Thank you very much. Good afternoon. It's wonderful to be here.
I'm here as the interim CEO of the Women's Enterprise Centre in B.C., representing the interests of women entrepreneurs who play a critical role in the economic recovery of Canada. Before we discuss how women entrepreneurs have been impacted by COVID-19, it's important to understand the progress we've made to date.
Women entrepreneurs account for 28% of all entrepreneurs in Canada, according to a 2019 BDC study. Prior to COVID-19, it was projected that advancing women's economic empowerment in Canada could add $150 billion in incremental GDP by 2026, with women's participation in entrepreneurship identified, of course, as a key strategy to achieve this.
Entrepreneurship also provides pathways for addressing inequalities and labour force participation for immigrant women, indigenous women, women in rural and remote communities, and women who require greater flexibility in their working structures, yet as an under-represented group, Canadian women entrepreneurs must overcome several financial, systemic and personal challenges. They earn on average 58% less than male entrepreneurs, access less than 3% of venture capital, receive 14% of loans and own just 48¢ in equity for every dollar male founders own.
There are many reasons for these gaps, many of which you would be familiar with, but they're primarily because the systems that have been created are not designed to be inclusive for all and do not address the different needs of women entrepreneurs.
Some 25 years ago, Western Economic Diversification founded the women's enterprise initiative in each of the four western provinces to address these gaps. These organizations focus on four key areas, including offering loans up to $150,000, advisory services, skills development and mentoring. Women entrepreneurs assisted by the women's enterprise initiative have demonstrated more growth than unassisted firms in terms of employment and sales, and they stay in business longer and their labour productivity is higher. We know this holistic plan works and the impact is significant.
Since 1995, the Women's Enterprise Centre in B.C. has provided over $72.8 million in direct and leveraged financing and created over $2.18 billion in economic activity just in British Columbia, which has helped to create or maintain over 3,000 jobs. We can't lose this momentum.
Of course, a key component of this success is collaboration. In 2010, the Women's Enterprise Organizations of Canada, WEOC, was initiated to bring together organizations from across Canada that support women entrepreneurs to share best practices and to advocate through a collective voice for women business owners, and, as many of you know, in 2018 the Government of Canada launched the women entrepreneurship strategy, with the goal of doubling the number of women-owned businesses by 2025 in Canada. Both the Women's Enterprise Centre and WEOC were recipients of this funding.
We're seeing through this coordinated effort many encouraging shifts. For example, women are improving their financial literacy and access to capital. Between 2007 and 2017, we saw this increase by 20%. More women are exporting. We've seen the share of women entrepreneurs exporting nearly double, from 5.9% to 11.2%. Nearly 40% of women business owners are engaging in at least one type of innovation, and we're seeing shifts in overall growth performance. Again, these results are due to increased awareness, consistent support, improved resources and enhanced collaboration among organizations from coast to coast.
Now we are hit with a new challenge in COVID-19. I stepped into this role at the end of March—interesting timing—just as the impact of this pandemic was truly being realized. I have been familiar with the ecosystem. I served on the board of the Women's Enterprise Centre for eight years and I've been active in the Canadian ecosystem for 20 years in various leadership roles, so I have seen a lot of different things. I'm also the co-founder and co-chair of We For She, an annual conference bringing together business leaders of all genders, along with the next generation of young women in grades 10 to 12, with a focus on the economic advancement of women. I also currently serve on the boards of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and the Women's Enterprise Organizations of Canada. I just share this to demonstrate this ongoing commitment to advancing gender equity, but of course with a specific focus on women entrepreneurs and creating new models. It's an absolute honour to serve in my current role at this critical time.
With the onset of the pandemic, many entrepreneurs had to close their businesses as a result of health regulations or a lack of customers. Women entrepreneurs were especially hard hit, as they tend to be in service-related businesses, such as those in retail, accommodation, tourism and food services. Some were able to rapidly adapt to the changing environment, and many, of course, have shifted to working from home. In Canada, 24% of female small business owners have children under the age of 18, so of course the concern is that women are taking on additional household duties, including child care and elder care, and that the gaps outlined earlier in my remarks may widen.
Over the past three months, the Women's Enterprise Centre has risen to the challenge—or should I say opportunity—to provide enhanced support to women entrepreneurs throughout the province of B.C., using our proven model. We've offered increased webinars and business advisory services, and we've seen a 39% increase in the number of one-to-one business advisory appointments and a 202% increase in training participants.
As a development lender, we're able to offer deferred loan payments and interest forgiveness, which 90% of our loan clients accepted. We proactively work with our loan clients based on their specific circumstances, and as a result, our repayment rate over the years has been 94%. This is a model that works for women entrepreneurs, and it will be even more critical as we move forward.
We help entrepreneurs understand their options, create a solid plan for recovery and, currently, navigate the many government programs, including the Canada emergency business account loans of $40,000, for which only 50% of our loan clients qualify. This is because of three main factors.
First is business structure. We know that women entrepreneurs are more likely to be first-time business owners, operating as solo entrepreneurs or self-employed without employees.
Second is loans. Many of these government relief programs are being offered as loans, which is challenging, given the business structure I just described. They are typically characterized by a weaker balance sheet and are often unable to support additional debt.
Third is risk. Women entrepreneurs are risk-astute, not risk-averse. They prefer different forms of support and advice. Because there is an inherent lack of role models, they benefit from holistic one-on-one supports when accessing funding, as women entrepreneurs want to understand and consider all impacts.
This is why programs offered by the women's enterprise initiative are so essential. This is a time of change and reimagination in creating systems and models that are more inclusive and holistic. As we recognize the longevity of this current period of staged recovery, we're continuing to be proactive by offering interest-only payments for the next six months to provide a much-needed cash runway, to relieve financial stress and to enable business owners time to adapt, plan and be more proactive instead of reactive.
Another example of a new model is a partnership launched last month between the Women's Enterprise Centre and Vancity, one of Canada's largest credit unions, which is based in British Columbia. In consultation with the Women's Enterprise Centre, Vancity launched a new loan product specifically designed for women entrepreneurs, keeping in mind their unique needs. The program combines Vancity's loan with the Women's Enterprise Centre's services as wraparound support.
We launched this at the end of June, and there has been a surge of applications, indicating that there are still gaps that exist. This is also significant, as fewer than 30% of women business owners surveyed last year felt that banks, credit unions and government-funded lenders recognize and respond to their unique goals, wants and needs. We want to change this, one credit union and one financial institution at a time.
Helping entrepreneurs navigate all these programs and resources, adapt business models and manage cash flow while maintaining a positive mindset and juggling increased household duties has been the focus of our dedicated team, and we're seeing this with our colleagues across the country. With that, we'd like to suggest the following recommendations for consideration.
The first is about data collection. We know the importance of this. We'd like to request that financial institutions and investors build diversity and inclusion metrics into the key performance reporting metrics for all divisions and sections of their companies that work with and for women entrepreneurs. We want government to apply a gender and diversity lens across economic development, research and innovation, and support for small businesses, including in the COVID-19 recovery programs. For example, tracking the percentage of women entrepreneurs accessing the Canada emergency business account loans would provide valuable insight and identify key gaps.
A second recommendation, which I know this committee has heard several times, is to create a national child care policy. This would enable women to have personal space to focus on business growth during their child-bearing years.
A short-term solution to consider is even a caregiver grant: offering a grant to women entrepreneurs who have taken on additional caregiving responsibilities, which has resulted in decreased productivity—