The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.
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Lindsay Knowlton grew up in Toronto in a home where golf was the great gender divide.
"My dad golfed but my mom didn't. She was never into it."
To keep him company, Ms. Knowlton joined her dad out on the course as a 14-year-old – "I was his golf buddy" – where she quickly realized that there were other women just like her mom.
"I was one of the only females out there," says Ms. Knowlton, who eventually learned how to chip like the guys, emerging as a star player in her own right.
By founding Toronto-based Iron Lady Golf, Ms. Knowlton aims to get women over their hang-ups about the sport.
The golf skills Lindsay Knowlton honed when she was a teenager golfing with her father earned her a sports scholarship to Ohio State University and a spot on the national amateur golf team. (Maria Lyle/Iron Lady Golf)
She has the credentials. The golf skills she honed when she was a teenager – her handicap is 1 – earned her a sports scholarship to Ohio State University and a spot on the national amateur golf team. On her return to Canada in 2004, she joined Adidas, where she worked in marketing, learning sales on top of customer service. On the side, she started consulting to corporations as a golf expert, leading seminars. The groups originally included both genders. But it was the women who seemed most engaged.
Many would furtively seek Ms. Knowlton out at the end of her clinics to ask her how they could improve their skills and even participate in corporate golf events without looking foolish.
That's when she realized that there was a large section of the population suffering from a kind of socially induced golf phobia saturated with feelings of embarrassment and shame. She understood why.
"Many women hate golf for stealing away their partners for entire weekends throughout the summer," Ms. Knowlton says. "They're now sick of being left out. They want in on the game."
She knew she could help.
She first came up with a plan to teach golf to non-golfers in a noncompetitive, relaxed way, and open to everyone who wanted it, men and women alike, who wanted to learn how to play golf well enough to participate in corporate events without feeling out of place. But, she realized that women, in particular, felt intimidated about exploring the entire golf culture.
Today, Iron Lady Golf operates out of Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto's Etobicoke neighbourhood, chosen for its proximity to downtown Toronto. There, in April of this year, Ms. Knowlton started offering twice weekly 60-minute golf lessons. It originally had 30 participants. By the time May rolled around, that number had jumped to 150, just based on word of mouth. She has since expanded Iron lady Golf to other regions across Ontario, including Ottawa and the Muskoka region.
The program, part of a trend in instruction to get more women into the game, consists of four weekly group lessons led by Ms. Knowlton, with equipment provided by Nike at cost. The $189 fee includes a glass of wine at the end of each hour-long session to emphasize Ms. Knowlton's point that golf is as much a social game as it is a sport. "Learning how to network is also part of the game," she says.
It is a lesson that many of her students, who range in age from 20 to 60-plus, are learning.
"A huge part of women and golf is that it's all about networking and creating relationships, which can lead to long-lasting friendships," says Ann Lieff, an account manager at Bay Street insurance brokerage Hub International Ltd., who has been attending Ms. Knowlton's clinics since the spring.
"These relationships could be for business or for pleasure, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is empowering yourself, feeling good about learning something new, getting over your fear and stepping up to a challenge, while bonding with someone else."
Robyn McDonald, who is one of Ms. Knowlton's students, says: "It's a very fun, dynamic and easier instructional experience than I have ever experienced with a pro at a golf club."
She adds: "My confidence has improved dramatically."
Many women would furtively seek out Lindsay Knowlton at the end of her golf clinics to ask her how they could improve their skills and participate in corporate golf events without looking foolish. This led her to found Toronto-based Iron Lady Golf. (Maria Lyle/Iron Lady Golf)
Now Ms. Knowlton is working on expanding her concept to include other sports.
Iron Lady Ski is scheduled to launch this winter at a ski club close to Collingwood, Ont., with Iron Lady Tennis following in Toronto next summer.
Brant Feldman, managing partner of American Group Management in Los Angeles, which represents a number of U.S and Canadian athletes, says that for Ms. Knowlton to succeed at these new ventures she needs to ally herself with athletes outside golf, her particular area of expertise.
"As she goes along outside of golf, she needs to hold the cache of her credibility and she will need pro athletes from tennis and skiing to be the faces of that product," says Mr. Feldman, agent for Canadian Olympians Jennifer Jones (curling) and Jennifer Botterill (hockey), in addition to other top-ranking female and male athletes.
Ms. Knowlton agrees, and has already begun the process of securing the participation of a Canadian pro skier to help her develop the winter side of her business. The tennis coach is still pending. When both are in place, Ms. Knowlton will advance Iron Lady to the next level, which is to take her concept across Canada and into the United States.
Venture capitalist Janet Bannister thinks it is a laudable plan but cautions Ms. Knowlton that in order to build her women-only sports business she needs to find more people who are just like her: affable, engaging and gifted in terms of both sport and teaching.
"She's the one who's made Iron Lady Golf such a success and her skill set might be hard to replicate," says Ms. Bannister, a general partner at Real Ventures in Toronto.
Ms. Bannister suggests that Ms. Knowlton consider franchising the business, selling the Iron Lady concept to people who would then run their own businesses. This would enable Ms. Knowlton to expand her brand without the need for capital.