Tracey Scarlett admits that she didn’t dwell on the nuances of the gender divide as a kid.”It didn’t really matter what your gender was growing up on a farm,” she says. “You were another one of the kids that could help out.”
Now the chief executive officer of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), Scarlett’s path to non-profit leadership was an unconventional one. After graduating high school and leaving the family farm near Grande Prairie, Alta., she arrived at NAIT to pursue a diploma in medical laboratory technology. Working on regulatory approvals for new drug development projects after graduation, she often liaised with small business owners and inventor scientists – entrepreneurs in their own right. She went on to earn an MBA and a bachelor of science degree in laboratory medicine from the University of Alberta, and co-founded a construction company with her ex-husband.
All of that didn’t make the leap to AWE obvious. In fact, Scarlett advised her longtime protge, Jodi McDonald, against starting a business back when she was building her own company. The two first met in the lab at the Alberta Research Council in 1995.
“Tracey gave me the first great job I ever had, and it was great mostly because of the team that she put together. She is a tremendous leader,” says McDonald, who eventually did found Keystone Labs in 2005, noting that Scarlett acted as her mentor long before her days at AWE.
“I’ve seen a convergence with what I did in the early days [and] the world that I’m working in now,” Scarlett explains, recalling years in labs with well-credentialed male scientists, feeling isolated and separated.”I hear over and over again that women are not involved in technology or innovation businesses, or in anything with high-growth potential. Or they’re all in retail or personal services. Those things are just not true.”
She notes that, while many women may start retail businesses, statistics show that there are still more men that own retail than women.
“As much as we’re in the service-delivery business to help women entrepreneurs, we’re also in the perception-changing business. We’re seeing a massive participation of women as entrepreneurs, and they’re getting involved in industries that would not be considered traditional. Things like technology and innovation, manufacturing and agriculture.” The fastest growing segment in both Canadian business and female business is actually in business services, she says, and women with education and professional experience are well-equipped to be a part of that field.
She adds that AWE’s work in the province is important because the province is a hotbed of start-up activity. Between 18 and 19 per cent of the population is employed in entrepreneurial ventures; within that, for every five men that start a business, four women open businesses, too. Though Alberta has a bad reputation for having the largest wage gap in the country, Scarlett notes that stat can be skewed. “Many of the jobs [in Alberta] that are high-paying are in industries that are in remote sites and not hours that fit for a primary caregiver for children or for families.”
On the upside: When women own their own businesses, they are paid market rate for their own work.
Scarlett admits that, of course, there are challenges for AWE’s budding entrepreneurs. The ever-present, if somewhat archaic, societal viewpoints on women’s social roles can cloud the potential for their participation in the business ring.
“Where we start to see the difference between female-owned business and male-owned business is in growth aspirations,” she explains.
In some cases, women constrain the growth of the businesses to avoid financial risk. “They don’t want to leverage family assets like their house to be able to go into business. There are a lot of things like that when it comes to women running businesses that are under-capitalized.”
On average, when controlling for sector, women’s businesses are half the size of their male-owned counterparts.
“There are these subtleties that exist within our own self-narrations that hold us back,” she says, citing her own experience with the “impostor syndrome” before she gained confidence in her abilities. “We’ve seen research that shows that women will not apply for positions because they don’t have all of the credentials or all of the qualifications, whereas men will apply even if they’ve got a very small percent of the qualifications. I would say those were the same types of thing that I experienced, but I would also say, for the most part, that it was pretty much self-imposed.”
This is where AWE comes in for many entrepreneurs, including McDonald. Scarlett rang her up when AWE started the Excelerator program in 2013.
“It was just incredible timing for me. I had gone through the startup phase of my business and I could see us never getting any bigger,” says McDonald. “The Excelerator program was exactly what I needed. It was a huge confidence builder; without that, I don’t know that I would have made some of the decisions I did.” She describes Scarlett as a consummate professional, but one who cares deeply about the women she supports:”She inspires people around her to do tremendous things, and I can say personally that I wouldn’t be at where I’m at without her.”
As her own inspiration, Scarlett cites her grandmother and great aunts – a feisty trio of travellers and nurses – as inspirations. “I think that you just need to get good mentorship and good role models. The biggest thing is self confidence and self-awareness,” she says.
“Many times, I see that there’s a certain pathway that women are trying to follow, and it isn’t their pathway. It’s OK to follow what your heart tells you and what your passion is because it will lead you to where you have to get to.”