Leadership, Innovation, Integrity – Opening Doors for Women in Business

WBE Canada
Written by Allison Dempsey

Dedicated to enabling and supporting the growth of women entrepreneurs, Women Business Enterprises Canada Council (WBE Canada) is a Canadian non-profit organization that is opening doors for Canadian women-owned businesses to supply chains across Canada, North America and globally.

WBE Canada connects women-owned businesses to procurement opportunities through advocacy, certification, development, and promotion while helping corporations and governments deliver on their supplier diversity commitments. By working to remove existing barriers that have traditionally prevented women entrepreneurs from equal access within supply chains and by empowering and facilitating the success of women-owned businesses, WBE Canada is driving innovation, social value, and economic growth in communities across Canada.

Founded in 2009, by 2018 there were 220 certified WBEs in Canada, with 25 corporations supporting supplier diversity and one government organization—the City of Toronto.

“Since 2018, especially during the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in implementation of supplier diversity,” says Silvia Pencak, President of WBE Canada. “Today we have 78 corporate members committed to buying from Canadian women-owned businesses and growing, and they’re coming quickly, with 11 of them government or Crown corporations, which is huge… it’s really nice to see women-owned businesses giving back and becoming corporate members and buying from other women.”

As WBE Canada corporate and government membership rises, so do the number of women-owned businesses looking to WBE Canada certification. Currently there are more than 600 certified WBEs (women business enterprises), with 40 percent located outside of Ontario.

“We’re now seeing a larger implementation of supplier diversity across the provinces, so Canada is taking notice and moving in the right direction,” says Pencak.

When asked whether the industry at large—particularly when it comes to women-owned businesses—is changing for the better, Bobbylynn Stewart, CEO of Breck Construction, a WBE Canada Certified company, responds.

“I’d say we still have a long way to go, but in the last five years, I’ve definitely seen a shift,” she says. “We’re seeing more commitment from large corporate buyers to expand their supply chain to be more diverse, including women-owned businesses. In the construction world, there aren’t a lot of us, but I am seeing more and more. Generally, if you’re going to start a business, it’s something you know something about.”

Encouraging women to enter the trades is challenging, however, and an idea that needs to be introduced early on to help young girls understand there’s a path forward for them in an industry that’s lucrative and rewarding, particularly on the business side. And challenges for women are different, especially if they have children, as they’re usually the primary caregivers. Often construction hours aren’t conducive to a child-rearing schedule, so examining that and finding creative ways to support women in the industry is vital and ongoing.

Attitudes are changing, though.

“I think we’ve gained respect in the industry,” says Stewart. “As a woman in business, it doesn’t matter what you do, you still have to do your job well, you have to do what you say you’re going to do. You have to prove yourself no matter who you are.”

Support is available, she adds. “We just need to get our foot in the door and get those opportunities,” Stewart says. “A lot of these business connections are made on the golf course in male-dominated activities. I’m not often invited to the golf games, and there’s a small group of women in construction. We have to be creative. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but it is very different than it was a decade ago.”

And WBE Canada is playing a vital role in supporting those changes. In 2023, WBE Canada received funding from the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) Ecosystem Fund at ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) to address barriers faced by women-owned businesses. Conducted in partnership with the University of Manitoba and the University of Calgary, the “Fast-Track to Supply Chains” project addresses practical gaps identified by previous research.

“We’re actually looking at the barriers women face to access supply chains,” says Pencak, referencing a series of discussions across the country in different provinces, including territories up north, asking women-owned businesses, corporations, and governments what they feel is lacking in Canada. Subsequently, WBE Canada is looking at how to improve its WBE database to make it easier for buyers to find the right suppliers for their procurement opportunities. At the heart of this improvement is WBE Canada Toolbox, which includes information and resources for corporations and governments on how to develop supplier diversity programs, improve them, and embed them into existing structures. It also includes programming for women-owned businesses who want to do business with corporations and governments, teaching them how to scale up and grow their business, how to export, collaborate, and partner, and how to respond to RFPs.

