Launched this week, Project Her is a crowdfunding platform for female-led businesses. But it’s not just the gender focus that sets it apart. Founders Donna West and Shelly Lynn Nellis have a vision to build a community of support, enabling women entrepreneurs to face their unique challenges, and create success on their own terms.
By Hailey Eisen
Donna West has worked in the corporate and small business world for most of her career. She paved her way with an entrepreneurial mindset, but always channeled her energy and drive into someone else’s business (save for a few tiny startups, including an organic produce delivery in the late 1990s and a dog treat company in 2008).
“I’ve never fully taken the opportunity to throw my passion, knowledge and education into something that’s my own,” says West, who was born in the US and lives in Vancouver.
When her friend Shelly Lynn Nellis approached her with the idea of starting a business together and mentioned crowdfunding, Donna was intrigued — even though she admits she didn’t know much about crowdfunding at the time. So began their journey of creating Project Her, a perk-based crowdfunding platform targeting female-led business. Their vision was to provide an opportunity for women to raise more than just funds by creating a community of fellow female entrepreneurs, and offering support in building and growing their businesses.
“I know that what’s really missing out there for entrepreneurs is the proper guidance when it comes to investment and raising funds,” says Shelly, who has been an entrepreneur herself for 15 years. “While I do think women need to invest in their own ideas, I don’t think they need to do it all by themselves.”
As the founder and editor-in-chief of Fresh Magazine — a Vancouver-based beauty and lifestyle publication created to inspire and empower real women — Shelly has been sharing the stories of successful Canadian women for nearly seven years. Beyond the magazine business, she’s also been a partner in two skincare lines and launched the app EpiAlert, inspired by her own daughter’s food allergies.
Donna and Shelly are hoping to use their personal successes and mistakes to help guide the entrepreneurs in the Project Her network. They each bring their own skills and expertise to the partnership — while Donna has a strong background in finance, Shelly’s strengths are more in marketing. The women say sharing this journey has been an incredible experience; one filled with mutual respect and admiration. “We both answer to each other as if the other owns the company,” Shelly says. “We are respectful of each other’s strengths and knowledge, and work together to come up with solutions.”
Over the past few years they have worked tirelessly fleshing out their ideas for Project Her, while researching and developing the platform upon which it will operate. Officially launching this month, Project Her will use a reward crowdfunding model, with campaigns providing contributors with ‘perks.’ These are most often early access to products, but they could also be other coveted rewards. The entire process has been designed to be simple, not only for the consumers exchanging pledges for perks, but also the female-led businesses who will be using the platform to raise funds.
While there are a number of big players in the reward crowdfunding space, they say there’s nothing in Canada right now that’s just focusing on women. “We don’t look at the big guys as competitors,” adds Donna. “They’re just paving the way for us.”
Plus, Donna and Shelly plan to set Project Her apart by providing an all-encompassing experience for entrepreneurs — everything from a private community for the sharing of advice and ideas, to a well-established referral network, to access to value-add services such as writing, social media, video production, and more. It’s a vision that goes beyond crowdfunding, offering valuable — and often much-needed — support.
“This is really about women helping other women,” says Donna, “something we’re both very passionate about.”
Project Her is partnering with Women of Influence as part of our commitment to supporting women entrepreneurs across Canada, helping them to get what they need for their business to thrive — from funding to guidance to inspiration. If you’re a female business owner, visit projecther.com to find out if Project Her is right for you, and how to get started.
Since launching her Turbine by Lisa Drader-Murphy label in 1997, Lisa’s company, Lisa Drader-Murphy Designs, has grown to operate eponymous boutiques in three provinces — all while manufacturing designs under a vertical model on a private heritage estate in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. As one of the last vertical fashion houses in the country, they take great pride in designing and manufacturing all their garments in Canada.
