Shannon Pestun is the director of women’s entrepreneurship and part of the Indigenous Relations Advisory Circle at ATB Financial.
Tell me about women’s entrepreneurship at ATB, what it does and its goal and mission?
Pestun: At ATB, we have always known that entrepreneurs are crucial to the success of Alberta’s economy. And we know the significant contribution that women make in this space. But we noticed that women entrepreneurs often have different needs — needs that were often overlooked or ignored by the financial industry. We are focused on finding solutions for our customers. So we created my role to better serve women entrepreneurs, and use our culture of innovation to reimagine the role that banking plays.
My job is literally to obsess about making Alberta women entrepreneurs successful. In this role, we’ve designed programs that focus specifically on helping women navigate the financial system while helping them build a greater network. ATB also created an innovative, annual crowdfunding campaign specific for women entrepreneurs, known as Build Her Business.
We also advocate for women entrepreneurs on every level. I’m part of a federal government expert panel tasked with identifying ways to improve support for women entrepreneurs. Ultimately, ATB’s goal is to be a leader in women’s entrepreneurship — to create an innovative, gender-intelligent banking model that will meet the needs of women entrepreneurs and empower them through education and connections.
What barriers still stand in the way of women being entrepreneurs?
Pestun: Only 16 per cent of Canadian businesses are majority-owned or led by women, and when you look at the number of high-growth or exporting companies, that number is even less. When women make up half the population, we have to take a closer look at why these numbers are low in comparison and how we can help increase them.
Women entrepreneurs face a number of different barriers but there are three main ones. The first is access to financial capital, which are the funds needed to start and grow a business. The second is entrepreneurial capital, which is the knowledge and financial acumen required to run a business. And the third is social capital, the opportunities to build a community or network of like-minded people with role models and mentors. At ATB, we are working to knock down those barriers and make it possible for more women to become successful entrepreneurs.
Is Alberta any different than other provinces? What special challenges does Alberta present women entrepreneurs?
Pestun: Canada’s rates of participation in female entrepreneurship have grown at an unprecedented rate. That has been especially true here in Alberta, where female entrepreneurship activity rates are well above the national average, both for total early-stage and established business.
But in Alberta, much like the rest of the country, when you dive deeper, you see that women are not scaling their businesses to the same degree as men. Women entrepreneurs in Alberta tend to be motivated by necessity rather than opportunity. They are somewhat less likely to report innovation in a product or market, compared to the trends for Canadian entrepreneurs overall. Alberta women are also less likely than Canadian entrepreneurs – male and female – to engage in exporting activity. As Alberta’s financial institution, ATB understands the provincial landscape for women entrepreneurs and are playing our part to close the gap.
Why are you so passionate about this area?
Pestun: I’m passionate because I believe we can make a difference, not only in the lives of women but for the Canadian economy as a whole. I’m proud to work for ATB, an organization that believes in supporting and advancing women’s economic contribution. But this isn’t just about doing the right thing – it’s also about doing the smart thing. When ATB helps women entrepreneurs, we are growing our business and growing Alberta’s economy as well – an important role ATB has played for over 80 years.
As a woman in finance, I believe it’s important to use my voice and speak out from within the industry about the importance of advancing women’s entrepreneurship. We contribute to a stronger economy for everyone if women are successful starting and growing their own businesses. Imagine what we can accomplish when the barriers come down.
I see you are also part of the Indigenous Relations Advisory Circle at ATB Financial. How are Alberta’s Indigenous women included in your work?
Pestun: As part of my own commitment to truth and reconciliation, elevating Indigenous women is important to me. In my work, I’ve travelled across the province and I’ve spoken with many Indigenous women entrepreneurs who see the opportunities in entrepreneurship. Today, Indigenous women are starting businesses at a tremendous rate, yet the barriers they face are even greater.
As a Metis woman, I understand some of those barriers. I want to play my part in reconciliation and help to uncover sustainable economic opportunities in which Indigenous women and entrepreneurs thrive. At ATB, there is a strong commitment to supporting Alberta’s Indigenous community.
My colleague Holly Cooper leads that work and a team of strong champions from all walks of life within ATB make up the Indigenous Relations Advisory Circle which supports and informs those efforts.
Interviewed by Mario Toneguzzi, a Troy Media business reporter based in Calgary.