By Marney Stapley
It wasn’t intentional. We realized in 2021 that we have an all-women leadership team at North Forge, running one of the largest publicly accessible fabrication labs in North America and an incubator/accelerator.
Part of the North Forge Team
My entire working career has been in the technology-based industry, which has been predominantly male. It’s evident when attending additive manufacturing conferences over the last seven years, especially in the lines for the washrooms. I’m hoping when I attend the next in-person conference, those lines will be more equally divided, or better yet, one big line into a gender-neutral washroom.
There are some characteristics and behaviours that are seen predominantly in female leaders. There is more of an understanding today that women bring with them their whole lives into their jobs. There are fewer expectations to fully separate the two.
Women carry a wide range of roles of responsibilities that are difficult to separate from work. A mentor of mine once said, “keep your head where your feet are.” This rang truer when we worked in a physical office. Now, with many of us having to work full or part-time from home, this statement seems moot.
Support and Encourage
An all-women leadership team supports and encourages everyone, including working in situations requiring additional family responsibilities. The support and encouragement we provide each other as a team has provided for a respectful, positive, and happy work culture. This work culture started at the top with Joelle Foster, one of the original founders of North Forge and the current CEO.
“I want a female entrepreneur to be able to walk into our space at any point and feel welcome; that they belong,” says Foster. “I want to remove any ‘bro culture’ and for women to feel that their ideas are worthy and that they feel supported and empowered.”
“There are unique challenges that female founders encounter. We understand these challenges. We have a number of women from across Canada approaching us to be in our incubator because of our all-female leadership team,” says Foster. “Our programming is always open to everybody.”
Looking ahead, Foster has plans to continue growing North Forge’s offerings and break barriers for women-led start-ups in technology, STEM, and advanced manufacturing.
“We’re living in a time of disruption and transformation, where technology is one of the fastest growing sectors in the global economy. Yet, despite the incredible opportunities this sector offers, not enough women are pursuing technology as a career path,” explains Foster.
Representation and Engagement Matter
Not all leadership teams need to be all-women, but there needs to be proper and effective representation in the boardroom and on boards. Research has shown that businesses with more women in senior positions are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide safer, higher quality customer experiences (among many other benefits). This all can lead to increased innovation and better business outcomes.
It’s imperative that women in industry have a voice to let others know if, or when, women are not being represented. I recently spoke up when I noticed the panel and lineup of speakers at a conference I was looking to attend were not diverse. The conference organizers were thankful for my opinions and legitimately seemed not to realize their error. Subsequently, they have developed a new procedure to vet speakers through a diversity lens. One person can make a difference!
Diversity at the North Forge FabLab
The FabLab is a 16,000 square foot manufacturing facility with over $3.2 million of advanced manufacturing equipment located in downtown Winnipeg’s Innovation Alley.
In 2017, when the FabLab grew to needing an employee to look after aspects of the lab that volunteers were no longer able to provide, I knew that this was the job for me.
I was one of the original volunteers, working, at the time in management for a corporate technology company. I was ready to retire from the corporate job, and I expressed interest to the president of North Forge at that time. I said that I could run the fabrication lab and that they needed a woman, in particular, to take the lead.
Five years ago, the FabLab was primarily skewed towards men. Today, on any given day, it’s proportionately gender equal.
I am a firm believer in ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’ I knew that I could help efficiently run the operations while inspiring other women to become involved and succeed in creating businesses.
See it, Be it
One of these female entrepreneurs is Ande Brown. They are the founder of i-co globes, a business run out of the FabLab, using the facility’s advanced manufacturing equipment to produce 20-sided representations of planet Earth.
The i-co name reflects the shape, an icosahedron, and a love of interpersonal connection through intercontinental travel. The globes are made of wood, metal, cork, and leather. Each i-co globe is given a distinct name, for example, “Courage”, Resilience”, and “Thrive” to reflect the uniqueness of everything in the world. Before attaching the final piece to close a globe, Ande whispers an inspirational message into the globe as a way of spreading positivity into the world.
Another female FabLab entrepreneur is Avery-Anne Gervais, the founder of Tiny Maker Mind, manufacturer of environmentally friendly toys from sustainable materials designed to last generations. Her most popular wooden alphabet blocks are milled locally and delivered to the FabLab, where they are laser etched, sanded, routed, and packaged for shipping.
I sat down with Ande and Avery-Anne to ask them about being female founders. I started by asking them what message they would give to younger people interested in manufacturing.
Avery-Anne: “Seek out an encouraging mentor, or two, or three. Being a small business owner is rewarding but also incredibly challenging at times. I’d suggest having a few people who you can call on when you need some extra support.”
Ande: “The most important part of anything you do in life is to be passionate and engaged in what you’re doing. Also, listen to your heart, and don’t be influenced by what other people think you should do.”
What inspired you to quit your steady 9-to-5 job and start your own business?
Avery-Anne: “I’ve always been passionate about product development and growing small businesses. Having been burnt out with the travel and tradeshows of 9-to-5 sales jobs, I decided I wanted to work more with my hands and challenge myself to learn some equipment at the FabLab. Now having acquired some skills, I’m able to do product development for my line of children’s toys, as well as some unique contract work.”
Ande: “For way too many years, I worked in an environment of ineffective bureaucracy and unengaged co-workers. After returning from a lifelong dream trip to Antarctica and motorcycling through South America, I decided enough was enough and that no job is more important than living an authentic heart-centred existence and pursuing your passions.”
Lastly, I asked them, what motivates you?
Avery-Anne: “I’m motivated by knowing one day I will know how to use all the equipment…and be able to accept all kinds of contract work to keep things exciting and grow my skill sets.”
Ande: “I’m motivated by living a self-directed life where I own my time and spend it in pursuit of learning, creating and collaborating on interesting projects, as well as showing kindness to others and surrounding myself with positive individuals.”
Studies show that as we drive more businesses created by women, the ecosystem grows, jobs increase, and the economy strengthens. At North Forge, we are going to continue to roll out initiatives that will increase female participation and provide opportunities. A great quote from Bonnie Ware comes to mind, “You don’t need to know all the answers, you just need to be courageous enough to take the first step and trust where it leads.”
Marney Stapley is Vice President of North Forge Technology Exchange, a Winnipeg-based incubator accelerator and entrepreneur community fueling Manitoba’s innovative science-based, technology-enabled, and advanced manufacturing start-ups. Marney heads up North Forge’s fabrication lab facility, North America’s largest publicly accessible non-profit fabrication laboratory.