Kathy Gregory is the founding president and CEO of Paradigm Quest Inc., the fastest growing mortgage company in Canada. Providing a one-stop solution — from origination to back-office mortgage solutions for lenders, enabled by revolutionary Fintech ― Paradigm has grown from a small start-up in 2004 to one of the leading financial tech and business processing companies in the country today, with $26 billion dollars in its portfolio, and major outsourcing contracts with Canadian chartered banks.
While fashion and finance might not appear to have much in common, both Kathy and Lisa have a story of courage that started their business, have overcome challenges that have impacted their respective industries, and have balanced their longstanding success with motherhood. In this Q&A hosted by Deloitte Private, Kathy and Lisa open up about their entrepreneurial journey, and their advice for other women looking to follow in their footsteps.
Kathy, you founded Paradigm after being let go from your job in the financial industry. Some people would have been defeated by being fired — how did you find the strength to start your own business?
When I was terminated as an executive of the bank, I had three kids, a new home with a big mortgage, and I was newly divorced. I knew I needed security, but I also had a business model in my head and I wanted to pursue it. I did not want to live with regrets or in fear. I often eliminate fear by asking myself, ‘If I do this, and I fail, is anybody going to die?’ The answer was no, so I decided to go for it, and build something great.
Lisa, you started your business when you should have been off enjoying maternity leave. What happened that made you want to start your own business during such a busy time in your life?
I was on maternity leave from my job as a designer for a garment manufacturer that produced industry firefighter garments. My maternity leave replacement was not working out and my boss asked me to come back to work. I accepted, and they built a nursery in my office for my 9-day-old baby. Shortly afterward, I was walking my baby through the factory in an attempt to put her to sleep to the sound of sewing machines and I came across some long-forgotten fabric in an unused portion of the factory. I had a vision for what the fabric could be, and with my boss’ blessing I whipped up a dozen pieces and threw a fashion show in the boardroom. My boss was so impressed we agreed to go into business together.
Kathy, not long after starting your company, you lived through the financial crisis of 2008. That must have been a challenging time as you tried to grow the assets and achieve break even. What lessons did you learn?
The 2008 crisis was shocking, but our first two years of being in business were way more stressful — limited capital and profile in financial services was a much more difficult hill to climb. From those start up days, we learned to always come together to solve problems as a leadership team, tackle the issue at hand dead on, and that full transparency and teamwork are everything. By the time 2008 came, we had already been through the ringer, and we had created a problem-solving culture.
You can make a plan as an entrepreneur, but you can’t plan for what you don’t know. You can’t predict challenges. Being prepared for whatever comes is the best advice I can give anyone; by surrounding yourself with a strong leadership team, with varied skill sets and the foundation of excellent governance. It’s not if, it’s when things might happen!
“You can make a plan as an entrepreneur, but you can’t plan for what you don’t know.”
Lisa, the retail industry has not been doing well the last couple years, but you’re expanding. What’s your secret and what can other entrepreneurs learn from your experience?
A few years ago retail entered a phase of disruption, and now it has entered crisis mode. We have never seen anything like the current market. The new generation is thoughtful, appreciates items of value in their life and are not interested in throw away clothes. They are ecological and like to know where their products come from, which is in-line with my business. I have a 100% vertical company, I own the design and manufacturing and thus can take an idea, create a sample and try it in our flagship store in two weeks. If the samples sell I can have them in all our locations with a very short turnaround. Most retail stores purchase clothing six months in advance, if they sell out that’s it, if they don’t work you are stuck with your inventory — I don’t have that issue.
What do you see as your biggest challenges in growing your company in the current environment? And what are you doing to overcome them?
Kathy: Our challenge and opportunity is the same — stay ahead! That’s enabled by two things: great technology and people. We spend time searching the globe to acquire the right people to bring the best technology and we now have the best IT team, who have the view of the client experiences as their mandate,to bring solutions to the market faster and better for the overall client experience. Our IT team is engaged in searching and finding solutions in and outside of Canada, as globalization for Fintech is vitally important to stay ahead of the curve.
