Tales From the Trenches Highlight Montreal Female Entrepreneurs Who Have Defied the Odds

Tales From The Trenches hosted three successful female entrepreneurs to share their stories. Photo Emilee Guevara

Montreal is the worst city in Canada for small businesses.

Based on 14 indicators—from commercial tax rates to municipal government support—a study conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business ranked Montreal 121st out of 121 cities across the country in 2015.

Caterina Rizzi, Judith Fetzer and Manuela Rigaud Theodore defied the odds. The three successful female entrepreneurs gathered on Wednesday, Nov. 30, for “Tales from the Trenches,” a new series of entrepreneurial-based talks from La Gare. Guests were invited to escape the
rain and listen to three women speak about their experiences as business founders in Montreal.

La Gare, one of a handful of open-concept co-working spaces at the edge of the Mile End, hosted the event. Coats were hung, hors d’oeuvres served, beers handed out and guests settled in.

Rizzi is the co-founder and chief commercial officer of Breather, a short-term office renting serving. At their former jobs, Rizzi and her partner felt frustrated by a lack of productive space in the city. They wanted somewhere they could work in peace and quiet. So they created it.

Breather offers carefully designed locations spread across three provinces, six states, and one European city, and is expanding into new cities next year. Rizzi and her team provide guests with an organized, stylish, peaceful environment for business meetings, conferences and events, she explained.

Rizzi felt personally driven by the desire to create a more productive work space, but was surprised by her team’s quick mobilization around the idea, as well the interest of customer adamant enough to make her dream a reality.

When she spoke about wanting to create a service she had on so many occasions wished for, the other panelists nodded in agreement. This was a recurring topic throughout the night: the idea that if you want something that doesn’t exist badly enough, it just might be the basis of the next brilliant business plan.

That’s why Élisabeth Labelle decided to launch her own online magazine.

Unlike many other industries, fashion and design is very much a female-dominated territory. She found, however, there was one area that flipped the script.

“In terms of streetwear and sneakers, it’s mostly men,” she said.

While some girls were role-playing mommies when they were young, Labelle was playing “business owner,” pretending she owned and ran restaurants.

“I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she said.

After creating ankle magazine, she took a step back from her full-time journalism program to pursue her passion more authentically. Now, she works full-time doing what she loves, and studies part-time at Concordia.

ankle features soft pink and blue pastel colours contrasted against black and white. It is pure visual candy. For the site, Labelle chooses which brands and creative projects she likes and gives them a specially curated platform. She works with contributors to write short-form pieces about the products, and she collaborates with local photographers, most of whom are friends, she explained during a phone interview.

But Labelle’s insatiable entrepreneurial spirit demands a little taste of everything. On top of writing and taking photos for her Instagram, she ships and handles. She’s a one-woman-show supported by her community, many of whom she met on Instagram.

“Instagram is a tool to not only create relationships with the customers and readers, but it also helps me find new brands for the online store,” she said. “Most of the brands I have right now are brands that I found while lost in a loop on Instagram.”

Social media sites help many of today’s entrepreneurs network and reach prospective investors. While consumer culture has transformed over the past decade, technology has opened doors not even knocked on by business owners of the past.

Though Labelle had always thought of herself as her own boss, she doesn’t advise others to jump into something without premeditation.

“It’s important to think for a while before being sure,” she said. At some point, though, she said, you just need to give it a shot. “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Your business is supposed to be something you have fun with.”

When asked to share some entrepreneurial advice, Rigaud Theodore, founder and CEO of Envol—a booking, training and consulting service for emerging artists—spoke about embracing what makes one unique and different, rather than trying to conform to a herd mentality.

“You have to know yourself,” she said, “otherwise, you’re going to try and build a business from the things other people say about you, not what you’re capable of creating yourself. Take the time to know what kind of entrepreneur you want to be.”

While speaking about challenges along the way, Rigaud Theodore surprised the audience by revealing her current pregnancy. This new chapter in her life helped her realize the importance of recognizing when to let go and delegate.

“You need to realize you can’t do everything on your own,” she advised the audience.

Fetzer, founder and CEO of the meal prep startup COOK It, knows about working while having babies, having just recently given birth herself. She said how upon announcing her pregnancy, many people felt concerned for her company.

“People asked me if we would close the business,” she said. People’s stress and panic affected her, but not for long. Fetzer advised the audience to not let external stress and chaos get in the way of their goals.

Rizzi echoed Fetzer’s sentiments and encouraged the audience to fight for their vision. “You’re in it for the long-haul so you have to really love it. Don’t do it because anyone tells you. Don’t listen to anyone else,” she said.

“Oh, and get a good money manager,” Rizzi advised, an important piece of advice later emphasized by the other panelists.

Questions kept rolling and eventually the conversation opened up to participants; a Q&A that stretched on into the night, brought to a halt by the proud organizers who welcomed the guests to indulge in more drinks and taste the cupcakes provided by a dessert service owned by yet another hard-working woman with vision, Tracy Perrault.

The night was curated and catered from head to toe by women who seemed to disregard entirely the study that said there’s no place for entrepreneurs in this city.

We’ll see about that.