A hair stylist, a toy shop owner and a bridal boutique retailer were among the dozens of female entrepreneurs who came together Thursday to focus the attention of the Ontario government on their ongoing struggles to keep their heads above water and their businesses afloat as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on.
The virtual roundtable discussion was hosted by Michael Wood, who started advocating on behalf of the Ottawa small business sector shortly after the pandemic began last March. As the co-owner of Ottawa Special Events, he'd already been reaching out to politicians when he decided to also hold the door open for other businesses similarly struggling to survive.
Participants were invited to ask questions of Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop, associate minister of children and women’s issues. She was joined by her colleague, Carleton MPP Goldie Ghamari. What Dunlop heard were honest and heartbreaking stories right from the mouths of local businesswomen who are trying to make the most out of the bad hand they’ve been dealt over the past year. Of the nearly 40 businesswomen who took part, nine of them spoke during the one-hour event.
“I am drowning, I am drowning trying to figure out how to keep all my balls in the air,” Ottawa businesswoman Karla Briones said during the virtual roundtable discussion.
Briones, who received a City of Ottawa 2018 Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year Award, talked about the pressure she's under. The mother of two school-aged children is a business development consultant and serial entrepreneur. Briones said she's been trying to help her kids excel in a completely different learning environment, and to parent them without the help of extracurricular activities, playdates, babysitters or grandparents. As of this past Monday, Ottawa schools reopened for in-class learning but have been intermittently introducing at-home, online schooling to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Tanya Hill, owner of Tappa Hair Salon & Beauty Bar, spoke on behalf of the 32,000 hair stylists currently out of work in Ontario. The majority of them are women and nearly half are self-employed. Over the past year, most salons have been shut for at least five months, depending on their geographical region, and operating during the remaining months under strict restrictions, she said. Hill raised concerns that stylists will abandon their trade or go “underground” to secretly cut hair. She’s also worried that hair-styling apprentices will chose another career path.
"Our trade is not looking attractive to new people coming in," said Hill.
Susanna de Beer, owner of event rental business Fiesta Ottawa, saw a “huge drop” in revenue in 2020.
“This drop has left me being the only person left in my business. I have lost all of my staff," she said. "My business relies on public gatherings, festivals, weddings and so forth. By limiting the gatherings, the Ontario government has essentially closed my business."
She said the Ontario government should not only be providing additional funding to the hardest hit sectors but also assisting those owners in need of retraining because they can no longer earn a living in their industry.
Dunlop spoke about available funding support from the Ontario government. Applications have opened for its Small Business Support Grants and Monday is the deadline for parents to apply for its one-time Get Support For Learners funding. She offered advice and sympathized with the women, including Earleen Garbe, owner of Revelle Bridal Boutique.
Garbe has been feeling the ripple effect the pandemic has had on the event planning industry, impacting venues, caterers, florists, musicians, formal wear retailers and others.
“The event industry in general has been devastated by the pandemic,” Garbe said. “How are we going to move forward?”
Patti Taggart, owner of Tag Along Toys, shared her frustrations of having to keep her store closed during the government-ordered lockdowns. Even at the best times during the pandemic, she was only letting in three to five shoppers at a time. She wants to see the Ontario government reopen small businesses “sooner than later” with reduced customer capacity.
“It’s been really tough since Christmas,” said Taggart, who's just suffered through her worst January in her 19 years of running a business.
The roundtable discussion was the latest in a series of conversations Wood has hosted between local business owners and cabinet ministers and other elected officials from all levels of government. Wood had learned from area businesswomen that they felt they were facing unique challenges that weren't being addressed. He successfully proposed the virtual meeting through Dunlop's chief of staff.
A RBC report released in 2020 found that COVID-19 has weighed heavily on the decades of gains women have made in Canada's labour force, with more than 1.5 million women losing their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic-induced recession. The report found that women's participation in the labour force has fallen from a historic high to its lowest level in over 30 years. It predicated "this lost ground won't easily be recovered".
Meanwhile, men are picking up jobs at the three times the rate women are leaving because they have been adept at earning employment with companies benefiting from the increased demand for digital and e-commerce services that the pandemic created.
Participants also included Soula Burrell, executive director of the Women’s Business Network of the National Capital Region. During the pandemic, the organization has been hosting weekly virtual events for its nearly 300 members. Participation has tripled, she earlier told OBJ.
“The need for women to feel like they belong to a community has increased tremendously,” said Burrell in an interview with the Ottawa Business Journal prior to the roundtable discussion.
Members impacted by the pandemic have used their WBN connections to their advantage in some cases, she said.
“Some women lost their jobs but, because they belong to the network, they were able to reach out and ask for help and find work within a month.”
Many female entrepreneurs work in consumer-facing sectors that are more likely to have to temporarily shutdown during a pandemic.
“We are the nurturers, we are the caregivers, we are the providers of so many services,” said Burrell.
She added that she’s had "hundreds" of conversations with businesswomen over the past year, and knows that women are fighting to pull through.
“The pressure is incredible,” she said. “Their state of mind is hitting rock bottom, but women are survivors.”
The WBN is encouraging its members to support each other’s women-owned businesses as much as possible.
“How can we keep businesses moving forward? Start by giving each other our business,” said Burrell.