Lisa: I’m celebrating 20 years in business with my label. For years, people would say I wasn’t doing it right. They wanted us to show our collections six months in advance, but I refused. Instead, I would invite my actual customers and show them in-season clothing and it really worked for us. The rest of the industry is now talking about the new fashion calendar, but that’s the way I have always done it.
You have both received a number of significant awards. Has it opened more opportunities for you in the Canadian marketplace?
Kathy: The awards and recognitions have raised my own personal profile, and has opened doors for me. I have had the pleasure of meeting and connecting with some amazing women with better and more challenging stories than me, and that really pushes me.
Lisa: I was recently recognized, for the second year in a row, by Atlantic Business Magazine’s Top 50 CEO Awards. I was hesitant to even respond to the nomination until the nominee reached out to me personally. She told me that I owe it to women to follow up, that there were so few women nominated and we all need to do our part and get women CEO’s more exposure. It has since opened doors in networking and mentorship, and one of the best things has been the young women that have come forward and asked me questions.
Kathy, when you took to the stage to accept the Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship last year, you singled out Deloitte and thanked us for all our support — attributing your business’ success to the advice you received as a start-up. What a huge compliment.
Deloitte Private helped me develop my business idea and provided business advice in the initial years. It was critical for my new business to work with a reputable advisor like Deloitte, because it not only gave the organization much more credibility in the market, but was also tremendously helpful in building a strong governance foundation across the company. As my company grew, Deloitte was there to connect me with their financial institutions group to further grow my company.
Lisa, you recently participated in a Deloitte courage roadshow. Why is this topic important to you and your business?
My industry takes a lot of courage. I also felt it was really timely — we need to stop and focus on what we need to do next, because a lot of industries are being disrupted right now.
Both of you are not only successful entrepreneurs but also mothers. Do you have any advice for other working moms out there with a bright business idea?
Kathy: I’m most proud of being a mom to my three kids, but for sure the mom thing is very hard. It seems to me, we carry tremendous guilt and pressure to be perfect at being a mom and single moms don’t own all of that, it’s most moms. Many moms ask me how I do it. I answer that there are no perfect moms ― kids just want to be loved, so tell them and tell them often. Balanced doesn’t mean equal in number of hours, but it does mean balanced effort. To succeed I try to be very organized with my calendar. For example, for years now, everyone at the office knows that Wednesday is Kathy’s day to be with her kids. No office events, no client dinners ― that’s my for sure night with my kids. My kids know that Wednesday is our night too, no matter what one another’s schedule is. Like most things in life, nothing is perfect, but I think this is a good example of how being diligent at scheduling and being organized sets us up for success as much as we can.
Lisa: Balance has been my ongoing struggle. There are times when I master it and there are times when I feel like a complete failure. When my kids were much younger, we moved from Calgary to Nova Scotia to create work/family balance. When my daughter reached middle school, I expanded my business and opened more stores. It’s all about balance.
For more than 150 years, Deloitte Private has been assisting entrepreneurs in transforming Canada’s economy. We know that the journey to success requires strategic decision making and being opportunistic at the right moment. As Canada’s largest professional services advisor to private clients, we are passionate and committed to your future success — always looking ahead to anticipate your needs and prepare you for any unforeseen challenges ahead.
Growing up in a time when few women were encouraged to study science and mathematics, SherryShannon-Vanstone went against the norm. Sherry has innovated and thrived as a mathematician, entrepreneur, inventor, philanthropist, mentor, board member, and tennis player. After a challenging position as a cryptologic mathematician with the U.S. Government, Sherry decided to venture into entrepreneurship. Her latest role as Chairman, President and CEO of TrustPoint Innovation Technologies leverages her years of experience to provide leadership in building impactful and valuable companies.
Sherry has partnered with Cisco’s Circle of Innovation, an internship program managed by Cisco, Communitech, and Business Development Bank of Canada with interns from the University of Waterloo, to help grow Eyeread’s digital presence. We asked Sherry and her new intern, Joyce Yu, about their new partnership and how they’ll be using technology to collaborate and drive future growth and success.
