Women entrepreneurs a growing group

Demographic shift | Alberta survey shows more women than ever are starting their own businesses in new and old markets

It is becoming a woman’s world in Alberta business.

An estimated 38 percent of small and medium-sized businesses in the province are owned and operated by women and that percentage is expected to grow, according to a business survey conducted by ATB Financial.

The survey did not include primary agriculture but results do hold for women in agriculture-related and food businesses.

The figures were no surprise to Darlaine Leslie, who has owned and operated Lethbridge-based snack food company Tho’z Barz since 2010.

“That’s a nice healthy number, maybe more than I would have guessed, but I’m not really that surprised based on what I’m finding out there,” said Leslie.

Her business fits into the 21 percent of women entrepreneurs who are in the early stages of operation. In contrast, only six percent of male entrepreneurs are in the startup phase.

Wellington Holbrook, ATB executive vice-president for business and agriculture, said demographics point the way toward more women in business.

Three-quarters of male business owners are 45 or older compared to 56 percent of female business owners, according to the survey. At the same time, 44 percent of business owners are younger than 44 and more women are graduating from business programs.

“I think what we’re seeing is that demographic shift of the profile of business owners and entrepreneurs in our province, such that it is quite foreseeable that we’re going to see more or less a men-women split of business owners in the next decade or two, which is kind of exciting, I think,” said Holbrook.

“When we look at the stats, a lot of women are starting oil and gas businesses, and I think there was a time, unfortunately in the not too distance past, where that was unheard of.”

He said many women starting businesses are younger than 35, though that was not the case for Leslie or for Jackie Chalmers of Claresholm, Alta., who started New Oxley Garlic in 2010.

Chalmers said maturity helped.

“The advantage I had and have is I’m longer in the tooth and I’ve had my own businesses before. So I was used to rejection and also I wouldn’t quit knocking on doors.”

She didn’t require additional financing for the garlic business, but Chalmers said she faced challenges on that score in previous ventures.

“It was almost like you needed a co-signer,” she said about obtaining business loans.

Leslie said her experience in the corporate world gave her confidence to pursue her own goals, something that she thinks is true of others.

“Years ago, you knew you had to work for a man,” she said. “As women started taking a bigger role in businesses, more management and supervision, it started to change a little bit where we realized how capable we are.”

Chalmers thinks women are also more willing to seek and take advice, a tactic she employed before starting her venture.

“I just talked to as many people locally as I could, young and old, and talked to them about their experiences and what had worked for them. You can do a lot of book learning but you can sure learn a lot from people in your midst,” said Chalmers.

“People for the most part are really happy to lend a hand, share information, point you in the right direction.”

Leslie used a similar technique by launching her snack bars at farmer’s markets and listening to direct customer feedback and suggestions.

“Women entrepreneurs don’t suffer from ego as much,” said Leslie. “I love working with other women.”

Chalmers has the same attitude.

“I personally love it when a woman succeeds. If I can do anything to help that along … that just gives me a great deal of joy.”

Both women also see great potential for ag-related businesses in Alberta for either gender.

Leslie notes the increasing interest in food with simple ingredients and those that cater to people with allergies or food sensitivities. That fits into her business niche.

“I think the ag opportunities for women are probably one of the most natural and easiest.”

For Chalmers, quality is a keystone.

“I think for my business, a very, very small business, we’ll be fine because we have a good product and we have integrity to back that product.

“I don’t look at this as an endeavor that will make me rich in the bank but it certainly makes me rich in spirit.”

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