She Dared to Wear Red
Saskatchewan Women in Business & Leadership
By Brook Thalgott
On March 10, 2020, Industry West brought together eight business leaders to talk about their work, the challenges and opportunities for women entrepreneurs, and how to succeed in business. Maggie Sinclair, Executive Vice President, Business Banking, Conexus Credit Union moderated the discussion held at Path CoWork in Regina. Meet Chantelle Flanagan-Moore (Owner, Flower Station and Owner, Gather at the Hive), Cindy Fuchs (Executive Director, Saskatchewan Roughriders Foundation), Pam Klein (President and CEO, Phoenix Group), Jessica McNaughton (Founder, memoryKPR), Michelle Strawford (Owner, Bella Chic and Producer, What Women Want Show), Tina Svedahl (Vice President, Investments, Harvard Developments) and Mary Weimer (Chief Member Experience Officer, Conexus Credit Union and Member of the Saskatchewan Advisory Committee, WESK). For video of the discussion, visit our YouTube channel, @iwmediagroup.
Saskatchewan is home to many remarkable women in business and leadership, each with their own story of what sparked their climb into the roles they hold today. Sinclair began by asking each of the roundtable participants who they are, and how they got their start. Although these seven women work in diverse fields, there are remarkable similarities in their background stories.
Chantelle Flanagan-Moore began working in her mother’s successful business when she was a child, born into entrepreneurship. “I grew up just being my mom’s little sidekick,” says Flanagan-Moore. She left home to study business and returned to the family venture before striking out her own. Today, she owns Flower Station and Gather at the Hive, two ventures based in Moose Jaw.
Strawford tells a similar story. “I’m the youngest of five and grew up in a home where both parents were entrepreneurs.” Strawford became a computer programmer and thought that was what she wanted to do until her first child came along. “I really want to be with my children more. So that was the spark for me,” she says. Strawford owns a retail boutique, Bella Chic, and produces the popular What Women Want Show.
McNaughton is also the child of entrepreneurs and set out as a young adult exploring the world. She joined the corporate world for the first part of her career, changing gears a year ago to start two businesses. “Right now, I am running a consulting company called Innovation Labs,” she says. “And, I’m the CEO and founder of MemoryKPR, which is a digital storytelling solution.”
Klein also came from an entrepreneurial family. “I call my father a serial entrepreneur. He was always inventing and accomplishing great things,” she says. “My first foray into owning a business was in the 90s. My husband and I had what would now be considered a tech startup.” Today, Klein leads Phoenix Group, a Regina-based marketing agency.
Fuchs, too, grew up in a business-minded family, and spent the first 35 years of her career with one organization. “I did grow up in a family of entrepreneurs. I brought that to the charitable sector,” she says. “And I think that’s what really launched me into a role in leadership is that ability to understand customers or partners.” Fuchs is now the executive director for the Saskatchewan Roughrider Foundation.
Weimer’s path differed, as she started her entrepreneurial journey fresh out of university. “I took over the Assiniboia Gallery 21 years ago,” she says. After fifteen years of running her business, Weimer moved onto the executive team at Hillberg & Berk, before joining Conexus Credit Union as Chief Member Experience Officer—and still owns the gallery.
Svedahl grew up on a working farm near Avonlea and has worked in real estate for the last 30 years. The last 20 have been spent at Harvard Developments. “I’m the vice president of investments…I provide leadership and support, financial reporting, corporate governance, and M & A (mergers and acquisitions) throughout the organization,” she says.
Taking the Plunge
As the number of women entrepreneurs and senior leaders grows in Saskatchewan and across the country, Sinclair asked the group when they knew they were ready to start their own venture or move into a leadership role. McNaughton saw her moment when the barriers in her own head were removed. While her goals—financing her children’s education and paying off her home—were responsible financial decisions, they were also holding her back. “I would say excuses more than anything… weren’t there anymore,” says McNaughton. “I think I also got to the point where I had the confidence that I can build something, and I can build it for myself this time.” For Strawford, the realization came after the birth of her son. “I didn’t realize how exciting entrepreneurism was until I felt there’s nothing more exciting than having an idea that somebody else is willing to purchase from you,” she says. “It’s really such a powerful thing that I don’t know that I ever felt when I worked for somebody else.”
