Elizabeth Fry

My Start-Up is an entrepreneurial training and support program for women who want to start their own business and those who have recently launched their business that need additional support. This program is offered in partnership with Rise, a national charity dedicated to empowering people with mental health and addiction challenges to achieve greater social and economic inclusion through entrepreneurship.

Our My Start-Up program is now in it’s third year of inception thanks to the funding received by the Provincial Government and the Government of Canada for its Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES). The strategy “aims to increase women-owned businesses’ access to the financing, talent, networks and expertise they need to start up, scale up and access new markets”

The My Start-Up program serves women who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), living in poverty, single mothers, being criminalized, newcomers, have experienced trauma, as well as living with mental health and substance use challenges. Participants of the My Start-Up program go through two phases that teach them foundational skills and techniques that will benefit their future employment and entrepreneurial endeavors. Women receive small business training that includes marketing, customer analysis, financial management, legal considerations, pitch delivery, creation of a business plan, connection to small business networks, and financing information.

My Start-Up has helped me grow my ideas into a full business! I met some wonderful people who inspired me to be my authentic self & take the initiative to follow through with my goals. We keep in contact & have supported each other’s events. The follow-up has helped me clarify my goals. I continue to work with a diverse group of people who are open to challenging the fears that hold them back, set goals so that they feel better about the decisions they make & lead with confidence.”

My Start-Up program participant

How We Support Our Clients

Our Employment Coordinators support different parts of the program: one supports women during their expression of interest and Phases 1 and 2 of the program, and the other provides post-program supports to participants. For Phase 1, the Preparatory Phase, our Employment Coordinator facilitates workshops that teach women professional communication, self/community care, core skills to be a boss, goal setting and motivation skills, as well as budgeting & money management. For Phase 2, the Educational Phase, our Employment Coordinator sits in on all sessions so she can continue to provide support to women outside of class. Women participating in the My Start-Up program also have access to mentors they can meet with for supplemental support throughout the course of the program.

When women finish the program they have access to financing through Rise and are supported through this process. Participants of the program are also given post-program support where they get referrals to other services they may need, and the opportunity to connect with other alumni of the program. The Employment Coordinator hosts Chill & Chat sessions where participants get to discuss individual successes and challenges, the role mental health has on being an entrepreneur, as well as guest speaker events with women entrepreneurs from different industries.

Employment is Not Accessible to Everyone

Having a criminal record makes it difficult for people to secure employment, regardless of their skill level and work experience, and they are often left to seek out employment programs to help them with their search. Though there are several self-employment training programs out there, many of them are not accessible to the women we serve, especially women who have been in conflict with the law.

There is a need for specific programming that is trauma-informed, low barrier, easily adaptable and aware of the unique needs of women who have been involved with the criminal justice system, experience unemployment, discrimination, trauma, stigma, mental health challenges, substance use, intellectual disabilities and poverty. The My Start-Up program was created to fill this gap and support women who are often left at the margins and that are looking for entrepreneurial career opportunities. Many of the women participating in our program have had negative experiences with the educational system and often do not feel safe learning in traditional educational environments that are not always inclusive or equipped to support other specific needs they may have.

Globally, there continues to be a gender gap in employment and wages. Women are more likely to work in part-time and precarious jobs, likely to be employed in lower-paid occupations, and less likely to progress in their careers. This gap directly increases the likelihood of women living in poverty. More women are turning to entrepreneurship and opening small businesses because it gives them more flexibility, an opportunity to follow their passion, have more control over their future, and the opportunity to be paid fairly. Our My Start-Up program helps women navigate the early stages of entrepreneurship, showing women who wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as a business owner that starting a business can be a viable option for them. Though entrepreneurship comes with its own challenges, it can ultimately give women more autonomy in their employment than in a traditional workplace.

The Impact of COVID-19

Women have unique barriers when it comes to gaining employment and some women are at a greater disadvantage. BIPOC, low-income and recent immigrant women have a harder time securing employment and are at a greater risk of losing their job. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this reality and highlighted the disproportionate economic effects experienced by women also dealing with existing employment gender inequalities. Many people have had to find other ways to supplement their lost income, including looking for new employment, pivoting their existing business into a new direction, or starting a new business. The My Start-Up program team has noticed that financial independence has emerged as a concern for many clients, and the program has adapted to meet the demands of the changing economic environment.

When the pandemic hit, the My Start-Up program was forced to transition to operating entirely online. Though there was a bit of a learning curve for our participants, Program Facilitators and Employment Coordinators, we were pleased to be able to continue to offer this program by transitioning from in-person to online sessions. We were also able to further support our participants by providing them with loaner laptops and internet access to ensure they could continue participating in each session. The program’s success with navigating these challenges was also made possible by our wonderful Facilitator from Rise who understands the needs of the women we serve and could adapt and pivot her teaching style to address the needs of the participants in Phase 2 of the program.

“My Start Up has given me the direction and support I needed to start up this venture and the continued support to enhance and continuously develop my business”.

My Start-Up program participant

In conversation with our Employment Coordinators, Rasheeda and Halyna they shared their most rewarding parts of the My Start-Up program:

  • Further reach when operating online because there are now women who can participate in the program that are outside of the GTA

  • Seeing the change in confidence among the women from the beginning to the end of the program

  • Seeing some of the women develop into natural leaders and provide peer-to-peer support

Benefits for participants:

  • Women going out and furthering their education to complete other certificates and training courses

  • Women are pleased because they now see starting a business is a viable option for them

  • Self efficacy and pride completing a difficult program because of the time and effort they’ve needed to invest

  • Access to financing and help with the process

Rasheeda and Halyna have also highlighted some of the challenges they’ve faced and seen the participants deal with in the program, including the need for more networking opportunities, overcoming the online technical and facilitation challenges, as well as the disconnect from natural and in-person engagement. One Employment Coordinator mentioned that fostering engagement with the program participants needs more active intent and one-to-one communication which is sometimes challenging because it can compete with other demands of the program. Though our program reach has expanded, it can be difficult for some women to participate with COVID-19 restrictions and having to care for their children.

Client Business Highlights

Alethia has launched her own practice called Minds I Like. She is a registered psychotherapist that offers therapeutic workshops, 1:1 counselling sessions and a 12 course module on work/life balance.

Check out Minds I Like on Instagram and Facebook: @mindsilike

Written by: Kendra St. Cyr

Contributions from the My Start-Up team: Halyna and Rasheeda

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