Welcome to Women Who Innovate, a podcast series presented by Randstad Canada as part of their Women Transforming The Workplace program. We explore winning strategies for navigating the ever-evolving labour market through a series of thought-provoking inspiring interviews with bold and passionate women who are shaping the workplaces off tomorrow. Hi, I’m your host Marie-Noelle Morency, and today it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Déborah Cherenfant, entrepreneur and founder of Mots D’Elles platform and Winner of Distinction in entrepreneurship Award from YWCA Montreal. We hope you enjoy this episode.
Marie-Noelle: Glad to have you with us. Let's talk a little bit about your background. This is my first question. Tell me where did you get this all-consuming passion for entrepreneurship?
Déborah: I would say it started very young. From 8 years old, I remember that firm conviction, I dreamt concretely and knew that my destiny was to become a business woman. So from that point on the idea crystallized. It grew over the years, I remember it started around 8 or 10 years and later when I was 16 when I was confronted with the word “entrepreneurship”. That's when I said to myself that this is probably what I wanted to do. Between the ages of 8 and 16, many books fueled that passion. It will sound very cliché, but so did Oprah. I was born and raised in Haiti with my 2 sisters. We watched a lot of TV, mostly American Television including the Oprah show. The show started at 4:00 p.m. and school ended at 3:00 p.m., so we really had to hurry not to miss it because there was no recorder at that time. This contact with Oprah’s life path, with her career, her vision, and seeing a businesswoman, a woman who had built her empire with so little. This appreciation of the business side motivated me a lot. Around 18 - 19, when I applied to come and study in Montreal, that's really when the word “entrepreneurship” took all the meaning for me. From that moment, it really amplified. What is entrepreneurship? How can I help entrepreneurs, how can I become an entrepreneur? Many of these elements have nourished and fueled my passion.
Marie-Noelle: Yes. In 2012 that’s when Coloré design was started.
The company only hires immigrant women. Why is this so important to you, what are you doing concretely to help these women? And what I really want to know is: do you find that we are making progress in society when it comes to diversity? And inclusion?
Déborah:I will answer the last question before. I think so. I don't remember who was saying this anymore, but I think that the moment we are ready to tackle the problem, it is the first step towards change. From the moment we are ready to talk about immigration, diversity, racism, discrimination, lots of terms that aren’t often found in the same sentence, once we are ready to address the issue, we are ready and open to resolving it. And it is true, that when it comes to diversity, or at least, the inclusion of this diversity, many people, companies, organizations or various levels of government, whether it’s municipal, provincial or at the federal level… They are motivated to genuinely change the situation, to change things for people who belong to these minority groups. Once we are actually ready to tackle the issue, we have already taken a big step. Now, it is certain that in any change, there are obstacles, there are people who resist, there are people who do not fully understand. So, these elements will certainly be confronting for many that are living in Quebec Today. Hopefully, in 5, 10, 15 years, at the most, we will perhaps talk about it more and it will be part of our ways of operating and our ways of doing things.
But I sincerely think that, since 2015, we have evolved a lot. There were subjects that we didn’t even address, terms that we never mentioned, things that we didn't see on TV or in the papers. In terms of representation, I think we are moving in the right direction, even if we still have a few adjustments to make. We have to be ready to look at ourselves in the mirror and to confront our fears, our ambitions, our projects. However, we must be prepared not to make this as a personal debate and dissociate ourselves so that we can collectively address these issues ...
Marie-Noelle: Moving away from: “Me, Myself and I”
Déborah:Exactly. Stop the “Me, Myself and I” and move towards the “us” . It is together that we will resolve the debate.
Marie-Noelle: And you saw that up close, because you help these women so you saw the effect of inclusion, of helping them empower, so how does it work, how can you help them concretely and what positive effects have you seen?