"I bet every single one of us leaped before we were ready."
For others, the time to lead came when they were least expecting it. Fuchs spent 35 years with the Canadian Red Cross and got her first chance at leadership during a natural disaster. It was 2005, and Kamloops, B.C. was grappling with wildfire. “I was fairly junior at the time,” she says. “The Kelowna fire started shortly after and everybody left me. All the leaders had left, and I arrive, and they said, well, you’re leading.” Fuchs was stunned at her new responsibilities. “Just outside where the centre was, was a food bank and there was a flat of Campbell’s Soup. I’ll never forget it. And I sat on top of the flat and I phoned my husband and I’m crying,” she says. “I said, you’re not gonna believe what they made me do. They’re making me lead this operation. They’re making me help people. At that point he said, well, you’ve always been doing that.” She disagreed, saying she had never had the title. However, it was the turning point. “I thought, damn it, I have to do this. I can do this. And so, I took every opportunity or crisis as that opportunity to grow my leadership skills and style,” says Fuchs.
Business is a 'Man's World'
For as long as there has been business, it’s been dominated by men. Women have pushed their way up the ladder, and it’s never been easy. Klein found her way into a male-dominated field early in her entrepreneurial days. “My husband and I first started our company in New Brunswick with our first work coming from what I call unanticipated opportunities,” says Klein. “It was to work with the Department of National Defense developing online armoured fighting vehicle recognition training.” At that time, the military was a male-dominated sector. She found that she had knowledge that they didn’t have and that helped her command the attention she needed to get the job done. Klein would also make her mark in another male-dominated business—the advertising agency. Her second career began in the 1990s, and it “wasn’t quite like the 60s Mad Men martini lunches and womanizing.” She needed to make herself known, and this time she found a supportive environment with a male leader. “My opportunity today is because of what he saw in me,” says Klein. “There were men along the way that weren’t there. You had to find the confidence within, and you had to be able to collaborate. You had to find your team and your opportunity to further position yourself along the way.”
"I think that having women at the table does bring a deeper layer of authenticity and vulnerability."
Weimer sees the value women bring to business leadership every day in her role with Conexus. “I think that having women at the table does bring a deeper layer of authenticity and vulnerability,” she says. However, she didn’t always show that side. “I think early on in my career, I thought that you couldn’t display that and that if you did, that it kind of made you look weak,” she says. “It wouldn’t be advantageous to sort of show who your true self is. Now, I think the vulnerability of women actually encourages men to also be that way.”
"I started wearing red suits intentionally because I grew that confidence to actually contribute and be recognized and not just be a follower inside."
Looking Back at the Challenges
Sinclair also asked the group about the challenges they have faced and whether those barriers exist today. Svedahl notes the changes she has seen since her career in real estate started. “When I first started going to Toronto to the real estate forums, I’m not kidding—there were 2,000 men in black suits,” she says. “For the first probably 10 years, I wore a black suit. I would fit in and be a follower and not be noticed and just kind of do my thing.” As her experience and confidence grew, Svedahl began to show who she really was. “I started wearing red suits intentionally because I grew that confidence to actually contribute and be recognized and not just be a follower inside,” she says.
Sinclair shares a similar story from early in her career. She was a branch manager, and it was a Thursday night back when teller service was not available. A gentleman walked in asking her to speak to the manager. “That’d be me,” she explained to the customer, who was surprised it was her. She notes how times have changed. “But now that’s just it. You would never say that now.”
McNaughton relates on how women have changed throughout the course of her career. “I had a mentor 20 some years ago and she’s probably in her seventies now. She was at the tail end of her career and a senior vice president at a very large oil company,” she says. “I was just kind of starting and I’m in my first week at Shell.” McNaughton went for her first mentoring session and her mentor asked her how many barrels had been produced the previous day. “I was like, I’m on day four. I’m not sure. She closed her book and said, go home and come back when you know,” she says. “Later we talked about that and she said, you know, in my generation I had to grow up and I had to be the best man in the room. I had to be more prepared and smarter and better than the other men in the room. Next, you had to be the best woman. You were competing against the other women for that one spot.” Her mentor told her that collaboration would be the next step for women, and her mentor was right.
