Of Passion And Empowerment

A nucleus of entrepreneurial talent and a brilliant concept brought together 3,000 women from across Canada and around the world to talk up enterprise mentoring and networking. Meet the Northumberland women who pulled it off.

Julilyn woods hit the reset button on her career and her life when she moved a couple of hours east from Toronto in 2018.

She had a decade of experience at ad agencies in the city, including driving the first social media marketing campaigns for clients like Werther’s and Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart charity program.

“I was finishing up my second maternity leave and I was thinking about where I would work,” Julilyn says of putting down roots far from the corporate ladders and big city hustle. “I started doing some freelance projects. Then I hired someone to start helping me and it kind of organically grew.”

She officially launched The Small Social Company in 2019, an agency that’s found its niche in digital marketing. In fact, her monthly business revenue shot up 40 per cent from the beginning of 2021, still deep in COVID, through the fourth quarter – she now has eight people on her team.

Julilyn credits her success, in part, to the networking and skills development offered at StrikeUP 2021, a virtual conference for women entrepreneurs that aimed to fire up the ambition and confidence of its 3,000 registrants (hitting it out of the park as a first-time event).

Through on-line workshops and mentor meetups, she learned strategies for search engine optimization and email marketing, key to her industry, and managing the challenges of cash flow and sourcing investors.

The free one-day conference also opened doors to learning and support that would continue long after the jam-packed streaming on March 4.

“The speakers were phenomenal,” Julilyn adds. “I follow them online, whether it’s signing up to their email newsletter or following them on social and just seeing what they’re sharing. And I like that, that’s exactly what I wanted.”

Participants can even access the conference content until the end of the year for a refresh.

StrikeUP, through the support of partners like Sprott School of Business, Business Development Bank of Canada, and the International Black Economic Forum, brought in some of the top women influencers. When would you ever get Q&A time with CBC Dragon’s Den co-star Manjit Minhas, founder of the 10th largest brewery in the world?

Or join a workshop with Melissa Davis, president of Toronto’s Ugly Dukling fashion that collaborates with celebrities and iconic brands like Barbie to create adult capsule collections (you might have seen her pop-ups at Cineplex Theatres).

Here’s the really cool thing: This nucleus of entrepreneurial talent and support – that brought together women from every province and territory in Canada and 27 other countries – originated right here in Cobourg at the Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC).

This is the non-profit group that promotes business development and job creation programs like the Venture 13 hub for start-ups. They partnered on the initiative with the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), an ecosystem of 19 groups across southern Ontario supported by a federal $6 billion investment.

“There’s a hungry side of women entrepreneurs who are ready to lead and grow and scale, and we couldn’t be more proud to help connect them to mentors and partners to help them achieve those goals,” says Devon Girard, StrikeUP co-founder and lead for Northumberland’s WES group.

Statistics show that only 16 per cent of Canada’s small and medium-sized businesses are owned by women, although economists say that advancing gender equality and women’s participation in the economy could add up to $150 billion in GDP.

Through the pandemic, we’ve seen women leave the workforce in droves to care for kids during the lockdowns, reimagine their work and life balance, and escape urban congestion for a home in the country. “The brunt of the challenges that arose with COVID in terms of the online schooling and childcare fell on every woman’s shoulders who I know. That’s just how we operate as women,” says Devon.

“When there was an opportunity to develop programming and look at what supports we have to help women entrepreneurs, it just aligned with my passion to help elevate women and ensure that they know there’s a community of support around them,” she says, “to simply bring them up to a level playing field and provide that equality.”

Discussions covered topics like available funding, how to access suppliers and distributors, and discover pathways to new markets. There were more than 5,500 connections made at the conference, along with 7,000 client referrals.

So, why can’t women lead the post-pandemic economic recovery?

Canada’s goal is to double the number of womenowned businesses by 2025. Canadian companies like Shopify, Export Development Canada, Scotiabank, UPS and Peterborough-based Peak Benefit Solutions have a vested interest in tapping into the potential of women entrepreneurs and connecting them with opportunities. They’re committing meaningful dollars to StrikeUP 2022 which is now in the works.

Looking ahead, the 2022 conference builds on the spirit of diversity and inclusion with a workshop designed for Indigenous women, a keynote address by Jennifer Harper of Cheekbone Beauty (on a mission to support Indigenous youth), and insights on supplier diversity from organizations like the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and the Inclusive Workplace and Supply Council of Canada.

“We designed a day with higher learning that will change with speakers, with workshops and winning strategies,” says Wendy Curtis, StrikeUP co-founder and CFDC executive director.

“The content will be contemporary. We want to have the pulse of women’s issues that are current. I hope that they take away a deeper belief in themselves. I hope that they go, ‘wow that resonates.’ I want it to be relevant. And to women who are balancing multiple things, I want them to feel like they’re not alone. They just need to find out what those barriers are and to say, ‘okay, I can’t do this, but I can do that.’” Wendy says the 2022 event is going to be just as transformational, so get ready.

Story by:
Karen Hawthorne

[Winter 2021/2022 departments]