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Blazing their own trail: after corporate life, women are starting their own businesses

Maureen Googoo of Ku'ku'kwes News in her ‘home office,’ the kitchen table of her home. Googoo runs the news website dedicated to the aboriginal stories from Atlantic Canada.
Maureen Googoo of Ku'ku'kwes News in her ‘home office,’ the kitchen table of her home. Googoo runs the news website dedicated to the aboriginal stories from Atlantic Canada. - Eric Wynne

When Maureen Googoo set foot into CBC Radio studios on day one of her internship, she made history as the first Indigenous reporter to work in mainstream media in the Maritimes. But it was the early 1990s and her editors at the time didn’t recognize the rare access to a mine of stories they’d just acquired.

“(They said) the stories were too internal, that it wouldn’t appeal to a wider audience.” Googoo says she was told, when she’d pitch ideas from her own community, Indian Brook. Her stories didn’t speak to their audience, they told her.

“They said: ‘The listenership is majority white, and they wouldn’t understand, or be interested in it.’ ”

But the discouragement didn’t keep Googoo from pursuing journalism. Over the next 25 years, she went on to work in print, television, more radio, and even opened the Halifax location of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, or APTN, when it launched here.

Then, after a masters in journalism at Columbia University, she was inspired to break out and go into business for herself. Ku’ku’kwes News will be celebrating its third year online this summer, covering indigenous stories from across Atlantic Canada. It’s the only site of its kind in this region, and Googoo says she only has one competitor: her old colleagues at APTN.

Googoo represents a growing number of businesswomen in Nova Scotia who are striking out on their own.

 A growing number of businesswomen in Nova Scotia are striking out on their own- hasloo/123rf
A growing number of businesswomen in Nova Scotia are striking out on their own- hasloo/123rf

“There are a lot more women entrepreneurs, the last three or four years,” confirms Becky Davison, director of marketing with the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. Of the 1,600 businesses the Chamber works with, 83 per cent are small businesses. And the biggest growth therein, Davison says, appears to be among women.

Davison says, the impact of the growing presence of women is palpable, even in her own office, at the chamber of commerce. She credits the concrete changes in her workplace to one former colleague. Davison tells the story of a woman who was concerned she’d lose her job with the chamber when she became pregnant, 10 years ago.

“She marched into the CEO’s office and said ‘Listen. I love working here but I’m going to start a family and I can’t stay here if you don’t have a maternity plan...’ ”

That was the tipping point. The chamber of commerce developed a parental leave plan with health benefits, and began offering flexible scheduling. Today, Davison says, there are four young mothers working with the chamber.

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Andrea Doncaster had a similar conversation with her boss, some 10 years ago. She had been the first woman hired in an engineering or technical role with BMR Structural Engineering, a prominent Halifax firm responsible for many business towers dotting the harbour skyline.

“I was almost a test case...“ she laughs, re-telling the story of her hiring, and posing the question her male colleagues were asking of themselves, “Could we work with a woman?”

Of course, the answer was yes, and Doncaster enjoyed a 12-year career with BMR, who went on to hire two more female staff during her time there. But when Doncaster tried to ask for a four-day work week, or reduced hours, as she prepared to become a mother, her boss simply couldn’t accommodate her.

“You just can’t,” she says he’d told her, “the contractors are calling, they want you...”

This is what drives many women to leave corporations, and firms, says Davison of the chamber, and could account for the recent spike in growth among women entrepreneurs.

Today, Doncaster runs her own engineering business, has one full-time employee, and a casual she hires to come in when the work picks up, during busy weeks, like this one.

In fact, the demand is so great for Doncaster’s work, she’ll be leaving her job teaching at Dalhousie University, a side gig she’s maintained since she left BMR, six years ago, to make more time for her own projects.

Doncaster says there’s no real difference between men and women in the role, but says, “it’s the reason for being in business” that differs, she explains, pointing back to her own path, and a need for flexibility.

“There aren’t a lot of examples to follow, so you have to chart your own way.”

Doncaster aims to grow her business to a small firm of three-to-five professionals in the coming years and eventually hire a technician.

As to the question of gender disparity, Doncaster simply says: “As more women become engineers, it sort of dispels the idea women (can’t) do it.”

This is backed up by statistics. According to Engineers Nova Scotia, the number of women in the industry is on the rise. “Thirty years ago we had less than one per cent,” says CEO Len White, “But this year, 28.6 per cent of new engineers in training are women.”

White says it’s no accident. They are actively trying to attract more diversity.

Meanwhile, Googoo’s plan for Ku’ku’kwes (which means "owl" in Mi’kmaqi and is the original spelling of her own surname) is to grow the site’s advertising base, to eventually provide a sustainable travel budget given the rural geographical distance between the many indigenous communities she covers.

Right now, Googoo, and her husband photographer Stephen Brake run the site alone, supported by advertising and a Patreon account.

For her part, Googoo says she never really thought much about her gender, at work. “For the longest time, I never thought about my role as a woman. I thought about my role as a mi’kmaq person.

“It’s just been kinda me. As a trailblazer.”

Maggie Rahr is a freelance writer based in Halifax

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