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Toronto-based marketing strategist Lana Karapetyan created the Women Who Freelance network in order to connect with other freelancers like herself.Tijana Martin

A Muslim woman seeks a photographer who is sensitive to her religious needs for a business photo shoot. An academic reaches out for advice on getting started in the copywriting world. A marketing strategist is having trouble being paid on time.

On any given day, dozens of cis and trans women and non-binary freelancers on the Women Who Freelance (WWF) Facebook group ask questions, get jobs and bounce ideas off one another. With a membership of 18,000 between three regionally based groups (Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) and 8,000 Instagram followers, WWF is a unique space reflecting the diversity and nuance of women and non-binary freelancers and entrepreneurs across the country.

It all began with one lonely freelancer two years ago. Working from Toronto coffee shops amongst university students with laptops, marketing strategist Lana Karapetyan wondered: Where are the freelancing digital marketers, bloggers and photographers like me? And where are they getting their clients?

She didn’t find the people she wanted to connect with on the women’s sites she found online – they were mostly real estate agents and store owners – and while she wasn’t opposed to a coed site, the idea of a women-only space suited her.

“I just felt like women inspired me way more and whenever I had a role model at work it would typically be a woman,” Ms. Karapetyan says. “I also like that you can be a little more vulnerable with other women.”

Fast growth

According to Statistics Canada, while men account for 62 per cent of the self-employed work force as of 2018, self-employed women are on the rise, growing from 26 per cent to 38 per cent over the last four decades (which amounts to 1,079,000 self-employed women). About 60 per cent (635,000) of those women are unincorporated businesses with no employees.

When Ms. Karapetyan created the first Women Who Freelance Facebook group, she anticipated 30 women or so would join. In six months, membership grew to 2,000 users. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, membership shot up again. Many were laid-off photographers and beauty industry employees, others were women who had to quit jobs to care for their children – they still needed work, but didn’t know how to get started freelancing.

Based on fast growth and members’ requests, Ms. Karapetyan added the Vancouver and Montreal groups last year. Webinars have also been a big draw for freelancers, including help with taxes, contracts and branding.

Toronto accountant Michelle Herscu, a former CFO at a construction company, reached out to Ms. Karapetyan to run a workshop on taxes. Nearly 100 women registered.

“When it comes to numbers, women often apologize. I always tell them, number one, it’s okay that you don’t know because there are so many things that I didn’t know when I got started,” she says. “And, number two: I am good at what I do and you’re good at your job and we can teach each other. It’s perfectly normal.”

While she has sought help from members herself and enjoys the webinars and other resources, Ms. Herscu says what likes most is answering member questions and offering referrals.

Membership for WWF is strictly vetted and each post is moderated by a group of volunteers, eliminating spam, trolls and the “mansplaining” that Ms. Herscu says can be a common annoyance in coed groups. Self-promotion is allowed, but members cannot solicit unpaid work.

“No one is trying to sell you something,” says Ms. Herscu.

Support and inspiration

Graphic designer Natasha Kloyber, who does brand and website development under the banner Foster Creative with Marie Atienza, says that she appreciates the virtual meetups at WWF.

“Lana does a good job of asking what we want and curating one-on-one meetings, or smaller breakout sessions on Zoom where we can have a more personal connection with people,” says Ms. Kloyber.

For example, during a WWF meetup last year, Ms. Kloyber and Ms. Atienza met a copywriter. What began as writing guest blogs for one another’s websites evolved into paid work. “We’ve collaborated on content and graphic work together and we’re taking that relationship much further,” says Ms. Kloyber.

And while the referrals and job connections are important, some of the site’s other resources can be even more valuable. For example, a rate transparency guide listing over 300 freelancers categorized by industry and experience helps members with the all-important question: What do I charge?

For Ms. Kloyber, freelance success depends on finding support and inspiration during those inevitable times when you get stuck and just need a boost. Everyone feeds off that positive energy, she says, no matter what stage they’re at in their careers.

“It’s refreshing to see someone tackle a market that has never been tackled in the same way before, or when someone shares their unique story on how they got started,” Ms. Kloyber says. “It’s a place for us because there’s a place for everyone else. It’s inspiring and it keeps us going.”

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