Safe haven

She started as a 26-yearold hairdresser with an idea for a beauty school. Today, Sheena Butler owns a successful Halifax-based private career college with 18 instructors and hundreds of students. Getting from there to here was not an easy road. Though she initially had a business partner, the partner left after just a few years. Butler says the bulk of the funding for Concepts Career College has come from her own assets or from her family.

Financing continues to be a challenge for Butler. She describes her perception of being looked down upon by bankers and other professionals and admits to frequently feeling like she’s not being taken seriously. “It’s almost like they go out of their way to talk over my head,” says Butler. She adds, “If I go in with my accountant or with my business coach, then the tune changes completely. I hate to admit that.”

Butler says years of struggling with financing has been made even more frustrating watching her entrepreneur husband land whatever deals he needed. “My business is older, my business is bigger, [but he] has no problem getting anything in place.”

Fortunately for Butler, she has a powerful advocate in her corner. She has worked with the Centre for Women in Business and its partner institute, Mount Saint Vincent University, since she drafted her original business plan and has continued to seek its assistance and advice throughout the years. “It almost feels like you have a partner in business.”

Businesses like Concepts Career College are the reason the Centre exists. Established 20 years ago as a result of a Mount Saint Vincent University study that identified the need for supports for women entrepreneurs, the Centre for Women in Business has grown into a dynamic organization helping a thousand female-led businesses annually, connecting its more than 300 members with contacts and opportunities to continue to grow their businesses.

In Canada, there are more than 800,000 self-employed women contributing $18 billion annually to the economy, but even with those impressive numbers, female majority owned businesses still only represent 16 per cent of all Canadian small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). In Nova Scotia, thanks in part to the Centre, those numbers are rising. More womenowned businesses are being established and more of them indicate plans for growth, creating jobs and revenue.

Responding to demand from its clients, the Centre has expanded programs for businesses in a growth stage as well as partnered with other organizations to expand opportunities for trade and exports. A high percentage of the Centre’s clients are exporters, more than 34 per cent in fact. By comparison, only eight per cent of Canadian SMEs export goods or services. Brenda vanDuinkerken took her small P.E.I.-based glutenfree food manufacturing business on a trade mission with the Centre and is now selling in Walmart, the retail giant many manufacturers consider the holy grail of markets. “For any business in today’s economy it’s challenging,” says vanDuinkerken, “but for women it’s definitely more of a challenge to start, especially in international business.”

The Nova Scotia Centre for Women in Business offers a variety of programs to help women including: business management training, trade missions, one-on-one counseling and membership programs, but executive director Tanya Priske says one of the biggest strengths of the Centre is the business women themselves.

“Women work from a different concept of power than men,” says Priske. “Which results in a unique style of leadership that challenges conventional wisdom.” She says the Centre for Women in Business offers a safe place for women to work from their strengths and approach business in a way that works for them.

That’s what keeps Dieppe, New Brunswick-based entrepreneur Denise Leblanc coming back to Nova Scotia for Centre events. LeBlanc first worked with the organization a few years ago while looking to connect with new markets for her medical supply company, Texmedico, but what she found has proven to be even more valuable. After hearing Texmideco’s story, Centre staff immediately put her in touch with another member who had a similar background and the two have been working together ever since, growing both their businesses along the way.

“I don’t know if it’s because we’rewomen, but it’s unbelievable the energy you get when you go to the meetings,” says Leblanc. “I’ll go to a meeting and somebody I don’t even know will come up to me and say ‘you should look into this, it could help your business.'”

Client after client praises the organization’s networking events and conferences, echoing the same feelings about being welcomed without question and accepted as a business woman in her own right, no matter the age or stage of the business. Sheena Butler calls it a safe house where she can talk about the challenges and success of her business world without repercussion. “Everybody is so willing to help, even though some of us might even be competitors to one another, all of that drops off when you are there,” says Butler. “That’s a very hard platform to find.”

In its 20 years in business, the Centre has helped more than 10,000 women start or grow their business and has no plans to stop. As Atlantic Canadian women-led businesses mature, the Centre continues changing and refocusing its programs. Though it started with a goal to increase the number of women entrepreneurs, internal reports now show more than 60 per cent of clients report being in either rapid or moderate growth stages. As its clients move on to new challenges, so does the Centre says Priske. “We’ve started to build bridges with national and international organizations and I think that’s a pretty significant piece for a small centre that typically operates on a staff of six.”

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