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Enactus UCalgary’s Empower program helps immigrant women build businesses

By Nazeefa Ahmed, April 28 2023

Enactus UCalgary’s Empower program is a weekly student-run business skills training program that helps immigrant women build businesses. Within the first year, the program has helped mentees with permanent resident and refugee claimant status develop 17 business plans.

According to a report by the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, immigrant women are half as likely to start businesses compared to immigrant men due to systemic barriers. Empower aims to remove obstacles immigrant women face by providing business education through student mentorship.

“Many women come to Calgary with a vision of running their own small business out of their home, but are overwhelmed with the amount of bureaucracy that they have to deal with to start their own company. The problem is not that these women lack the skill or drive to be successful, but rather, that they don’t know where to begin. This is where Empower comes in,” reads a statement on their website

This year, the project was co-directed by Aressana Challand and Juliana Los Banos, and won second-runner-up in Enactus Canada’s TD Entrepreneurship Challenge Western Regional Competition and will compete at the National Exposition in early May. 

Within the program, finalists of the Empower pitch competition included digital software to simplify the immigration process, a locally-sourced meat shop, and inclusive and personalized greeting cards. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, co-project director Challand describes the Empower program as a “baby incubator,” providing immigrant women with the resources to create a robust plan before accessing partner accelerator organizations, such as Platform, to scale their businesses. 

“We realized that there are a lot of entrepreneurial ecosystems like Platform that have accelerators to create businesses and immigrant women struggle with accessing them just from the gaps in learning and accessibility,” said Challand. “This year, we really focused on creating the business plan for immigrant women, so they have a plan going forward into these accelerators. 

“[Mentees] create a very well developed, very competitive business plan with the student mentors in our program, and then they go on with our connections to meet those other incubators and really develop their business from there.”

In a program-long survey, Empower increased its mentees’ knowledge of the Canadian business world by 43 per cent and knowledge of Canadian finance by 40 per cent. Challand describes how the curriculum included speakers from different specialties to teach the basics of developing businesses, such as Professor Steven Paget from the U of C and successful female entrepreneurs such as Shanika Abeysinghe, who is the co-founder of Bessi Box

“We try to embed entrepreneurial perspectives within our curriculum so they can get hands-on approaches to real-world experiences,” said Challand. “We had professors from U of C, business organizations, business leaders and entrepreneurs, speak and our topics ranged from, intro to entrepreneurship, digital marketing, production and finance. We had two speakers for finance, which was a really big goal of ours, because finance can be so hard to understand, and there’s so much to learn.”

In her concluding remarks, Challand speaks of the hard-working nature of the women in the program. 

“Especially from a student perspective at the University of Calgary, I think all of us

are so privileged to be like learning as we do and have the opportunities that we do,” said Challand. “One of our mentees came from Ukraine six months ago, and is a refugee, and when you see the background that they come from, but still, their ambition to learn and start something here and to like learn when they have full-time jobs when they have families, even when there’s a language gap like it’s just so inspiring.”

Those interested in joining next year’s team or want to learn more about the program are encouraged to apply on the Enactus UCalgary website.

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