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What I Know 10 Years In As A Woman Entrepreneur

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My father repeated the same mantra, 'do anything you'd like, just make it a business'. After flitting through an arts degree and learning graphic design, I was fired at 24. As I was being consoled by a friend over a piece of pie, I resolved to follow my father's advice.

I'd once lived above a nail place in New York, and I was perpetually unsatisfied with both the high-end inefficient spas, and low-end and unclean nail bars. That night I wrote my business plan, signed a lease in Toronto's up-and-coming Queen West neighbourhood without financing (!), and went to the bank for a Canadian small business loan. A few short months later The Ten Spot Beauty Bar was born.

Our accomplishment is rare at 10 years and 20+ locations, when half of businesses don't make a five year anniversary, and rarer still for women. Our anniversary has given me pause to celebrate and think about how very grateful I am. Entrepreneur-ing has given me something special, and I'd argue the opportunity is or could be available to a far broader reach of women than it is today.

Looking at the S&P 500, where only 4.4 per cent of women make the list of CEOs of the top firms of the country. It is incredibly easy to think on hundreds of male titans, from Jack Welch to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, and even business thinkers like Peter Drucker or Michael Porter. On the S&P the most recognized woman on the list, Marissa Mayer, is top of mind not for her immense success, but because she's embattled as CEO at Yahoo. Similarly another CEO who currently makes the most news is Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos. Initially an incredible innovation in lab testing, today's headlines are about her company's false claims. Both CEOs are brought up for reasons other than success (and Hillary Clinton too, who will likely reach the White House, but won't do so without being maligned in the extreme).

Further, Canadian data on women entrepreneurs also tells us that only 17 per cent of businesses have women owners. I admire Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, with it's emphasis on women needing to be forward and not diminutive, but it would be a mistake to read her as saying the ball is entirely in our court to change the situation by our behaviours.

Back to my earlier point that it's hard to bring to mind a prominent, successful female CEO, I searched long to find the infrequently mentioned and amazing story of Martha Matilda Harper, my favourite historical person, who I read about in Jane Plitt's biography.

Born near where I live today, outside of Toronto, Canada, in 1857, Harper was put into service as a domestic worker in a relative's home. 50 years later she had invented the very concept of 'franchising' and had built a 500 location strong business of beauty salons. Her impetus for doing this was to lift marginalized women out of poverty. As I've spoken about and written elsewhere, what I think is most striking about Harper's story is that she tapped into something fundamental about how entrepreneurial business can level elements of the playing field for women.

Harper women were empowered to travel to new markets to launch their franchise. Unlike the other capitalists of her day, Harper was generous in the sharing of wealth with her followers. Plitt summarizes Harper's accomplishments: 'thousands' of low-income women had their lives improved, and at the time of her death, Harper 'had achieved an equality with successful men.' (Here's a great YouTube on her amazing story).

Martha Matilda Harper's story also tells us it doesn't take a singular talent to be able to run a business. Harper found literally hundreds of uneducated women and taught them the fundamentals. Looking at the Province of Ontario's secondary business curriculum, entrepreneurism is well-covered. That said, I am curious the degree to which entrepreneurship is presented as a realistic opportunity.

Despite our best efforts, I fear many students are still headed to university's most generalist programs without any sense of how they will ultimately contribute to the economy or build their own wealth. As a Philosophy grad from Western, I don't in any way disparage the Arts. That said, I hear time and again from young people 'if I'd only known x was a viable career opportunity...' Young women in particular need extra emphasis on entrepreneurship where our large institutions and long-existing businesses have evident glass ceilings.

Franchising, like entrepreneurism, is under-discussed. When speaking to groups, I often give this advice: If you are living your plan B, or have a dream that could be your plan A, why not give it a shot? In the worst case scenario the likely worst outcome is that you return to living your plan B, but in the best case you succeed at your dream. This advice applies to any kind of business risk, but with franchising there is less risk where the likelihood is someone in franchising is probably already several steps ahead in terms of developing a turn-key business.

If you align with the company's approach, vision, and values, and their financials check-out, it might be one of the quickest routes to opening the business you've always wanted to run. Because of franchising many other young women now share in my dream to own a trendy beauty bar in a great neighbourhood.

I know I'm so beyond privileged, an unlikely owner and creator of an unlikely success. At the 10-year mark, what's most important to me is a deep belief that raising awareness of entrepreneurship as a viable career for women will lead to more opportunities for equality. I'm not naive to other economic and social barriers women may face, and I am not saying that every woman has the opportunity or is cut-out to be a business owner. But I am saying women's ideas and capabilities are equal to a man's so let's get out in the market in greater force!

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