When it comes to mother-daughter business partnerships, there are several built-in advantages: familiarity, understanding, history. But perhaps most importantly, there’s trust.
“You can anticipate how they will act and engage with other people and trust they will act in a way that’s consistent with your own ethics,” says Rebecca Reuber, professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.
And while relationships – whether business or personal – are seldom without any kind of conflict, the bonds between a parent and child mean there’s significant motivation to make it work, both in and out of the office.
“Since the family relationship is a long-term relationship that you don’t want to mess up, there’s an incentive to keep the relationship a happy one,” Dr. Reuber says.
Vancouver-based Métis entrepreneur Teara Fraser is partnered with her daughter Kiana Alexander-Hill in three different businesses, and she says that each project is an exchange of ideas which has deepened their mutual respect.
“We are peers,” Ms. Fraser says. “We are alike in many ways, but also different, each with unique skills and strengths. Kiana is involved in everything I do.”
A natural evolution
Having received the operating permit for Iskwew Air (the Cree word for woman) three months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Ms. Fraser tapped into her 20 years of experience in the aviation industry (she’s also a pilot) to launch the airline as lead executive officer (LEO).
Meanwhile, Ms. Alexander-Hill serves as team lead, people, for Iskwew Air, bringing her skills as a certified MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) practitioner and leadership facilitator to build and support the airline’s team.
“I didn’t really know I would work with Teara, but it was a natural evolution of our family,” says Ms. Alexander-Hill. “Mum is a serial entrepreneur. She always has ideas.”
As the first Indigenous woman to launch an airline in Canada, Ms. Fraser is committed to changing the male-dominated airline industry, focusing on ways to decolonize and decarbonize for the next generation. “Many times, it seemed impossible,” she says. “But I’m here and I’m hopeful.”
Both women are committed to sharing their knowledge with their community. “When you have knowledge and collect knowledge, you also have a responsibility to do good with that knowledge,” says Ms. Fraser.
Ms. Alexander-Hill is LEO of The Raven Institute, a leadership training group using Indigenous practices. Ms. Alexander-Hill oversees the team, which includes Ms. Fraser, working with various groups including Indigenous youth across Canada. The two women also run The Indigenous Lift Collective, a non-profit launched in 2018. The collective was a lifeline for many Indigenous women entrepreneurs during the pandemic; they met every Sunday via Zoom to learn, celebrate and offer support to one another.
“A big part of what we do is based on the deep laws of reciprocity,” says Ms. Alexander-Hill. “We share our experiences to help others.”
Taking on new roles
Dr. Reuber says that in some mother/daughter business relationships, mothers may bring knowledge of how established firms work and daughters may bring new ideas of how they could work differently. That’s definitely the case with the owners of Sansorium, a newly-launched online marketplace for non-alcoholic wine, beer and spirits, founded by Vancouver’s Kathryn Hepher with her two daughters, Sarah Hepher-Tejuco and Fiona Hepher.
As someone who lives alcohol-free, Kathryn searched for libations without alcohol but found few options in Canada. She did, however, find a plethora of concoctions while researching markets in the U.K. and Australia.
“I was finishing my second stint of retirement from my corporate job and I didn’t want to write a new resumé or start job interviews,” says Kathryn, COO at Sansorium. “I approached my daughters with the idea to start an import business.”
The timing was right for both daughters. “I had never thought about going into business with my mother and sister,” says Fiona, “but it was a quick yes.” With a background in brand, marketing and design, she was ready for a new challenge and took on the role of creative director.
The trio completed four months of coaching to analyze their skills, strengths, areas of growth and conflict resolution. With Kathryn bringing 30 years of corporate life to the partnership and Fiona bringing her marketing and design expertise, Sarah brings something equally important, Fiona says. “Sarah is the glue who holds us together.”
Sarah, who is executive administrator at Sansorium, says it was an adjustment going from being an employee to being one of the bosses.
“Making the transition to becoming a co-founder was intimidating,” she says, adding that business development courses helped her gain confidence.
The trio had to put away some familial habits in their new roles as co-founders, such as Kathryn’s endearment referring to her daughters as “the girls.”
“We decided to leave that for after hours,” says Fiona. They’ve also created a system to quickly communicate with each other using a purple flag for when something is wrong and a green flag when all is well.
Communication and confidence
Like any business relationship, mother/daughter partnerships can present potential challenges, says Dr. Reuber. For example, feeling the need to keep discussions positive can become a problem if it hinders honest discussion of business issues.
Other problems can be related to expectations, Dr. Reuber adds, such as daily office hours, salaries and the role of spouses in the business. There are also issues of succession – what happens if one of the family members passes away, becomes incapacitated or wants out of the business? Open communication is crucial right from the beginning, Dr. Reuber says.
At Sansorium, Fiona Hepher says the fact that they all want what is best for each other helps. “We have 30 years of dynamics between us and the modern tools to navigate them,” she says.
Both Teara Fraser and Kathryn Hepher say that they are thrilled to work with their daughters and that the business relationship has been a welcome learning experience. Ms. Hepher says it has been rewarding to see her children question the status quo and be proud to show off their expertise in the boardroom.
“I see them as budding entrepreneurs, not just [as] my daughters,” she says.
Ms. Fraser notes that youth is not equivalent to naiveté.
“The parent doesn’t need to lead the way,” she says. “Our young people are our teachers – wiser than we can ever be.”
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