Innovating while female: How four women made their marks
It’s no coincidence that women are driving some of the most innovative businesses in Canada. A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review showed that companies with the most diverse management teams generate 19 per cent higher innovation revenues than their competitors and nine per cent higher margins on earnings before interest and taxes. In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that closing the gender gap in Canada would add $150 billion to the GDP by 2026. Here are just a few of the women already leading the pack — and their perspectives on supporting more innovators like them.
Julia Rivard Dexter — Squiggle Park
Julia Rivard Dexter beat out hundreds of athletes to compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics. And the same focus and resilience that got her to Sydney helps her juggle life as a tech entrepreneur and mother of four, she says. “You just realize you can push yourself further than you think you can.”
Her latest venture also combines her professional expertise with insights from motherhood. Squiggle Park, a reading tool for kids from preschool through Grade 2 was inspired by watching her children’s “laser focus” on their video game screens. “I knew if we could devote this time to developing their learning skills it would be magic,” she says.
Clearly, she was on to something. Even before the Dartmouth, N.S., company officially launched in 2017, it had 1,000 teachers across North America enlisted in a pilot project using Squiggle Park’s curriculum-driven game. The results were so positive it is now being used in more than 10,000 schools. The Canadian government has also purchased licences to improve the English language skills of new immigrants.
Although women are majority owners in only 20 per cent of Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses, Rivard Dexter says it’s an exciting time for female entrepreneurs. “There has been such a movement of women — and men — focused on helping other women succeed,” she says. “We’re finally moving the needle in equity.”
The challenge now is to help Canadian companies — whether owned by women or not — compete on a global scale. “There are great programs focused on Canadian-made innovations,” Rivard Dexter says, “but there is very little follow-through when pilots are completed.”
She believes government procurement, as well as increased funding for government commercialization programs, will further stimulate technological innovation and help commercialize federal R&D investments.
Dr. Linda Maxwell — Biomedical Zone
Linda Maxwell has never accepted the word “no.”
“As a minority woman growing up in a small town in New Brunwick,” she says, “I needed to be creative to solve problems and managed to find my way to any goal I was trying to achieve.”
Her persistence paid off. She attended Harvard (as did her four sisters) before studying medicine at Yale — then earned an MBA at Oxford University. It was there that she was asked to lead a partnership with the National Health Service to bring life sciences technologies to market.
“I saw a real creativity and passion to change healthcare and that inspired me,” she says. “People in startups risk everything and you can’t help but respect that.”
Her experience at Oxford made her an ideal candidate to launch the Biomedical Zone, a commercial arm of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, Science and Technology run by Ryerson University and St. Michael’s Hospital. “I was recruited to conceptualize what this could be and was given the latitude to do something different,” says Maxwell.
That’s evident from the location of the business incubator Maxwell built — the first embedded in a hospital. “At any given time there could be 15 private companies within the walls of the hospital and that’s a real win-win,” she says. “The hospital has access to this cutting-edge technology while the companies get to interface with clinicians and patients.”
So far, the Biomedical Zone has fostered more than 30 companies, primarily focused on digital devices and data software for healthcare. Swift Medical’s smartphone app, for example, allows clinicians to track and measure chronic wounds.
Now, Maxwell hopes to extend the Biomedical Zone model to more hospitals across Canada. “There is no shortage of talented startups who want to be in the incubator but we simply don’t have the funding to take them all on,” she says.
Joelle Pineau — FB Artificial Intelligence Lab
“By virtue of being a researcher, I’m an innovator,” says computer scientist Joelle Pineau (pictured at top), who was tapped to lead Facebook’s first Artificial Intelligence Research Lab in Canada last year. “I was driven to this field by curiosity and that’s what drives me on a daily basis.”
Her lab is focused on the social applications of AI, with research related to health, language processing, robotics and games. In September, for example, Pineau’s team unveiled machine learning projects ranging from speeding up MRI scans by up to 10 times to interpreting ingredients lists and recipes from images of food.
Given the exciting pace of AI development in Canada, Pineau says it’s unfortunate more women aren’t represented in the field. A recent study conducted by Wired magazine estimated that only 12 per cent of research on machine learning is published by women. Part of the problem, Pineau says, is a lack of role models — and a lack of awareness about computer science. “It’s about getting that message out in early high school that the quality of this work is so interesting — and lucrative.”
The field needs women, too. Machines learn the biases they are taught, and as AI is used for everything from self-driving cars to online banking, correcting for bias will become ever more critical. “We expect technology to have a large part in our lives so it matters that the people who develop it have a diverse point of view, too,” says Pineau.
She also believes Canada has an edge. “We were funding research in this area even before it was sexy,” says Pineau. Now the challenge is for Canada to train experts fast enough to fill the employment needs in AI. Facebook’s lab, for example, currently has 20 employees — but is moving to an office that will accommodate up to 80.
“We have a real opportunity in Canada to develop a whole new (technology) sector and we’re making big strides — but there is still so much do to,” says Pineau. “It’s all about creating a happy equilibrium of nurturing startups and graduating students with the right training to be able to join bigger companies too.”
Izabela Witkowska — StandardAero
When Izabela Witkowska started working at StandardAero 22 years ago, she was one of very few female engineers at the Winnipeg aerospace maintenance and repair company. She worked her way up the corporate ladder, helping to build a state-of-the-art materials laboratory, assisting in accident investigations and providing technical/failure analysis training to various facilities.
“As a child [in Poland], I was always interested in how things work and fortunately I had an uncle who was a professor in material sciences who introduced me to a whole new environment of experiments and science,” she says. “Now I have a dream job and every day is different.”
While she was supported to pursue her dreams even from a young age, Witkowska recognizes that many women don’t have the same advantages. That’s why she now chairs an employee equity group devoted to mentoring women in engineering. She also encourages girls to join the profession. She takes part in an annual event in March at the University of Manitoba — which coincides with International Women’s Day — where she is paired with Grade 8 girls interested in engineering. And when she goes back to her hometown in Poland, she does classroom workshops with girls at her local high school.
“This is an issue all over the world and we can change things, but (we need to get) young women involved in workshops early on to show them what (these fields) are all about,” she says. “In aerospace I am constantly surrounded by the newest technology and innovation.”
Witkowska is also leading the charge by example. She is the first woman in Canada to become a delegated engineer for Transport Canada — where she evaluates the risk and approval of repair designs on behalf of the Minister of Transport — and the first woman from her company to become a senior design engineer for the Royal Australian Air Force, providing engineering support and approvals for the release of engines and aircraft for military operations.
“The opportunities are out there,” she says, “and sometimes women just lack the confidence to pursue them.”