Program empowers budding female entrepreneurs
On a cold Monday night in Flemingdon Park, six women are gathered in the basement of a resource centre, learning how to make teardrop earrings.
Under the watchful eye of instructor Stacy Alison Jones, the women work their pliers, manipulating the tiny metal pieces. One participant shows off her finished product as it emerges from the tangle of wire and beads on the table.
The jewellery crafting class is a change of pace from earlier in the evening, when the group listened to an hour-long lecture on how to promote a business.
It is the third installment of Make Your Own Future, a six-session course geared to guide aspiring female entrepreneurs in Flemingdon and Thorncliffe on the path to self-employment.
The course is a pilot project and the brainchild of Karen Fraser, a local entrepreneur who delivered the lecture, and Nawal Ateeq, president of the Alliance for Cultural Equity.
The pair designed the course when they realized women in the community, many of whom are newcomers to Canada, were not tapping into their entrepreneurial spirit.
“Some women, they get traditional clothes from back home and they need an outlet to sell them and make money,” says Ateeq. “Even though they have some ideas they don’t really know how to do it. They don’t know that they need to register the business. They don’t know that they need to have a business account.”
Enter Karen Fraser.
The lifelong Leaside resident is the owner and CEO of Women Like Me, which specializes in event planning and networking for women in business. Fraser has taught business skills for decades, and has published nine editions of the Women’s Small Business and Networking Directory. Her philosophy has always been that a successful economy depends on women’s traditions, skills and style.
“I really think Toronto is in an ideal position,” she says. “We are so diverse. These people have so many connections back in their original country, why don’t we turn them loose to make Toronto the centre of innovation for the planet?”
The course includes lessons on how to execute, create and market a business plan, calculate expenses, and even how to name the business. Fraser, who peppers her lectures with anecdotes from her early days in the business world, says the course is purposefully taught from a woman’s perspective. Even today, a female entrepreneur faces her own challenges, requiring a different approach, she says.
“We still don’t get the same kind of loans,” she says, adding that’s despite the fact female entrepreneurs are significant market-drivers.
“Women’s ideas tend to come from listening to the community and hearing what’s needed and figuring out that there’s money in what’s needed.”
The course is also geared to the female population because many self-employed women must also juggle a variety of responsibilities with work, including child rearing.
It’s for those reasons that participant Kanwal Bilal, 27, has attended every session so far.
A single mother, Bilal is building a business plan for her jewellery and cosmetic venture. It’s not registered yet, but her determination has already garnered her a booth at a local event, where she sold jewellery.
The native of Pakistan recently separated from her husband and is now raising her three-year-old son Aryan on her own. Though Bilal is preparing to upgrade her teaching credentials at the University of Toronto, ultimately she intends to run a full-time business.
“I want to be independent because I’ve really spent a lot of my life depending on my husband,” she says adding her son also has special needs and that running her own business would give her the flexibility to give him the attention he needs.
Bilal retains even loftier goals — she wants to set an example for her peers.
“I’d like to empower women to take control of their life,” she said.
That concept is not lost on jewellery instructor Jones, who registered her own handmade accessories business, Alisun Rocks, three years ago and hasn’t looked back.
The mother of four knows it can be a struggle to realize your dreams.
Jones managed to obtain a variety of business certificates and diplomas all the while raising her kids and creating a handmade jewellery line.
When Fraser, who met Jones at a business showcase, asked her to speak to the class and conduct the craft sessions, she jumped at the chance to speak about her struggles and victories in creating Alisun Rocks.
“I took a lot of hits when it came to family because they said, ‘you’re qualified, you’re educated, why don’t you find a job? You’re not making any money,’ ” she said. “And I said to myself, you know what? You have to sacrifice for what you believe in.”
Jones, who was pregnant with her fourth child while attending business school, says she tells the women there are no excuses, just hard work.
“I was telling these women, ‘chin up, chest out. If I can do it, you can do it too.’ ”
The program, which is also facilitated by the Flemingdon Park Ministry and Learning Support Council, is getting a warm reception in the community. Another course is starting up in neighbouring Thorncliffe this spring.
For participant Mona Shiwa, it’s been worthwhile so far. The social service worker is brimming with business ideas, including one day running her own childcare centre, and opening an event space.
“I think this is my first step toward something very big,” she said.
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