September 30, 2005 Features & Images » Feature Story

Big ideas, big world, small businesses 

How Whistler's female entrepreneurs are taking their passions into the world, and making a living in the process

Sara Leach asks me to fill in the blanks.

We’re sitting in my office and I’m acutely aware of the piles of papers, leaning towers, file boxes stuffed with manila folders. Spiral bound notebooks prolapsing their contents. There’s not much floor-space and I nearly knock over Leach, myself and several piles, trying to manoeuvre a chair into the middle of the room for her.

I wish I’d cleaned up before she came, in the same way I floss with extra vigilance just before I go to the dentist, and wash my hair twice before a hairdressers’ appointment. She’s a professional organizer.

"When I think about getting organized, I find it hard to ______?"

"Breathe."

She laughs. I have come to the right person. Ten years of teaching at Myrtle Philip, Leach is a former disorganized person. "I’m sure that old friends of mine or my family, when they hear I’m now a professional organizer, are laughing. But that’s the point. Anyone can be organized. It’s not about your personality. It’s about whether or not you want to get organized."

And I do. Every so often, I’ll wade through the paper trail of my life, germs of ideas, clippings, piles of notebooks I‘m loathe to throw out in case there’s something salvageable in there. I will cull. Move piles around. Put labels on things. Thematically align the bookshelves. See the surface of my desk again.

And within days, I have forgotten about my systems, and descended back into the entropy of my usual personal chaos.

"Do you want to get organized?" asks Leach.

I do. I really do. I just don’t know how.

Leach does. After all, no one manages to keep a classroom of 30 kindergarteners organized, unless they have some good systems in place.

Now Leach is taking those systems into the big wide world, and starting her own business. Organomics. Professional organizing.

She fits the profile perfectly of Sea to Sky entrepreneur. According to Megan Olesky, Co-ordinator of the Howe Sound Community Futures Self-Employment program, over two-thirds of the 40 people involved in the current intake are women. Although trends change with each intake, the typical client is a woman starting up a home-based business serving between 15 and 35 clients.

"Everyone has different reasons for pursuing self-employment," says Olesky. "Women who have young children will pursue it because it allows them to operate a business from their homes."

Olesky works in a coaching role with participants on the self-employment program, guiding them through the development of a business plan and their start-up’s first year. (Seventy-eight per cent of her clients have taken flight since this launch assistance and are going into their third year of business.) Eligibility is dictated by having collected employment insurance prior to applying, so most of the people Olesky meets are not in steady year-around employment. "They want to create a full-time job for themselves."

We’re not in infomercial territory here. Most Self-Employment program participants are not motivated so much by the prospect of making megabucks, as the chance to wrap their lifestyle around their needs and professional goals. When a person hits the wall of working seasonal or entry-level jobs, being sent home when things are slow or the weather is not complying, starting their own business puts some of the power back in their hands. It’s not as if they can make themselves immune from the effects of a slow economy or bad weather. But at least they have new options – working from home, being their own boss, creating opportunities to remain in the corridor.

Current president of the Chamber of Commerce, and an entrepreneur in her own right as a coach and consultant with Focus Forward, Bernie Lalor-Morton, echoes this lifestyle motivation. "What I see people doing is really just figuring it out. Home-based business. Seasonal work. Whatever you need to piece together, if you love being here, people are doing what it takes to stay."

For Leach, the impetus came with the looming expiry of her maternity leave. "Teaching is such an emotionally exhausting job, and when I went back to school after having Ben, I felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job as a teacher, and I wasn’t doing a good enough job as a mom."

In her own business, Leach sets the rules. To juggle family and career in a way that doesn’t feel as if she’s selling everybody short. This means intentionally keeping her business small while her children are pre-school age. She has carved out a chunk of her life that can be given over to Organomics, a chunk that will get larger as her family requires less attention, but for now means a dedicated two days a week for consulting and site visits, and a narrower geographic client-range.

"Part of the reason I’m not totally focusing on developing a corporate clientele right now, even though that’s more lucrative, is that it would mean spending more time in Vancouver, and I don’t think that would be good for the family."

Knowing your core values is an important touchstone for the self-employed, and staying true to them is one of the reasons that people are increasingly attracted to this option.

B.C. has over 360,000 small businesses, and women own or operate almost 36 per cent of them. Self-employment across Canada is growing faster than paid employment, and women are driving the charge. Since 1976, the average annual growth rate of self-employment for women has been 5.3 per cent, compared with 2.2 per cent for men. Between 1981 and 2001, the number of women entrepreneurs in Canada increased 208 per cent, compared with a 38 per cent increase for men.

Barbara Moses, the Toronto-based author of What Next — The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Working Life , tags the self-employment candidate as often being an "authenticity seeker." The "authenticity seeker" is driven by their values, wants to express those values at work, and is distressed if they cannot. Their options are limited – they can lobby to change the work environment, or leave it.

Or cut out on their own. And allow their values to inform everything they do.

