They range in ages, backgrounds and level of experience. They’re based in different parts of the country. Their companies span industries from cleantech and health to education and enterprise software. But these eight female founders have one thing in common: the relentless pursuit of success in science and tech.
She recalls being “incredibly nervous” before appearing on TV’s Dragon’s Den in search of funding. But that’s not what the audience saw as Alyssa Furtado confidently described the strong growth and healthy cash flow of Ratehub.ca, a company she launched in 2010 that lets mortgage hunters compare rates and find lenders. Before she’d finished, the normally scorching dragons were vying for a piece of the company and trying to sweet-talk her. But the naive-looking young entrepreneur narrowed her eyes and coolly pit one dragon against another before taking the best offer.
The kicker: she never actually sealed the deal. Business was so good that year, Furtado didn’t need their money. She says Ratehub has since become Canada’s No. 1 mortgage-comparison site, providing a free service to consumers in exchange for information about leads it can sell to mortgage providers. In 2014, it opened its own brokerage, competing head-to-head with its corporate customers, and now employs 70 people, up from 45 last year.
Despite the extra staff, there is no shortage of work to do. “Scaling up and growing is really hard …,” she says. “Finding time to grow the business—to work in it and on it—is really challenging,” especially now that she has become a mother.
But Furtado has been in business long enough—“eight years, which seems crazy”—that the nerves no longer show. “The entrepreneurial journey is really about being able to weather the storms,” she says.
“The exciting times are great, but can you find the determination and will to continue through the challenging times?”
So far, for her, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.
Some may consider her career a “sadistic endeavour,” Sarah Prevette admits. A serial entrepreneur since her teens, she had started and sold two digital companies and, with partners, established her own venture-capital fund by the time she decided to become an educator dedicated to the development of “future-ready skills.”
The idea to launch Toronto-based Future Design School sprang from dissatisfaction with her own education. “Most of what I learned was from real-world experience,” Prevette says, whereas “inside my school, I wasn’t learning the skills that are really the most useful to me.”
She wanted to start a school of her own specializing in experiential learning and real-world problem-solving. Then she realized that, by offering programs directly to existing institutions and their teachers, she could scale up the enterprise faster and reach more students. Three years later, her company has worked with “hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers,” she says. “And we’re just getting started.”
It’s still a personal quest for Prevette, whose passion for business was ignited by working at a family friend’s tech startup as a teen. “I just fell in love with this idea of being able to build something on the fly, and being able to grow an idea into something real.”
Her urge to share that experience has led to a flourishing business in its own right. The goal, she says, “is to help kids build their entrepreneurial skills and see themselves as creative, capable people who can tackle anything in the world.”
As founder, CEO and technical mastermind of dairy-industry startup SomaDetect, Inc., Bethany Deshpande is used to a certain awkwardness when she attends meetings with her husband, the company’s chief operating officer.
“People will talk directly to him about my business, about my technology, and I might as well not even be there,” she says. “The more men in the room, the worse it is.”
Happily, Deshpande now has a bigger problem: keeping customers at bay while her company tests prototypes of its optical sensor system, which can detect pathogens and quality issues in milk. “We use machine-learning algorithms to pull as much information from milk as we can,” she explains.
Drawn to Fredericton by programs at the University of New Brunswick, the couple launched SomaDetect in 2016. Deshpande admits she “barely knew how milk was made” when she took up her father’s challenge to commercialize a technology he had developed. He is “the pure scientist of the two of us, for sure,” but she knew startup culture, having been a programmer in young companies as well as an instructor at Waterloo’s SHAD summer program for gifted high school students.
Now, “we’re the world’s premier machine-learning and AI company in dairy,” she says, and SomaDetect, whose system neither wastes milk nor uses chemicals, has certainly taken off. Last fall, it won a $1-million development award in a competition in Buffalo, N.Y.
Casual sexism aside, “what a time to be alive and doing this,” Deshpande says as she looks ahead to entering global markets. “I feel so blessed.”
She is still learning the “business side” of her company, which makes de-icing systems for wind turbines. But being an engineer, Daniela Roeper has a plan: “I have all the books on the topic, lots of people to talk to, great mentors.”
The plan also sees Borealis Wind, now testing prototypes, serving global markets by 2021. Icing is responsible for significant losses in cold-climate wind markets, and Roeper says the Borealis solution is unique. “I have no doubt we will be successful.”
That sort of confidence didn’t come naturally. “At the beginning, I would doubt myself a lot,” she admits. “Should I be doing this? Am I smart enough?” But after thriving at Waterloo’s hyper-competitive, male-dominated Velocity incubator, and attracting $200,000 in development grants, Roeper has solved this problem, too. “You really just need to believe in yourself and not listen to those little voices in your head.”
Waterloo’s Fierce Founders program for women entrepreneurs added another dimension. “It was so different from working with the male founders I was used to,” she says. “Women were willing to be more vulnerable, and to talk more about what was going wrong.” She found she could relax the brave face she’d had to put on.
