The Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) has released their Interim Report capturing the story of WOSEN, from launch to mid-way through its three-and-a-half-year initiative (2019-2023). The collective goal of the project is to create a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem across Ontario that supports the development of women-owned and women-led* ventures that have a positive social and environmental impact, building a prosperous and resilient economy for all in Ontario. To do this, WOSEN focuses on supporting entrepreneurs from underserved and underrepresented communities.
Through the design and delivery of four programs and knowledge products, WOSEN is co-creating new equity-focused education and training products, increasing access to resources and capital, and building equity-deserving women founders’ capacity to innovate and adapt, which will also reap broader community benefits. During this reporting cycle, WOSEN has met its programing deliverables, and in many cases exceeded the intended project engagement numbers.
Mid-way through its mandate, WOSEN has engaged 700+ women and entrepreneurial ecosystem stakeholders across 120 communities of these individuals, 97 percent of whom self-identified as being from underserved groups. The program has unlocked approximately $1 million in capital for women founders, and built significant practitioner capacity to support this demographic.
During this reporting cycle, WOSEN supported women connected to 248 early-stage enterprises and 121 resilience or growing enterprises who would have otherwise struggled to access coaching and support to advance their business. Participants have indicated they gained knowledge and there has been positive shifts in attitudes and behaviors that will benefit them in their endeavours. Additionally, they felt that they were able to expand and build new relationships and networks that they can rely on for support going forward.
Entrepreneurship is a personal endeavour, and while systems of support are one pathway to facilitating entrepreneurs’ success, personal capacity to navigate the various challenges inherent in running a business is critical. On changes in participant attitudes, the highest voted behavioural characteristics resulting from programming included 63 per cent feeling energized and excited and 60 per cent feeling more confident. Speaking on changes in behaviour, 72 per cent reported feeling more curious in exploring solutions. These statistics point to the success of programs in preparing participants with critical tools needed for their entrepreneurial journey and also in broadening their perspectives and opening them up to new and more inclusive ways of thinking and relating to one another.
“I entered the START program with what I believed was a minuscule idea to serve my communities. I leave the START program understanding how the impact I seek to make intersects with numerous factors - my business plan, my market research, the stakeholders I engage with, and who I am,” shared one participant from WOSEN’s START accelerator program that supports women interested in starting or growing a social enterprise. “Surrounded by incredibly supportive and like-minded women entrepreneurs, I leave START confident in my abilities to mould a sustainable social enterprise that best serves my communities.”
94 per cent of respondents shared that they felt the programming was meaningful to them, highlighting the efficacy of the developmental evaluation approach of the program where participant feedback is continually integrated into each subsequent session. Overall, the program received a net promoter score of 68 answering the question how likely would the participant be to recommend the program.
Building practitioner capacity
Many stakeholders within the entrepreneurial ecosystem such as mentors, coaches and investors do not have the skills, tools, business networks or funding models to meet the unique needs of the women that WOSEN is focused on serving. WOSEN has been able to engage diverse ecosystem stakeholders contributing to program design, delivery, knowledge product development and professional development throughout the project contributing to the development of field practitioners.
Practitioners who participated in WOSEN programming appreciated the deep learning and professional development underpinning the fostering and growth of women owned and women-led ventures, with a focus on equity and inclusion practices. These individuals emphasized the value and role of reflective practice in advancing this field. The establishment and strengthening of relationships and networks within the entrepreneurial ecosystem has also contributed to WOSEN’s success in reorganizing the way the current entrepreneurial system works to enable women to participate and prosper in business and society.
“Being given the space where it is actively encouraged to think critically and practically about systems transformation has been an incredibly powerful thing,” said one WOSEN practitioner. “I feel confident in saying that my participation in WOSEN programming, and the relationships built with the other partners, the participants, and the communities we engage with has helped me grow to be a better person, and a better support in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Based on practitioners’ reflections, the collaborative considers that there has been significant learning around the project’s goals: disrupting the entrepreneurial ecosystem by redesigning business supports for underrepresented and underserved women founders, enabling them to build capacity and flourish while simultaneously influencing stakeholder engagement toward more inclusive equitable practices.
Sharing social innovation learnings
In addition to program delivery, the collaborative has committed to Identifying, creating and mobilizing knowledge capturing WOSEN’s learning and impact to inform and influence practitioners and the ecosystem stakeholders. The project is taking an ecosystem approach to shift perspectives and practices towards more equitable and just economies by collaborating and sharing knowledge with a diversity of people in the entrepreneurship sphere.
The interim report as a knowledge product in and of itself reveals four key lessons from the WOSEN experience that may prove critical to the reorganization of the current entrepreneurial system to foster the growth of women-owned and women-led ventures with a positive social and environmental impact:
- Establish a collaborative founded on trust and dedicated to collaboration and co-creation in addressing system change;
- Ground the work in WOSEN Design Principles, an inclusive, anti-racist and decolonizing framework;
- Adopt a developmental evaluation approach to support ongoing reflection and assessment informing co-creative and responsive design;
- Reduce the amount of facilitator delivered content, creating opportunities for more discussion, dialogue and relationship building between participants and tailor content to meet smaller group or more individualized needs.
The collaborative will integrate the findings of this report into upcoming program and knowledge mobilization approaches and urges all connected to the entrepreneurship ecosystem to reflect on how they can integrate WOSEN’s approach to inclusive ecosystem development. Going forward, WOSEN will be continuing its innovative START and GROW Accelerators, Women-Centred Innovation Learnings, Social Enterprise Ecosystem Development and Investment Readiness Supports programming, and launching a new Funder Pairing program, matching investment-ready founders with suitable investors as well as education dedicated to reaching markets abroad and supplier diversity.
The Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network is a collaboration between Pillar Nonprofit Network, Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), SVX and NORDIK Institute’s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship (SEE). This project is funded in part by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.
*All programing is inclusive of Two-Spirit and non-binary/genderqueer individuals.