Jill Earthy, CEO of the Women’s Enterprise Centre (WEC) based in Vancouver, BC. Jill recently completed 8 years on the Board of Directors of WEC BC, serving as Board Chair for the past 3 years. Having taken the role of interim CEO in March we spoke to Earthy as the new official CEO of WEC. She also serves on the Board of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and on the national Board of Sustainable Development Technology Canada. She is an active mentor to entrepreneurs, and a Judge for many awards programs including the EY Entrepreneur of the Year and BC Business Magazine Women of the year.
Jill Earthy is an accomplished entrepreneur who has successfully built and sold two companies – a national event staffing business, Frontline Staff, and the Momcafe Network. She is passionate about empowering women entrepreneurs and has held several leadership roles in organizations delivering resources, capital and support to business owners throughout her career. Earthy was recognized in 2019 by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion as a Community Champion, by Business in Vancouver as an Influential Woman in Business and by WXN as a Top 100 most powerful women in Canada.
Having been on the board at the WEC for over 8 years in various capacities we were keen to find out what Earthy was looking forward to in her new role as CEO.
“It's a provincial non-profit organization supporting women entrepreneurs, and certainly throughout my career that's been a deep passion of mine. The opportunity to dive deeper and provide support through different types of alternative financing, mentorship, education while working with an amazing team makes it a lot of fun.”
While taking up the newly vacated position as CEO Earthy also acts as an advisor to both FrontFundr and the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. As someone who appears to enjoy having many projects and responsibilities at the same time, we asked Earthy how the different roles fit together.
“My whole career has been a series of steppingstones, from being an entrepreneur to supporting entrepreneurs in leadership roles at different organizations, to becoming curious about investing as another avenue of support, and then to educating others on the opportunity. Now I am able to apply all of these learnings to helping small businesses here in the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on women entrepreneurs. When I look back, it all makes sense. I have been able to apply my entrepreneurial mindset and passion for making an impact to all of my roles. Through working with entrepreneurs including youth, high-growth tech entrepreneurs, and many others, I was able to work with great teams to offer the essential combination of education, mentorship, along with access to networks and capital. I then became interested in the investment side of things, and how can we unlock more capital to support more diverse entrepreneurs and that's when I took on the role at FrontFundr. I was there as Chief Growth Officer for three years. It's an online investment platform democratizing the fundraising path for entrepreneurs, while also bringing in a broader range of investors who may not have access to those types of opportunities in the past. By demystifying the investment process, especially the complex regulations, through increased access and transparency, more entrepreneurs and investors can participate to stimulate the economy .It was during this time that I realized less than 20% of early-stage investors were women, which may partially explain why women founders receive less than 4% of venture capital. We need more diverse perspectives making investment decisions to ensure more diverse founders and types of companies receive funding. This is why I joined Female Funders to provide a pathway through education and access for more women to become investors. Women represent over 25% of entrepreneurs in Canada (38% in BC), and 40% in the US. We need to recognize the unique role women entrepreneurs play in our economy, and this current position leading Women’s Enterprise Centre enables me to offer this support.
As a previous entrepreneur herself, Earthy says that her experiences have provided her with “maybe more empathy and insight as I work to support entrepreneurs” which allows her to provide advice by understanding what they are experiencing. She is also acknowledges the hard work of running her own businesses, including “sleepless nights” , allows her to view others’ challenges through a different lens. With that in mind we asked Earthy what key pieces of advice she has for young female startup founders.
“Ask for help. You're not alone, I know that's a common one. But I think that's more important than ever now. In Canada, 24% of women entrepreneurs have children at home under the age of 18. We have all had to adapt significantly in the past few months, and the data is showing that women have taken on increased household responsibilities including childcare. If you are also an entrepreneur, this is a lot to juggle. It's easy for us all to get caught up in our own heads, but it is important to reach out and ask for support from organizations like Women's Enterprise Centre - that's what we're here for. Or others, like the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs or Small Business BC, or others that exist for that purpose.”
As any regular reader of the Cascadia Report will know, one common issue for startup founders in the Pacific Northwest is attracting funding, and often the ‘right’ kind of funding can be particularly tricky. Earthy has many years of experience not only attracting funding for her own businesses but helping others on their journey. We asked her for her top tips for finding the capital for your business needs.
“I'm an optimist - funding exists. The first step is identifying why you need the funding? Really looking at what is your plan and your goals, and by knowing the why then you can figure out the what and the how. You may even realize that you don’t need external capital by just focusing on sales. However, if you do need funding, create multiple scenarios, including cash flow projections, clearly outlining what you are going to use the funds for and how this aligns with your goals and vision. Then do your research to understand the wide range of funding options available, and understand what the funders are looking for. The types of funding available to you will depend on your business model, stage of growth, your vision, and the type of business or sector. I talk a lot about the funding puzzle. What are the different pieces that you can put together in a way that's going to fit your unique goals? And often it is a combination of debt, equity and sometimes grants or government funding. Understanding the value and mission of your business, which you need to be able to convey to potential investors. Be able to tell that story and remember that you're in the driver's seat.
