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What Entrepreneurship Can Learn From Sports’ Push for Gender Equality

There are some major lessons that the business world can learn from this summer of dominance for women in sport.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

This has been a summer of dominance for women in sport. From the breakout performance of 19-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez in the U.S. Open, to the Canadian Olympic women’s team dominating the pitch and the pool, it’s been incredible to watch.

And I’ve seen it all with my daughter by my side. I was watching through the eyes of my 6-year-old girl as barriers were broken and gender roles were redefined in real time.

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The question I have is how do we do the same for entrepreneurship? As a male venture builder, I’ll be the first to admit that our gender demographics have long been out of whack. We see far more pitches from men, fund far more companies led by men and see far more men through successful exits. This represents a deep and fundamental flaw in the nature of business culture and something that absolutely needs to change. I’ve been privileged to work with exceptional female entrepreneurs and see extraordinary results. And yet I’ve also been too slow to own up to what I can do to correct this disparity.

This is a challenge that’s well documented, with incisive perspectives on how to move forward and earnest efforts to drive change from many quarters. Yet, progress across our industry has been painfully slow. As I watched my daughter look up to her new athletic role models, I realized how critical it is that she has the same heroes in business. And while the sporting world has historically been far from a model of equity, and there are still many improvements needed, there may be some relevant lessons to learn for the entrepreneurial community.

Funding and Focus Matter

The Tokyo Olympics were lauded for being the closest to gender parity the games have ever been. But it’s worth noting this progress did not happen overnight. The success of American women at the Olympics, for example, can be largely traced back to a bill called Title IX, which granted equal access to everyone for federally funded programs including sports. There was an acknowledgment that a problem existed, and a pledge to increase funding—which brought participation in girls’ sports from one in 27 to two in five.

That’s a major lesson for the business world, myself included. If we want to open more doors for women entrepreneurs, there must be a concerted, visible and sustained effort to address the problem. That starts with shifting the behaviors of the people who fund startups. The stats paint a dire picture—only 20 percent of new startups in 2019 were led by women, and they received only 2.8 percent of total venture capital funding allocated that year.

Access to capital has historically been among the biggest hurdles facing women entrepreneurs. Some major players, like the Business Development Bank Of Canada, have taken action to dedicate funds to women, but without a conscious and focused effort from frontline investors like me, progress will always fall short of expectations.

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You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

It isn’t merely funding and government initiatives that are propelling women’s Olympic sports to the next level. It’s the flywheel of normalizing women in athletics, highlighting role models and lowering barriers to entry. That virtuous cycle has led to more women athletes and more success.

The same logic holds in entrepreneurship. A U.K. survey found eight in 10 young people couldn’t name a single female entrepreneur, and they were far more likely to think of men as business leaders than women. Kids need to be just as familiar with Sara Blakely, the woman who took Spanx to a billion-dollar valuation, or Cindy Mi, who launched VIPKid to teach kids around the world to speak English, as they are with Bill Gates or Elon Musk. It’s time we champion women entrepreneurs and make them household names.

One from my own backyard: I’ve been so inspired by Barinder Rasode at Grow Tech Labs in Vancouver. When my company started working with her in 2018, she was a female force in the male-dominated cannabis industry. For my daughter to be able to see a woman of color breaking down barriers and helping people along the way is crucial. Without elevating more of these kinds of visible role models, it’s hard to envision or aspire to a career as an entrepreneur.

Generational Shifts and the Power of Consumers

While progress has been slow, there’s enormous power in generational change. Gen Z is the most entrepreneurial generation to date, with studies suggesting 62 percent are interested in starting their own business. They are also driven by noble purposes and a firm belief that business plays a critical role in correcting social injustice. They demand businesses do better and are more likely to support ones that are taking a stand for something.

These generational shifts are reinforced by something equally potent: the bottom line. In women’s sports, an increase in sponsorship, TV revenue and ratings has acted as a positive feedback loop, accelerating interest and participation and driving equity forward.

The same pattern holds for women in entrepreneurship. Investors are realizing that female entrepreneurs represent an enormously valuable talent pool, promising access to new ideas, new energy and new markets. I think of Tara Bosch, the founder of Smart Sweets, whom I met at a Vancouver incubator when she was just starting out. While still in college, she recognized a massive, overlooked market for sugar-free candies and quickly grew from experimenting with recipes in her kitchen to a $400-million exit. The company’s success is not surprising—an arsenal of studies have shown women-led businesses outperform those founded by men. The logic of the bottom line means more funds and attention should flow to women-led startups in the years ahead.

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There’s a final parallel worth noting here. The presence and success of women in sports benefits everyone, not just women. It’s a vehicle for challenging stereotypes and pushing equality in other areas. Research has shown communities with empowered women are healthier, more economically stable and just better places to live. This is a tenet that I was brought up with at home and a staple of my cultural background: equality moves everyone forward.   

The same goes for uplifting women entrepreneurs. Giving women equal access to creating businesses fundamentally improves business culture. It leads to different and more diverse companies being funded, achieving success and influencing change on a societal level. None of this is rocket science—it’s been pointed out time and time again by female founders and advocates striving to democratize access to entrepreneurship. It’s not a new problem, but it’s one that demands action more than ever. Now it’s on investors like me to truly take these lessons to heart.

Shafin Diamond Tejani is the founder and CEO of Victory Square Technologies, which supports technology startups through sustainable growth.

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