Female entrepreneurs can make it in a man’s world

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Marlene Luck, president and CEO of Northern Canadian Supplies Ltd. in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Marlene Luck recently received an invitation to audition for a part in a Brad Pitt movie. But the founder and president of Northern Canadian Supplies Ltd. in Fort McMurray, Alta., is too busy running her company to entertain dreams of movie stardom.

Ms. Luck, a 2013 finalist in the Small Business Challenge Contest, a national competition sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp., recently guided her 10-year-old company – which sells environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and safety gear, and provides industrial cleanup services – through a period of rapid growth.

It’s a success story that many female entrepreneurs in traditionally male areas can find.

Two years ago, Northern Canadian Supplies had eight employees and five warehouses in Western Canada. Today, the company has about 25 employees and nine distribution centres across the country.

“We’ve increased our product line by at least over 1,000 new products and the number of sites we’re servicing has really grown in the last two years,” says Ms. Luck, who got started as an entrepreneur when the natural cleaning products she cooked up in her kitchen sold out in just a few days. “It’s been busy.”

With a client list that’s made up largely of companies that operate in Alberta’s oil sands industry, Ms. Luck operates in a male-dominated industry. That sometimes makes her the target of sexist behaviour.

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“There are some sites that I dealt with where I show up and they say, ‘Who’s in charge, where’s the guy who knows about the product?’” Ms. Luck says. “Also, sometimes I feel like people put more hurdles in front of me because I’m female. I had this one guy who used to have the same contract I had, and he asked me, ‘How come they asked you to do that, because I didn’t have to when I had that contract.’”

But while it’s challenging at times, business experts say being a female entrepreneur in a sector that’s overwhelmingly male can actually be an advantage.

Tracey Scarlett, chief executive officer of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, says women who start businesses in male-dominated industries often to do so because they’re not finding as many opportunities for growth and higher pay as their male counterparts. But once they set out to be entrepreneurs, these women stand a good chance of succeeding because they stand out in the market.

“There are so many examples of women who are succeeding in male-dominated industries such as technology, construction or freight logistics,” Ms. Scarlett says. “Here in Alberta, for every male-owned business, there are four that are female-owned.”

Being female-owned definitely made Small Jobs Plumbing stand out in its market in Halifax. Co-owner Tammy Buchanan decided to start her own business after she got fed up with being paid significantly less than the male plumbers at her previous workplace.

While Ms. Buchanan’s employer may have valued her less because of her gender, many customers actually choose her because they prefer a female plumber, says Sherri Lee, Ms. Buchanan’s business partner.

“Eighty-five to 90 per cent of our customers are women, and they feel comfortable about having a female plumber in their home,” Ms. Lee says. “Demand is such that we can’t keep up at this point.”

Small Jobs Plumbing’s gender-based popularity presents another type of challenge for its owners. Because women account for just 2 per cent of plumbers and plumbing apprentices in Canada, Ms. Buchanan and Ms. Lee have found it hard to hire more female plumbers so they can increase their business while staying true to its female-owned, female-run brand.

They recently hired a male plumber, a former co-worker of Ms. Buchanan’s.

“This gentleman has a great approach with people,” Ms. Lee says. “But we know that many customers hire us because they want a female plumber, and we hope to add more women to our team in the future.”

Female entrepreneurs operating in a male-dominated world often find it helpful to connect with other women in business, Ms. Scarlett says. This gives them a sounding board for ideas, and plugs them into a referral network.

It’s an idea Ms. Lee believes in; she recently started an online network for female entrepreneurs. It now has about 1,400 members.

“Brilliant things are happening in our group, which includes a female electrician,” Ms. Lee says. “We refer each other, and we’re constantly picking each other’s brains.”

Victoria Lennox, founder of Startup Canada, an Ottawa-based organization that helps new entrepreneurs, says female entrepreneurs in male-dominated industries can also find support by pairing up with a mentor.

“You need a champion,” she says. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean a woman – sometimes the best champions for female entrepreneurs are men.”

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