Celebrating 20 Years of Helping Businesswomen

By Brigitte Audet Martin

It’s been 20 years since Global Affairs Canada launched the Business Women in International Trade (BWIT) initiative, and the anniversary brings much cause for celebration.

The BWIT program, which is part of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), has helped hundreds of Canadian women achieve their international business goals. From maintaining a robust website, to organizing trade missions specifically for women-owned companies, BWIT is an important part of the TCS. It provides tools to help women entrepreneurs access global markets.

To date these trade missions have helped women secure millions of dollars in contracts, says Josie Mousseau, who heads the BWIT program. BWIT currently organizes two or more missions each year which provide opportunities for women to network with potential business contacts and clients—and with other Canadian businesswomen. BWIT helps in various ways such as setting up one-on-one business meetings and helping women perfect their “elevator pitch” to make that crucial good first impression.

“Businesswomen may need support in crafting their message‎ to promote their products or services. The trade missions are a powerful instrument to put them in front of the right people,” Mousseau says. “We’ve had an enormous amount of positive feedback. It’s a great opportunity for businesswomen who are either exporting or export-ready but not currently exporting, to get out there in a very comfortable, supportive environment.”

BWIT provides a lot of training and mentoring leading up to each trade mission, with several webinars, advice, and education on what to expect and how to make the most of it.

Paige Kirk, Lynne Thomson, Josie Mousseau, Edith Morency, Miriam López-Arbour
Team BWIT is ready to help you: Paige Kirk, Lynne Thomson, Josie Mousseau, Edith Morency and Miriam López-Arbour

“We talk about what they need to know, sharpening their pitch—how to represent their business in front of these companies and what kind of companies are out there,” Mousseau says, adding it’s also up to the businesswomen to “do their homework in advance.”

Some have questioned why there is a need for separate trade missions only for women when regular, gender-neutral trade missions are open to everyone, Mousseau says, “but the majority of women prefer the women-only trade missions. The benefit is that women are very supportive of each other. It’s not as much of a competitive environment.”

After they meet during a trade mission welcoming session, participants are keen to help each other, Mousseau says.  For example, during a one-on-one meeting with a potential client, one woman told her contact about another participant whom she thought could assist them, and passed along the woman’s business card. That type of mutual support between participants is not uncommon, she says, adding they get many returning participants.

“Even those who have exported before and are multi-million dollar organizations like to participate on our missions. They like the support network,” Mousseau says, adding BWIT gains many new clients through word-of-mouth promotion by past participants to their friends and contacts. The trade missions are usually led by ministers or other high-ranking officials, giving the events a high profile. Contacts like that the Government of Canada is endorsing the trade mission participants as credible suppliers to their global value chains. “That speaks volumes.” 

The BWIT program grew out of an initiative in 1997 to commit resources to assist women entrepreneurs. Canada’s embassy in Washington D.C. organized the first women-only trade mission in November 1997. Sergio Marchi, then international trade minister, led a delegation of 125 women to Washington. It was a success, with five companies signing deals worth more than $10 million and numerous others making valuable connections.

The BWIT program has continued to expand over the years, says Mousseau. She joined the BWIT team in 2009. About six years ago—in 2011—she noticed women entrepreneurs were becoming a “hot topic” of discussion. That year, Canada led a delegation to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women in the Economy Summit in San Francisco, hosted by Hillary Clinton, then United States Secretary of State.

At that time, major Canadian banks came out with studies looking at women entrepreneurs and “what that client base was all about and what their potential was to the Canadian economy. That’s when it really started to resonate and  when the subject of women entrepreneurs was catapulted,” she says.

The studies suggested that although the number of female entrepreneurs was growing—albeit slowly—in Canada, it still represented a smaller proportion of small-business owners and as such, was an “untapped resource.” For example, one study by Royal Bank of Canada economist Laura Cooper reported that in 2011 women-owned companies accounted for 15.6 percent of all small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Canada as of 2011, up from 14.9 percent in 2007 and 13.7 percent in 2004.

The subject of women entrepreneurs as a socio-economic factor continues to gain momentum today, says Mousseau, noting that earlier this year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump announced the creation of a Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders. The joint initiative is intended to contribute to economic growth, leadership and competitiveness by way of assisting women-owned businesses.

Many improvements have been made in raising awareness about the contributions and needs of women entrepreneurs over the past twenty years, but there is still work to be done.

“Needs haven’t changed, but I’ve certainly seen a lot of improvements in understanding and meeting the needs of SMEs over the years,” she says. “The improvement has been in the discussions.  If you are not having conversations about businesswomen—about their needs, increasing interest and engagement in exporting, and about the growth of businesswomen—then how can progress be made?”

Support from trade commissioner colleagues around the world is encouraging, Mousseau says, adding many subscribe to the BWIT newsletter and discussion group on LinkedIn and are supporting the BWIT mandate through various events.

“That, to me is so rewarding because I know that they get it and they want to help and they want to see businesswomen succeed. They are doing that in so many ways—for example they are looking for additional copies of our newsletter because they are going out to events and showcasing Canada as one of the world leaders in assisting businesswomen.”

In addition to work done by the BWIT team, Mousseau credits many individuals—including politicians, civil servants and entrepreneurs—for helping to advance the success of businesswomen.

Supplier diversity initiatives by large corporations is also playing a key role in levelling the playing field for businesswomen, Mousseau says, adding it has been a “great lever to access corporations because most Fortune 500 companies have a supplier diversification program.” Supplier diversification programs include the requirement that a business be officially certified as woman-owned, for example.

There is new ground to be covered in the future, Mousseau says. For example, now that BWIT has organized many successful trade missions within North America, they are looking at new markets, such as Europe—especially given the recent signing of the Canada-European Union (EU) Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Raising awareness amongst Canadian entrepreneurs of the services available for businesswomen is also a priority, Mousseau notes.

 “We are always looking at ways to better support the needs of businesswomen to help them grow their business and ease the path to globalize.“

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