Cisco banking on women entrepreneurs

Creative urge, combined with frustration over the glass ceiling in many traditional businesses, has led many women to consider an alternate work path. Female entrepreneurship, displayed in the establishment of women-led businesses, is also a function of the broader economic climate: in Canada, as in many other global regions, the small to mid-sized business serves as a major employer (SMBs account for 90 percent of employment according to Economic Development Canada) as well as a key contributor to GDP (close to 30 percent as per EDC figures). As a source of opportunity for women, then, the creation of new businesses is a strategy that flows from macro-economic conditions – and out of personal experience.

In Canada, though, women lead only 15.5 percent of SMEs, a stat that has led Cisco Canada to consider ways to expand female leadership in this important economic segment, and how to support the acceleration of high growth operations run by women. Citing an RBC study, VP of national affairs for Cisco Canada Willa Black argued that women-led businesses so far have contributed $148 million to GDP, but that if the share of female business leaders was increased by only 10 percent, their GDP contribution would be closer to $2 billion. More female leadership would be good for women – and for the country – so the argument goes. “We think it makes good business sense to do this,” she noted.

So what are the barriers to more and more successful female leadership in a business segment that serves as a major contributor to Canadian productivity? Based on a review of relevant literature, Cisco’s view is that the primary obstacles are a lack of access to capital, lack of mentors and a lack of understanding around how to build IT strategies that leverage technology – and social technology in particular – to drive growth. According to Black, what Canada needs is not necessarily more SMBs, but rather more high growth businesses – an outcome that Cisco aims to encourage with a new capacity building program designed to provide the business training, technical support and low to zero cost IT platform needed to catalyze women-led business acceleration.

With launch of the Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle timed to coincide with opening of the Innovation Centre located in the Cisco’s new Canadian headquarters, the team had six weeks to assemble the new program. As Black explained, this tight time frame was achieved through the help of partners, including Women of Influence, Waterloo-based tech incubator Communitech and the Business Development Bank of Canada who agreed to nominate six candidates from high growth businesses as potential participants in the program and to identify tech students from the University of Waterloo who would work under the guidance of Cisco experts in the new Innovation Centre to help women leaders refine technology strategy. The team also benefitted from the comprehensive corpus of training materials available in the Cisco Networking Academy, which served as a resource base for development of the women’s Circle curriculum.

The Circle program is composed of three pillars as follows:

The Circle of Learning, consisting of seven virtual training modules totaling over 90 hours of training provided by the Cisco Networking Academy. Self-paced learning courses, focused on business and technical topics such as Entrepreneurship, Be Your Own Boss, Get Connected, Cisco Packet Tracer, Introduction to the Internet of Everything, Mobility Fundamentals, and Introduction to Cybersecurity, are offered as set curriculum to program participants free of charge.

The Circle of Productivity, a managed service product bundle consisting of collaboration and networking technologies that Cisco has designed for ease of deployment and integration. The ‘Entrepreneur Xperience’ hosted platform features essential tools for business communication, collaboration, and connectivity, such as phones, routers, switches, provided with zero percent capital financing and a per seat licensing fee.

The Circle of Innovation, a program run (and funded) by Cisco in partnership with Communitech and the BDC, which will pair three student interns from the University of Waterloo with women entrepreneurs to help build the organizations’ digital strategy, in order to accelerate market impact. Working out of the new Cisco Innovation Centre, interns will access resources such as Cisco’s DevNet crowd sourced developer community, and mentors within Cisco Canada throughout the 12-week program in their efforts to build and test new technology platforms that support participating businesses. Student interns will receive course credit in exchange for their contributions.

As a catchall for addressing key obstacles and opportunities for SME business growth, the Cisco program has much to offer – Black calls it “an elegant program that touches three important levels: it improves women’s education, drives their productivity and helps advance their innovation.” As a consistent or formalized approach to resource development, the program methodology is less clear – is the goal to develop women leaders’ technical skills, to provide managed services that make technology acquisition for operations dead simple, or to outsource the development of digital strategy, applications and platforms? Does a participant like BridgIT, a SaaS provider of process management software for construction sites, have significant need to simplify management of operational technology needs or to refine its applications?

If the answer to these questions is likely to play out over time as women entrepreneurs find in the Cisco program the resources that best align with their particular requirements, capacity building is another area that may benefit from further articulation. “Our goal is broadly to increase capacity for that demographic [female SME leaders],” Black explained, with six entrepreneurs accepted into the program in the first year, and the ideal candidate a high growth SME with two to five years of experience and 25 plus employees (as opposed to a startup). Expansion of the program, however, will presumably depend on some evaluation of success metrics, without which many programs have floundered. Acclimatizing women entrepreneurs to Cisco technology makes “good business sense” indeed, as will assessment that can serve to support ongoing sustainability of program funding, expansion and impact.

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