Small business spotlight in Kawartha Lakes

Diane Steven has played a role in launching many successful local entrepreneurs

By Lisa Hart

Diane Steven, manager of the Kawartha Lakes Small Business and Entrepreneurship Centre. Photo: Sienna Frost.

The decision to take an entrepreneurial or small business path can be sparked for many reasons, including a paycheque that doesn’t go as far as it used to, a job that no longer challenges, or unexpected unemployment.

Taking that small business and entrepreneurial path can be a challenge — and that’s where Diane Steven comes in. Steven is the manager of the Kawartha Lakes Small Business and Entrepreneurship Centre, a place to get support and resources to help guide would-be business owners through the planning process, and to assist businesses as they grow.

Steven has been manager since it first opened its doors nearly 20 years ago. She describes a successful entrepreneur as someone who has a “strong passion for what they do and is good at it. Someone who is excited to start their day.” She says integrity, persistence, self-motivation, strong leadership skills and a belief in oneself are also important qualities for anyone looking to start their own business.

Many people wonder if they have what it takes to be self-employed but they are not sure how to get started, or where to turn to for help. The municipally run Kawartha Lakes Small Business and Entrepreneurship Centre offers free assistance to anyone looking for help in opening or building their own small business, such as one-on-one coaching and opportunities to sign up for training workshops, seminars and webinars. The centre’s website is an online toolbox of resources to answer questions, including a few that probably haven’t even been thought of yet, and a 16-point business checklist to help a potential entrepreneur evaluate their idea, conduct market research, choose a business structure and develop a business strategy. The checklist offers the chance to learn about laws, licenses, choosing and registering a business name as well as setting up a website.

Steven sees people from all walks of life in her work and says the types of businesses they start and operate are equally as broad, from retail, to service providers to designers and digital experts.

Statistics indicate that women entrepreneurs may encounter more roadblocks. A 2021 federal report called the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy found that women own as little as 16 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada. This fairly small number is something the federal government has recognized needs attention, given that women entrepreneurs will be critical to grow the economy in communities across the country.

COVID-19 has also had an unequal impact on Canadians, with women feeling the effects of the pandemic more than their male counterparts.

For instance, according to the Business Development Bank of Canada, before COVID the structural inequalities that faced women were well documented, from the wage gap to the lack of capital and resources to start and grow businesses. Women also carry the bulk of caregiving responsibilities, be it for children or aging parents.

BDC also reports that women entrepreneurs in particular are feeling the COVID pinch because in general they tend to run smaller businesses or be self-employed, are less well funded, and tend to be concentrated in the service sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Steven says that women will always be looking for a work-life balance regardless of what type of work they do. The level of difficulty they experience in trying to balance the scales, she suggests, will often depend on what type of business they operate as well as the woman’s stage of life, whether she is a parent with children at home or an adult caring for an aging family member.

Despite the challenges women face, many possess the skills to succeed as entrepreneurs. “The quality that stands out most to me is how thorough women tend to be when it comes to preparing themselves in the early days of launching their business,” Steven says. In her experience, Steven says she has found that while women are risk-takers, they are also more inclined to do their research, seek help and advice through services like the Kawartha Lakes Small Business and Entrepreneurship Centre, and build a solid plan to reduce risk.

Real estate investor Monica Sotirakos, from Burnt River, started building her business ProntoLiving to empower people, primarily women, to create financial security for themselves. She believes that entrepreneurs must have a clear vision and be willing to go into “uncharted territory” and “out of their comfort zone” by taking calculated risks. Sotirakos says that having worked in the corporate world for more 30 years, “being my own boss now is incredibly energizing, motivating and terrifying at times.”

As a newcomer to the area, she has found the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Centre helpful in her journey by providing information, guidance and resources to help her to plot the course of starting a business. “I find it comforting to know that I am not the only one,” Sotirakos says. “There is someone like Diane who can help us think through planning and put us in contact with others.”

Crystal Connell, founder and director of The Beauty Lab Medical Cosmetics, also found connections made through Steven and the Entrepreneurship Centre an asset in building her business. Connell had no previous business experience, just a desire to learn and a feeling that “the timing was right to make it work.” She acknowledges the good people in the industry she has met and considers herself very fortunate to see her dream expand into multiple locations.

Leah Denney. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

Then there’s Leaha Denney, owner of A Dash of Denney, who describes herself as someone who likes to know what she is doing. Denney says she appreciates the access to flexible training through the Entrepreneur Centre that fits into a busy schedule — training she would not otherwise have been able to afford during the startup of her company. She advises other women who are considering starting their own business to find a network for guidance and advice. “The more you are willing to listen and learn from others, the more you can grow.”

Steven echoes Denney that peer-to-peer networking is a great for “supporting each other and staying motivated.” On occasion, the Kawartha Lakes Small Business and Entrepreneurship Centre has invited past program participants to join round table meetings to answer questions and discuss some of the challenges they overcame in the early days of launching their business.

Leah Jensen owns Enchanted Naturals, an aromatherapy business she started at the beginning of the pandemic. She says she thinks of it as a learning experience, seeing slow growth despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. “Diane is amazing at giving support and resources,” she says, and her follow-ups remind Leah to keep going and remain focused “because not everyone progresses at the same rate, and even baby steps can take you in the right direction.”

Late last year, Steven’s efforts on behalf of small businesses and entrepreneurs in Kawartha Lakes was recognized by the Lindsay and District Chamber of Commerce when she picked up the prestigious Business Leader of the Year Award. Of the 14 business awards the Chamber gave out, 10 of the businesses were led or co-led by women. Seven were clients of Steven’s.

Apart from her own achievement, Steven was thrilled to discover that nine of these small business nominees were clients of the Entrepreneurship Centre. She says it was the “absolute icing on the cake” to see six of those businesses acknowledged for their excellence with an award.

“I am so proud of all that each and every one of them have achieved,” Steven says.

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