The numbers are telling: Only 16% of Canadian small to medium-size businesses are owned by women. Of those SMEs, only 11% sell their goods and services outside our borders.

So, why are so few women entrepreneurs exporting? What’s holding them back from expanding into international markets? Is it a case of not having the right tools to go global or are they simply more averse to risk than men?

As EDC’s Corporate lead of Women in Trade, I’ve talked to many women entrepreneurs and what I’ve observed in my conversations is that there are many misconceptions about exporting. Some think it’s only for large, multi-million-dollar enterprises; others believe international trade is limited to companies that make and ship goods across the border. Other comments that are even more confounding:

  • It isn’t safe for me to do business abroad.
  • Banks don’t lend to women.
  • I’m treated differently because I’m a woman.

The truth is there are vast opportunities for Canadian women to start and lead more high-growth businesses with national and global ambitions. An increasing number of services companies and small businesses are exporting today. With the development of more global supply chains, technology and innovative distribution methods, companies are being born global. And that is the trade culture we are looking to promote and inspire here in Canada.

But to do that, we first need to better understand the three main challenges women entrepreneurs face and how we can help overcome them. 

Lack of knowledge and skills

Fear of the unknown can be debilitating, especially when it comes to exporting. What are the business regulations in your target market? Who is your competition and how can you reach new customers? Answers to these kinds of questions provide the necessary insight to make informed decisions and help boost confidence and comfort levels.

When it comes to risk, women aren’t more averse to it than men; they just approach it differently. They want to fully understand what the risks are, how to mitigate them and the impacts they could have on their business before they make any decisions. At EDC, we are international risk experts. We know it, we live it, we manage it and with our knowledge and financial solutions, we can take on risk, so more women entrepreneurs can take on the world.

Fewer connections

Lacking appropriate networks to help access potential customers, partners and suppliers is a major challenge for women entrepreneurs. At EDC, we have the business connections, trade partners, and relationships with other women-focused organizations to support and empower more women businesses through all stages of their exporter journey.

There are so many resources available to women in the market, but it’s difficult to know who to speak to, for what and when. It’s crucial that we make those personal introductions and connections to the right people at the right time that can help them scale and grow their business.

Women need to be inspired and they need examples of what success looks like. Encouraging them to dream big and think global with their businesses and showing them examples of other women who are daring to take on the world can help them build confidence and see themselves doing the same.  We want to show women the path--it’s easier than you think! 

Awareness and access to financing and growth capital

Women tend to shy away from taking on debt or leveraging debt as a tool to scale and grow their business. Instead, they will often self-finance their company, severely hampering its growth potential. When they do take on debt, they often don’t ask for enough to manage their medium or long-term needs and often pay it back quickly, again limiting their ability to scale. Helping them understand how to leverage financing to expand their reach and audience is key.

Increasing the balance of representation of women-owned and women-led SMEs in Canada can have tremendous impact on our economy in driving growth and prosperity for years to come. Inspiring and supporting them to grow and scale by accessing new global markets can help them increase revenues, be more sustainable and drive innovation. Empowering women economically strengthens families and communities and builds a healthier world for us all.