Sunday March 8th marked International Women’s Day. A day for people around the world to come together to show their support for women and the commitment to reaching gender equality. This is a topic very near to the heart of Concept as tech and entrepreneurship have been traditionally male dominated. Fortunately this is changing, but there is still work to be done. We felt it was important to bring together a group of female entrepreneurs from our community to share their stories and discuss their thoughts. We hosted our “Highlighting Entrepreneurial Women” event to accomplish this goal and invited a panel of women with a wide range of experiences. They provided the audience with engaging conversation, great advice, and inspirational anecdotes.

Panelists

Aileen Agada: current undergraduate student in environmental engineering who was inspired to start a startup outside of her field of study, called BeBlended.
Amber French: UWaterloo Science alumni who went from cold calling for a medical supply company to co-founding the private equity investment firm, Catalyst Capital Inc.
Penny Wilson: Worked her way up from financial advisor to the position of Assistant Vice President of Marketing & Communications at insurance giant Sun Life Financial.
Camelia Nunez is the director of Concept and currently works supporting motivated and enthusiastic students hoping to launch the next big startup. 
Harleen Kaur has had a diverse career, including being a NASA engineer and the VP of Rolls-Royce in Central and South Asia. She co-founded and currently is the CEO of Ground News.

Left to right: Camelia Nunez, Amber French, Aileen Agada, Penny Wilson, Harleen Kaur

The session began with our panelists sharing their own exciting entrepreneurial journeys. Common themes among participants included working in a variety of diverse fields and positions before landing on one they were passionate about and excelled in. This theme was shown in both our panelists with decades of rich experience and our youngest panelist, Aileen Agada. Aileen shared the interesting example of how her startup, BeBlended, came to be. She explained that while doing a co-op term in Ottawa, she was turned away by hairstylists who were unable to serve her because they didn’t know how to work on her hair texture. This led Aileen to create a startup outside of her current field of study. BeBlended is an online platform that connects black women to hair stylists across Canada.

Other common themes among our panelists’ journeys included initially being unsure in their careers or feeling as though they were lacking direction at a young age.  The women cited being resourceful and having an entrepreneurial mindset as valuable tools to overcome these obstacles.

What Is The Entrepreneurial Mindset ?

When asked what “the entrepreneurial mindset” means to them, our panelist had a variety of interesting answers. Amber French referred to it as “the ability to build an idea, which can often happen inside of a larger company”. Aileen said that those with an entrepreneurial mindset “find problems they want to solve”  “ are resilient” and “are able to take risks”. Panelist Penny Wilson reminded our audience that as entrepreneurs, it’s important to be “comfortable with ambiguity” and “not be afraid to fail “. Harleen Kaur added that people with this mindset who are able to take initiative are crucial to employers.

Solutions for Challenges Faced by Women In Entrepreneurship

Although our panelists stressed the importance of acknowledging how much progress has been made, they also discussed several challenges encountered by entrepreneurial women. Harleen mentioned that in terms of investment, there is a general lack of funding for female-led startups. However, in recent years there has been an increase in support, providing hope for a more equitable future. Later, Penny shared her experience working in a heavily male dominated industry. She was frequently the only female at major meetings and events. To combat this, she advises both men and women to support each other and diversity of thought, as well as encouraging women to not be afraid to be assertive and “take their place at the table”. 

Several of our panelists also shared experiencing sexist and/or belittling comments throughout their career. Camelia Nunez shared that during meetings, participants often directly look to males to answer questions, even when those questions are regarding a female coworker’s area of expertise. As a solution, she stresses the importance of having champions – male and female supporters who are willing to go to bat for you and aren’t afraid to say things like “ actually, this question is for her”. 

As a mother of two boys, Amber mentioned that it can be a challenge to find an ideal work/life balance. In her own experiences, she’s found that surrounding herself with inspirational mentors who are raising families themselves has been helpful. She also specifically encouraged the males in our audience to not be afraid to deviate from traditional gender roles in terms of parenting and household tasks. Later, Camelia shared that stereotypes can be pervasive in our society, steering women towards a certain set of careers. She encouraged young women to not let themselves be influenced by stereotypes: “ If you want to be a construction worker or a NASA engineer, go for it ! Be what you want to be!” 

Advice for Entrepreneurial Women

Our panelists shared a variety of rich advice with our audience. On several occasions, panelists mentioned the value of supporters or champions for entrepreneurial women. These champions can help provide encouragement, support and guidance. These supporters can come from a variety of places, with our panelists citing church communities, UW professors, upper year classmates, Concept coaches and the overall Velocity/Concept community as excellent places to find support.

Several panelists also highlighted the importance of networking, which allows entrepreneurs to learn and grow. As an introvert, Penny suggested setting specific goals for yourself when attending networking events, such as “ talking to at least 3 people “.  Harleen also recommended starting with phone/email networking at first if face to face networking is difficult. Aileen advised our panel to “ask interesting questions” when meeting new people, taking care to learn about others. Finally, Amber suggested surrounding yourself with likeminded people, such as engaging in the rich entrepreneurial community at Concept.

Next Steps 

Our panelists were asked to put themselves in a student’s shoes. We asked them, as an entrepreneurial UWaterloo student, what are some next steps?

“ Try whatever it is you’ve been thinking about while you’re still at UWaterloo. There’s lots of funding and opportunities out there for students! “ – Aileen

“ Start by creating social media accounts such as Twitter or LinkedIn and use them to share ongoing projects and get involved with the entrepreneurial community around you”  -Amber

“ Take advantage of co-op opportunities! E-co-ops, startup co-ops… try different things! You’ll learn so much” – Harleen

We’d like to once again send a sincere thank you to our panelists. They took time out of their busy lives to come out and speak about an important topic. They opened up to provide inspirational stories and useful advice so others can succeed as they have and help continue to change the world for the better.

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