Becoming an entrepreneur was…a decision to bet on myself. I had held a very challenging position working for the U.S. Government. It became clear that if I wanted to move up within the organization, I needed to move on. So I did and decided to take a chance on me; I became the owner of my own destiny.
My boldest move to date was…taking on the leadership role of President and CEO of TrustPoint after my husband, Scott, passed away in 2014. I knew I was taking on a challenging role, and it was all the more challenging because I had to do it without Scott there to support me.
What is your best advice to those starting their own business?
Truly understand your core business. Even though this may change as you progress, keep focused on the core. Choose your battles to support the core and leave the other battles to others who you trust.
I surprise people when I tell them…that I have a Master of Science degree in mathematics and was a cryptologic mathematician with the U.S. Government for 6 years.
Technology is…our business and it has also helped our business grow. It allows us to focus on our core function by taking care of the day-to-day administrative functions such as accounting, software version management, and time tracking. We couldn’t function productively without relying on technology.
I plan to use technology in the future…to delegate more of the non-core processes as TrustPoint continues to grow.
Meet Leah’s intern, Joyce Yu
School: University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University
Program: Honours Business Administration (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Computer Science (University of Waterloo) Double Degree
Year of Study: 1 (Starting 2A term in September)
How do you feel technology is improving businesses?
In the past decade, advancements in collaboration technologies have led us to this era of innovation. Such technologies foster disruptive business ideas by making it easier to bring talent together through easy sharing of work and efficient communication with anyone, anywhere. By encouraging innovation with seamless collaboration, businesses are able to grow and expand to new areas in the marketplace.
What social media platform do you use most often to stay connected and why?
Though it may not be considered one of the traditional social media platforms, YouTube is the platform that I use most often. It is my main source of information and entertainment, as I find it to be the most convenient medium to discover different things outside of my own world.
What is your dream job once you graduate university?
As I take my time to explore various careers during my co-op terms, I hope to find jobs that will combine my knowledge in computer science and business. Through this internship, I’ve had a chance to learn more about a systems engineering role at Cisco. I find the technical processes and customer interactions interesting, and it is at the top of my list for jobs I’d love to have.
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Have you ever tried running along a sandy beach? The refreshing sea breeze, the mist off the water, sun drenching your hair…
It sounds glorious. But running on sand is hard work. It’s difficult to gain traction, the wind is often much stronger by the ocean, and at times the beach can be so wide, it proves hard to navigate.
My experience working in a big corporation felt like running on sand. While I found it fascinating to be working alongside colleagues from around the globe, as someone who likes to move swiftly to make and implement decisions, it often felt like I was running hard but not really getting anywhere.
The best thing to come out of my time working in a large corporation was that I experienced first-hand, as a client, the shortcomings of the traditional PR agency model. So when I was contemplating the next step in my career, I seized the opportunity to turn this agency model on its ear and founded a virtual communications and content agency, Felicity.
Now that I’ve been in the entrepreneurial trenches for more than four years, I thought I would share some of the learnings from my journey thus far. These can, in turn, be applied to any career. Whether you’re looking to amplify your performance within an existing position, make a move up the corporate ladder, or start something new—these five tips will help ensure your success along the way.
Have well-toned resilience muscles, you’ll need to flex them
I’d heard the saying, “when one door closes, another opens.” Nobody forewarned me, however, just how many doors may close, and how many others I’d have to knock on, in order to achieve success. No matter how trying things become, knowing how to pick yourself up and move beyond challenges to identify opportunities is key to career success. Whether it’s a boss, a client, or a colleague with whom you are looking to align, you alone control how you react to challenges. Rally your supporters—those people who opened the door for you, even a crack—and leverage their support to help open other doors on your behalf. This can be as simple as asking for a connection via LinkedIn, or seeking their advice or mentorship while navigating a tricky situation.
Ask the right people the right questions—and pay attention to their answers, even when it’s something you don’t want to hear.
