About The Guest
Nicole Troster has over 10 years’ experience developing startups and working with organizations to design policies and programs to support entrepreneurship. She currently manages ELLA, an accelerator created by York University exclusively for women entrepreneurs. It provides unparalleled support and access to a community of founders, mentors, top experts, and supporters to help women scale their businesses.
ELLA had their launch party back in early March of this year. I attended the event to connect with women entrepreneurs and to support a friend who was accepted into the accelerator.
Highlights of The Discussion
Growing up, Nicole Was Always Around Business
5:15 – It’s a really, really interesting question. And I think, you know, going back to when I was a kid, my mom was actually an entrepreneur. And she owned her own motel for 34 years. So as a kid, I was really, really attuned to kind of what was going on in the business.
When you’d walk into the reception of the motel, you’d actually see the living room of our family home. So again, I was always kind of around business. And then when I eventually got into my career, I became a lobbyist on behalf of small and medium-sized businesses. And I did that for about six years lobbying at different levels of government, lobbying for policies and regulations that would help to support entrepreneurs and small businesses.
And I got recruited into the Ontario public service, I oversaw a project there where we were getting feedback directly from businesses about how to improve the regulatory environment and reduce business costs.
And then I decided to make a change, I really wanted to work more directly with entrepreneurs. So I moved out to Waterloo. I did my Masters of Business, entrepreneurship and technology, I was working on my own venture at that point. I was working with other startups and other organizations to help design policies programs to help support entrepreneurship, and eventually came back to Toronto, I was managing a tech incubator at Ryerson. And then I got the opportunity to get involved with ELLA and I just said, you know, what, what a great opportunity to support women entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs, like my mother, who could really benefit from support. So I’ve been there ever since. I’m loving being able to help women firsthand and to be a part of their journey.
A Reflection of Women-Led Businesses in the Economy
7:15 – I think I was very, very unique in the sense that we don’t just cater to tech entrepreneurs, we have a lot of service-based businesses in the cohort, and to the tune of 80%, which is actually a reflection of women-led businesses in the economy, if you look at the types of businesses that women tend to own, a lot of retail, a lot of service-based businesses, wholesale business businesses, healthcare businesses. So from that perspective, we’re providing help to the average women lead business.
Pivoting 10 Days After The Launch Party
7:57 – Yeah, as you mentioned, our launch party was on March 3rd. Ten days later, we were asked to basically pivot the whole program. So originally, all of the sessions, all of the programming was meant to be online and given through York Region’s Small Business Enterprise centers. And we very, very quickly like many of the businesses in our cohort had to pivot to provide all of our programming online. So we had to rethink some of the programming, we had to rethink how we were going to engage this massive cohort of women and kind of help engage them in such a way that they were building community together and making progress together.
So originally, we had planned for seven core workshops. But what we found was the idea that a lot of women were not doing business primarily online. So we brought in organizations like Shopify, Thinkific, for example, and others to help teach the women how to get online really, really, really quickly. So we ended up offering something like 18 workshops in total, to help cater to the needs of the women at that specific time.
How Men Approach Entrepreneurship vs How Women Approach Entrepreneurship
9:46 – It’s really, really interesting. I mean, the drivers behind starting a business are different than for men. Sometimes, you know, when women have families to accommodate their schedules and to provide for more flexibility they tend to start up their own businesses. So that’s one major difference. I think the inherent confidence that men have about their business, about their capabilities, about being able to raise capital for their companies is completely different than what women entrepreneurs feel.
Imposter syndrome is something that women feel very, very often as entrepreneurs. And so part of what we look to achieve is to help instill confidence in the women that come through our program, to let them know that you know, what, you do have a good idea, you do have the support, you do have the network that you need to be successful.
Working on Her Own Venture To Working With Women Entrepreneurs
14:10 – Yeah, so as I mentioned, when I was in Waterloo, I was working on my own venture. It was a social enterprise, which looked to make corporate events more environmentally and socially sustainable. I went through all of the steps of startup development that you should go through. So doing customer interviews and customer discovery and needs discovery and all of those things.
And, ultimately, I came, it came down to the point where the business as I had conceived of it, no matter how I pivoted, it, was not going to be financially sustainable. So I had to make the hard decision to kind of close that business down. But entrepreneurship is not something that I have ruled out completely. I think, again, the opportunities to work more closely with startups came up and you know, I love working with motivated founders. And I love seeing progress. And just seeing those aha moments and when they’re integrating new things, and they’re successful. And, you know, that’s something that’s, that feels so good inside that I’d have a hard time kind of giving that up, even if I did do my own venture. But again, I think entrepreneurship is something that I’ll dive back into at some point in time.
