It’s so much harder for women to scale a company in Canada. Here’s how we can help fix that
The coffee business apparently is in its fifth wave of development since James Folger founded J.A. Folger & Co. in San Francisco in 1854.
Diana Olsen, president and founder of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, the boutique espresso chain backed by Dragon’s Den star Arlene Dickinson’s investment firm, shared this information — wryly — during an interview last month at her Liberty Village location in Toronto.
I thought we were still in the third wave, which is how hipsters describe the rise of independent caffeine dispensaries that offer flat whites and matcha lattes instead of double-doubles and Frappuccinos. When the first Balzac’s cafe opened in Stratford, Ont. in 1996, “the wave thing wasn’t even a thing yet,” Olsen said.
This isn’t a column about specialty coffee, although it will come up a lot. It’s actually a column about how much harder it is for women to scale a company in Canada and just about everywhere else. If you’ve just rolled your eyes, ask yourself how much time you’ve devoted to reading about Donald Trump’s tariffs. We can’t do anything about Trump’s trade policy, but we can empower our politicians, executives and lenders to do something about a system that so often unconsciously punishes women.
The same year Balzac’s debuted in Stratford, a Seattle-based outfit called Starbucks Corp. arrived in Toronto. That means Olsen was in the vanguard of what is now a $60 billion industry in the United States alone. She now oversees 15 locations, mostly in Toronto, and plans to add a few more this year. Balzac’s also is ramping up its wholesale business, pushing beyond its base in Ontario with a recently signed distribution agreement that will get its branded coffee into privately owned Loblaws stores in Western Canada.
Olsen expressed no regrets over her company’s trajectory. It’s none of my business, but I can’t help but wonder if Balzac’s would be bigger if Paul Martin had won the election in 2006, thus preventing Stephen Harper from scrapping Martin’s national chid care plan. Olsen’s first-mover advantage was offset about a decade later when she adopted a daughter. In 2009, she moved to Niagara from Toronto because the combined cost of housing and child care was more than she could afford on a startup founder’s salary. She didn’t return to Toronto until last year.
Surely the business suffered somewhat with the boss a couple of hours away from the company’s most important market. That’s not a criticism of Olsen, who had her priorities straight. Rather, it’s an attempt to demonstrate the opportunity cost of doing too little to balance a system that is tilted against half the population’s pool of potential economic actors.
Just when they are hitting their strides, women who have children are forced to slow their pace. Men get to keep running. That’s probably the biggest reason they control more companies, get better jobs and make up a greater percentage of the labour force. The cycle is reinforcing, and study after study show that only two things will break it: affordable child care and parental leave benefits that persuade fathers to take as much time away from work as mothers.
“Those are the two most important levers we could pull right now,” Sarah Kaplan, director of the Rotman School of Management’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, said earlier this month in Banff, Alta. at the Canadian Economics Association’s annual meetings.
While Olsen was in Niagara, the “coffee bros” took over the Toronto scene, perfecting the art.
“They love coffee,” Olsen said. “We had to elevate our level because they were upping the coffee game.” But the business became masculinized, creating a new, if unconscious, barrier to entry. About three quarters of the 150 people who work for Balzac’s are women. Olsen didn’t plan it that way. She thinks women are more comfortable sending her a resume than they are approaching outfits with names such as Pilot and Propeller.
“We need more women owners,” Olsen said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to create some via the $2-billion Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, which aims to double the number of women running small businesses by 2025. The policy has merit because studies show that men find it easier to win venture capital, most of which is controlled by other men. “There is definitely a gender bias in the investment community,” Chrissy Durcak, chief executive and founder of Montreal-based Dispatch Coffee, told me in an interview last week. “It’s not always intended or conscious.”
Still, it seems likely that the government’s various funds will frustrate as many women as they help, as I’ve yet to meet an entrepreneur who doesn’t have a story about fighting with bureaucrats over money that politicians promised.
A better strategy would be to use the federal spending power to make day care affordable. It would level the playing field for all women, and not just those who managed to qualify for a government loan. “When they have kids, women have choices to make,” Olsen said. Sacrificing their earning potential needn’t be one of them, especially when the solution is so obvious.