When Manjit Minhas was young, she wanted to be a doctor. By the time she was in high school, her sights had turned to petroleum engineering, the profession of her father and a go-to choice in her hometown of Calgary. One thing she never imagined: CEO.
Now 30, Ms. Minhas has run Minhas Creek Craft Brewing Co. for a decade, leading the company's growth from a scrappy upstart to a firm with more than $100-million in annual revenue and 110 employees.
"For women, you don't dream of being the CEO," said Ms. Minhas. "And, I think I can speak for most girls, you don't dream of being prime minister of this country either. Men might, but it was absolutely nothing I had ever dreamed of being."
Ms. Minhas and her younger brother Ravinder started their discount beer company when she was 19. Several years earlier, her parents had opened their first liquor store in Calgary when the province of Alberta privatized retail alcohol sales. Exposed to the business of booze, and inspired by her parents entrepreneurial success, Ms. Minhas saw opportunity to sell the family's own brands in her parents' stores, and the company rapidly expanded from there, driven by aggressive and colourful marketing.
While the rate of advancement of women at the top echelons of large Canadians businesses has been extremely slow, women have made significant gains in the world of small and medium-sized enterprises. Of the 107,000 companies that are part of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, one-third are run by a woman. Among big businesses, just one out of six corporate officers at Canada's biggest 500 businesses is a woman, according to Catalyst Inc.
Various factors are behind the shift among smaller businesses. It began with women entering the general work force en masse in the 1970s, said Catherine Swift, CEO of the CFIB. From that platform, women gained experience and began to strike out on their own. Ms. Swift noted that "glass ceiling stuff" is in the mix, with women seeing more opportunity in their own ventures or smaller firms than at massive corporations. Some women have found smaller businesses to be more flexible when it comes to family, either children or helping elderly parents.
"A lot of trends contributed," said Ms. Swift.
Flexibility is something that Ms. Minhas appreciates, as she and her husband - who runs a home-building business - have started a family, with 14-month-old daughter Ikjot. Her business is mobile, with offices scattered in several cities, and offices at home and at a vacation property, the BlackBerry ubiquitous and essential.
"It's a great balance you can create for yourself according to your own life, kids, husband, family. Small business is great for that. You can have success and accomplish something and also still have another life," said Ms. Minhas.
Several indicators show the impact of women in small businesses. At the smallest end of the scale - self-employed Canadians - the ranks of women has tripled to 959,000 since 1976. In the same period of time, the amount of self-employed men doubled, according to labour force survey estimates from Statistics Canada.
As more women become solo entrepreneurs, women now account for 36 per cent of Canada's 2.7-million self-employed, up from 26 per cent in 1976.
Change is happening quickly. In 2008, 3.4 per cent of female workers were self-employed, up from 2.9 per cent in 2003, according to a report on the state of entrepreneurship in Canada compiled for the federal government by business professors Eileen Fisher of York University and Becky Reuber at the University of Toronto.
However, the same study found that female ownership of small-sized and medium-sized business has stagnated recently. In 2007, 35 per cent of businesses were at least half owned by a woman, down slightly from 37 per cent in 2004. Still, the study noted the figures are significantly higher than a country like the United Kingdom where the number stands at 25 per cent.
For Prof. Reuber, an important issue is the potential growth of small businesses. People start businesses in fields where they have experience and women are strongest in the service sector, a sprawling economic definition that includes everything from education to real estate. The lack of women in fields such as science and engineering means that they generally don't lead or own the types of companies that can generate significant growth, said Prof. Reuber.
"There are wonderful women in science and engineering but there's not as big a pool of talent, so the high-tech firms tend to be owned by men," said Prof. Reuber.
For Ms. Minhas, the pace of growth has been swift but it's also been about controlled growth, especially in the company's earlier years when her brother wanted to push harder and faster.
"I brought some of the containment, not growing too fast, not going everywhere at once," she said.
The company, which produces its products from a brewery in Wisconsin, now sells beer in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and recently cracked Ontario after five years of effort. The beer is also sold in almost half the states in the United States, as well as in Japan and Korea. The 10-year goal: "Anywhere you go, you can get a beer made by us."
At the helm of an enterprise, where she never pictured herself when she was young, in an industry dominated by men, Ms. Minhas often contributes to mentorship work, promoting women in business in speeches and various volunteer work.
"There weren't many role models doing something at a younger age when I was starting out," said Ms. Minhas. "I really do believe in letting girls know you don't have to be a doctor, or a lawyer, those traditional fields, to be successful."