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Celebrating Stories of Ontarians: Ilse Treurnicht

The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, OC, OOnt and Dr. Ilse Treurnicht, OOnt (2018).

Celebrating stories of Ontarians: Ilse Treurnicht, Member of the Order of Ontario

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, for which events are being held throughout March, is “Break the Bias.” We are asked to imagine a gender-equal world, free of stereotypes and discrimination.

Such a world can seem like an unrealizable dream for women entrepreneurs: Here in Canada, women founders of startups get less than 5% of venture capital. There are structural problems at work, and to address them, we can look for inspiration to champions of innovation such as Ilse Treurnicht.

In 2017, Treurnicht was appointed to the Order of Ontario, in part for her advocacy for women to “break the glass ceiling.” She views herself as a “translator” between the worlds of science, business, and policy. Previously, she has been a middle-distance runner and anti-apartheid student activist in her native South Africa, a Rhodes scholar who completed a DPhil in chemistry at Oxford, and the first full-time CEO of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, which commercializes medical and related research and is the largest innovation hub in Canada. In all the fields in which she has worked, she says, “You get different decisions when you have women at the table.”

She knows firsthand how many barriers still exist. Treurnicht came to Canada to do a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Western Ontario; she then joined a green chemistry startup with no maternal leave, which meant she had to take her firstborn baby to work. Eventually, she became one of Canada’s first female venture capital fund CEOs, at Primaxis. “It was a terrific experience,” she says, “but it was very male-dominated.”

Treurnicht describes the venture capital field at that time as small and “monolithic.” She recalls, “When women founders approached venture firms, they were not only dismissed but, in some cases, abused. It was not a healthy environment for a young woman trying to pitch a company.”

She became determined to diversify the field—and did so while at MaRS, from 2005 to 2017. By welcoming companies focused on social innovation, she fostered gender parity among founders there. She also brought in successful women founders in fields such as hard science and clean technology, as mentors.

“I think women have a different lived experience of centering the future of their children, communities, and their planet,” she says. “Detrimental developments like climate change and pandemics disproportionately impact women. And around the world, women are increasingly highly educated, building businesses, participating in all aspects of the economy, and bringing perspectives that will allow us to think more long-term: ‘What’s in it for us?’ Not just, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Today, she chairs the think tank Public Policy Forum and is a partner in the investing firm TwinRiver Capital, which aims to help companies make positive change. As an immigrant, Treurnicht calls herself a “proud Canadian,” citing our country’s “incredible population of diverse, talented, and generous people, with relationships with every corner of the planet. I see such an opportunity for Canada to make a unique contribution.”

Women’s input is vital to this contribution. This month, and beyond, I encourage Ontarians to reflect on how to support women’s ideas and ventures, to recognize the obstacles women face, and to speak up, when possible, about breaking the bias.


— The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario

One of a Lieutenant Governor’s great privileges is to celebrate Ontarians from all backgrounds and corners of the province. Ontario’s honours and awards formally and publicly acknowledge the excellence, achievements, and contributions of role models from all walks of life. In doing so, they strengthen the fabric of communities and shape the aspirations of Ontarians.  Learn more: https://www.ontario.ca/page/honours-and-awards

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