“Toolbox is constantly being updated and upgraded with new content being added,” says Pencak. “We’re super excited about the revamp. It’s going to be a very exciting and invaluable library of content for buyers as well as suppliers.”

Additionally, in honour of WBE Canada’s 15-year anniversary, a cross-Canada tour is planned with stops in Toronto, Halifax, Moncton, Montreal, Regina, Calgary, and Vancouver, finishing with its 15th Anniversary National Conference in Toronto in November.

“Our national conference traditionally features a tradeshow where women-owned businesses as well as corporations can exhibit,” Pencak says. “They can mingle and interact with each other. We have businesswomen and corporations coming from all across Canada and from the U.S. This year we are even talking about some international delegations joining us.”

Conferences are invaluable for a number of reasons, adds Stewart, whose company recently won the 2023 Top WBE Supplier award.

“We worked hard, and to get that recognition for our entire team was pretty special, that’s for sure,” she says. “The conference was great; it’s hard to put into words. What’s come out of it has been pretty spectacular for us. We’re able to have access to a lot of buyers that we’ve been trying to connect with for years. To be at a conference where you get that face time with them and have these discussions is so valuable.”

While it is about business, it’s also about relationships, she adds, and meeting and having discussions so they understand what services you provide and how you can benefit them and work together is invaluable.

“Within a month of that conference we were invited for a meeting with one fairly major supplier in Ontario, to sit down and see how we could start working together,” Stewart says, adding they were issued their first RFP several weeks ago. “It’s very exciting. We’re really focusing on Ontario this year. It was great, and the support from WBE was pretty outstanding. They’re finding people for me and helping us come together and make that connection. They truly do care and want the best for us. It was a fantastic conference and just a great opportunity that everybody should take part in.”

The 2023 conference pulled in a 50/50 representation of buyers and suppliers—unheard of, says Pencak—with some of the top corporations across sectors including automotive, finance, tech, telecom, energy, government, and other.

“Every buyer who comes is actually looking for woman-owned businesses, and that makes our conference very different,” she says. “We have buyers and we’re connecting them to women-owned businesses coming from all across Canada.”

Once a year, she adds, members all meet and embrace the many networking opportunities. “Women-owned businesses are able to do business together, and that network is just exploding right now,” says Stewart. “We have great people. When I stand on the stage, I tell people, ‘It’s not me, it’s not us. It’s the community that we have.’ People want to work together; they want to do business together. You can feel it the moment you walk into the room.”

Recent challenges have most certainly pertained to barriers in supply chains, says Pencak.

“In 2018 when I came to this space, one of the challenges in supplier diversity was that supplier diversity was almost just a marketing stamp. That was the one thing I decided needed to change in supplier diversity, which is why we introduced training for corporations and governments, so they actually know what supplier diversity is and how to implement it. We decided supplier diversity needs to actually transform how we buy and how women get into the supply chain.”

That was a significant transformation inside Canada, but also externally for women in businesses and supply chains. But simply hearing the stories about all the backing behind supplier diversity wasn’t enough, so WBE Canada began advocating within its corporate and government community to institute tracking and reporting to measure the effectiveness and impact of supplier diversity programs.

“If we don’t measure it, we can’t improve it,” says Pencak. “If we don’t know what the starting point is, we will never be able to move the dial. Tracking and reporting needs to happen, and we need advocates, we need people to speak about it.

Stewart agrees. “A lot of these larger organizations definitely do walk the talk, but sometimes we do see that it’s plastered all over their website and in their promotional materials, but it doesn’t happen in reality,” she says. “It would be great to move toward that type of model.”

As for Pencak’s vision for the organization’s future, it’s bold, transparent, and, of course, honest.

“I would really like to see women just being in supply chains, and not even being a discussion or a question. That is why we exist at WBE Canada—to actually change how Canada buys,” she says. “It’s not easy because we’re talking about massive changes to operations, how companies operate. We’re talking about pushing against biases, we’re talking about pushing against barriers that exist for women, and we’re talking about transparency in all of that, so that the business doesn’t happen around beers or at the golf course, but it happens with transparency, and women are included.”



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