York University accelerator is helping women entrepreneurs thrive despite pandemic

International Women's Day

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a series of unprecedented challenges for women entrepreneurs. YSpace ELLA responded with an ambitious goal of reducing the gap in gender equality in entrepreneurship.

By Krista Davidson

YSpace ELLA became Ontario’s first accelerator focused on supporting women-led, product- and service-based businesses in March 2020. With a $1.87-million grant from the government of Canada, YSpace ELLA set out with an ambitious goal of helping to reduce the gap in gender equality in entrepreneurship.

Fast forward two years and ELLA is not only on the heels of meeting this goal but has managed to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenging time for many entrepreneurs.

Nicole Troster
Nicole Troster

ELLA Entrepreneurship Manager Nicole Troster explains that the pandemic has served as a catalyst for women considering starting their own business. “The pandemic has caused a lot of upheaval in the job market and women are taking back control by starting businesses that permit them to use their skills and passion to create better opportunities for their families and communities,” says Troster.

“ELLA is uplifting women and creating a vibrant, supportive community even in arguably one of the most difficult times for women entrepreneurs,” says Troster. “At the best of times, women often experience unique challenges and many accelerator programs are not developed with their needs in mind. Supporting gender equality and empowering women and girls is important to the work we do, and it also supports the University’s commitment to action through the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.”

One such woman is Kelly Kan, the founder and creative director of Oz and Ella, a jewelry company that creates innovative designs with alternative materials. She was inspired to start her own business after having her son, Oscar, in 2016. Coming from three generations of designers, Kan says she got the idea to create silicone-based jewelry after her infant son got a hold of a $6,000 string of pearls and used them for teething.

Kelly Tran
Kelly Tran

“I wanted to see if there was a way to create beautiful silicone necklaces for my teething son, but I wasn’t blown away by what was available,” she says. “Women entrepreneurs are inspired to create when we’re not satisfied with what’s available on the market.”

She noticed that there was an interest from the community in silicone necklaces, which can help people with autism, ADHD and anxiety self-soothe through chewing.

Another ELLA participant, Ashani Missier, who owns TQ Auto Care, a chain of three automotive shops in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, experienced health problems that inspired her to start her own business to gain better financial independence. It was also an opportunity to collaborate with her husband who works in the auto industry.

After learning about ELLA’s suite of accelerator programs – which include ELLA Express, ELLA Ascend and ELLA Altitude – through LinkedIn, both took a chance and applied for the program and haven’t looked back.

Ashani Missier
Ashani Missier

“ELLA provides you with the support you never knew you needed,” says Missier, who was about to open her third automotive service location when she undertook the program in early 2021. Joining ELLA ahead of opening her third location came at a critical point in time for re-branding her locations.

Regardless of the industry or background, ELLA offers a unique approach that helps women entrepreneurs to level up.

“I came from a design background, not a business background,” says Kan. “ELLA helped me think about how to design my product for my users instead of the other way around, and that way of thinking has helped my business double its revenue in the past year.”

Val Fox
Val Fox. Image courtesy The Pivotal Point

Chief Innovation Officer of The Pivotal Point, Valerie Fox, who co-founded the DMZ at Ryerson University, is familiar with the start-up space, having supported hundreds of founders across North America. Now she serves as a mentor and member of ELLA’s Advisory Committee. Fox says most accelerators are only concerned with the tech space. “What’s unique about ELLA, and the key to their success, is their mandate is to help women entrepreneurs soar in a whole variety of businesses in product and services,” says Fox. “Nicole and the team do a phenomenal job of providing companies with a 360-degree approach. Women benefit from training and coaching, one-on-one and community support. They are paired with experts, including lawyers, brand experts, operational experts, to help them overcome diverse hurdles.”

Part of what makes ELLA special is the community connection.

“Being an entrepreneur is one of the loneliest endeavours. You’re making a lot of decisions that most of the people in your life can’t relate to. In addition to providing participants with access to experts, training, information about funding and grants, ELLA provides women entrepreneurs with a sense of community,” explains Fox, who notes that it’s such a solid community, many of the women entrepreneurs stay in touch and routinely share ideas, successes and advice, despite working in different businesses and industries.

Kan adds: “With ELLA, women have a safe space to express themselves as they learn and grow.”

For women entrepreneurs wanting to learn more, ELLA offers three programs: ELLA Express, a two-week bootcamp that helps women founders make smart decisions from the start; ELLA Ascend, a five-month accelerator that supports early-stage companies making at least $50,000 in revenues to build a strong foundation for growth; and ELLA Altitude, a four-month accelerator program for later-stage entrepreneurs at $200,000 to help them rapidly scale their companies.

YSpace ELLA is part of York’s entrepreneurship hub at Innovation York in the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation. Innovation York facilitates and maximizes the commercial, economic and social impacts of research and innovation, and creates a culture of engaged scholarship and experiential learning. Visit Innovation York to learn more.