At PARO’s Enterprise Centre in Thunder Bay, women entrepreneurs gather for another professional development workshop that provides mentorship and networking opportunities; one of several programs the centre offers that enhance enterprise development.
"It's a beautiful day at PARO," a cheerful voice affirms when answering the office's telephone in Thunder Bay. For an organization that began in 1995 as a women's community loan fund in Northwestern Ontario, PARO Centre for Women's Enterprise has certainly exceeded all expectations by literally empowering thousands of women to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams. Named after the Latin word meaning "to make ready, to prepare", PARO today provides programs for women that enhance enterprise development, skills training, networking, mentoring, and access to capital, information and markets.
After 20 years in business, PARO decided it was time to celebrate with a special full-day networking and tradeshow last November called "Exceeding the Vision", featuring guest speakers and informative workshops. The event was capped off with an evening awards program honouring 20 successful women entrepreneurs who were once protégées of PARO programs and services. "PARO is definitely having an impact in the region," says PARO Executive Director Rosalind Lockyer. "The organization is all about people." A lot of people, as it turns out. Last year, for example, PARO helped create 113 businesses which in turn generated over 500 jobs across northwestern Ontario. "I truly believe PARO's most important impact is that we offer hope to so many Northerners," says Lockyer. "Hope, so that women can follow their dreams and create businesses and employment, and then have the confidence to continue to excel with ongoing support from PARO."
FedNor has proudly supported several of PARO's programs and initiatives over the years and for good reason: women are active and dynamic entrepreneurs and small businesses owned by them are one of the fastest growing business segments in Canada. In 2010, PARO expanded its outreach services to Northeastern Ontario with FedNor support, providing bilingual business development support to women in the target markets of Timmins and Hearst, Chapleau and Dubreuilville, Greenstone, Marathon and Manitouwadge. Two years ago, PARO opened a satellite office in Chapleau to meet the high demand for service in the francophone region of Northeastern Ontario.
If success breeds success, PARO is ensuring that the next 20 years will be equally empowering for the next generation of women entrepreneurs. Amid the anniversary celebrations, PARO kicked off a charity fund-raising campaign with 20 of its former clients who stepped up with donations totalling $5,000 to "pay it forward." The money will be used to help support peer lending circle networks all across Northern Ontario in the form of grants and loans.
One business owner who has worked closely with PARO over the years was happy to contribute. "I know what the value of a loan and a grant is, that's for sure," Stephanie Ash, the owner of Firedog Communications told Thunder Bay media. "I wanted to be part of this to help other young entrepreneurs and other business women to be able to start and grow their business."
"Our philosophy is to give back to other women and the community," Rosalind Lockyer adds. "We are thrilled to have women give back to others and our community today."