THUNDER BAY — The federal government has announced details of funding for the PARO Centre for Women's Enterprise, based in Thunder Bay.
About $6.3 million from FedNor cover the operation of the PARO Women's Enterprise Centre Northern Ontario (WECNO) for the periods of 2019 to 2022 and 2022 to 2025.
WECNO is designed to help women entrepreneurs, including Indigenous women, start and grow businesses or expand access to export markets, and supports women-led start-ups and companies throughout Northern Ontario.
Since 2016, it has supported over 1,000 businesses and helped to create or maintain more than 1,600 jobs.
An additional $2.1 million will enable PARO to implement the Enterprising Indigenous Women initiative, a project that supports women in their efforts to develop the knowledge and skills to establish and expand businesses or social enterprises in Northern Ontario.
Details of the funding were revealed at a news conference attended by Patty Hajdu — the MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North and minister responsible for FedNor — and Marcus Powlowski, MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River.
Rosalind Lockyer, founder and CEO of PARO Centre for Women's Enterprise, said the funding that's already been provided for the past three years was very timely because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The world changed, and it meant that women had to change how they did business. So PARO was needed even more. We had to develop new programming, develop new strategies for delivering our programming. FedNor was very flexible around that," Lockyer said.
She noted that at the worst point, during one nine-month period, PARO released about $500,000 to women's businesses.
"It was a lot of work. Because you have to be transparent. You have to go through all the hoops that are needed when it comes to government funding, and that's important, but we were able to do it."
Lockyer gave credit to members of the PARO team who stepped up and did the extra work required to facilitate the funding.
She remarked on the success of the organization's Peer Lending Circles, which are small groups of like-minded women entrepreneurs who meet regularly to share their experiences, offer advice to each other and expand their individual networks of contacts.
With the involvement of Peer Lending Circles — of which there are currently more than 200 — FedNor provides a non-repayable portion of loans ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
"The stats show that if women have peer support, they are seven times more likely to develop successful, sustainable businesses," Lockyer said. "You can see why they are an important part of our organization. Our board of directors is elected from the peer lending membership, so women are the decision-makers on our board."
PARO also operates the BizGrowth program, under which women can receive up to $5,000 to develop an expanded marketing plan.
"They have to put 10 per cent in themselves, and the other 90 per cent is part of our BizGrowth program. This can be crucial in a time such as COVID. But during the next three years women can also use the money to go on trade missions," Lockyer said.
She noted that women who have participated in previous trade missions have seen their businesses grow exponentially.
The next trip is planned for March in Nashville, Tenn.
Lockyer added that PARO is a member of the Women's Enterprise Centres of Canada, and represents Ontario, which allows it to provide loans up to $50,000.
"We constantly talk to the women. We put together their information, what they say they need, we develop programs, write proposals and get funding to make sure we can provide what they need to move forward."