Cisco leverages IT, marketing, and CSR expertise to launch Women Entrepreneurs Circle

What do you get when an IT giant looks to solve a corporate social responsibility (CSR) challenge in the Canadian economy, and decides to leverage their internal business strengths and connected relationships with key networks to solve it?  You get the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle — a well thought out program of comprehensive technology support for Canadian women entrepreneurs.

“Cisco has committed to helping women to become more successful entrepreneurs by addressing some of the obstacles they face in building their IT capability and business resilience,” says Bernadette Wightman, president, Cisco Canada.

“Women-led businesses are good for Canada,” says Wightman. “While only 15 per cent of all Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses are run by women, research tells us that not only do these businesses boost Canada’s GDP, but they also increase national well-being and competitiveness, improve women’s employability, empowerment and gender equality.”

We know that currently most women’s businesses fall into the segment of small businesses, defined as one to 49 employees. Cisco’s CSR team looked into the research to identify what are the gaps and barriers to growth of women’s businesses and larger contribution to the Canadian economy.

“The Women Entrepreneurs Circle didn’t start off as a business initiative, it started off in economic development and capacity development,” revealed Willa Black, VP corporate affairs, in my recent conversation with her.

“We took a deep dive into the numbers for potential contribution for women entrepreneurs to the Canadian economy,” Black adds. “In an RBC study from 2011, women business owners’ contributed $148 billion to economy. If we think in terms of even incremental increases in the contribution of women business owners, there’s a potential of $200 billion.”

Here’s how looking at those gaps and opportunities for women business owners began to unfold at Cisco Canada:

  • Several years ago, a study revealed a key problem for women entrepreneurs — a lack of basic IT know how and skills to be able to make good technology decisions for their businesses, and develop a digital strategy.
  • Conducting a new survey review to validate whether these concerns still hold now for women entrepreneurs, and indeed the lack of technical knowledge, as well as access to capital are still barriers for women led businesses.
  • Digging into Cisco’s core competencies to evaluate what Cisco could provide to close those technology gaps and support women entrepreneurs.
John Tory, Mayor of Toronto; Alison Gleeson, SVP, Americas, Cisco.
John Tory, Mayor of Toronto; Alison Gleeson, SVP, Americas, Cisco, at launch of Cisco Innovation Centre

By the end of the process, the IT team, the marketing team, and the CSR team had pulled together a comprehensive program, building on Cisco’s internal strengths and their relationships in the IT and technology development sector. The passion and pride is evident as Willa Black describes the three circles that comprise the Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle.

Circle of learning: Cisco Canada Women Entrepreneur Academy.

Women entrepreneurs will be able to access seven online virtual training courses, totaling over 90 hours of training from the Cisco Networking Academy® offered at no cost to eligible registrants. Courses include: Entrepreneurship, Be Your Own Boss, Get Connected, Cisco Packet Tracer, Introduction to the Internet of Everything, Mobility Fundamentals, and Introduction to Cybersecurity.

Cisco leveraged their 30 years of training experience in 160 countries to develop this curriculum with comprehensive information to direct informed decision making, and ask the right questions about their business and technology needs. The content combines with offering the program “on demand,” makes the Academy a practical contribution Cisco could bring to the table.

Circle of productivity: powering entrepreneurs

Customized by business size, and offered through Cisco’s partner network, this fully managed service is simple to deploy with effortless installation and integration. Called the Entrepreneur Xperience, each data centre in a box features everything needed to get a small business communicating, collaborating, and connected: phones, routers, switches to create network capability and maximize productivity in an office environment.

Importantly for these women entrepreneurs, the Cisco program includes a zero per cent financing option, leveraging Cisco Capital’s capability to fund technology investments in these small businesses. As a note of personal experience, identifying the technology needs and financing the IT infrastructure was a challenge in my earlier entrepreneurial ventures.

Cisco Innovation Centre Toronto Grand Opening
Cisco Innovation Centre Toronto Grand Opening

Circle of innovation: bringing digital strategy to life.

A program run by Cisco in collaboration with Communitech and Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). Internship students from the University of Waterloo will be paired with entrepreneurs to help build the organization’s digital strategy, scale and impact in the marketplace. Interns will work from the new Cisco Innovation Centre in downtown Toronto, will be given access to Cisco’s DevNet crowdsourced developer community, and will be provided with Cisco mentoring opportunities throughout the 12-week program.

In conversation with Willa Black, she provided a few more details of the pilot program, fully funded by Cisco. The program will support six women entrepreneurs in this launch year, with three student interns. Participant women entrepreneurs will be selected from nominations provided by Communitech and BDC. Some of the key criteria for business to qualify would be its proven its ability to thrive and grow, ideally over a period of three to five years.

When I asked Willa Black if there is a segment of women entrepreneurs they are focusing on, she said, “no, it’s not a particular segment — every business is an IT business. Whatever the woman entrepreneur sees as the opportunity to scale, or deepen relationships with customers, they need IT and they may need application development.” With the mentoring provided by Cisco and hands’ on intern resources digital solutions can surface for the women led businesses through these interactions.

Ms. Black indicates there are, “lots of University of Waterloo students interested in internships with Cisco. We see the potential for cross-pollination between the knowledge of the students and business owners’ experiences. Participating will give students the benefits of both a large IT company experience and an entrepreneurial experience.“

As I wrote in a previous post, building a successful service business, as many women do, they may not fully take advantage of the opportunities technology can offer or may even miss potential pivot points to drive the business in a new direction. Re-framing or re-strategizing a business through the lens of technology with practical technical support, such as in the Circle of Innovation, can have a significant impact on a women-led business.

“Women entrepreneurs represent a vital and growing sector of the Canadian economy,” says Stephania Varalli, Co-CEO, Women of Influence. “We have always supported female entrepreneurs, and we’re proud to be joining forces with Cisco Canada on the Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle which we believe will be a powerful resource to help this group advance their businesses.”

The Women of Influence organization will, “drive out the message — writing success stories about women who’ve leveraged the solutions and have done things right so they can show a road map to success,” according to Black.

As a long time woman entrepreneur, I see the Cisco initiative as having the potential to impact women’s business growth and success. I support the challenge Black accepts and puts forward to other companies: “Trying to tackle larger opportunities for Canada — starts with awareness, talking about the issues. We have an issue around innovation, around helping women to harness that innovation. Organizations like Cisco and others need to be talking about it, framing it and taking action.”

Cheryl Sylvester
Cheryl Sylvester
Cheryl Sylvester is a Leadership Coach, Brand Communications consultant and W100 Business Owner. A perpetual idea generator, entrepreneurship cheerleader, and wanna-be geek, her clients include Novell, PlateSpin, Mozilla, HP, Tenscores & Polar. She writes about Leadership, Communications, Entrepreneurship and Women in technology.

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