Strawford and Klein also note how times have changed when it comes to collaboration in business. Strawford has seen through her years of work on the What Women Want Show that the power of collaboration helps all businesses succeed. “That’s the conversation that I’ve had with these businesses is when we bring other businesses together, we’ll both do better,” she says. Klein sees it too. “What I didn’t have early in my career was a seat around the table,” she says. “That’s part of the support, is that we bring each other around the table, but it’s also the opportunity that just presents itself through business. And it may be age and experience, but we’re now invited, you know, we’re included. That wasn’t the story decades ago.”
Grabbing the Opportunities
For Svedahl, the opportunity knocked just a few years into her career. A senior leader in her company was leaving and asked her about her thoughts on taking over his job. She didn’t feel ready, but he and another male colleague believed she was up for it. “They put me through the process of applying. Unbeknownst to me, they did not advertise outside of the organization,” she says. Fifteen years later, she is grateful and humble to have had the experience and the support from people who saw her capabilities.
McNaughton sees her opportunity in the place she calls home. “This province is the perfect place, in my opinion, to be,” she says. “I can’t think of a scenario where I’ve reached out to someone to say ‘hey, I’m not quite sure how to do this and you’ve done it’, that they haven’t said, how can I help. I think it’s our grassroots of this province and just people rolling up their sleeves and helping each other.”
Fuchs found her leadership opportunity by being a good follower. “I just had a lot of people that I watched carefully and I knew when I saw a leader—whether it was in my community, in my family or in my workplace or even my mentors—that I wanted to be like,” says Fuchs. “I’m a good follower, which made me a good leader.” Those skills led her to head a new organization, and she credits surrounding herself with people that want others to succeed.
"I think my lesson was that not all money is good money. And it comes at an expectation and a cost and you need to not get caught up in the honeymoon of having money."
Let's Talk About Money
Women entrepreneurs often struggle to get financing to start or scale their ventures, even though they often come to financial institutions with viable ideas that will be or are successful on the balance sheet. Flanagan-Moore relates to the issues that come with money and business partners. She started her first venture while working and found what she thought would be a great partner. Her mother warned her of the perils of partnership, but Flanagan-Moore proceeded with high hopes. She envisioned a partnership where she was the creative force, and her partner was the financial expert. The wheels came off during a time of personal hardship—her divorce—and she also exited the partnership using her home equity. “It was a very, very challenging time. I ripped the Band-Aid off in the worst way,” she says. “I think my lesson was that not all money is good money. And it comes at an expectation and a cost and you need to not get caught up in the honeymoon of having money.”
“I was the ultimate side hustle on the planet,” she says. “Things would have happened much quicker if I would have sought out help, but I’m not good at that.” – Michelle StrawfordStrawford learned her lessons about money as the ultimate bootstrapper. “I was the ultimate side hustle on the planet,” she says. “Things would have happened much quicker if I would have sought out help, but I’m not good at that.” She spent long nights poring over spreadsheets while working full-time, trying to prove her business case to herself. “I’m blessed to have built what I have based on having the money in my bank account to do that as I’ve grown, which is incredible. I think, however, things could have happened much faster had I sought out the help,” says Strawford.
McNaughton is bootstrapping her startups now, and she is reluctant to get outside financial help. “I’ve had some external people express interest in investment and I know I could go faster,” she says. “I want it to be as much mine as I possibly can if I build something that is as big as I believe it can go. At the same time there is cost to that.”
Weimer notes the larger forces at play in the lack of money for women entrepreneurs. In her work with the WESK advisory committee, she sees how important access to money is to a business and the overall economy. “Nationally, 15 per cent of all businesses are owned or led by women. In Saskatchewan, it’s only about 13 per cent. And they estimate that that is leaving between 150 and $400 billion on the table,” notes Weimer. “So, if we could close that gap, that’s tremendous.”
