Women entrepreneurs thrive thanks to York, Visa Canada partnership

Two Black women at a boardroom table

By Lindsay MacAdam, communications officer, YFile

Last month, Visa Canada announced the 10 recipients of its 2023 She’s Next Grant Program in partnership with York University, supporting women-owned businesses spanning a wide range of consumer products and services. The program rewards business owners with a $10,000 grant and a four-month mentorship from York’s YSpace ELLA accelerator program.

David Kwok
David Kwok

“We are so excited to be partnering with Visa and their She’s Next program to support women entrepreneurs across the country,” said David Kwok, associate director of entrepreneurship at Innovation York. “By pairing the $10,000 grant with expertise mentorship that is catered to business needs, we are driving tangible impacts with each business we support. This partnership will not only elevate York University’s brand as a premier entrepreneurial hub, but also position YSpace ELLA, our women’s accelerator program, as an exceptional resource for women entrepreneurs.”

ELLA is providing the Visa She’s Next Grant Program recipients with valuable mentorship, access to educational resources and networking opportunities. “We offer a bespoke experience by ensuring each participant sets up objectives and key results, and uses the mentorship to drive those,” said Kwok. “The participant connects with the mentors on a biweekly basis to drive through strategic elements, while working with our team to ensure progress and accountability.”

Out of the thousands of applicants to this year’s Visa She’s Next Grant Program, 10 inspiring entrepreneurs were selected as winners, and here are three of their stories.

Nuria Madrenas

Nuria Madrenas
Nuria Madrenas

Nuria Madrenas is the founder of Tacit, an online art gallery and consultancy dedicated to amplifying female creatives to the emerging art collector. Madrenas graduated from York with a bachelor of arts in communications in 2016 and worked in public relations and marketing for various fashion and lifestyle brands before her foray into entrepreneurship. As an artist herself, and having worked with many artists on campaigns and events, she recognized a gap in the market between the entry-level art marketplaces and the often intimidating world of high-end art. Tacit occupies that space in between.

“I would always ask [artists], ‘Where do you sell your work?,’ ” she said. “It felt like there was no suitable platform. It was either these entry-level, oversaturated marketplaces, where you’re competing with makers of all kinds, or the intimidating world of blue-chip art that felt out of reach at the time.”

After doing some research, Madrenas discovered a disturbing disparity between women and men in the visual arts: women account for a mere two per cent of all art sold. “So I set out to create this platform that solved the many pain points I found,” she said.

Madrenas started her business back in 2019 with 10 local artists, and has since expanded to upwards of 70 – from Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia. Beyond the e-commerce site, Tacit also provides art consultancy services for both residential and commercial clients.

This was Madrenas’s third time applying to the Visa She’s Next Grant Program, and her persistence finally paid off with this full-circle moment: “I graduated seven years ago, and now to get that mentorship from my alma mater, it’s really exciting,” she said. “I’ve been on my own throughout this process, and I find that sometimes it’s a bit isolating. I’m excited to get some fresh, new perspectives, and to get support from somebody with B2B experience…. I’ve identified that as an area of focus.”

Natalie Sabri

Natalie Sabri
Natalie Sabri

Natalie Sabri is the founder of The Dough Parlour, which manufactures sweet, fruit-scented play dough made from non-toxic, all-natural, food-grade ingredients. The mother of four has an undergraduate degree in political science, and studied early childhood education before becoming a preschool teacher and eventually opening her own preschool business.

But after spending nearly a decade experimenting with homemade play dough recipes for her children that other parents would always ask about, Sabri decided to pivot into consumer packaged goods. She branded her sweet-smelling play dough around the idea of an old-fashioned ice-cream parlour, where customers choose their own scents, and that has been her main differentiator in the market.

“Everything that goes into our play dough is food grade,” said Sabri, “so if a child puts it in their mouth by mistake, it’s it’s 100 per cent safe.”

Based in Oakville, Ont., the company launched in 2017, and Sabri made an appearance on CBC’s “Dragons’ Den” just four months later, where she happily accepted a business deal from Boston Pizza founder Jim Treliving.

Her e-commerce business has been steadily growing ever since, with a recent, unexpected boost from famous moms Kim Kardashian and Chrissy Teigen, who accepted her unsponsored product gifting and decided to share their delight on Instagram. “[Kardashian] called it the best-smelling, cutest play dough she’s ever seen,” said Sabri, “and our business saw $25,000 in sales overnight. That’s why they call them influencers, right?”

The Dough Parlour also has a presence in well-known retailers such as Indigo and Anthropologie, and Sabri hopes to take the business overseas in the coming years with the help of the Visa She’s Next Grant Program and the accompanying YSpace ELLA mentorship.

Coincidentally, Sabri enrolled in the ELLA Ascend program in June, just two weeks before finding out she had been selected as a recipient of the Visa grant. The win will extend the length of her existing mentorship by four months, and she couldn’t be more grateful.

“I have three amazing mentors in the ELLA program,” said Sabri. “They have a wealth of knowledge that they so lovingly give to to us. The mentorship has really helped with structuring my business and directing me to loans and government programs. And even from a therapeutic perspective, having them listen to the daily struggles that [women entrepreneurs] go through and offering support has been so valuable.”

Chantal Bekhor

Chantal Bekhor
Chantal Bekhor

Born and raised in Montreal, Chantal Bekhor, founder of VG Gourmet Vegetarian Foods, worked as an elementary school teacher for a decade before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey in 2015.

As a consumer of plant-based products for many years, Bekhor saw a gap in the market for a burger made with fresh, gourmet ingredients and without the preservatives and fillers that are all-too common in meat alternatives. She decided to set out to find a partner kitchen to produce her vegan burger recipes, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Today, VG Gourmet has over 13 products available in more than 1,500 grocery stores and restaurants throughout Canada, including Whole Foods and Farm Boy, and she’s hoping to expand to new markets with the help of the the Visa She’s Next Grant.

“I was specifically interested in the mentorship that Visa was offering,” said Bekhor. “I thought this could be a really great opportunity for me to grow personally. I find, as an entrepreneur, it’s a little bit lonely. I’m hoping to learn a lot, and to be able to connect with the other entrepreneurs.”

And even though the program has barely kicked off, Bekhor has already benefited from the supportive community it has provided: “We had an event in Toronto a couple weeks ago,” she said, “and it was so refreshing to talk to other women entrepreneurs. We’ve built a little community after spending only one day together – we clicked.”

About YSpace ELLA

ELLA is the women’s accelerator program offered by YSpace, York University’s entrepreneurship and innovation hub, with funding from the Government of Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy. The ELLA team consists of experienced professionals with diverse backgrounds in business and entrepreneurship, who provide the tailored support that women entrepreneurs need to be successful.  

YSpace works to facilitate and maximize the commercial, economic, and social impacts of research and innovation, and to create a culture of engaged scholarship and experiential learning. To learn more about YSpace and its initiatives, visit yorku.ca/yspace.