Women entrepreneurs in Alberta fight to ensure their businesses survive the pandemic
From child care to gaps in financial aid, women wrestle to keep businesses afloat
Alèthe Kaboré launched her dream business, Kyn Apparel, last October.
With the help of a small loan, she invested in fabric and equipment. But COVID-19 ended plans to sell her designs at now-cancelled festivals this summer.
Kaboré, who is shifting her focus to online sales, is now one of many women in Alberta worried that her small business won't survive the pandemic.
"What do I do? If I close the business now, how do I repay my loan?" she said in a recent interview.
Some female entrepreneurs are experiencing unique challenges as a result of COVID-19, with many either not qualifying for financial support under the existing relief programs or struggling to figure out if they do.
As a one-woman operation, the only government relief programs that apply to Kaboré's situation are business loans, but she says she can't take on more debt.
Child care and other challenges
Prior to COVID-19, just 16 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses across Canada were run by women, according to figures from the federal government.
"We need to make sure that that number doesn't decrease coming out of the pandemic," Katherine O'Neill, chief executive officer of the Edmonton YWCA, said in an interview last week.
Doing that requires assisting female entrepreneurs as they deal with complications ranging from access to financial support, rental subsidies and child care, O'Neill said. The YWCA wants the province to develop a long-term strategy to preserve affordable child-care spaces as more parents are able to return to work.
"These are the things that need to be sorted out quickly so that they can survive this crisis," O'Neill said.
Alberta Children's Services said the majority of child-care centres intend to reopen with modified operations, helped by $18 million in support from the province.
An online application has been launched to speed the process of certifying early childhood educators, centres won't have caps on the number of spaces and amended regulations will allow older siblings to attend the same facility, said Children's Services Minister Rebecca Schulz in an email.
"These changes ensure that as child care facilities are following the most stringent health and safety guidelines the sector has ever encountered, red tape in child care licensing regulations doesn't inhibit their ability to serve families and solve new problems we are all facing," Schulz wrote.
In the most recent April figures, 53 per cent of the hundred or so businesses surveyed by the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce predicted they might not make it.
Annie Dene-Wade is determined not to be one of them. The owner of The Privatory Ltd. on Whyte Avenue is awaiting the day she can reopen her waxing studio.
But with no employees, she doesn't qualify for the federal wage subsidy program, and it has been hard to figure out what benefits — if any — she can access.
Adding to that challenge, Dene-Wade is the sole provider for her four children.
"I have to manage everything by myself," she said. "It's hard but I like to think positively. I always say, 'I'm going to make it through.'"
Kaboré and Dene-Wade also illustrate realities common among black women entrepreneurs in Edmonton: many are still in the start-up phase and have no employees, so they can fall through the cracks when it comes to financial aid, according to Black Canadian Women in Action (BCWA).
That makes them particularly vulnerable to the economic impacts of COVID-19, said BCWA executive director Jeanne Lehman.
"Some of them will be discouraged, some of them will just close their business," Lehman warned. "Unfortunately they don't have the means to continue."
Hotline to help
On Monday, the federal government launched a hotline that will operate for the next four weeks to help small businesses in need of financial planning advice.
"The past few months have been incredibly difficult for small business owners across the country — including in Alberta — and we know the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted women entrepreneurs," said Ryan Nearing, press secretary for Mary Ng, the federal minister responsible for small business.
With no one-size-fits-all solution, the government introduced a range of supports that include rent reduction, deferred tax payments and the monthly $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit for people whose income has reduced to less than $1,000 a month, Nearing wrote in an email.
There is also the possibility of qualifying for relief as a rural business, a woman-led tech start-up or an Indigenous woman business owner.
The government is sending parents an extra $300 per child this month under the Canada Child Benefit to help offset pandemic-related costs.
Ottawa is also working with organizations such as Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) to figure out how best to invest $15 million as part of a Women Entrepreneurship Strategy to help businesswomen navigate the crisis.
'Here to listen'
Marcela Mandeville, the CEO of AWE, said her team is helping entrepreneurs connect with — and make sense of —existing support options. Callers can also get advice on business sustainability, shifting into the online space and capitalizing on new opportunities emerging during the pandemic.
"Our advising team is here to listen," Mandeville said. "That's predominately what our advisers have been doing — really listening to what are the challenges [and the] potential solutions."
Her organization is working with other groups to help bridge the gap accessing affordable tools such as software that calculates cash-flow projections. Mental health supports are another priority.
"There's great resources," Mandeville said. "But if you're not in a space to make a decision and take action, it won't be of value."
- Toll-free federal hotline for small businesses: 1-866-989-1080 (daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. MDT). Owners can speak to an accountant to find out which programs best fit their circumstances
- Alberta Women Entrepreneurs: 1-800-713-3558