A former mayor and a young entrepreneur discuss being in Vanity Fair and how John Travolta saved Birt Saddlery

In the second in a series of stories exploring female entrepreneurship in Manitoba, former Winnipeg mayor Susan Thompson and Miriam Delos Santos, creator and designer of the Winnipeg-based company Hello Darling Co., discuss the lessons learned from growing up in a family of entrepreneurs.

There's a 'strong belief in what you can create' growing up in a family business, says Susan Thompson

John Travolta saves the day for Susan Thompson

2 years ago
Duration 4:21
Miriam Delos Santos and Susan Thompson describe the early days of believing in themselves to make it through the tough times of owning a business. This is the second in a series of conversations between iconic female leaders and the emerging entrepreneurs in Manitoba.

Getting into business for yourself as a woman can be challenging, with many citing barriers such as limited management experience, a lack of mentors who are visible role models and a sparse financial vocabulary.

For some women, though, growing up in a family that owns a business is a way to learn the ropes and develop an entrepreneurial spirit. 

That was the case for Susan Thompson, who took over a family-owned retail business, Birt Saddlery, from her father before she became the first female mayor of Winnipeg.

It's also the case for Miriam Delos Santos, the daughter of immigrant parents who owned a spice shop. She's now the owner of Hello Darling Co., a Winnipeg-based label specializing in statement headwear for women. 

This fall, CBC Manitoba met with dozens of female entrepreneurs in the province to get their perspective on how the pandemic is affecting their livelihoods.

This is the second in a series called "The Icons and the Emerging" that brings together accomplished women business leaders with entrepreneurs who are just starting out.

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

What lessons did you learn from being part of an entrepreneurial family?

Susan Thompson: When I bought my family business, it was in October of 1980 and it was a very, very difficult time in the economy. We were having difficult times in downtown Winnipeg, particularly on Main Street, and I had borrowed everything to buy the business.

Six months later, the interest rates went to 21 per cent.

I had a bank loan for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can hear me hyperventilating, still! 

My father was very ill at the time and I went to him and I said, "I think I'm going to lose the business. I don't know how we sustain this. What do I do?"

And he said, "Well, you know, your grandfather and I went through the Depression, we went through World War II," and he said, "Susan, I've never seen anything like it. I don't know."

And seriously, I went home that night and I thought, that's it. In the next 30 days, it's going to be lost.

Susan Thompson took up managing Birt Saddlery, her family's business, in October 1980, after her father was diagnosed with cancer. She is pictured here with an illustration of cowboy boots, a popular item at the downtown Winnipeg store. (CBC Archives video footage/illustration by CBC Graphics)

And then, John Travolta saved the day, as he does all the time, and as you do all the time. Out came Urban Cowboy. The movie was a hit. And what was he wearing? Cowboy boots.

And in the next three months, I sold 2,000 pairs of cowboy boots. We wouldn't normally sell that many in a million years.

I still can't get over it. And if I ever see John Travolta, I'll thank him.

Miriam Delos Santos: Well, I have a little fun story to share.

When I mentioned to one of my studio mates that I was going to have a conversation with you, she showed me a banner that her business had been storing — memorabilia of when the royals first came to Winnipeg, and told me that it was made by your family's company, Birt Saddlery.

So that's something we have in common, because my parents are first-generation immigrants and I saw the hard work that went into creating a business out of nothing and then sustaining that. 

You know, I used it as a kind of pathway to feel confident and say, "Hey, even as a woman, even as a child of immigrants I can be an entrepreneur too."

Susan Thompson: When you grow up in a family business there's just a very strong belief in what you can create, what you can build for your family and how you can help your community. There was my grandfather and then my father, and so coming after two very strong men, I'm sure you know the feeling. It's a challenge.

And your company, Hello Darling Co. — how did that come about?

