, and if they are interested in starting a family, they may need more flexibility and stability. I would love to see more non-dilutive funding options for early-stage founder salaries to address this gap.

Liza: I personally never felt judged based on my gender—however, that doesn't mean those biases don't exist. They do, and the statistics on the lack of funding for women show that they do. I think beyond awareness and education, the best thing we can do is help those female founders we know to succeed. Whether it's introductions, mentorship, or events...I think it's on the whole ecosystem to help prepare the way for more female entrepreneurs and that starts one action at a time.

How did you build your network of mentors and supporters, and what role did they play in your success?

Tanika: Honestly, we just kept putting ourselves out there, even when it was a bit uncomfortable. In the beginning, many distractions made it feel like we were running in circles. There’s a lot of performative politics in the innovation space, so it’s easy to get preoccupied with that. The best decision we made was to join accelerators. That’s really where our network started to grow with the right people. It started with Treefrog and YSpace—we met mentors, professionals, and other founders who were genuinely interested in what we were building and helping us learn along the way. That led to Antler, and other opportunities with YSpace, the DMZ, and more. 

The network that we have now has played a critical role in our success. From financial support to learning, problem-solving, product, and operations, it takes a village to build a startup.

Emily: I leveraged a lot of programs that were geared towards women founders, such as pitch events and accelerator programs. Pitch events can help raise visibility and meet mentors whether or not you ultimately win them. The mentors I’ve collected have been crucial for providing warm intros to investors and reality checks for our business model.

Liza: Building a network is probably one of the key things you must do if you want to be successful in any career, and that is even more true in entrepreneurship. My advice is to build long and stable relationships with your mentors and supporters like you would with friends. Don't view it as a one-way street—see if you can help them with whatever they are doing. And most importantly, be incredibly appreciative and respectful of the time they dedicated to helping you.

In your experience, what are some of the unique strengths women bring to the table in the startup world?

Tanika: I believe that privilege and bias can create blinders in a person’s perspective that are difficult to undo. Many aspects of our shared reality go unnoticed by people who can afford to and are socialized to not pay attention to them. On the flip side, experiences of oppression can open your eyes to those details that others miss and can promote a more critical and open mind. 

Now, it’s important to flag that all humans—and all women—experience privilege and oppression to varying degrees. In this case, I believe some women may be uniquely equipped with perspectives that have been left off of the table in business and tech. 

For example, I know a brilliant woman founder operating in fertility innovation, and most (older men) investors simply do not understand the problem she’s solving. On one hand, it’s extremely challenging because she needs to do a lot of education. On the other hand, her perspective is a unique strength, because it’s opened her eyes to a massive opportunity that many can’t see at all. She’ll figure out how to make it work with or without investment, and that will be an enormous win for her and a huge loss for those who were unable to see a different perspective than their own.

Emily: In my experience, women founders are skilled at creating collaborative work environments. I think women founders also tend to excel at taking feedback well and being open-minded. This is a critical skill, as a startup often requires iteration and continuous learning.

Liza: I think separating people into buckets like this will only propel inequality and will not help the gender gap. I like to think of people as individuals, who have unique strengths based on their experiences. I think we need to stop actively thinking about these issues in a "men vs women" way to meaningfully change behaviors.

What advice would you give to other women who are thinking of starting their own business?

Tanika: To all people who identify as women, feminine, or nonbinary: never give up. 

Now, this doesn't mean that you should never pivot or move on from a project if the circumstances suggest doing so. But, I believe that we should never give up on what we’re fighting for—whatever is motivating us in the first place. 

I know it can feel like the world is against you, so it can be hard to continue at times, but there’s also a lot at stake for your own life and others. 

I believe that complacency is a dangerously common emotion in our hyper-unequal society. And as a marginalized group in this space, I believe that our struggle is a form of resistance to the status quo and it can influence generations of women who will come after us. 

I’d much rather struggle for what I believe in than ever become complacent in a world of injustice. 

With that said: self-care, mental and physical well-being, and community are also extremely important to nurture. This is something I still struggle to balance, and I believe women generally do also, not only because we are doing more work for less recognition, but also because of the added social reproductive and affective labour that is expected of us. 

So never give up on your vision and remember to take care of yourself along the way.

Emily: Seek out mentors and peers—they are key to finding resources efficiently and will help you through the ups and downs in your journey.

Liza: Be obsessed with the problem you are trying to solve and don't let anything or anyone stop you. Starting a business, whether you are a woman or a man is incredibly hard—be prepared for lots of peaks and valleys, but know that with your obsessive belief in your business and hard work, anything is possible.

While the statistics may feel disheartening, Tanika, Emily, Liza and many other women entrepreneurs are breaking through the barriers and making strides in their fields every day. Their vision and drive inspire others to push past gender stereotypes and pursue their dreams. 

As we celebrate International Women's Day, we are committed to helping create a more equitable and inclusive startup world, where women founders can pursue their visions and thrive.

If you have an irresistible calling to build a startup that solves a meaningful problem, I encourage you to check out and apply to Antler’s next Canadian residency to fast-track your entrepreneurial journey. 

Meet the founders:

Emily Farrar is the co-founder of Genuine Taste, a startup creating cultivated fat for delicious, sustainable alternative meat. Emily is an expert in decarbonization research and science communication with over five years of experience. She holds an MSc in engineering from UC Berkeley.

Tanika McLeod is an entrepreneur and co-founder of two cutting-edge ventures: MinuteSkill, a community learning network, and Cliq, a generative content repurposing tool. With a decade of experience as an educator, researcher, and evaluations specialist, combined with three years in the innovation space, Tanika has a knack for driving disruptive change in learning and community spaces. Her passion lies in leveraging technology and education to raise critical consciousness, promote equity through praxis, and develop sustainable online learning methods. Currently, Tanika and her team at Cliq are diving head-first into the exciting realm of generative AI, taking their wild ideas to the next level.

You can follow their journey on LinkedIn.

Liza Akhvledziani is the founder and CEO of Chexy, the first platform enabling tenants to earn rewards on their rent. Before Chexy, Liza led Finance & Strategy for Canada at Square, and spent a few years in M&A at Deloitte. In her spare time, Liza is an avid skier and hiker, and loves all things outdoors.

Antler in Canada

Toronto is Antler’s first location in Canada. Since launching in 2022, our team in Canada has supported over 100 founders who are creating the next generation of startups.

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