McGill alumni lead panel to discuss challenges for women entrepreneurs

McGill Engine and Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE) hosted a panel featuring McGill Engineering alumni who spoke about their experiences with entrepreneurship. Specifically, the panel consisted of three women, including Boyana Stefanova (BEng’07), Naureen Anwar (BEng’10), and Laura Al Khoury (BEng’17), who reflected upon their successes, failures, and challenges thus far as leaders and innovators. 

During the panel, the speakers shared tips with the audience based on their past mistakes. Al Khoury, co-founder of Yuma, a service that provides convenient meal plans for companies and their workers, emphasized the importance of maintaining positive relationships with customers, especially in the early stages of a new company.

“At the beginning, the most important thing is observing your customers’ problems,” Al Khoury said. “Understand these problems and solve them as fast as possible.” 

Anwar, CEO of Name Shouts, a company that provides the proper pronunciation to over 360,000 names based on native speakers, also highlighted the importance of accessible and consistent communication with customers.

“Our first mistake is that we didn’t talk to our users as much as we should have,” Anwar said. “[That is] a mistake that I see many other entrepreneurs make.” 

Al Khoury and Anwar encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs to build networks with investors frequently and early on, as initial financial backing is crucial to entrepreneurial success.

“It is important to build relationships from the first day on,” Anwar said. “[Investors] give money to people whom they trust, and it is up to us to build that trust.”

The panelists also reflected on their time at McGill and suggested changes they would make given a chance to go back to university. 

“As an entrepreneur, it is important to be a storyteller,” Anwar said. “In terms of what [the Faculty of] Engineering didn’t give, I would definitely go back and get a degree in philosophy or art or literature.” 

To Al Khoury, the McGill community itself was a valuable place to meet like-minded peers, as she now realizes that much of her current team are McGill alumni. 

“[Campus] is where I built my initial network,” Khoury said. “If I could go back, I would spend more time building that network [because] I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.” 

On the other hand, Stefanova, the Community Builder at Mouvement des accélérateurs d’innovation du Québec (MAIN), an ecosystem of Quebec-based startups, praised Montreal for its diverse resources and abundance of young entrepreneurs. She urged the crowd to pursue their ideas with confidence. 

“[Montreal] is really quite a collaborative space,” Stefanova said. “There’s always a way to find people to jump into your project.” 

Al Khoury pointed to the strict discipline required to truly succeed as an entrepreneur, something which university students might not be exposed to. 

“In university, we’re generally not disciplined at all,” Al Khoury said. “The only consistent aspect of being an entrepreneur that I see is being very disciplined [but] making that shift is very hard.” 

While each panelist has found success in entrepreneurship, women entrepreneurs still face discrimination in the workplace. For Anwar, who leads her company with another woman, the challenges she faces go beyond daily interactions and are deeply rooted in society.  

“Sometimes we can give our 120 per cent but […] the system is against you,” Anwar said. “We still have lots of work to do.” 

The event concluded with a word from Janna Augustin and Michaela Deneva, members of Front Row Ventures, a student-run venture capital fund in Canada. 

Augustin and Deneva are also leaders of the Women Founders Project, an initiative that provides female entrepreneurs with workshops, master classes and panels. Together, they hope to educate and support young entrepreneurs in their initial journey. 

“[We will] have general discussions about identity, what it’s like to be a woman in that space,” Deneva said. “We are aiming to address the most common challenges that founders, especially female founders, can encounter.”

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