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Mandy Rennehan Founder and CEO of Freshco, a retail facilities company working with Apple, Lululemon, Gap and others.Kate Dockeray/The Globe and Mail

I grew up in a small town, and I came from a fairly big family—there were four kids. I watched my parents fight every day about money. That does something to you. My father was a lobster fisherman. I knew I could make money and make their lives easier. And so, at 10, I became the bait broker on the street, because I saw an opportunity.

I like to say I had my teeth kicked in so many times in my late teens and in my 20s that they grew back straighter and whiter every time.

Maintenance was where I started. They’d call me for a roof leak, a tripping hazard, somebody peed on the carpet—you name it. But then I realized the refresh business was completely untapped. The people in maintenance weren’t innovative enough, and the bigger construction companies didn’t have the regimes set up to support it.

We’re a retrofit company. A brand will come to us and say, “This store looks five years ago. We need to be this now.” We’re able to work with their teams to give the shopper something that’s really new and fresh.

There I was, walking down the hallway of the headquarters of one of the biggest retailers in the world, and this guy looked at me and said, “Hey, Canada—you got seven minutes.” The hem of my pants was falling out. My friend from Newfoundland grabbed a stapler.

I remember walking into the meeting, and there were five corporate guys staring at me. And the big guy in the middle said, “I’ve heard a lot of great things about you.” And I realized, “Do I act like me? Or do I become more corporate?”

I said, “I must be something special, because not every Canadian lesbian gets to dress up in Reitmans pants to sit with the five of you in San Francisco.” And they turned red, they looked at each other, and then they started dying laughing. That turned my seven minutes into an hour.

They say women aren’t on boards because they sit back and they don’t say their piece. They say men are bolder. Well, in this industry, those characteristics play for women. They take their time. They do it right. Companies grab women coming out of skilled trades programs for heavy machinery operations for that reason.

When Sobeys opened their FreshCo, I called my lawyer, and she’s like, “Even though you’re federally incorporated, if the other company is an entirely different area of expertise, they’ll let them incorporate.”

I said to myself, “You can feel sorry for yourself, or you can rebrand—and make fun of that damn grocery store every step of the way. We became Freshco, not the grocery store.” When you see our mobile washrooms out there, they all have “Freshco, not the grocery store” on them.

Working in a male-dominated industry, I’ve never faced discrimination. People ask, “Mandy, how is that possible?” And I don’t know what to tell them, other than, when I’m around guys, I don’t pretend to be someone else.

As the only shareholder in my company, I control all of my growth. And when we hire, we go through 10 people before we find one who understands who we are.

Interview by James Cowan

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