An interview with female business owners in recognition of women’s equity and empowerment

By: Anita Agrawal, CEO & Designer Jewels 4 Ever, Best Bargains;
Jessica Carpinone, Co-Owner, Bread By Us;
Sam Conover, Owner, Broad Lingerie;
Robyn Hobbs, Founder & Consultant, Le Prix;
Sapna Jain, Chief Operations Officer, East India Company Ltd.;
Gilleen Pearce, Co-Owner, InderlyIT;
with Liliana Camacho, Director, Better Way Alliance

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate women’s progress in so many realms of life. At the Better Way Alliance, we love championing women’s success as talented business owners, contributors to our local economies, and ethical leaders in the workplace. We also recognize the need to think hard about how to continue pushing for equity and empowerment. We have come so far, yet there is still much to do, for women to be able to participate fully in the workplace and in other dimensions of their lives.

Our members are leaders in their industries. Not only are they champions of decent jobs, they also are thoughtful leaders and put intention behind the success of each and every one of their staff members. Better Way Alliance Director Liliana Camacho spoke to some of the Better Way Alliance’s female members about how they are driving women’s empowerment in business and in the workplace.

What’s the latest good practice you’re using to drive women’s empowerment in your businesses or industry? 

Sam, Broad Lingerie: “Right now my best practices used to drive women’s empowerment at work are general decent work practices, especially reliable scheduling and paid sick days. Women often carry the bulk of caregiving, whether as parents, friends, or relatives. Reliable scheduling and paid sick days allow women to attend to their lives outside of the workplace without the fear of endangering their role inside of the workplace.”

Gilleen, InderlyIT: “My industry, tech services, is really underrepresented by women. When we are hiring, we have had to make it a priority to look specifically for women applicants to get a balance and good representation of different types of people in our business. From experience, if you don’t look intentionally for the people you want to hire, they won’t simply come to you. For instance, for our next hire, I have intentionally made more connections with female leaders and invited them to apply so that we have more women candidates.”

Anita, Best Bargains / Jewels 4 Ever: “Making sure women are actually seen! A lot of the time we don’t see women leaders. We most often see men as spokespeople and leaders in our communities. But so many women own businesses, either as sole proprietors or an incorporation. It’s important to make women visible, give them speaking opportunities and empower them to represent businesses in the media.”

Sapna, East India Company Ltd.: “The food industry is still male dominated, however the landscape is changing. I make an active effort to participate in this change, especially by intentionally hiring a lot of women. As a manager, I focus on investing in women employees and their advancement.”

Jess, Bread By Us: “Becoming a skilled bread baker was an incredibly empowering process for me personally. In my 12 years in the bread baking world, I have seen how impactful the process of skill development is for people, particularly women. In general, the women I’ve worked with and trained have struggled with confidence. They have internalized messaging about their inabilities, and that carries through in their professional life. I have found, with very few exceptions, that the process of learning a craft/trade and the deep well of knowledge that is acquired through that process can be transformational for people who struggle with self-esteem.

In my day-to-day, this practice of cultivating skills and knowledge acquisition among the women I work with has turned almost all of them into leader-figures in my workplace. Over the years, I have extended the skill-development mindset to every facet of the business. I share absolutely everything with my team, from how to read a financial report to how I craft important communications. In recent years, we’ve even started trying to repair almost everything ourselves in the bakery before calling in the pros. This approach gives us the opportunity to learn something about our space and our equipment, a role that is typically male-coded. 

Giving women every chance available to learn something teaches them that they are capable of anything – that capacity isn’t innate, it’s learned – and if you want to learn something, here’s your opportunity.” 

Robyn, Le Prix: “[On the retail shop side], sourcing fair trade and organic fashion for new products. Most garment workers around the world are women and materials are grown overseas. Fair trade and organic sourcing ensures women are being compensated fairly and are working in ethical environments that are safe, respectful, and don’t overwork them. On the consulting side, fashion styling empowers women by giving them their power back in how they present themselves with their clothing. Clothing is self-expression and essentially armour in the work world. It’s wonderful when I see someone going from unsure to doing a happy dance, standing taller, and feeling more confident in their own skin because of their clothing. They feel ready to go after their own passions.”

What are some of your insights that make you believe in the value of empowering women?

Anita, Best Bargains / Jewels 4 Ever: “Firstly, women are at the forefront of championing ethical leadership because they are more cooperative. It’s not through virtue. Women who hold MBA degrees are rated as more cooperative than men. Highlighting and empowering women in business means more ethical businesses and decision-making. 

Secondly, we’re missing out on economic potential. For a long time we have neglected women not just as producers, but also as consumers. But women make 80% of purchasing decisions for household products, including cars! Imagine if they made equitable wages. We know that women make less money than men. Most minimum wage workers are women. Most restaurant workers are women. These women are on average 35-40 years old and have children. Some are single parents. We need to support women economically and empower them as consumers, because they’re the ones who make the real financial decisions in the home.