The type of funding you bring on board must align with your goals and vision. If you have a vision of slow and steady growth through customer acquisition but your investors want you to grow quickly, this may change how you manage the business. Things change and it is definitely not easy but having a solid plan (the why) and understanding all the different options (the what) that are available, and how they can fit together is critical (the how). There are great organizations across the Pacific Northwest that can provide insight, and access to a broader network. It's probably going to take twice as long as you expect and it's going to be hard, but if you do it the right way with the right intentions from the get-go and recognize that, that will maximise your chances.”
While Earthy is fortunate to have created two successful businesses and be in the position to pass on some of her experience to the next generation of entrepreneurs, no-one’s life is without difficulties and challenges. These moments are often key learning points to hold onto in the future and help to add a different perspective to the rest of your life and career.
“We all have challenges. I've had this entrepreneurial mindset from the get-go that I've been able to apply to new opportunities and roles. Except for this new role at Women's Enterprise Centre and one other role, I have never had a predecessor. Every other role I've had in my career, has been created for me or by me. So, when you think about that, that offers challenges and opportunities. Challenges, because it's hard to know what's ahead and what is coming up,. It's not a traditional career path but I don't believe that there is any such thing anymore. I've been through challenges and setbacks or things haven't gone the way I wanted, or the organisation maybe hasn't grown as fast as I would have liked but I’m always learning. I've just been so grateful that opportunities have revealed themselves in different ways and that I have been in a position to take a risk.
I'm an optimist and a maximiser. I always see multiple opportunities or ways of doing things, which can drive some people crazy. I don’t see life in black and white, but rather gray which I guess is more of an entrepreneurial trait.”
With a wealth of experience in founding businesses and advising others, Earthy has earned a reputation as an influential leader whose opinion is widely sought-after. Just last year she was named in the top 100 most powerful women in Canada by Women’s Executive Network and as an Influential Women in Vancouver by Business in Vancouver. We were curious to find out how she defined her leadership style, and what she thinks others can learn from her experience.
“It is difficult for me to define my own leadership style but I can default to some feedback I've had from people I’ve worked with who have described my style as collaborative, transparent and authentic. That's always the way that I've rolled. I had never considered authenticity as a specific leadership attribute as it is just me being who I am ”
However, I do now recognize the importance of authenticity, along with the ability to recognize and strengthen attributes in others, as critical for leadership success. We are finally at a point when different types of leadership are being acknowledged. When we consider all that is happening in the world, it is essential that we evolve traditional leadership models to be more inclusive and collaborative.
Becoming an accomplished leader and successful businesswoman does not come easy - as Earthy is quick to point out. She says she is “still learning” so when we pushed her for the three key lessons, she’s learned from her journey so far, she had to pause for thought.
“It's a work in progress but there are so many. First, ask questions and be curious. For me, that's the lesson: sometimes, certainly early in my career, I would hold back asking a question thinking that I was supposed to know something, but soon realized that it is better to ask the question and to learn. Also, that I was usually not the only person with the same question.
Two: anything is possible. Sometimes you have to take risks and take a leap of faith - so that’s something that I lean into, I recognize sometimes that's a privilege and I have been fortunate to surround myself with people who support me. If you don’t try, you will never know. At this current moment in time, we are reimaging what is possible. We are seeing entrepreneurs pivot their businesses or start new ones, we are seeing the education system re-designed and the healthcare system accelerating the implementation of technology such as teleheath, just to name a few. We are seeing caring, compassionate, inclusive leaders being recognized as heros, and communities coming together. This is a challenging time but as an optimist, I see the silver lining as new models emerge.
Three: something that I am really working on, is just to be more present. This is relevant, whether it's working with your team on a project, or juggling household and family responsibilities. These days we are constantly inundated with information, and it is important to make space to be more present. I have two teenagers at home now and it's easy to just keep doing things but I’m trying to be really mindful of how we do things and at the right time.”
The message of being mindful and present is particularly important right now, as businesses and people are struggling to cope with the effects of the pandemic. Earthy says she is glad to be able to help others in need, saying “it's amazing that I get to serve in this role at this critical time”. Women’s Enterprise Centre is here to help women entrepreneurs in BC, but there are a wide variety of resources available that she wanted to share with Cascadia Report readers, starting with the Government of Canada Economic Response Plan and list of resources for entrepreneurs.
If you’re still not sure what path to take, or where to find the help that you need, whether is general advice about what direction to take or specific questions around funding or anything else Women’s Enterprise Centre is here and Earthy has a real passion for helping women in business whenever she can.
“We serve women entrepreneurs, with a focus on smaller businesses, across the province of BC. With 98% of businesses in BC being small, it is essential that they receive the appropriate support for them to evolve and thrive as we move forward to economic recovery. The next two years will be absolutely critical. Although it will be challenging, by working together and re-framing this moment in time as an opportunity to create new ways of doing things, we will endure. What are some different things you can do at this time?
You can find out more about Jill Earthy and the Women's Enterprise Centre here: https://www.womensenterprise.ca/