Klein also mentions the importance of a financial partner like Conexus and how that can help make major decisions. “Who are the partners that you can bring to make it happen,” she says. “Whatever the business is, it’s not always just that transaction or that application. It’s a bigger solution…it’s more than money in the bank.”
"I was the ultimate side hustle. Things would have happened much quicker if I would have sought help, but I'm not good at that."
Life Outside the Office
Women also have commitments outside the workplace, and inevitably are asked how they ‘have it all’, or if having a successful career and a happy family is even possible. Fuchs, a mother of grown children and now a grandmother, helped her younger colleagues struggling with the balance. “When I was leading other people or other women, particularly the moms, I’d always say you’re never going to get this time back,” she says. “So if anything as women, particularly us that have our children away from home, if we can help young moms not beat themselves up like we did, we’ll have a far better balanced workplace and society.”
Weimer, a mother of four from ages seven to 17, knows that in order to be a great mother and a great colleague, you must take care of yourself. “Don’t believe the myth that you gotta be hair on fire,” she says. She also notes she’s had exceptional circumstances. Her mother has provided her childcare for seventeen years, and Weimer is grateful. “My husband and I would actually go to my mom and dad’s to get the kids, but we’d also stay for supper,” she says. “It was also super important in the beginning when I didn’t have money to pay for childcare. And I know that like I’m incredibly lucky to have had that, and I still have it.”
McNaughton sees what her ambition has provided her children. She says she did miss school events when her children were younger due to long hours and business travel, but things are different now. Her passion for her work has changed the dynamic of her family life. Now, she and her kids sit at the table doing homework, spending quality time together. “This last year I’ve started two businesses and I’m finishing my EMBA. I’ve probably worked harder this year…and yet it’s such a different quality with my kids,” says McNaughton.
For Strawford, it was an illness in her middle son that drove home the need for balance. “I have it in a note on my phone that nobody cares about your business like you do,” she says. “But at the end of the day, how much stress do you put on yourself to run these businesses and to make them all that they are when you don’t have that time back with your children? And that’s what’s really important.”
"You can be a mom and you can be an amazing mom. You can be a good wife; you can be a really good friend and you can be a career woman. And don't let anybody tell you differently."
Sharing the Wisdom
So, what is the knowledge to be shared with aspiring female leaders and entrepreneurs? Svedahl sees the power of supporting one another and knowing when to speak up. “Build yourself a group of confidantes,” she says. “A group of really trusted friends that you can share, grow, learn and experience together.” She also says that young women should know their own voice and use it. “Young women should not be agreeable. They need to be comfortable being disagreeable. And I think that just builds confidence as well.”
Fuchs notes the importance of mentorship, and she never hesitates to give back when she can—and credits Klein for the inspiration. “One of the things…I’ve always said to them is that you can do this. You can be a mom and you can be an amazing mom. You can be a good wife; you can be a really good friend and you can be a career woman. And don’t let anybody tell you differently,” she says.
For Klein and Weimer, it’s about knowing your values. “I learned this a little bit later in my career. Understand your values and don’t compromise,” says Klein. “For me, they’ve become how I conduct myself in business. The decisions I make, how I lead in the community and the lessons that I carry through my family.” Weimer agrees. “Once you have that in your back pocket…it just helps you make decisions about what you’re going to do at work and what you’re doing with your kids,” she says.
McNaughton says to trust the voice within. “There’s a voice inside of all of us that should be louder than everyone else’s voice,” she says. “I think we quiet it sometimes but learn to listen to it.” Strawford wishes she would have asked for help sooner in her journey. “I had to prove that I could do it as a new entrepreneur…it’s so much more powerful to ‘work on your business’ than ‘in your business’ and to bring people in,” she says. “Bring people that are better at those things, that are more passionate than you are, at certain things in your business.” She also notes the importance of integrity. “I always tell my staff and the students that I mentor that you never know when you’re going to see that person again,” says Strawford. “One of my coworkers gave the finger to a guy in a parking lot and then she had an interview from him a week later.”
Finally, Flanagan-Moore’s advice is a little tough love. “It’s going to be harder than you think,” she says. “You will make mistakes but be accountable for them. Learn from them, ask for help.”