The Swiss Business Hub Canada is the key contact point for Swiss and Lichtenstein small and medium-sized enterprises looking for export opportunities in the Canadian market. A group of female tech entrepreneurs recently visited from Switzerland, and RBC had the chance to learn more about their startups, understand the objectives of their visit and their growth plans.
Sarojini Vasant, Head of Investment Promotion and Sonja Muller, Deputy Head at Swiss Business Hub Canada, is focused on helping foreign companies expand to Canada (and Canadian enterprises expand to Switzerland). They explained that the team decided to form their most recent delegation with women entrepreneurs in technology, given the tech opportunities in Canada and support for women entrepreneurs.
Mara Harvey — A Smart Way to Start
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Dr. Harvey was the Head of UBS’s Ultra High Net Worth business across Europe. While in that role, she found the focusing on women — the most important conversations about wealth were really only happening with men. This discovery led her to found, and bring to life, a transformational program to better serve female clients. It also sparked a desire to understand the root causes behind women’s relationship with money, and why it’s different compared to their male peers.
Her research uncovered that money relationships begin in early childhood when girls experience pay gaps in their pocket money. “We already see at a very young age that boys versus girls receive more money for special occasions. We also see that girls are steered towards more unpaid chores. As the boys are busy washing cars and getting paid for mowing the lawn, girls are washing the dishes and not getting paid.” She further explains that the way people talk to girls about money is very different than how they talk to boys. “Similarly, the way we talk about money to men is different from how we talk to women.”
Dr. Harvey’s discoveries inspired her to take action. Her business, A Smart Way to Start offers financial parenting advice and toolkits to help parents raise money-smart kids who are conscious of the environmental and social impact of their money choices.
Her financial literacy book series makes it easy for parents to start important money conversations with their kids. Beginning with lessons on earning money and equal pay and moving to saving and spending (with an e-book dedicated to spending digital money), the series also covers how to do good for the environment through money choices and the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Dr. Harvey was intentional about making the books fun for both kids and parents to read (“As a busy mom, when you come home after 12 hours of work you don’t want to pick up a book from the shelf you hate!” she says). Plus, the books are illustrated by Mariajosé Gajate Molina, an award-winning illustrator, giving them aesthetic quality and craftsmanship. “For me, money is a transmission of values,” Dr. Harvey explains. “I don’t want children to experience something that relates to money that is made cheaply. I want them to see the quality behind the work.”
Next, Dr. Harvey is launching a comprehensive financial parenting Masterclass in September. Dr. Harvey has been busy laying the groundwork in advance of the launch, with an aim to help parents be their children’s best money role models.
The Smart Way to Save book series has been translated from English into French, German, Swahili and Arabic. This trip to Canada enables Dr. Harvey to connect with an audience she feels has an appetite for her business. “Diversity, inclusion and female empowerment have come much farther in Canada than Switzerland,” says Dr. Harvey. “As a startup founder, you want to look for the path of least resistance, to have proof of market and take this to scale. It’s much more meaningful to operate in a country where equality and sustainability are advanced and people understand why this is so relevant.”
Olga Miler — SmartPurse
Olga Miler has been working in Financial Services for more than 18 years and is known as a leading innovator in the industry. Her company SmartPurse acts as an inclusive financial educator, using tech and content curation to educate neglected demographics on financing, including women.
When her father died in her mid-twenties, Miler and her mother were left with a big stack of paperwork and a business they had to sell. Their bank was unwilling to help them, and she felt she was one of many women who didn’t know what to do with their money.
While at UBS, Miler designed initiatives to improve women’s financial literacy , but the feedback from women was that it didn’t fully resonate. Miler wanted to make it more engaging, but the corporate guidelines wouldn’t allow for a less formal format. “So I stepped out of the organization and said, ‘let’s do financial literacy from a different angle, and make it more inclusive and fun for people to learn in a digestible format,'” she explains.
Miler incorporated SmartPurse in 2019, putting together a small MVP. Fourteen months later, Smart Purse is one the most extensive financial education platforms for women in Switzerland. “My vision has always been to change how women in particular — but also men — think about and interact with their money. I want to make money a joyful experience and help people recognize money is not just a means of paying for your security, but a source of energy that can do a lot of good.” Money is meant to have a purpose, she says, “and when you invest it with a purpose, it starts to be incredibly exciting.”
Miler visited Canada intending to explore whether there is sufficient interest in her offering. “Throughout my journey, learning about how different kinds of people learn about money, I detected that the challenges women bring forward are universal. SmartPurse has been built for a global scale and I want to expand the business to Canada,” she says.
SmartPurse has approximately 5,000 active users who often re-connect with SmartPurse at different points of their lives — such as when they start a new job, have a child or consider retirement. “It’s a fluid environment — and as your life changes, your needs change, and we’re here for you.”
Sotria Mostrou — Biosimo
Having been born into an entrepreneurial family, Sotria Mostrou had grown up intending to carry on her parents’ business. But when the 2008 global financial crisis threatened that vision, Dr. Mostrou went to university, where she studied chemical engineering.
Over the course of her PhD studies, she invented a heterogeneous catalyst that could be used for the oxidation of bioethanol. A colleague planted the seed that this innovation could form the foundation of a business — an idea Dr. Mostrou pursued through the founding of Biosimo Chemicals.
Today, Biosimo produces and sells renewable bulk chemicals that can easily substitute fossil-based chemicals, most of which are produced through decades-old, toxic processes. “Big companies don’t want to take the risk of developing a new process, so we have taken on the challenge,” says Dr. Mostrou. “Our process is more environmentally friendly — we can make the same products using fully renewable sources.” She explains that they make bio-acetic acid. “By switching to a bio acetic acid instead of a fossil acetic acid, we can improve thousand of product’s footprint, for example, cellulose acetate by 40%.”
To date, Biosimo has produced scalable samples, built a lab-scale reactor, filed a patent, recruited two team members and secured an advisory team and pre-seed funding. They came to Canada to pursue one of the biggest petrochemical markets — North America. Given the richness of resources in Canada, Dr Mostrou also found it a good idea to research new products while in the country. Plus, she found that support for women entrepreneurs is higher in Canada compared to Switzerland, and expanding her network here has been a fruitful and inspiring experience.
The trip to Canada was a successful networking experience for the three founders. Their businesses were met with great interest and enthusiasm, and Canadian support for the female entrepreneur made an impression they will carry back to Switzerland. As they make plans for expansion, it’s a market that demonstrates a readiness for the ideas and platforms they are developing.
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