'I just work for her': CEO Gail Asper, Coal and Canary founder talk challenges facing female business leaders

The first in a series of stories exploring the state of female entrepreneurship in Manitoba features Asper Foundation CEO Gail Asper and Amanda Buhse, the founder and chief creative officer of the Winnipeg-based company Coal and Canary.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights champion and Winnipeg candle creative on obstacles they've met in business

Getting women to the boardroom table means bringing men

2 years ago
Duration 3:44
Amanda Buhse and Gail Asper recount the challenges they've faced to get the female business owner's voice heard. This is the first in a series of conversations between iconic female leaders and the emerging entrepreneurs in Manitoba.

Working women just might be the silent casualty of this pandemic.

Increasing anxiety rates, maintaining a larger share of domestic duties and aspiring for professional accolades all factor into how COVID-19 is pushing women out of the workforce and down to the lowest levels in three decades, economists and sociologists have said.

An even bigger economic picture shows some businesses are stuttering while others with "buy local" incentives are surging, as women launch new entrepreneurial ventures amid the pandemic.

CBC Manitoba met with dozens of female entrepreneurs in the province this fall to get their perspective on what it's been like to be a woman, own a business, have a family and make financial ends meet during the pandemic. 

In a series called "The Icons and the Emerging," CBC paired accomplished women business leaders with entrepreneurs who are just starting out to talk about the obstacles to being seen as legitimate contributors to Manitoba's business community.

The first story in the series brings together Gail Asper, the president and CEO of the Asper Foundation, and Amanda Buhse, the founder and chief creative officer of the Winnipeg-based company Coal and Canary.

Note: this conversation is a transcript that has been edited for clarity and length.

Coal and Canary founder Amanda Buhse says at trade shows, customers often mistakenly assume her husband, who sells alongside her, is the owner of the candle company. (Submitted by Amanda Buhse/Illustration by CBC Graphics)

Amanda Buhse: The chief operations officer at Coal and Canary is my husband, Jeff. We're in the office together all day, we live together and we're still married and happy. I don't know how, but I'm very grateful. 

But when we go to trade shows, it's so interesting because whenever the two of us are selling at the same time customers will come up and they'll look straight at Jeff and say, "Are you the owner?" — you know, [thinking] that I don't run this warehouse with 10, 15 or 20 staff and sell in 450 stores and have our own brick-and-mortar store and also hire my husband.

My husband, bless his soul, says, "Oh, no, I just work for her and she's my wife."

But things like that happen all the time. And I think it's natural for people to assume sometimes that the male is the breadwinner.

Gail Asper: Did you ever bring your husband to a meeting because you felt the person that you were meeting with wasn't going to give you the respect that you needed?

Amanda Buhse: Absolutely. I hate saying that and I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but I have done that.

Gail Asper: But the point is you're not going to stand on principle — you're going to bring them [men] along and get what you need. Moses [Mo] Levy is the executive director of the Asper Foundation. He's my right-hand man and he reports to me and as the president and CEO, I report to the board of directors.

There were certain donors who just didn't think I could understand this big construction project of the human rights museum. I mean, I am a corporate and commercial tax goddamn lawyer. I've taken accounting courses and I worked with my dad [late CanWest Global founder Israel Asper] for 14 years in a major business but that wasn't good enough. 

So I would bring in Mo and if he wanted to answer some of the operational questions, he would do that. It was frustrating.

Amanda Buhse: Absolutely. 

I am happy to hear that because I'm glad I'm not the only one. I think female entrepreneurs sometimes feel they're on this island alone.

Is there an example of where you faced this obstacle or barrier? How did you address it?

Amanda Buhse: In March, when COVID-19 hit Canada, all of our wholesalers closed, our store closed and our trade shows got cancelled. Our largest areas of business vanished overnight and our smallest area of business, online sales, became our only revenue source. 

What happened really makes you hustle to find solutions that you never would have thought of unless you are in a certain frame of mind. Immediately, I said that I would do whatever it takes to make my company survive.

Gail Asper: I was 43, a mom of two — a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old — and that was when my dad first announced the idea of the human rights museum. He had real street cred. He also built a multi-billion dollar company. 

Then six months after he announces this to the world he drops dead of a heart attack. I was working with him at the foundation and I thought, 'oh my God, what do we do now?'

Our fearless leader, our entrepreneur is gone. How do we take this $300-million project and make it happen?

WATCH | Gail Asper talks in 2014 about how her late father, Izzy Asper, would feel about the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights:

'An icon of Canada': Gail Asper talks about human rights museum

9 years ago
Duration 1:34
Gail Asper speculates how her late father and original visionary for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Izzy Asper, would feel about the museum at its opening.

