Who’s the boss?

Entrepreneurs still face barriers due to gender

Heba Abdel-hamid, co-owner of Arabesque Hookah Cafe and Restaurant on Corydon Avenue.

Sometimes, shattering the glass ceiling can leave an entrepreneur under a microscope.

That’s something Adeline Bird, the author of Be Unapologetically You: A Self-Love Guide for Women of Colour, the vice-president of Black Space Winnipeg and the one-woman team behind the podcast Soul Unexpected, says she didn’t fully realize until she started working in business.

Adeline Bird in her home workspace.

“It’s such an interesting ballgame to put yourself right in the middle of,” she says.

“Becoming an entrepreneur was the first time I really had to sit in the patriarchy, the misogyny, the racism, the classism, the ageism, the ableism, all of that. It’s been interesting, it’s been exciting, but it’s also opened my eyes to the fact that we’re progressing, but we’re also very much in the same place. ”

And while Bird might be used to the spotlight (she’s an actor, public speaker and former Shaw TV host), she says her more recent projects have been subjected to a lot of scrutiny, especially since she’s young and a Woman of Colour.

She says some people don’t take her seriously or realize that she runs her own show.

“One narrative that I continuously hear is ‘oh, your boyfriend or your husband must be helping you,’” Bird says, noting that, except for her producer, she does all the work for the podcast.

“I work hard for what I do. When it comes to the financial stuff and really figuring out how to elevate the podcast, at the end of the day, it all falls back on Adeline Bird.”

Breaking into the boys’ clubs

Bird is far from the only businesswoman whose gender means she isn’t always taken seriously.

When Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer cofounded Witchsy, a marketplace for artists, they actually invented a third, male, cofounder named Keith Mann after they received sexist and condescending remarks from business contacts. When the Los Angeles-based team used “his” email address instead of their own, the difference in replies was striking.

“It was like night and day,” Dwyer told Business Insider. “It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else Keith needed help with.”

On the other hand, women who really do work with men may still face sexist remarks.

Heba Abdel-hamid, co-owner of Arabesque Hookah Cafe and Restaurant on Corydon Avenue.

Heba Abdel-hamid co-owns Arabesque Hookah Cafe and Restaurant on Corydon Avenue. She says people often assume her male business partner is the sole owner, while she just works there, while others question her abilities and credentials. She’s even had customers tell her people only patronize her business because she’s pretty.

Abdel-hamid says part of this discrimination might stem from how people perceive hookah.

“Hookah or shisha is a very male-dominated space,” she says.

“The process of handing out a shisha to someone is a male thing to do. I’ve never been given a shisha by a woman, and when I give it to people, (their) first response is like ‘what is happening here?’ They’re almost expecting something to be wrong with the shisha.”

Even though women have started taking part in hookah over the last few decades, Abdel-hamid says she’s still the only woman running a hookah spot in Winnipeg.

And although she might be the only woman in Arabesque at certain times, she still runs the show.

“Just because I’m a woman does not mean I do not have as much power as my partner does. My voice is equally important, my opinion is equally as important,” she says.

“I’ve had so many employers where my gender has always been (an issue). I think it’s just about breaking these boundaries and showing these people ‘yeah, I’m a woman. So what?’”

What’s home got to do with it?

Vanessa Stachiw, owner of Little Sister Coffee Shop and co-owner of Dogwood Coffee Canada.

One thing Vanessa Stachiw noticed after she opened Little Sister Coffee Maker in 2013 was how the way people spoke to her differed from how they addressed male business owners – if they spoke to her at all.

“If there is a man involved, people are interested in speaking with that person,” Stachiw says. “They would prefer to speak to that person as opposed to speaking to a woman.

“When you’re opening up a business, you’re obviously at the place all the time and working your butt off, which is what you sign up for and what you want to do. The person who owns a business is a person who is ready to work hard.”

Still, Stachiw says she received a lot of comments from people saying she should be at home and wondering if her husband was okay without her.

“I have several friends who are business owners who are guys, and they would never get those kinds of comments,” she says. “I think generally though, people just take women in business a little less seriously, and they assume that it’s not their first priority.”

