A Woman Entrepreneur

Women owned businesses account for nearly 39% of all businesses in BC. If you shop locally you might have noticed that the majority of retail businesses in communities large and small are women-owned. These women do business differently. They do more than contribute to the economy. They care for their clients, their families, and their communities. However their contributions are marginalized, as social impact and quality of life are not the type of metrics that get measured by governments. A large percentage of these women entrepreneurs were negatively impacted during the pandemic. The combined burdens of educating children, caring for elders, and running a business took a toll. This societal ‘caring role’ acting as a cudgel, demanding adherence to traditional roles, priorities, and expectations difficult to ignore.

I was a fashion-designer, wholesaler, and retail store owner for nearly 20 years. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer and died 2 weeks later, I was more than 15 years into my business, had 2 stores 30 km apart, and was responsible for 5 staff. I was her youngest child and only girl. The brother next in line being 13 years older. He lived next door to my mother, however his chronic alcoholism ruled him out as caregiver. She needed me one last time, to get her through this last stage in her life. She lived 400kms away over a high mountain pass. Every 3 or 4 days I got in the car and started driving. After she said what she needed to say, “Are we OK”? she asked, using whatever strength she had left to take my face in her hands, to look at me. After I mumbled something, she let me go. I grabbed my bag, and walked down the long hallway yelling that she should try not to die until I got back the following weekend. She did die, a week later as I was eating a piece of toast in the family room, after a sleepless night lying beside her in her bed, and after administering her morning morphine. I called the funeral home while my family cried. When the man arrived to remove the body, he quietly asked if I would mind helping him move her now white-wrapped body onto the gurney in her cramped bedroom. I did. And a few days later picked up my bag and drove home. I don’t remember how long I was away, but I do remember returning to work numb, and completely unprepared to do the work I had done nearly every day for the previous fifteen years. I remember a phone call from one of my suppliers. He called to let me know that my account had slipped past the 60-day mark and was now officially overdue. I had been his client for more than a decade. When I explained I had been away due to my mothers illness, and subsequent passing, there was a pause before he said “I’m sorry to hear that. So when should I expect payment?” Too exhausted to answer, I quietly hung up.

When it comes to how and why women ‘do’ entrepreneurship, it’s not better or worse than the other sex…it’s different. That supplier didn’t think my mother’s death had anything to do with my late payment. He just wanted his money. My heart was broken when my mother died. I didn’t expect that, but it became my new reality. For a couple of years, I cried, and struggled, and raged. When things really began to slip, about a year later, I thought that I would save a little money on the payroll by working 21 days straight and ended up with shingles. My financial institution-My ‘small business-partner’ was about as much help as my supplier. Despite the fact that I had opened a second store in a commercial space that I owned(mortgage with them) and had a decent amount of equity, they refused to raise my current modest line of credit in line with operating 2 stores. In fact, they called in my loan. It was 2008, and in hindsight I realize they were simply doing what a bank does, dumping an under-performing account. I did however, take it a bit personally when I was summoned to a downtown office tower to meet with my account manager’s ‘higher-up’. This person, seeing that I was a bit shattered by this sudden turn of events, tried to lighten the mood by playing a game with me. “How much do you think that you could make per year as a manager of let’s say, a 7–11?” I don’t remember my answer, but I do remember that my guess was low. She seemed pleased with the fact that I was underestimating my future as a 7–11 employee-albeit in management, and happily pronounced that I should be relieved to leave my 20-year career as an entrepreneur. Clearly I lacked any sense of profit-orientation, and was sadly unaware of how unsuccessful my attempt at retail had been.

It was a different story for the nearly 2000 women who I had dressed over the previous twenty years. As they received word of my closing-out-sale, they came in one by one with words of encouragement for my future and to tell me how much me and my store had meant to them. These women! We had celebrated and cried over births and deaths, retirements, anniversaries and break-ups. One customer who always came in with her husband-the loveliest man-until one day she didn’t, with tears in her eyes proceeded to tell me that he had died of a heart attack three nights before. I don’t remember what I said, but she told me that she needed something nice to wear to his funeral, and I proceeded to put items into the change room that I thought she would like. I had a dream about her husband months later. It was a beautiful dream, he just looked at me and told me not to be sad. When my mom died, many of my clients dropped off cards, brought me flowers, and took my hand to tell me about their mothers. They assured me, many of them nurses by profession, that a quick death was better than a long illness, and I was comforted. I always tell my consulting clients that they need to build their businesses FOR their clients. These women who shopped my stores for nearly 2 decades kept me in business, and shared their lives with me. It was an honour and a privilege to serve them. My staff, many of them former customers, models, friends of friends, took care of the store like it was their own. Despite the fact that closing the store impacted their income, and their social life, their concern was also for me. They were all tremendous.

International Women’s Day in Canada, is “a day to recognize and celebrate women’s and girl’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements”. This year’s theme is “Women Inspiring Women”. I find freedom inspiring. The freedom to do entrepreneurship my way. I find caring inspiring. The way women mobilize others in a crisis. Evidenced by the number of women business owners who are currently supporting Ukrainians in their fight for democracy. Raising awareness of how war disproportionally affects women and girls. I find honouring women’s ways of being, inspiring. Creating non-traditional businesses that model compassion while championing individuality, rather than conforming to traditional male-centred, profit-above-all models.

I am still an entrepreneur. Now a consultant and educator. (I never did pursue the 7–11 thing) My current contract, which is soon coming to an end, is with an organization that serves women who want to start businesses. I also currently volunteer as a mentor. I have had the extraordinary opportunity to to listen to many, many, many, women’s stories throughout this pandemic. It has been challenging but also inspiring to support these women as they tried to navigate the uncharted waters, while caring for the ones they love. The celebration and recognition tied to this International Women’s Day is important…and well deserved.

To my fellow women entrepreneurs. I wish you a happy International Women’s Day! I see your light…Thank You for all you do.

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