Know your strengths, and equally important, your weaknesses. These may change over time as you grow, as your needs change, and as the business environment changes around you. Constantly re-evaluate your relative position, then surround yourself with people who complement your strengths and weaknesses. The ability to tap into your own intellectual curiosity, ask poignant questions of these “complementors,” and listen attentively to their answers, will deepen your understanding of any complex issue or challenge you face.
Never stop expanding your network, and nurturing it.
No matter what field you’re in, consider yourself Chief of both Sales and Marketing for your personal brand. Filling your funnel means having a vibrant and relevant network that’s working for you at all times, even in the background. Keep in contact with your network, provide value where you can, take the time to comment on and share their posts via social media, and meet in person whenever possible. The more effort you put into maintaining your network, the easier it will be to reach out without feeling intrusive. No matter if you’re happy in the position you’re in or looking for something new, a great deal of your power lies amongst the people you’re connected to.
Keep the big picture in mind.
There’s no better time to think about the big picture than when you’re perfectly comfortable with where you’re at. They say if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. Always have a list of long-term goals you’re working toward, and keep your short-term decisions and objectives tied to these.
Love it or leave it.
You’ll know when you’re doing something that’s right for you and you’ll know when you’re not. There’s nothing worse than working for a company or in a role that doesn’t make you happy. Leaving a position is not about failure, it’s about organizational fit and professional growth. Finding a role where you provide value and your work is valued, is satisfying and motivating in and of itself. Trust your gut, and act upon it to build the bridge to your next move.
Amy Laski is founder and president of Felicity [Inspiring Communications], an award-winning virtual integrated communications and public relations agency, where clients pay for brains, not bricks. Teams are comprised of seasoned communicators driven by business minds, and are custom-tailored with the right experts based on client needs. Felicity partners with clients to leverage public relations in support of their overall business strategies, to optimize reputation, inspire action, and drive bottom-line results. Felicity associates thrive on doing challenging work within a flexible work arrangement. Happy workers = happy clients. For more information about Felicity, go to www.felicitypr.com
Tori Swaim may have been shy as a teenager, but she’s certainly overcome it as she heads into her 17th year of entrepreneurship—and working with celebrities while she’s at it. As owner of New Arrivals Inc., My Baby Sam Inc., and Three Wishes Bedding Co., three companies that specialize in nurseries and baby bedding, Tori knows a thing or two about starting and running successful multi-million dollar companies. We asked her about her career journey from IBM into entrepreneurship—and what it’s like running a family on top of it all.
My first job ever was…
At the local movie theatre selling candy and popcorn. To this day, it is one of my favourite jobs ever!
Why did you decide to be an entrepreneur?
Actually, I had never thought about being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship found me! My first product idea came to mind while I was decorating my daughter’s nursery. I wanted to hide the unattractive blue plastic baby wipe box that sat on her diaper changing table. That is when New Arrivals Inc. and my first product, the Hide-a-Wipe Box, were born.
My proudest accomplishment was…
When I was a marketing executive at IBM, I won the highest award they gave to an employee in the marketing division. The award was called the “Eagle Award” for top performers. Needless to say I was thrilled!
My boldest move to date was…
I spent almost two years developing my first product. Once I had prototypes in hand, I attended my first ever vendor trade show. The trade show was my first opportunity to test the marketability of my product. Fortunately, on the first day of the trade show, I was swamped with buyers placing orders! After having so much trepidation and uncertainty of whether or not the public would like my invention, I was overwhelmed and excited about their response. My bold move, which would launch my business, was to order my initial inventory of products—a container load of Hide-a-Wipe boxes! My husband and I invested $30k of our own money to launch my new company. We were nervous, but felt that we had done all of the things necessary to give it a good chance at succeeding.
I surprise people when I tell them…
I was a quiet and shy teenager. Today, I am quite the opposite! Being the CEO of a business you are constantly meeting new people and speaking in front of people. As a business owner it is important to communicate well and be outgoing and social. The shy me would have never been able to do it.
