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A portrait of Nancy Wilson
From Pivot Magazine

'Systemic problems, demand systemic solutions,' says CPA Nancy Wilson

From battling workplace sexism to pushing for economic equity, Wilson founded the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce to address gender disparities in business

Before Nancy Wilson launched the first ever Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CanWCC), she held increasingly senior finance and accounting roles in the corporate world. One of her last jobs before leaving corporate accounting for good was at a small startup, where it didn’t take her long to notice a sharp dichotomy between the young, largely racialized female employees in customer-service roles and the predominantly male sales team. It was during this exposure to a misogynistic atmosphere that she found the motivation for her future course of action. 

Wilson demonstrated her unwavering resolve when she insisted on fair compensation for the customer service group's overtime work. Despite facing resistance from the company, she refused to yield on the matter. “They wanted me to be what I call a get-along girl—a female CPA who would make them look presentable to their board and just roll with the sexism,” she said. Then, determined to be the proverbial change she wanted to see in the world, Wilson started a small accounting firm that would primarily serve women-identified business owners. But the persistent problem of sexism—which she had seen in varying shades and degrees throughout her career—followed her from the corporate world into the entrepreneurship realm.  

Wilson began to notice common barriers among her clients that went well beyond the standard difficulties of entrepreneurship—the most glaring of which was the disproportionate challenge of getting a capital loan as a woman business owner. That’s around when she learned that Canada—unlike many countries around the world, including the U.S., many European nations, and a few African ones—does not have a dedicated Chamber of Commerce to represent the interests of women in business. And so, she went home and googled how to start one.  

Wilson incorporated CanWCC under the Not-for-profit Corporations Act in 2017 and soon afterward ran a series of informal focus groups to help guide the Chamber’s eventual priorities. At the beginning, it was just her and another volunteer working part-time, but in 2020, it became a full-time job. Today, CanWCC is a thriving team of ten with a dedicated board of advisers and a fulsome agenda of government advocacy.  

Systemic problems, Wilson realized through the course of her career, demand systemic solutions. She’s leveraging her CPA designation to achieve just that.  

CPA Canada: Did anything surprising come out of the focus groups you ran after incorporating CanWCC? 

Nancy Wilson (NW): One surprising insight was that many people don’t know what a Chamber of Commerce actually is or does—let alone one specifically for women. There’s a common misconception that they’re part of the government, and that’s despite their more than 100-year history in Canada. People seem to know that they are pillar institutions with power, and that’s about it. And this part wasn’t surprising, but access to capital came up a lot.  

CPA Canada: How and why does the business capitalization issue disproportionately affect women?  

(NW): Women-owned businesses tend to be critically undercapitalized. That’s partly because if they’re in an industry where equity-based investment is an option, there’s the presence of implicit bias—venture capitalists and angel investors ask women founders very different questions than they do men, which is a whole conversation on its own, but the numbers tell the story. In a very good year, women-owned businesses get 3-4% of VC investment. In an average year, it’s 2%, and more like 0.2% for businesses owned by racialized women. As for debt financing—which is the available option for the majority of women-owned businesses, because they tend to be in service or ecommerce-based businesses rather than tech—there are all sorts of micro biases going on. And these sectors are considered particularly risky by lenders.  

CPA Canada: How does CanWCC advocate for change on that and other fronts?  

(NW): Depending on the issue, an advocacy campaign might be directed to different audiences—formal policy briefs get sent directly to elected officials, and there are also more informal, public campaigns. But the ultimate driver of change is almost always government policy, so even if the campaign targets the public, the purpose is to put additional pressure on the government to change or enact policy.  

CPA Canada: What’s on the agenda right now? 

(NW): One project we have on the go is an alliance of different organizations, including other entrepreneurship groups, artist groups and the Canadian Labour Congress, working to put pressure on the government to create policies that support self-employed individuals. Policies targeting women entrepreneurs generally refer to SMEs, but there about one million self-employed women driving the economy. That group is very much ignored. We’re also working on a project to help women access business financing, whether it’s a bank loan or VC. The project trains folks on how to respond to questions from investors—which as I mentioned earlier, tend to be very different for male versus female founders—in a way that increases the likelihood of them getting funded. 

CPA Canada: Besides its focus on women-identified and non-binary-owned businesses, what is unique about CanWCC? 

(NW): Although we are organized like all other Chambers of Commerce, and our fundamental activity is advocacy, we are different in that our call to action is economic equity. All our activity is focused on economic equity for our members—but also for the general population. We believe that economic equity is a human right, and that business and community interests are not mutually exclusive.  


Learn about this year’s AICPA & CIMA women’s global leadership summit, which will take place on November 11 to 13, 2024. Read why the gender wage gap persists and how a lack of sponsorship is a key hurdle in more women joining boards.

Photo caption: Nancy Wilson battles workplace sexism and champions economic equity (May Truong)