I had this meeting with Paul Martin, who was the prime minister at the time when my dad died. Meanwhile, [former prime minister] Jean Chretien had committed 100 million bucks for this project with my dad. It was their deal. 

Paul Martin looked at me and said, "You know, we've given you some money and it's kind of good enough for this tribute that you want to do for your dad. So that's all you're going to get."

To be fair, I didn't have all that credibility behind me that my dad had. But, I made an advisory council of people who did, such as other prime ministers like Chretien and Brian Mulroney, Rick Waugh from … Scotiabank, and celebrities like Sir Ben Kingsley and Michaëlle Jean, the former governor general of Canada. 

So when people saw who was behind this, it wasn't just little girl Asper but people who did have credibility, who said, "This is important, we've got to make it happen."

Is there a story that taught you how you could get your voice heard?

Gail Asper: The Junos came to Winnipeg in 2005 and the minister of Canadian Heritage was going to attend — so we had to figure out a way to show this minister that everybody was behind the museum.

Kim Jasper was on our campaign team and she created the "Reach for the Stars" star pin to debut at the Junos, and we needed to figure out how to get everybody wearing one.

We threw a huge party and gave it to all of the singers, we contacted Ben Mulroney on the red carpet and asked if he'd wear one, and then the Inn at The Forks had all of their staff — housekeeping, people in the restaurant — wearing one. Everywhere the minister went, she saw this human rights museum pin. 

She went home and talked to Paul Martin and literally a week later he called me and said, "OK, I give up. You've got the hundred million back. It's got to be matched by the private sector, but you're in."

Gail Asper says she often brought executive director Mo Levy to meetings during the early stages of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights construction project, because he was a man and would be listened by others at the boardroom table. (Submitted by Gail Asper/Illustration by CBC Graphics)

Amanda Buhse: Coal and Canary actually started in my kitchen with my best friend. At the time, we were looking for an excuse to hang out more often. He would come over once a week and he got really good at making candles. 

I had done some market research to see what was being done locally and internationally, and there was a niche audience of women that were not being targeted in the way I thought they could be. But once the images went up on Instagram this wholesale company reached out to us saying, "We love your product. How do we sell it?"

One thing led to another and three months later, we were selling in eight to 10 boutiques, still working full time, and it was at that point we said, "OK, we're a serious business."

What do serious business people do? They make a business plan.

And I said, what if we made it our 10-year goal to get Coal and Canary Candles in the Grammys and Oscars celebrity gift bags? So I just randomly emailed the Grammy and Oscar people and I said, "Hi, this is my company and this is what we do."

I did not expect a response. 

Two weeks go by and I get an email — "We reviewed your product, it's really unique and we think the celebrities would love it. We want it in this year's gift bags as the official home decor item. Are you in or out?"

I freaked out! I mean, at first I thought it was spam.

And so, there's Amanda in her kitchen with a laptop and using a double boiler from Canadian Tire to melt wax so we can pour seven candles in one night. 

Can you tell me about a memory that gave you one of your biggest professional lessons?

Gail Asper: Before he was prime minister, Stephen Harper came to town and he criticized our [Esplanade Riel] bridge with its million dollar biffy.

And so, I wrote a letter to the Free Press at the time saying that this guy doesn't even understand the importance of the beautiful architecture on our bridge, how will he ever understand the importance of the human rights museum? Never thinking at the time that he was going to be the prime minister. 

I didn't need to burn that bridge. I realized it was stupid. It was just undisciplined. 

And of course, I met him many times after that and I said, "I'm sorry I took that route." He said to me, "You know, nobody likes to be disliked, it doesn't matter who you are. Nobody likes to be attacked like that. Instead, we could have had a conversation."

Everybody works for somebody, no matter who you are.

What would be one piece of advice you could give to women who want to start a business?

Amanda Buhse: Nowadays, people buy stories, not products. They believe in your values. They're going to feel like they know you and they're going to want to support you. So I think it's important to take advantage of any opportunity to let people learn who you are and show them the woman behind the business. 

Gail Asper: My mentor was my dad. I got to work with him for 10 years. I saw how much he worked. He always said, "You don't have to know all the answers, but you do have to know the questions."

Do your due diligence, leave no stone unturned and learn as much as possible.

Gail Asper is the president and CEO of The Asper Foundation and played a critical role in bringing the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — the first national museum outside of Ottawa — to Winnipeg. She is also a passionate volunteer and supporter of Winnipeg's arts community, having co-chaired the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre endowment campaign. 

Amanda Buhse is the owner and chief creative officer at Coal and Canary Candle Company based in Winnipeg. She started the company in 2014 with her best friend. She is co-chair of the small business advisory council with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and in 2019 was honoured as Manitoba Women Entrepreneur of the Year by the Women Business Owners of Manitoba.