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One male-dominated sector, two successful female entrepreneurs

Joanne Johnson and Sandra Dussault each have a successful manufacturing company, despite not having a background in the sector. How did they do it? A clear vision and smart business decision-making, including investments in technology. Brought together by the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle initiative, we spoke to Joanne and Sandra about entrepreneurship, and their advice for other women looking to follow in their footsteps.


By Marie Moore



In Canada, women make up 47.5 per cent of the labour force. If you focus on the manufacturing sector, they represent just 28 per cent — a figure that hasn’t changed in 15 years. Which makes the stories of manufacturing entrepreneurs Joanne Johnson and Sandra Dussault all the more inspiring.

Joanne Johnson is the co-owner and president of Armstrong Monitoring Corporation, which manufactures life-saving gas detection and hazardous gas monitoring equipment. Purchasing the Ottawa-based business three years ago, Joanne and her husband have reinvigorated the over-thirty-year-old company, setting it up for future success. Sandra Dussault co-founded Vertical Suits with her husband in 2006. Starting out with one sewing machine in the spare bedroom of their basement apartment, the skydiving suit manufacturing company now has a fast-growing global customer base and their own facilities in Pitt Meadows, BC.

Neither Joanne nor Sandra come from a background in manufacturing, but their past experience and skill sets have been critical to their success in the sector. As an avid skydiver herself, Sandra was familiar with the product needs, and her background in graphic and web design enabled her to build a strong brand and online presence. Joanne didn’t know much about sensor technology, but as a seasoned entrepreneur with an ability to understand data, she knew she could add value to marketing, sales, finance, and HR.

For both Sandra and Joanne, it was the entrepreneurial lifestyle — including the freedom to pursue their own vision — that drew them into business ownership. “I like to be able to create my own environment and set the tone for how people interact with each other,” explains Joanne, “and focus on treating each other well, being innovative and having fun. When you own the business, you can make sure that those are key priorities.” 

Being the kind of person that’s well-suited to the ups, downs, and unknowns of entrepreneurship was also a big factor, adds Sandra. “For me, it has lots to do with personality. I always needed a challenge when I was working in a day job. I am very adventurous, so for me, entrepreneurship is more like an adventure and a challenge for myself. This is what makes me love running a business, and entrepreneurship.”

There’s also common ground between their very diverse businesses: both women point to technology as having played a role in changing how they operate. The gas detection equipment manufactured at Armstrong Monitoring used to be all analog signals, and Joanne and her husband have focused on transitioning to digital (now common in the industry). It allows for a lot more data capture, which has enabled them to better understand their customers, their environment, and their product’s performance. “It’s allowing us to design better equipment, manufacture better, and service our customers better,” says Joanne.  

Sandra, who leads IT decisions for Vertical Suits, oversaw the introduction of a robust online ordering system — saving countless hours in administration time that used to be spent manually entering information from PDFs. She looks forward to the day they can utilize body scans to take quick and accurate custom measurements, improving the process further. “If we could start working with those, it would be life-changing in our business,” she says. But while the technology exists, the challenge is making it available to the 98 per cent of her customers that aren’t local. In the meantime, she’s working with programmers to create a custom inventory system.

Knowing technology will play a role in their future success, they are both excited to be taking part in the Cisco Circle of Innovation program. In partnership with organizations including the Business Development Bank of Canada, the program pairs internship students from the University of Waterloo with women entrepreneurs. The aim is to help them build their digital strategy, scale and impact.

Marisa Duncan, their shared intern, points out that the program has been beneficial to her as well, providing access to mentorship and inspiration. “It’s helped me think a lot more about what I possibly want to do in entrepreneurship,” she explains. “And seeing people who have actually done it, makes me think that I can actually do it.”

Their success as entrepreneurs — especially in a male-dominated sector like manufacturing — can not only inspire the next generation of women business owners, but also help guide them. As role models, what advice to do they have for other women looking to follow in their footsteps?

Sandra believes a big key is sticking to your vision. And while you need to make sure you enjoy what you’re doing, “don’t be afraid to work hard,” she adds.  

Joanne looks to the pillars that have led to her own success as an entrepreneur: authenticity, persistence and courage. “Authenticity is really important — in every business, I always had a role that was aligned with my values and my skills so I could be me. The persistence — you just have to keep going. Whatever roadblocks you hit, you just have to go under them, go over them, go around them. And courage — not being afraid. Don’t let fear stop you from doing what you think is right.”


The Cisco Circle of Innovation program is one part of The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle initiative, which addresses some of the obstacles female-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. In partnership with organizations including the Business Development Bank of Canada, Cisco is connecting women to the expertise and knowledge needed for their entrepreneurial ventures to thrive. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for the free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy, and kickstart your journey towards business success.




Do you know a successful female entrepreneur who deserves recognition? Nominate her for the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards!