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Tory's new innovation chief will champion women in start-ups

Coun. Michelle Holland, who takes on the new role of Advocate for the Innovation Economy, told Metro one her top priorities will be helping women CEOs

Marie Chevrier is the CEO and founder of Toronto based start-up Sampler.

Courtesy of Marie Chevrier

Marie Chevrier is the CEO and founder of Toronto based start-up Sampler.

Getting more women into Toronto’s startup scene will be a top priority for the mayor’s new innovation czar.

Coun. Michelle Holland was named the city’s Advocate for the Innovation Economy this week in a shuffle at the mid-term point of John Tory’s four-year term.

Holland told Metro she’ll spend her time meeting with entrepreneurs, and investors, looking for ways to be more “proactive” in the face of disruptors like Uber and Airbnb, as well as getting more gender diversity in Toronto startups.  

According to a 2014 U.S. study out of Babson College business school in Massachusetts, only 2.7 per cent of venture capital funds went to companies headed by women between 2011 and 2013.

While Holland said she doesn’t have comparable stats for Toronto, she knows startups here are “definitely behind on gender.”

“You can go into a room and there will be not very many women at all,” said the Scarborough Southwest councillor, who is also pushing to get more women on city boards.

She’s still figuring out her next steps in the new role, but one of the first ones will be to appoint an advisory board that will be well stocked with talented women.

“It’s not about taking away from anybody, this is just about growing the other part,” she said.

Marie Chevrier, CEO and founder of Toronto based start-up Sampler, has managed to raise more than $2 million from investors but said it can be tough for female entrepreneurs like herself.

“I’d say that amongst my peers of women founders we have found is it’s not impossible, it just takes a little longer,” she said over the phone from Silicone Valley.

Michelle McBane, an investment director with the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund, said one of the reasons is because there are fewer women investors.

Since “people invest in what they’ve had success with and what they know and what they recognize,” it can be hard to break away from the startup CEO stereotype of “tech guy with a hoodie,” McBane said.

Small steps, like a recent $50 million from the Business Development Bank of Canada to provide money for female entrepreneurs, are a big help to tipping the balance, she said.

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