Making The Tough Decision To Shut Down Your Business
17:19 – That’s a really tough decision to make like you’re saying, and sometimes entrepreneurs don’t know when enough is enough in terms of that. And sometimes they continue down the path, even though the business is failing, and there are sure signs that it’s failing, they continue to do it. And I mean, I think that’s where I really benefited from, you know, the Waterloo ecosystem, from the education that I got around the, you know, the startup cycle, and what that looks like, because had I not been involved with that I might have continued and dumped a lot more money and effort into building my business, even though it wasn’t going to be successful at that time. I think it’s just one of those business ideas that especially where social procurement is concerned, it’s just going to take a couple of years for people to really understand why they should be using social procurement.
What Is Considered To Be a Good Business Idea?
18:18 – I think one thing and you know, this is something that I’ve heard time and time again, but I would say that it’s not something that all entrepreneurs practice.
A good idea is one that solves a problem and an important problem.
And a lot of times people will come up with what they think are great ideas. But at the end, it’s either a product or service that nobody’s going to use at the end. And you know, it’s really unfortunate that that happens. But again, a good idea is one that solves an important problem.
Deciding Who Is a Good Fit For The ELLA Accelerator
22:42 – So there’s a committee that reviews all of the applications. And you know, we’ve created criteria and a rubric for evaluation. But I think in terms of the things that really stand out, having a very clear picture of your business. So do they understand their value proposition? Do they understand who their target customer is? And how to reach them? Do they understand what problem they’re aiming to solve? Are they clear about how they’re going to scale up the business, the clearer those are, they’re able to be about those things, the more they’re going to get out of a program like Altitude or Ascend.
Coachability is very, very important. You hear that regardless of the incubator or accelerator program, that you’re talking about, somebody who’s able to leverage everything that we’re putting in front of them, the mentorship, the peer circles, the subject matter experts, the workshops, like everything that we provide you, it’s got to be somebody who’s going to take those things to learn as best they can apply what they need to, to their business to grow. Like, you know, it takes a special person to do all of those things.
The Importance of Determining Your Unique Value Proposition
24:14 – I think one thing that’s always a sure tell fine for me, is being able to articulate your value proposition. Like your unique value proposition, if you’re able to go to a group of potential customers are who like the people who you think will buy your product or service and articulate that value proposition clearly. And they’re like, yep, we get it. We want to buy it. Where do we sign up? Even if the product or service hasn’t been fully developed, then that’s usually a pretty good thing.
Start working on your value proposition, start having conversations with potential customers to understand what is the problem? What are the current alternatives that they’re using to solve the problem? And like, Why are those alternatives not working in the most helpful things that you can do is to help conversations with the people who are affected by the problem because they’ll tell you so much of what you need to know.
The Many Paths To Supporting Women Entrepreneurs
25:30 – That’s such a hard question to answer. Because when I look at the people that I know, in the ecosystem, no two are alike. Everybody has a different path to entrepreneurship, in the same way, that everybody has a different path to supporting entrepreneurs.
I think just working with founders and having empathy for what they’re going through, and much like you would treat your own business, getting at the heart of the problem that entrepreneurs face, and helping to solve that problem in a meaningful way, just like you would in a business, I think those are really the kind of the most important thing.
So if it’s like volunteering with either an incubator or accelerator or boards of trade, or small business enterprise centers, like there’s so many different ways to get involved with businesses from that perspective, like volunteering time, working in a startup, even, that’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t take the risk to do necessarily, especially for early-stage startups. But you get to know the business inside and out if you’re one of the early employees. And you play such a big role in helping to overcome so many challenges, because, as we know, like most companies fail within the first five years of their existence. So from that perspective, it’s an education unto its own. Again, really, really hard question for me to answer.
Looking Back On Her Career Path
28:43 – I think probably the biggest thing that surprised me is how with the position that I have at ELLA, how my career kind of came full circle. I didn’t necessarily understand when I went to Waterloo to work more closely with startups, how my lobbying experience would serve me in a role like the one I have for ELLA lobbying on behalf of small and medium-sized businesses.
I learned a lot about the challenges that businesses face on, you know, the external side. So you know, the type of impact that raising taxes or having more stringent regulations can have on the business. And internally, you’re already dealing with so many different challenges, whether it be competition or trying to find talent or other things. So I think the lobbying experience helped me understand the outside of the organization and then the Waterloo and the incubator experience has really helped me to understand the inside so I think have such a good perspective now that I wouldn’t have had, had I done all those things