For Claudine Molson-Sellers, starting her own business was a way of coming home to herself. "I’ve always loved baking and cooking. Even in high-school I was always cooking for my family." She was inventing recipes for the "best power muffins" in Grade 4, and encouraged by her mother to do and be whatever she wanted in the world. As long as she stayed away from the restaurant industry.

Molson-Sellers’s mother had grown up in rural Quebec working in the family restaurant and hated it. Claudine did her best to comply, but destiny kept calling. Working in kitchens and cafes was a recurring theme as she undertook a Phys Ed degree at McGill. When she should have been working on her massage therapy thesis, she was reaching for recipe books instead. Then, during a six-month stint in Vancouver while renovating a Whistler home, she stumbled into a coveted spot at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts.

"I called to see if I could enroll in their culinary course and they were like, ‘Are you crazy? It starts next week. It’s been full for months.’" Days before the course started, she got the call. Several registrants had dropped out, the short-listed people had declined the openings, and there was a space to fill. The universe had spoken. In a louder voice than her mother’s.

She graduated six months later, and went to work at Val d’Isere, spending summers in Canmore at the Crazy Weed Kitchen, and dreaming up business ideas over her prep stations.

"I’ve always wanted to do my own thing. I have a strong feel for what it is I like and want, and I really like having the flexibility of time." Molson-Sellers dreamed up Chef on Skis, Whistler’s only kitchen dedicated to gourmet delivery. Took out advertisements. Created a menu. And went looking for a kitchen.

Baking muffins to sell to local cafes was a way to meet her rent, and free up her evenings to pursue her fledgling business. "I took my first couple of horrendous looking muffins to Blenz, and they said, ‘Yeah, I guess we can work with this.’"

Two years on, you wouldn’t connect to Whistler’s Own Bake Shop if you went looking for ugly muffins. But if you’ve snacked on a West Coast Smore or a Harmony Bar, a slice of lemon loaf or banana chocolate walnut bread at any of your favourite local java joints (Molson-Sellers now supplies Behind the Grind, Pasta Lupino, Esquires, Blenz, CyberWeb, the Upper Village Market and Nesters), you are on the receiving end of two years of creative culinary kitchen-storming. As for Chef on Skis, it never quite got off the gondola.

This combination of being able to stay true to your core values, and having the space to be creative, is what drives Darlene Samer, whose brainchild Leadershape melded together her primary passion of health and wellness, with a growing focus on organizational leadership, strategic planning and executive coaching. Corporate head office, for Samer, is in her home. She splits her time equally between Whistler and Vancouver clients, with the city emphasis on in-house consulting, and the Whistler focus on corporate retreats and seminars.

"I can’t imagine waking up and having to be somewhere from 9 to 5," she says. "I wake up every morning and say, how can I be healthy, how can I have fun, and how can I make money doing it? Those are my core values. I need the freedom to work the hours I want, to choose the work I want, to create and innovate. It’s hard work. Because your passion has to meet the marketplace. But I do this because I want access, to life experiences and people. The freedom of being an entrepreneur gives you the chance to choose the world you want to play in."

Samer is the driving force behind the Health and Wellness group that is partnering with Tourism Whistler to promote events like Samer’s spring Refuel Retreat, or her forthcoming Top Talent seminar. Top Talent offers a competitively-priced leadership development day, exploring getting organized, coaching skills, leadership styles and goal-setting. "It’s totally targeted at a local market. It’s for companies and organizations who want to provide this training but wouldn’t necessarily bring someone in-house to do it."

The arc of these women’s businesses are all at different stages, from start-up, to two years in and growing, to five years old and getting ready to take the world by storm. But what their founders have in common is an enthusiasm for what they are doing. Says Molson-Sellers, "I am absolutely where I want to be right now."

They are the birth-mothers of small businesses – entities birthed out their foreheads, and fuelled with their own sweat-equity, passion and drive. Just what they’ll become when they truly grow up, remains to be seen: multi-employee business; internationally syndicated; mass market; or part-time micro-business. But for now, these women, part of a larger cohort working away up and down the corridor, are pursuing their own paths, and creating the opportunities they need to flourish in place.

For more information:

Organomics. Professional Organising. Sara Leach. www.organomics.com . 604-938-4230

Whistler’s Own Bake Shop. Claudine Molson-Sellers. www.whistlersownbakeshop.ca . 604-935-2782

Leadershape. Darlene Samer. www.leadershape.ca 604-938-4883

FocusForward Coaching and Consulting. Bernie Lalor-Morton. www.focusforward.ca 604-932-0306

Samer, Lalor-Morton and Leach will all present at the professional development workshop, Top Talent Seminar, Nov. 3, at the Westin. Visit www.leadershape.ca/ips/business_boost.html .

Women of Whistler meets Sept. 29. Guest speaker Christy Clark will address juggling a political career with home, family and other work. Says Lalor-Morton, "Anyone is welcome. You don’t have to have your own business. You don’t even have to be a woman. Any man who can handle himself in a room full of 70 or 80 powerful women is welcome to join us." http://204.92.102.81/dyn.Women_of_Whistler.php . To register, call Adriana at the Chamber of Commerce 604-932-5922 ext 39.

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