Finally, when you empower women you actually empower communities. When you look at effective workers organizations, they are largely led by women. For example, UNITE HERE is a labour union in the US and Canada which has won protections against discrimination and unsafe working conditions, including sexual harassment. UNITE HERE is made up primarily of women and people of colour. When women fight for progress, they want to uplift the community, not just individuals. Women are largely responsible for childcare, so what they fight for and how they fight is so different than when men lead. The result of empowering women is a reality that is so different from how things currently happen.”

Robyn, Le Prix: “When I became a female entrepreneur at the age of 22, I was not taken seriously. At networking events for founders, people thought I wasn’t a founder even though everybody else around me was. When I was trying to network, I would be hit on – asked to go to a bar and leave the networking event! The lack of respect that I got as a young woman in the industry back in 2012 when I started Le Prix showed me the industry has a long way to go towards equity. On a global scale, the sweat shop and unethical labour practices around the world driven by fast fashion consumption patterns affects mostly women. It’s evidence that women are still on unequal footing.”

Jess, Bread By Us: “Seeing the transformation that many women have gone through while working with me is confirmation that constant learning and up-skilling is a direct path to empowerment. I am lucky enough to have worked with individual women for over 5 years at a time, and in some cases, almost a decade. Almost without exception, women come into the kitchen environment with lots of anxiety and fear of failure. Ironically, in my line of work, failure is a constant part of the job. Batches of bread fail, new recipes aren’t always good on the first try, mistakes happen. Being allowed to fail, learn from it, learn how to troubleshoot and get oneself out of almost any hole transforms anxiety into confidence over time.”

Sapna, East India Company Ltd.: “I’ve experienced the struggle of being a woman in a male-dominated industry and have worked hard to get where I am. Even now I don’t always get the recognition or respect my male counterparts do. Regardless, I focus on achieving my personal best and do my best to hire, support, and partner with other women in the industry to get the message across that we are equally capable and deserving of advancement and growth.”

What are the most pressing challenges to women’s empowerment that still need to be addressed in business or industry?

Gilleen, InderlyIT: “Women are underrepresented in a lot of positions of power. That can include positions in business in general and in my sector, technology. Part of me believes in empowering women to have more access to positions of power and wealth in our society, but also to empower the positions where women are overrepresented. For example, both healthcare and childcare are critical sectors where more women than men are employed, and these sectors need to be better compensated.”

Sapna, East India Company Ltd.: “Pay equity and equal opportunities!”

Anita, Best Bargains / Jewels 4 Ever: “Affordable childcare is mandatory to improve women’s participation in business and the workforce. Otherwise, it’s mostly women, mothers, who need to quit their jobs to take care of children. We saw this during the pandemic. This happened to mothers with older children too, who had to get their kids studying for 8 hours a day, even though fathers were at home as well. When a person quits their job, they end up a lot further behind other workers. It leaves a very large gap that they need to catch up on after. We have a system that doesn’t support women because it doesn’t pay them enough to pay for childcare. The system forces them to check out from the workforce completely in order to raise children. We need better pay for women, so that they don’t have to choose between their kids or their jobs.”

Robyn, Le Prix: “Lack of credibility for women. Having to work harder, perform better, hit more milestones and achievements to be given the same respect and promotions as men. It’s become personal for me now as I’ve become a mom. Trends have shown that women’s careers and incomes take a hit when they have children, but men actually get paid more! [In Ontario], self-employed women don’t get maternity leave. My husband gets parental leave, but because he is not the birth parent, he gets 17 weeks less pay. That leaves our household with 17 weeks less EI paid out than parents with two corporate employees. That’s over 4 months of income that we had anticipated for our household budget and won’t get, because I am a self-employed mother.”

Liliana, Better Way Alliance: “We know there is a lot of progress to be made to achieve equity in business, as entrepreneurs, bosses, and workers. Our society is systemic, which means we need equity in realms outside of the workplace in order to empower women inside the workplace. Women’s equity will only be achieved when we consider the many aspects of women’s roles in society that differ from men’s roles, because the systems in which women are pushing for empowerment are structured for men. Domestic care – childcare, caring for elderly parents, people with disabilities, and home-based chores – is a prime example. We need solutions to reduce the burden on women in this area, and legislation that supports their choices and responsibilities, in order to increase participation in other areas.

I am proud of the achievements of the women in our network. I am forever inspired by their success as business owners and the depth of their compassion for their teams. They are decent work business owners because they care about their community and the people around them. I hope that the Better Way Alliance can continue to highlight their needs in the legislative and business space, and call attention to the differences that gender, and gender roles in society, imply for our economy.”