My best advice to people starting out in business is…
Make sure the business idea you have is your passion. Success is much easier to achieve if it is something you love doing. I would recommend doing a lot of research before ever launching a company. Put together focus groups of people that will give you honest feedback about your idea. Before launching my first nursery product, I invited moms to do an evaluation of my product and to give me their feedback. I also set up a table outside of Lamaze classes at the local hospital and talked to pregnant moms about my idea. Also, a large retailer’s headquarters office is located in my city, and I was actually able to make an appointment with their baby department’s buyer. She gave me great feedback, and placed a large order once my product was available!
Always design products that are unique, and stand out from anything that your competitors are already selling. He recommended for me to read “The Purple Cow,” which has been extremely helpful to me. The book gave me a whole new perspective on what to consider when designing new products. My biggest take away from the book was about how your products shouldn’t be like everyone else’s or “Ho Hum” as the book stated. Instead, focus on creating products that will be unique in the marketplace and your industry. If another company already has a similar successful product and holds a large market share in the industry; the chances of you entering the market and being successful are slim and risky. Instead of being a “me too” manufacturer and introducing a product that is already in the market, design something completely different than what a consumer can already buy from your competitor.
My biggest setback was…
One of my first large retail accounts was Target. After months of development and planning of an exclusive line of baby gifts for them, I was excited to finally see our products displayed in the Target stores. Unfortunately, the packaging we used for the gift items was not strong enough to withstand lots of handling by Target customers. Many of the items came out of the packaging, and were returned to us. Not only was it a big financial hit, we also jeopardized any future orders from the retail giant.
I overcame it by…
I look at mistakes as a learning experience. This unfortunate experience taught me to make sure that for any future products we consider all aspects of the design as well as packaging.
How do you balance work and life?
This is a tough one. When you own your own business, it is on your mind 24/7. However, it’s important to take the time to spend time with your family and doing the things you enjoy. My children were very young when I started New Arrivals Inc. It was difficult, but having a supportive spouse was the key. My husband didn’t hesitate to help with the kids and the house work when I was traveling or when my business needed me. When I first opened my business, he helped me enter orders, pack, and answer the phone. Balancing work and my personal life is something I have to work on everyday. Making priorities and focusing on what is important is crucial. Make sure that you pass along any of your to do’s to employees that they are able to handle on their own.
Being a woman in manufacturing is…
Challenging! My strength is in design and marketing, but its important for me to have employees that are experts in other areas, such as finance, production, sales, and customer service. As the owner of the company, you need to spend your time on new product development, growing, and marketing your business, among other things. Focus on what you are good at and let others concentrate on their strengths.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know…
Although my business is a huge part of my life, first and foremost to me is my family. When my kids were little, I made time for field trips, award banquets, dance recitals, soccer games, and more. I did not want to look back and regret missing anything important in their lives. Now that they are older, I still make time for phone calls and visits with them.
How do you stay inspired?
Being a manufacturer of baby bedding, it is vital that I stay on top of trends in my industry. Mom’s want only the latest designs for their new baby’s room. I keep inspired in all sorts of ways, including magazines, Pinterest, blogs, instagram.
The future excites me because…
Although I have had my business for 17 years, I never lose passion for what I do. Yes, I do get tired and stressed at times, but you have those feelings in any job. The exciting part for me is designing new products and working with celebrities on one-of-a-kind nurseries. I enjoy assisting celebrity moms create their dream nursery. I’m currently designing nurseries for a few celebrity moms-to-be and am excited to unveil those nurseries soon. There’s always something new and exciting going on at New Arrivals Inc, which makes it easy to stay passionate about what I do!
Interested in getting access to more role models like Tori? Check out our upcoming event speakers to gain insights and inspiration from powerful women.
The Deloitte Start-Up Award celebrates the achievements of a woman who, in three to five years, has developed her business into one that’s ready for the next level of growth. Since starting out, these three finalists have been successful in building a profitable business with a comprehensive and sustainable plan.