Stachiw says people tend to bring up her relationships and her home life, both at the coffee shop and in her work as co-owner and operator of Dogwood Coffee Canada, and she’s not alone.

Adrienne Clarkson, the co-founder and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and the 26th Governor-General of Canada, called out the Globe and Mail for focusing on her personal relationships during a Q-and-A with the Globe about sexism and gender parity.

When asked about the last sexist experience she had, Clarkson said a Globe article about her ex-husband’s death published that same week mentioned the custody arrangements of their divorce that had happened 42 years prior.

“Nobody mentions the custody arrangements of a man’s divorce,” Clarkson notes.

Raising a baby and a business

Nobody really mentions a man’s responsibilities as a parent, either.

But after Meghan Zahari, who co-owns Bronuts in the Exchange District with her husband and brother-in-law, gave birth to her daughter, she found people started to question her parenting.

Meghan Zahari, co-owner of Bronuts, a doughnut shop in the Exchange District.

“I ended up having my baby the week we opened,” she says. “Some people are actually just really excited to see a mom that’s also running a business.”

Others, though, ask who’s watching her child while she’s at work, a question Zahari says people would never ask her husband, even though he’s at the shop more often than she is.

And when she does bring her daughter to work, she’s sometimes still criticized.

“There was a case where I was breastfeeding in the cafe area, and someone left a negative review,” Zahari says.

“I think that there’s this idea that when you’re having kids you need to stop doing what you want to do, and, especially as women, we feel like we need to stop and be there for our kids 110 per cent, but I think we can be there for them and like bring them with us, and that’s fine, too.

“Sometimes, I’ll have a wave of guilt after someone gives me a hard time for it, but I say you don’t have to choose between being an entrepreneur and being a parent. Men don’t have to make that choice, so it doesn’t make sense that women feel like they have to.”

Seeking out support

Lauren Kroeker-Lee credits her work relationships as one of the main reasons she’s able to survive and thrive in business. Kroeker-Lee is one of the five equal shareholders behind Fools & Horses (three of whom are women).

Along with fellow co-owner Amy Bortoluzzi, she runs the day-to-day operations of their two cafes, which includes working as a barista, managing the kitchen and interacting with customers.

Kroeker-Lee says having a business partner of the same gender and age in a similar role has been helpful.

“There are certain challenges around being a young woman managing other people,” she says. “When we first started establishing relationships with suppliers, there were sometimes certain older males I felt maybe weren’t taking me as seriously or as an equal partner, like there was a gender imbalance.

“It’s been so nice having a support system where you can feel that someone’s going through the exact same thing.”

It also helps that they have similar personalities and approaches that Kroeker-Lee says differ from more traditional, cutthroat ways of doing business.

“Amy and I both happen to be naturally friendly people. That’s kind of our default way of being,” she says, mentioning it was important to learn that they could be that way and be themselves while still being strategic entrepreneurs.

Start with a sounding board

When asked what advice she’d give to female entrepreneurs, Kroeker-Lee says to reach out to other women in business.

“It’s really great not feeling alone, having a sounding board. That’s something Amy and I have.”

Abdel-hamid agrees.

“Go for it,” she says. “I think it’s really hard when you get started at first. If you’re young, your age is a thing and people just won’t believe in you, necessarily. People have this fear of starting always, because it’s unsafe, you know? You never know what’s going to happen, especially when you’re a woman.

“Make sure you’re confident in what you do and make sure the people you surround yourself with believe in you. Know that your gender will not stop you.”

“There’s no such thing as perfection,” Bird says.

“There’s no such thing as this one way of doing things. It’s okay to be multidimensional and love one thing and love another thing and want to do it all. You can do it all. You’re living in this amazing time where you can. The age of the internet has changed the game. It’s created space for us to do exactly that, do be multidimensional. You can be a podcaster, you can be a dancer, an author, whatever the hell it is you want to be.”

The Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba’s website has a searchable directory of some of the women-run businesses located throughout the province. See the list at wecm.ca/directory

Published in Volume 72, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 5, 2017)

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