Her biggest lesson? “Nothing is ever going to go how you plan it,” so you have to be ready to make adjustments. The goal is knowing that, even if it doesn’t work out, “I did my best,” she says.
“But usually my best is more than enough. I guess that’s why we’ve done so well.”
Gender has been no barrier to Montreal-born Marie Chevrier. On the contrary, being a woman is often advantageous because “you’re always looking to stand out,” she says. “I remember pitch competitions where there were 30 founders, and being the only female on stage made me stand out. So did wearing a bright red jacket.”
Chevrier’s entrepreneurial instinct appeared at 13 as a babysitter. Within two years, she says, she had “a small babysitting business,” and operated as a broker for fellow teens. By 2013, when she founded Sampler, she was already an experienced digital marketer.
The company employs technology to improve the distribution of product samples, which Chevrier calls “the most important first touch between a brand and a consumer.” Launched in her apartment, it now employs 18 people in Toronto and New York City, with its most recent investor being beauty-products giant L’Oréal.
As busy as she is, Chevrier makes time to support other women entrepreneurs. “I mentor a ton …,” she says. “That’s the way we move the dial.” For her, the flip side of standing out is sticking together. “If I meet a woman who is doing cool stuff, I immediately give her my card.”
And the bright red jacket? “I wear it all the time.”
Femida Gwadry-Sridhar was a leading health researcher at the peak of her career, the recipient of prestigious awards and a total of $10 million in grants for her work. Then she decided to throw it all away.
“Yes, it’s a bold step,” she says she told herself, “and it’s going to mean I’m not going to make money for a few years or pay myself. But if you really believe in something, you just do it.”
What she did was found Pulse Infoframe, a startup based in London, Ontario, that uses technology to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration in health research, with a focus on cancer and rare diseases. Four years later, she has a staff of 30 serving an international clientele.
What she threw away was an academic career that had become restrictive. “It was a difficult decision, but I also knew I could never fulfill what I wanted to do under the constraints that were put on me,” she says now. “And, frankly, there was a lot of gender bias in the constraints.”
No such obstacles confront her in the private sector, Gwadry-Sridhar says: “If you can illustrate that you know what you’re doing … everything else steps aside.” According to her, “there will always be people who say it can’t be done or it won’t work. It’s up to you to make it work. Don’t give up.”
She admits to being “pretty driven” herself, but says money was never the object. “The motivation is to do something really meaningful.”
Helen Stevenson was not your typical civil servant. A serial entrepreneur, she had founded two consulting firms before she entered public service as a senior government official in 2005. Charged with overhauling Ontario’s subsidized drug program, she saw that government could be a lot smarter than private insurers and employers. “The rigour the public plan put into making decisions was a real model for me,” she says, “especially since the private sector seemed to fund just about any drug no matter how much it cost.”
That disconnect spawned Reformulary Group, which draws on independent medical experts to create a formulary—a comprehensive list of cost-effective drugs—for insurers and employers to consider covering. Employees can also use the company’s DrugFinder app and website to make informed decisions about their own care.
“That has been my crusade since I left government, to really deliver value to employers and Canadians,” Stevenson says, “In government, you have the power of the pen. In this particular role, I have the power of persuasion—persuading companies that the benefits they supply to employees can actually be a benefit to the company, not just a cost.”
Before being recruited to overhaul the Ontario Public Drug Plan, she spent 18 years as a consultant in Europe and Canada. “We had to take apart whole health systems and put them together again.” But she’d acquired the hustle needed to launch her own company even earlier, by selling promotional swag as a student.
Now a relative veteran among female founders, Stevenson has long since overcome the boundaries of the old boys’ network. She made a network of her own, and says: “You’ve just got to reach out … You’ve got to be ruthless about asking for help.”
A lot has changed for Caitlin MacGregor since 2012, when she “hacked together an MVP”—minimum viable product—and set out to revolutionize corporate hiring practices. Based in Waterloo, Ont., Plum now has more than 100 paying customers, in a dozen countries, that use it to harness the principles of industrial organizational psychology so they can recruit better employees more rapidly.
But another big change also excites MacGregor, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “When I started early on, I was always the token female on the panel,” she says, but in just the past year the ratio has shifted dramatically. “There are way more female founders than there were five years ago when we got started.”
Although she applauds the fact that women have “more and more success stories,” she has found being in the spotlight helpful. “It’s been an advantage because we are given the opportunity to stand out,” MacGregor says. On the other hand, “it’s also a disadvantage, because sometimes it’s about who you know, and I’ve felt it has been a little bit harder for me than for some of my male colleagues to tap into the networks.”
Having two children has not held her back, she says. “I’m really proud of how I’ve been able to make it all work.” But not playing hockey with influential people is a drawback in her quest to attract investors.
“I’ve had to be more assertive about looking for those opportunities as our business progresses, because I’ve come to recognize how valuable that network is.”