Only ten days before Toronto went into lockdown in March 2020, a group of 57 women from 51 companies met for the launch party of ELLA (Entrepreneurial Leadership and Learning Alliance) a York-led community and accelerator for women entrepreneurs. What was designed as a six-month program of mentorship, workshops and collaborations had to pivot quickly, moving the group and program virtually, turning in-person meetings to Zoom meetings, accountability sessions into peer support sessions, and making sure the program could deliver what it intended – a chance to change the businesses and the lives of exceptional women.
The program delivered. And, for these entrepreneurs, it was the lifeline they needed throughout the tense days of COVID, balancing work and home life.
This was the case for Seema Sanghavi, the CEO of Cooks Who Feed, a company that sells aprons to raise money for food-rescue programs, and partners with organizations that redistribute food to the less fortunate. This had not been her first business accelerator program, but what Sanghavi found in ELLA was community. The mother of three young children was thrown into the same cauldron as many working moms, and ELLA was exactly what she needed.
“The struggles were similar, and it was easier to relate to a group of just women because you can allow yourself to be more vulnerable,” says Sanghavi. “ELLA helped me connect with a community and discuss all my challenges – in business, and as a mother. I think having this support system helped most of us get through COVID. You become less hard on yourself when you know others share your struggles. Any mom who is an entrepreneur will tell you – you don’t feel like you are putting in enough time at home, but the business is thriving, or the other way around. It is a balancing act. Having a sounding board was invaluable.”
ELLA provided each entrepreneur with a one-on-one mentor, monthly meetings with their peers, small breakout groups where they could talk through their business challenges. They had to adapt along the way says Nicole Troster, the Entrepreneurship Manager of the ELLA program – adding workshops to help women learn important digital skills because traditional methods for reaching customers were no longer working.
“ELLA gave them tools to help their business in a difficult time, but access to people going through similar things. We would be in a workshop, and there would be an entrepreneur on the call with her children in her lap, trying to balance work and life,” says Troster. “COVID has disproportionately hit women – and we saw this in our cohort. ELLA gave them a community they could use for skills development and training, but also a community of peers that could relate to the challenges they were facing.”
Women lead only 16 percent of businesses in Canada. This is one of the driving forces behind ELLA. Funding is also an issue for women, says Troster – women receive less venture capital, bank loans and angel funding then their male counterparts. This impacts the way women structure their businesses – and often can be a ‘make or break’ moment. “Some of these businesses would have been fine, others were struggling. They, like most businesses, had to adapt quickly. What was interesting was seeing the collaborations take place, which was really exciting.”
That was the magical piece for Chantal Carter, the CEO of Love and Nudes, a clothing brand that has developed a line of wire-free bras and panties celebrating the diverse skin tons colors of the world. “Being part of ELLA got me out of my own head,” says Carter. “You think the same tired crap that doesn’t make sense – and sometimes you just need to talk it out, and there is someone else in the group with amazing ideas.
Carter’s most important collaboration came by means of an accountant she met during the cohort. Carter had admittedly struggled with the accounting side of her business for years, but through ELLA faced this fear. “I had a lot of shame around that piece of my business, and then I had a safe space to talk about it. How can I ask the universe for more money if I can’t take care of what is already there? Through ELLA, I met an amazing accountant that I trust is able to hold my hand through it. I was stuck longer than I needed to be – I am not stuck anymore.”