Miriam Delos Santos says she started Hello Darling Co. during a difficult time in her life, when she was at home on maternity leave. She started to make accessories for her baby. Her company now makes statement headwear for women. (Submitted by Miriam Delos Santos/illustrations by CBC Graphics)

Miriam Delos Santos: Hello Darling was born out of a really tumultuous time in my life. I was going through a separation, I had a very young baby — six months old at the time — and just struggling to see how I would make ends meet. 

I was working full time in aerospace as a buyer as well. Corporate procurement is a very intense, male-dominated world where you did your time and every day unravelled before you 50 years into the future. 

I started asking, 'Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? How am I going to make a home for my daughter?" I started making things for her. I made little headbands, little bows, and I would post them on social media.

And I thought, well, this is a way to bring in a couple of extra dollars. And then there was this wonderful Free Press article with my daughter in the fashion pages, and it just kind of built momentum from there. 

I think people related to the story of the underdog. People love to cheer on someone who is on their way up, just clawing up, whether it's for survival, for finances, for passion. People can relate to that story.

What was one of your biggest professional lessons as a business owner?

Susan Thompson: You have to have a very deep passion for what you're doing. Because when the difficult times come, if you don't have that in your very core, then it will be hard to overcome some of the difficulties that you will face.

Also, you have to have good advisers. I can remember very early in my business that everybody wanted something for free. And I'll never forget one of my advisers said, "Every time you give something away for free, you're giving away a payment to the bank."

You have to set up a support group.

And, you know, I hate to still be saying this all these years later, but women still have to work twice as hard in order to be successful and in order to be recognized. We are still not embraced.

Thompson was Winnipeg's first, and to date only, female mayor. Even though she had no previous political experience, she won the municipal election in the fall of 1992 and went on to win a second term. (Video footage from CBC Archives/illustration by CBC Graphics)

Miriam Delos Santos: I've had a couple of moments in my own life where you hit a rock bottom, really. 

I also believe in what you said, manifesting "I am going to be mayor of Winnipeg someday." You have to tap into that. And so I said, "I think one day I'm going to be in a fashion magazine." 

And yesterday [Oct. 20], I was in Vanity Fair.

Susan Thompson: Congratulations on Vanity Fair! So as soon as I knew we were going to be together in this, I went on your website.… We have to support one another.

Miriam Delos Santos: I saw your order online and I just was immediately excited because I had a special one of these [headbands] just tucked away to the side. 

And I said, like, "I don't know who this eccentric headband belongs to, but it's going to belong to someone special."

Susan Thompson: So tell me about your article in Vanity Fair.  How did you make that happen? 

Miriam Delos Santos: You know what? It's the power of saying yes and reading your email. I was a part of a 2020 hit list, which compiled makers and artists from around the world and celebrated them.

What's one piece of advice you'd give to women who want to start a business?

Susan Thompson: Well, this is what women do, you know, because when we talk about your challenges or the challenges that all women have, it's the networking. How important has networking been for you?

Miriam Delos Santos: Wow, it's been huge to create this community of women who are in small business as well, whether it's part time or full time, like myself. It's people who can relate to the struggles of what you're going through. 

Especially now, and being online where you are sharing information cross-platform and exposing your product and your business to so many other new people, new women who will support your business.

We talk to each other for resources, for help, for advice, for uplifting each other when we feel like we can't go on anymore and for reminding each other why we want to be an artist, designer or maker in the first place.

Susan Thompson: And I think when you mentioned the times we're in now, because this pandemic is really a huge struggle … perhaps the both of us want to make sure our message is "don't give up."

Miriam Delos Santos: Absolutely. Small businesses everywhere are suffering.

They're feeling the pressure.… But if we show up in the ways that we can, and you keep that momentum moving forward — for myself personally, it's been what has sustained me through this pandemic.

Miriam Delos Santos is the designer and creator of Hello Darling Co. a Winnipeg-based "one-woman-show'" that specializes in statement headbands.

Susan Thompson is currently the co-ordinator for the opening of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Inuit Art Centre, set for 2021. She is a woman of many lives and many chapters, and most notably was elected mayor of Winnipeg in 1992. She served for two terms.