Thank you very much.
On behalf of the Women's Enterprise Organizations of Canada, I want to extend our extreme appreciation for being included in your meeting today.
I'm also the CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs. We are part of the Women's Enterprise Initiative, WEI, in western Canada, which is funded by Western Economic Diversification.
To talk a bit about the Women's Enterprise Organizations of Canada and to give you a context for our perspective in relation to international trade, WEOC, as we call it, is an organization that is formed nationally of members who work directly with women entrepreneurs. We are an organization to support other organizations in their efforts to help women entrepreneurs in Canada build the capacity and the access to the resources they need.
As many of us know, and as studies have shown, to this date, women-led ventures are still an underutilized resource. As the representative from OWIT mentioned so nicely, we are seeing that there is still considerable opportunity to engage women entrepreneurs, in particular in international trade, as a component to being successful business owners in Canada.
In relation to trade, we know that our entrepreneurs seek international opportunities in many cases but find that there are some barriers to becoming successful in international markets. One of the things we've observed in our 20-plus years of working with women entrepreneurs is that there are some systemic issues as well as some internal issues that are faced by women entrepreneurs in relation to their pursuit of international trade opportunities.
There are key areas that experts have looked at.
The first is the lack of resources and the lack of access to networks. By “resources”, quite often we mean capital. It's access to money that they need, whether it's private equity or debt financing or other forms of capital, to get them to grow and expand, in particular into international markets.
The second is access to decision-makers in those networks. Not only is there often an issue within our own provinces in getting to decision-makers to actually make sales and generate revenue, going into international markets creates an added layer of complexity. We know that there are some great resources available through the government, and we do encourage our entrepreneurs to access them, but there is still an ambiguity in awareness of those opportunities and how to best maximize them.
The third piece is the actual direct connection into those markets. We've been doing a lot of work on that in the western provinces in particular through a project on expanding international trade in western Canadian women-owned businesses. We want to look at how we can expand the opportunities for women to access new markets, to make the right connections and alliances, and, at the same time, to look at a holistic approach to get them the resources they need.
We've been working through this project with our women entrepreneurs to provide them with resources towards financing, equity capital, and leadership capacity, as well as direct connections through trade missions into markets. What we have seen since January 2015 is that our 138 firms in western Canada that have participated have generated over $70 million in leads. That's tremendous.
Has it translated directly into contracts? Not quite, which demonstrates that there is still a gap that needs to be filled in providing access to those contract opportunities and winning those contracts for women entrepreneurs. I'm speaking only from the western Canadian experience, but when looking at the studies, I believe that this translates to women entrepreneurs across the country.
In essence, we are definitely trying to increase participation rates in international trade. We see that there is an appetite when there is an understanding of the opportunities.
We know that trade agreements such as NAFTA, as well as bilateral trade agreements, provide more awareness of the doors that can be opened for Canadian-owned businesses, in particular for women-owned businesses, if there is a gender lens and gender focus on portions of those agreements—for example, with supplier diversity. How can we take the best practices of countries such as the U.S., for example, in their efforts in supplier diversity and look at how that could be complementarily used in Canada as well as Mexico?
There are organizations working in supplier diversity right now to encourage minority suppliers and business owners to access those contract opportunities. Through agreements like NAFTA, we can strengthen the position of our small and medium-sized enterprises to get access to those contracts.
On behalf of the Women's Enterprise Organizations of Canada, thank you so much for offering us the opportunity to share our perspective and join in the conversation. We hope to be part of this in the future.