The Firehood, Pond-Deshpande Centre launch program to support Atlantic Canada women, non-binary founders

firestarter will send 10 companies to participate in Elevate Festival this fall.

The Firehood and the Fredericton-based Pond-Deshpande Centre (PDC) have co-launched a new program aimed at training and supporting women and non-binary founders in Atlantic Canada.

The firestarter program aims to equip these founders with essential skills and knowledge to become investment ready. The curriculum covers lean startup methodology, pitch coaching, financial literacy, market analysis, product development, and legal considerations.

According to a 2023 report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, half of women business owners surveyed said they faced challenges with getting access to business financing.

Program participants will gain access to the guidance of entrepreneurs, including Firehood co-founder and Protexxa CEO Claudette McGowan, Resiin founder and CEO Helen Kontozopoulos, Thinkific co-founder Miranda Lievers, and SomaDetect founder and CEO Bethany Deshpande (no relation to PDC).

The firestarter program is part of the Women and Nonbinary Impact Network for Venture Capital (WIN-VC), which received a $3.4-million investment from the federal government last year through its Inclusive Venture Capital Initiative, which part of the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy.

Graham noted if the Atlantic Canada program is successful, firestarter will eventually be launched in other Canadian regions, such as the Prairies and Northern Ontario.

The program is aimed at addressing what McGowan described as “deep-rooted inequities in the Canadian tech landscape,” including the current lack of capital available to women and non-binary founders. According to McGowan, the program’s name is spelled out in lowercase intentionally as a recognition of this lack of funding.

Despite making up half of Canada’s population, many reports have pointed to women facing unique and systemic barriers in growing their businesses, including accessing capital. According to a 2023 report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, half of women business owners surveyed reported facing challenges when trying to access business financing.

Founded in 2021, The Firehood aims to increase the participation and leadership of women in technology. The organization offers programming and support for women founders and women interested in angel investing, and runs pitch competitions for women founders at tech events across Canada, including Uniting The Prairies, INNOVATEwest, and SAAS NORTH.

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In addition to training, the firestarter program will identify 30 ventures across Atlantic Canada and invite the 10 “most investment ready” to attend Elevate Festival in Toronto this fall, where the participants will receive new networking and exposure opportunities. Graham told BetaKit the selected ventures will also participate at a pitch event at the Chang School of Continuing Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University on Oct. 1.

“As a startup founder myself, I understand firsthand the importance of raising up and opening doors for entrepreneurs,” Deshpande said in a statement. “So many people have supported my journey in building SomaDetect, including Danielle Graham and the Pond-Deshpande Centre from the very earliest days.” 

“It is wonderfully fulfilling and exciting to join this program and be able to support startup founders throughout Atlantic Canada as a firestarter entrepreneur-in-residence,” Deshpande added. 

In a statement, Graham noted that Deshpande is “a perfect example” of the founder-mentor model the program is looking to bring to women and non-binary founders in the Atlantic Canada region. “Canada as a whole needs more mechanisms to re-engage serial entrepreneurs in building the tech ecosystem,” Graham added. 

Applications for the firestarter program are now open and due by July 15.

Feature image courtesy of Danielle Graham.

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle is a Vancouver-based writer with 5+ years of experience in communications and journalism and a lifelong passion for telling stories. For over two years, she has reported on all sides of the Canadian startup ecosystem, from landmark venture deals to public policy, telling the stories of the founders putting Canadian tech on the map.

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