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Manufacturing opening doors to opportunities for women entrepreneurs 

By Sherlyn Assam, for Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada

Originally published in Prairie Manufacturer Magazine.

Pam Grahame fell into the manufacturing industry. She was a single parent who needed to support her two-year-old child and there was a steel factory just 10 minutes away from her house. 

While she went into her new job thinking that manufacturing jobs were dirty, loud, and required heavy lifting, she ended up building a successful 25-year career in the industry. She went on to found Shop Floor Leadership, a Manitoba-based company that provides facilitation, coaching, and leadership expertise for businesses, helping them meet industry demands and survive organization challenges. The business has a large female client base and Graham explains that many people she works with have unintentionally found careers in manufacturing. 

“There’s so much more that the actual ecosystem of manufacturing provides for so many different things that nobody talks about,” says Grahame. Her job was customer-centric and involved optimizing and integrating commercial and operations planning. 

There are an estimated 10 million vacant manufacturing jobs around the world, and Canada’s workforce is following the same shortage trend. Ontario alone has more than 18,000 available manufacturing jobs and another 7,000 confirmed to open in the next two years. Insufficient skills, less diversity, and the perception of low-paying jobs all contribute to these vacancies. As it happens, women only represent 29 per cent of the manufacturing workforce. 

“A lot of women go into manufacturing. Not a lot of women stay in manufacturing,” says Grahame. She says the industry can be difficult for women because it is dominated by men and the hours can be difficult to manage, but it did shape her self-reliance and taught her new skills. 

“You’re not your job title,” says Grahame. “You learn so much more and transferable skills is something that’s so important. You are all of those things that then can go into other areas.”

Manufacturing Success

For three entrepreneurs whose expertise started outside manufacturing, joining the industry seemed like the next natural step. 

Evelyne Nyairo, Kristyn Carriere, and Jessica Bosman all launched manufacturing businesses to fill gaps they saw in the market. But they were not strangers to financial, educational, and entrepreneurial hardships and have found support through programs within the women’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Nyairo and Carriere are Stacy’s Rise Project winners and Bosman is part of StartUp Canada’s Startup Women Advocacy Network (SWAN) cohort, as well as a WEOC National Loan Program recipient.

Stacy’s Rise Project provides business grants, mentorship, networking and brand visibility to promising businesses. Since launching in Canada in 2022, the pita chip company, itself founded by a woman entrepreneur, has partnered with Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC), an organization that champions women’s entrepreneurship through resources, education and the WEOC National Loan Program to reach diverse women entrepreneurs. 

SWAN connects women entrepreneurs and highlights their work across the country. Since launching in 2012, StartUp Canada has supported more than 130,000 entrepreneurs in growing their businesses.

Paths into manufacturing look different depending on individual experiences and aspirations. Here are some of the journeys they took:

Evelyne Nyairo – Founder, Ellie Bianca

Ellie Bianca is a natural, environmentally sustainable, and socially conscious women’s skincare company. 

“When you think about innovation, manufacturing skincare or manufacturing essentials really is not often seen as innovation,” says Nyairo. “Because when they think about innovation, they’re thinking [about] technological gadgets, but not looking at innovation as improving something that already existed.”

As a Black business owner, Nyairo often has to prove Ellie Bianca manufactures for more than one race. 

“That assumption, that bias that because I’m a Black woman, the products that we make are for Black people is something that I have to answer at least once a week,” says Nyairo. 

But Nyairo is confident in Ellie Bianca’s place in cosmetics. She points out the large gap between Canadian and American beauty markets and the opportunity to sell Canadian products instead of exporting. The United States’ cosmetic and beauty products manufacturing industry made $42.9 billion in 2023, while Canada’s made $4.2 billion.

Despite the funding challenges, Nyairo’s company continues to grow. It started with lip balm in 2015 and now has more than 40 different products ranging from soaps to face serums and lotions. Shea is the central ingredient, and it is sourced from co-ops in various countries in Africa and the commitment to quality ingredients and processing is at the core of her business. “The manufacturer or the supplier needs to be able to be aligned with our quality requirements,” she says.

Kristyn Carriere – Co-Founder, 7 Summits Snacks

Kristyn Carriere’s business came from a desire to make satisfying snacks that taste great, while making athletes feel energized. Carriere has a food product development background and says her experiences with men-led businesses and male-dominated assembly lines are less collaborative. But 7 Summits Snacks, which she leads with her sister, Leanna, relies on community startup groups and other women entrepreneurs to help strengthen their business. For example, Calgary’s award-winning Cocoa Community Confections Inc., is the manufacturing site for 7 Summits Snacks products.

Carriere suggests entrepreneurs seek business support groups to ease the burden of launching a business. This can provide access to resources such as networking programs and brand storytelling experts. Other gaps are not as easy to fill. 

“Twenty percent of my time is probably spent on trying to find money,” says Carriere.

Carriere seeks financial support through federal or organizational loan programs, such as Stacy’s Rise Project. Given the difficulties, she says the most surprising thing she’s learned since joining the manufacturing business is that she still has a business that’s growing after four years. 

“I’ve grown a business without a business degree, without a marketing degree, to service over 200 businesses within Canada,” says Carriere. “My benefit is that I have at least product knowledge, so I’m okay with that.”

Jessica Bosman – Co-Founder, DOUBL

Bosman is the co-founder of DOUBL, the first made-to-measure bra company that can be ordered and fitted through a smartphone. DOUBL uses two licensed technologies to meet the anticipated demand of curated bras. With a 3D measurement application to capture an avatar of the chest and secure measurements and a secondary AI pattern-making software that can shape patterns in 3D, DOUBL hired a technical patternmaker to create a soft, body skin to replicate the way breast tissue behaves. 

“[Bras are] really challenging garments to create, especially because the breast is such a unique body part that really changes in weight and density,” says Bosman, who is based in British Columbia. “There just wasn’t a supply chain in place to create this at scale.”

Bosman has a background in fashion and merchandising and her business partner Bryn Davis Williams’ background is in brand management. Together, DOUBL launched their Kickstarter campaign on April 30 and reached their $10,000 goal in less than 12 hours.

In addition to Kickstarter, Bosman says they also turn to grants to cover startup costs but have difficulty being recognized as a manufacturer. Bosman says she has been denied grants because they do not own the facilities where they manufacture and they are denied tech-based grants because their tech isn’t proprietary, despite being a tech-based company. 

Though this pattern continues, Bosman says she is constantly filling out grant applications. Her advice to other female founders is to go into their business like a bull – confidently. 

“There’s lots of products that are recession-proof,” says Bosman. “We believe that our product, a foundation garment that literally every woman wears and is used on a daily basis, is a needed product.”

Betting on yourself

Despite the gender parity of direct experience industry, women are making the transition into the manufacturing industry – and leadership too. 

Canada’s manufacturing sector makes up $174 billion of Canada’s total GDP, and it’s only going to grow as the current workforce ages out and more products and labourers are in demand.  

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