Deborah:I have seen it in my own life. I did not have the same journey as those women. Like I always say. I am the lucky one, I am privileged. I came to study here and immediately after I got my immigration papers, work and live my first experience in Quebec. My trajectory was quite simple. Some people have taken the same path as me and some didn’t . With Coloré, I wanted to hire only immigrant women. It was pretty clear and simple. After 2-3 years, I noticed that the women I worked with, who did the production here in Montreal, were mostly immigrant women. These women were of a certain age and had a similar migratory background. They had come to Montreal to work in the manufacturing sector in sewing and fashion. When the factories closed, they often found themselves unemployed or had to relocate elsewhere and in another sector of activity. So, I was able to offer them that stability and a contact in the field in which they excel in. Also, it's about working with women, getting together and really being around each other and really talking and breaking through the isolation. Very often, these women had not fully mastered French, some of them were from South Asians and were more anglophones. The point was to give them a place to make sense, give them purpose, to come out of isolation and reconnect. To use their expertise and talent that they had collectively, and allow them through their work to have a small social impact.
Marie-Noëlle: Is it a common theme that seems recurant in your career or project choices: Creating a community, creating links, bringing people together?
We have seen in our research that there are several exclusive female platforms that put women in contact and allow them to share alliances. It reassures us, it encourages us, and we say to ourselves: I'm not alone. There are more and more of these platforms . I think you are involved in many of them, especially with Mots D'Elles, the blog that showcases business women? You got a prize for that. Best Business Blog in Canada. Over the years, you must have met a lot of people and connected with a lot of those women in this context. Knowing that type of program allows us to meet all kinds of women, were you able to identify common features among them, similar challenges, similar hopes? Have you been able to identify a common thread, common themes, things that keep coming back? You must have seen some common themes?
Deborah: Absolutely. And the first element, I think it's also common among men, is passion. I had the chance to meet more than a hundred women and all were passionate. It was always the first reason that came to mind when we asked them: what still kept them motivated? In fact, it was the most common answer to many questions. What kept them going on this adventure was their passion really. It is the common thread for many. The other elements much more common to women are the collaboration aspect, the community aspect, the group aspect. This collective aspect is often why they go into business. Most women take on the ultimate leadership of leading her team to success without taking the honors. They will always refer to the team effort even if at some point the team will recognize that the idea came from her. Ultimately, the effort comes from the community, it comes from the team, so I don't know if it’s positive or negative but I think it is also a common trait of women.
Marie-Noëlle: That’s really interesting because, from another point of view, that is a leadership style that is more and more prized by the younger generation.
They need to quickly feel more included and more recognized. So a more inclusive, more collaborative leadership style appeals to those workers and that is why we often talk about promoting the advancement of women leaders because they actually bring the qualities that resonate more with the current generation. In that sense, I think it's more positive than anything else.
Deborah: Yes, that’s true. And, now that I think of it, there is another element that would perhaps be common to the interviews I did through Mots d'Elles. Maybe we should make the ratio with those who have children, versus those who have no children, because that also changes the answers, it changes the perspective and very often we have women who are very very grateful for having taken the time, for having a child, for having known how to stop and create a family because otherwise they do not know where they would end up. And I mention it because a few days ago I was chatting with friends, who were in their mid-thirties, who were talking about this pressure. We all talk about it, every generation talks about it at different times, or from different perspectives. But the parallel we could draw here is the women I interviewed are always positive and grateful for having known how to create the time to found a family, and then there is the younger generation who looks at these models of success, and asks themselves "and what about me? Do I have to go through that, do I have to go through motherhood to reach and accomplish this level of success?" So I think it's an element to consider. I also won’t hide from you that the interviews I am doing today, from 2018 through 2019 as well as those in 2020 let's say, I no longer ask the question about work-family balance to the women I interview. I find there is a bias there, because that question is only asked to women. And what is happening more and more is if they don't feel like answering that question or depending on their answer, they may be criticized. For example, if a woman says she has sufficient means to stay a year at home with her family for a year, she exposes herself to “ah, she doesn’t spend much time with her family”. So depending on the answer she gives, she will be totally judged. Five years ago or even three years ago I never would have asked the work-life balance question to a man, whereas today …
Marie-Noëlle: Exactly - today we are seeing more and more fathers who take paternity leave, and the mothers are doing the same thing. But for the women, it’s a total Catch 22. If they take their full maternity leave, they’re judged, and it becomes "well, what about your career?"
