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Women’s enterprise centres’ pivots to digital are here to stay

By Gabrielle Piché

Offices may be reopening across Canada, but don’t expect women’s enterprise centres to back away from online services — they’re here to stay, according to staff from several of the organizations.

“COVID has taught us how to meet our clients where they’re at,” said Alanna Keefe, the director of communications and client services for the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba (WECM).

WECM staff were halfway through delivering their six-week business planning workshop when COVID-19 closures hit Manitoba. The staff had to move their content online.

“The online delivery is different than what you do in person,” Keefe said. “The curriculum is different — you show it different, engagement’s different.”

WECM had to pivot quickly, Keefe said.

“We still (had) to deliver the same services, the same good advice and hear people in their times of challenge,” she said.

All of a sudden, in-person meetings with advisors became Zoom calls. Seminars became webinars. Board room meetings became video chats and informal office discussions became online messages.

The shift to online worked, Keefe said.

“We were all really pleasantly surprised by how our clients responded to our delivery.”

Entrepreneurs had positive feedback about the business planning workshop, even though it wasn’t meant to be online, Keefe said. Furthermore, entrepreneurs who couldn’t previously access WECM’s services now could.

“We had to adopt those tools that would enable us to work remotely with clients, but we’re not gonna let them go,” Keefe said.

WECM will now use a hybrid of in-person and online services, she said.

The organization had some online services before. They were working on an online curriculum pre-COVID-19, and they’re now trying to finish it faster so rural and homebound entrepreneurs in Manitoba can access the content.

Keefe said she expects WECM to hold in-person seminars that are also live-streamed when it’s safe to do so. Business advising sessions will be offered in person and online. WECM will use programs like Adobe Connect and virtual chatrooms to engage remote entrepreneurs.

Most WECM staff are back in the office, but that may change too. It’s important to have staff meeting in person, to have that human connection, Keefe said. In the future, there might be a mix of working in the office and from home, she said.

Women’s Enterprise Centre (WEC) staff in Kelowna, B.C. have the option of staying home or going into the office. So far, only two of 12 workers are planning to go back in June, said Jill Earthy, WEC’s interim CEO.

“(The staff) really have a good setup going, they’ve been able to figure that out,” she said. “Or in some cases, they have young children at home and they’re having to balance that.”

WEC staff have taken resiliency training while adapting to the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have the same team capacity we did four months ago,” Earthy said. “Now the work is significantly more.”

In May 2019, WEC saw 332 participants over 11 in-person and online business sessions. This May, there were 906 participants in 10 online sessions.

There’s been a surge in client services phone calls and business advisory meetings over the past few months, Earthy said. WEC’s mentoring programs have also seen a huge increase — around 120 entrepreneurs applied over three days, which is three to four times more than average, Earthy said.

“There’s that need just to connect, just to know you’re not alone,” she said.

WEC may enhance their mentoring services in the future, Earthy said. She said she expects at least 50 per cent of WEC’s services to be online — even after businesses reopen.

“The feedback overall has been positive because online makes it much more accessible,” Earthy said. “With busy woman entrepreneurs who are juggling a lot of different things, it’s sometimes harder to get to an event.”

It’s not the end of in-person services for WEC, Earthy said. Rather, the organization is adding more online.

“It’s not quite the same to do everything by webinar or do everything virtually,” said Marcela Mandeville, the CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE).

AWE will keep its services online, like business advisory meetings and webinars, because people seem to be more comfortable with technology now, Mandeville said.

Like WECM and WEC, AWE has been able to reach more people with its online services — they even had a New Zealander try to connect to one of their webinars.

AWE’s services will also be offered in-person once it’s safe to do so, Mandeville said.

“We miss the hugs and the handshakes, the interactions, the energy you get from being in person,” she said. “It’s so motivational.”

Entrepreneurs getting support from AWE will see an increased focus on technology in the coming months and years — innovation is necessary for a healthy recovery, Mandeville said.

“We really want to see these, as many businesses as possible, thrive. Not just survive through COVID, but also thrive as we get through it and get into recovery.”

Mandeville, Earthy and Keefe voiced similar areas of focus for the future: technology and financial resiliency will be key to work on with clients as businesses reopen in a changed Canada.