Oct. 31, 2023Print | PDF
The path to being a successful entrepreneur is rife with challenges—even more so when you’re a woman operating in the often male-dominated tech world. Lazaridis School of Business and Economics graduate, Danielle Brewin Graham (MBA ‘14) has spent the last decade working to change that and create more equity and opportunities for women founders.
Earlier this year, Graham joined our Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Finance (MFin) students at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University for a virtual fireside chat. The event was hosted by the Laurier Career Centre as part of their Leadership Speaker Series - providing Lazaridis graduate students with the opportunity to hear from inspirational alumni leaders about their expertise on leadership, industry insights, and their career paths.
Graham is currently a general partner at Phoenix Fire, an angel fund investing in women entrepreneurs across Canada. She is also the co-founder of The Firehood, an angel-stage fund and network focused on women in technology. Before that, Danielle led the creation of Fierce Founders, Canada’s first women-focused startup accelerator at Kitchener-based Communitech.
But Graham’s path to breaking glass ceilings in women's entrepreneurship wasn’t a straight path. Graham earned her undergraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Toronto and then a Master of African History at Dalhousie University. She said she was headed down the path of academia when she was inspired to look at MBA programs.
“I had a whole thesis ready to go for my PhD—then it finally hit me. I'm far too extroverted to spend the rest of my life in a library. I was at Dalhousie at the time and was getting jealous of all the MBA students, so I applied to a couple of universities with MBA co-op programs—including Laurier,” Graham said.
During her time at Laurier, Graham focused on sustainability and technology. She said it was during her time in Laurier Launchpad (now StartUp Lab) that started her on the path to a career in tech.
“People were taking on consulting gigs, and I realized that I didn’t want to work for someone else. I was going to work for myself. So I teamed up with one of my fellow MBA’ers who had been a VP at Bruce Power and we created a company that was focused on water purification,” Graham said.
During her co-op time at Communitech, Graham first discovered her passion for entrepreneurship. She helped create the Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp program, which was the start of the Fierce Founders program. After graduation, she joined Deloitte's Human Capital team in the Kitchener office. She credits attending networking events for helping make the intensive application process simpler, thanks to a partner at Deloitte partner who helped guide her through the process.
“They put me through seven interviews because they didn't know where to place me because I was pretty all over the map in terms of my interests. I ended up in Kitchener in Human Capital where we built the Sonnet Insurance project for Economical Insurance,” Graham said.
While at Communitech, Graham started working on the proposal for funding for the Fierce Founders program. When the funding was approved, Graham returned to Communitech to launch the innovative program to support women entrepreneurs.
“It was at Communitech that I became obsessed with another problem—how to get funding for women entrepreneurs. I knew that in order to be a better venture capitalist, I had to work on the inside. That's when I went to work for Ontario Centers of Innovation—and the rest is history in terms of more of my venture capital career,” Graham said.
Graham went on to roles at Dream Maker Ventures, Sandpiper Ventures, the Golden Triangle Angel Network, and ventureLAB. She said her leadership style evolved as her career grew in venture capital. Still, much of her style is rooted in her experiences as a founder being supported by mentors at Communitech and Laurier.
“When I started building programs and offering support for other founders, it was easier for me to lead because I related to the experience of others. I think that an important part of leadership is being able to still roll up your sleeves, be humble, and do the hard work. Don't think that you're above people and dictate down to them. It's much more about being on the ground,” Graham said.
Graham added that many people who might interview you are MBA grads. She said they know the experience and rigour—especially Laurier’s well-known case study model.
“Having that case study experience is a good example of leadership and teamwork that shows you've accomplished something with others. It demonstrates you’ve gone above and beyond and have a team who can vouch for it,” Graham said.
Today, Graham is putting her leadership and team skills to work with Phoenix Fire, providing opportunities and funding for women founders. She said it continues to be a challenge due to the last three years of the COVID-19 pandemic and now with rising interest rates slowing investment.
“We saw a slight decrease in how much funding goes to women last year. It was somewhere between 2 to 3 per cent, then last year was at 1.9 per cent. It's also a smaller amount that goes to early-stage founders in general—and there are more women in the early stages,” Graham said.
But even with these challenges, Graham said venture capital and ecosystem support for women entrepreneurs has improved. She credits this to more women graduating from STEM programs and women working at accelerators and incubators across Canada.
“You want innovation to have different perspectives because it is important for innovators and entrepreneurs to bring new perspectives to problem-solving.”
Learn more about the Lazaridis MBA.
Hear from our other Leadership Speaker Series Alumni:
Danielle Brewin Graham, MBA '14 - MBA alumna lights the way for other women entrepreneurs
Albert Tam, MBA '15 - Lazaridis MBA alum takes the path less travelled to a career in risk management
Nicoletta Stefou, MBA '08 - MBA alumna's climb up the corporate (fast) food chain