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'It never dawned on me that I shouldn’t be in this industry,' says Mandy Rennehan, founder and CEO of retail maintenance provider Freshco.Supplied

The road to success can be long and bumpy for anyone striving to advance in their chosen profession. But what happens when you’re a woman trying to make your mark in an industry that’s traditionally male-dominated?

These three women chose environments where women leaders are rare – in construction, hotel management and spirits – leading with determination and perseverance to realize their career goals. Having flourished themselves, they’re now working to encourage more women to join their ranks.

Making inroads in the construction business

“I didn’t have time or money for trade school,” says Mandy Rennehan of getting into the construction industry as a teenager. She says her early motivation was to make life easier for her hardworking parents in their hometown of Yarmouth, N.S.

“I’m ambitious and I learned quickly,” she says. “It never dawned on me that I shouldn’t be in this industry.”

Ms. Rennehan is the founder and CEO of Freshco, a retail maintenance provider offering 24/7, on-call service across Canada and the eastern United States. With three divisions encompassing construction projects, maintenance and millwork services, clients include retail giants like Lululemon, H&M, Indigo, Anthropologie, Nike and Restoration Hardware.

She says the first hurdle she faced was her age when she launched her company at 19.

“I was constantly told, ‘You’re not old enough,’ but I saw many young men being offered opportunities,” Ms. Rennehan says. Working on job sites, she had no female role models. “The only women I would see were doing the books.”

Noticing inefficiencies in the industry’s antiquated systems, Ms. Rennehan set out to do it better. Yet even as her company grew, her success didn’t erase the prejudice, she says.

“I remember going to purchase two new trucks for my business and the salesperson asked me where my brother or husband was,” she says. “I told him, ‘I’m buying two new trucks by the end of the day, but not here.’”

Now, Ms. Rennehan has become the role model she never had, for others looking to build a future in the trades. She oversees an internal staff made up of 80 per cent women.

“I beat down the doors, now it’s time to open the windows and let the stank air out,” says the author of the forthcoming book, The Blue Collar CEO. This spring, Ms. Rennehan will debut on HGTV Canada as the host of Trading Up, where she will mentor a diverse group of trade apprentices.

When asked by industry colleagues how to make their companies more diverse and inclusive, she responds with questions: “Do you have a diversity team within your human resources? Do you provide washrooms for everyone’s use? Are your uniforms suitable for a variety of people?”

Ms. Rennehan says that one key learning through her career was understanding that the industry’s inability to recognize a woman’s capability was a societal issue, not hers. “I had to learn to be patient with ignorance,” she says.

Opening up the hotel industry

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Shaileen Shah, photographed at The Drake Hotel in Toronto, became general manager in 2021.The Drake Hotel

Breaking into the upper echelon of hotel management was no easy feat for Shaileen Shah, general manager of The Drake Hotel in Toronto.

Although 60.3 per cent of the Canadian hotel industry is made up of women, a fraction of those workers are in management. According to a 2020 report out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst called “The Persistent Gender Gap in Canadian Hotel Operations,” female representation in executive positions is only 14 per cent on average.

Ms. Shah says that moving from Toronto to Kenya at the beginning of her career resulted in opportunity, but also challenge. “I jumped into IT,” she says of an early job working at an internet start-up. “They were all men and I worked endless hours, but I learned everything about servers.”

She returned to Canada and took a job as financial controller for a new hotel, surrounded by a management team of mainly white men. “I felt very intimidated. My employers would look for reconfirmation [elsewhere] about any information I provided,” she says.

Dismayed by the environment, Ms. Shah says she came to two realizations: “I realized I had to move downwards to learn, and I realized I had to stand up for myself.”

Back in Kenya for another hotel position, Ms. Shah jumped at the opportunity to manage the opening of a new operation, but was passed over by the owners for a man. Three months later, the man had left, and Ms. Shah was asked to lead the opening of The Trademark Hotel.

“I opened a 215-room boutique hotel which continues to thrive,” she says. “It features one of the top 50 hotel bars in the world.”

In January 2017, Ms. Shah was promoted to general manager, the first woman in Nairobi to hold that title. While there, she instituted a training program to increase access for Kenyans to enter hotel management, an area traditionally dominated by out of country candidates.

In 2021, Ms. Shah became the general manager at The Drake Hotel.

“I’ve worked in so many different aspects of a hotel – food and beverage, rooms, finance, sales – I’ve done it all. But some men will still judge you for being a woman,” she says.

At The Drake, Ms. Shah has instituted daily staff meals and a break room with books, snacks and lockers, as well as supporting individuality in an industry often rooted in conformity.

“Show me great attitude and I’m ready to teach you the skills,” she says.

Bringing competitive spirit to the liquor market

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Toronto’s Carmen Sandor started Green Owl Vodka as a side hustle, making it her full-time business in 2021.Supplied

When she created Green Owl Vodka, Carmen Sandor knew she had a good product. But as a newcomer to the spirits industry, and says she constantly heard the word, “No,” while trying to get her company off the ground.

“I created a separate folder in my inbox where I would file away the no’s,” says the Toronto-based entrepreneur.

Ms. Sandor was told she wouldn’t be able to raise equity for her company, and that she shouldn’t even bother approaching the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) with her new vodka. But her competitive spirit was ignited early as a professional tennis player.

“I regularly practiced with the boys,” she says.

Post-tennis, Ms. Sandor worked in broadcast journalism, then finance, taking a position at an investment management firm. She says it was a supportive environment. “The company made an effort to hire women in management roles, which benefitted me.”

Yet Ms. Sandor says she still dealt with negative assumptions from some male peers. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to deliver pitches to men [but also] to deal with unwanted advances and presumptions about my role in the company,” she says.

On vacation in Mexico, Ms. Sandor discovered Noble Coyote, an artisanal maker of mezcal. After learning about the process of making the agave-based liquor, she inquired about bringing the product to her home country. Distributing the brand in Canada became her side hustle, and she learned about the liquor industry while visiting bars and restaurants to get Noble Coyote on the menu.

“I was working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., then spending every evening talking to restaurant and bar managers,” she says. “I loved the sales, but realized I wanted to create my own brand.”

Ms. Sandor spent two years developing Green Owl Vodka, a green tea-flavoured vodka. Having learned that only two per cent of spirit brands in Canada are owned by women, she submitted her product for consideration by the LCBO. They accepted her vodka on her first attempt, and she officially launched her company in May 2021. (She quit her day job at the investment management firm in September 2021.)

Now, Ms. Sandor leads an 85 per cent female team at Green Owl Vodka, which is available in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and B.C.

“It’s not easy. I have overwhelming moments of self-doubt,” she says. “But truthfully, I love the no’s. It drives me and my team to do better.”

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