Deborah: “Are you taking a vacation?”
Marie-Noëlle: And if you take less, it becomes "well you're a careerist who doesn't think about your family …”
Deborah: You’re not taking your maternity leave? Don’t you know that during a child’s first few months they absolutely need their moms?
Marie-Noëlle: While on the men's side ...
Deborah: You are greeted as a divine being when you share the maternity Leave. And when you don't take it, it’s understandable, because hey, you’re a man and you’ve got things to do!
So yes, it is indeed a very particular situation, and I admit that this question of work-life balance is one that I no longer ask. But it is true that for the women that I interview through Mots d'Elles, it is a question that is really very common for the majority ...
Marie-Noëlle: Even if it's not asked, work-life balance is still a concern.
Deborah: Indeed it is a concern and questioning it is part of a life passage. I would not say that it’s obligatory, but it is an important passage. And you have to look at what extent motherhood teaches women about themselves and about how to manage their business. And, this is where we come full circle, because very often it is women who go into business later in life as entrepreneurs, after having founded the family. They go into business with specific goals—to solve questions, problems, as we said earlier, they are examining societal problems and social needs. So very often, when a woman looks at her child and knows that she would like them to live in a certain type of neighborhood, society, house, etcc, it is that woman who will tend to think of a company that will meet her needs, so there it is ...
Marie-Noëlle: Do you think precisely that because of that movement,
because we are at least seeing a change—you see it already—do you think that this is what allows us to get closer to a context that is more equal within workplaces? Because the more men who share the parental space with women, the more they are involved, they then know what it is like to come back to a job and miss all that. Is it because of these (somewhat social) changes that we are approaching a certain equality?
Deborah: Yes, that is a definitive example. Because as you say, it allows men to put themselves in womens’ shoes and experience both sides. Obviously, they did not live through the 9 months of pregnancy and childbirth. We will save that for the next technological era! But it is true that paternity leave allows them to gain a new perspective. Because I think that in this debate, in this discussion around parity, I think that men have a big role to play and above all it takes empathy. To be able to put themselves in the shoes of women to live the situation, because there is nothing like coming back perhaps from an absence, from a parental leave after 6 months or 4 months and to realize that the projects have advanced, that maybe you are no longer given the lead on such and such a project. That is what women experience, and sometimes not just once. Because they don't always go to the maternity ward once, sometimes it’s twice and maybe 4 times if they wish.
It is also this empathic aspect that makes it possible to realize that ‘ah this is what is happening’. And here, as an example, we are talking about sharing projects, which is something a little lighter compared to when we are talking about a drop in salary, loss of earnings or lack of opportunities to obtain a promotion. There is all of this without counting the colleagues who ask you about how your vacation was, or how your little one is doing. And, don’t even get into the possible scandal that happens if your wife has the ‘misfortune’ of becoming pregnant again in the following year because she liked her experience or simply because she wants to take advantage of the opportunity to found her family. I think precisely that more and more men being on parental leave will help to improve or advance the discussion because men can put themselves in the place of women and have a better understanding. The important thing is that men not simply share their experience with other women but with other men so that they too understand and can ideally be aware and act accordingly - like this father who has taken parental leave.
Marie-Noëlle: That brings me back to our theme. This year we are focusing a lot on conscious and unconscious biases. For example, it can be as subtle as the words we use: women who have guts are bossy or are aggressive, women are perceived as being less good with numbers etc.
Deborah: Or, they are emotional …
Marie-Noëlle: Yes, we are so in touch with our emotions.
And these are biases that have been transmitted to us, for some time now, through social norms, but they are also biases that we carry within ourselves and which often will lead to us waiting to be ‘perfect’ before going for a promotion, etc. Is that something you have experienced? Did you have the impression that you too experienced biases and that you were a victim to them? Do you have any yourself? How did you manage to overcome them? Because you can't be a business woman and be successful if you don't break the biases. What obstacles did you have to overcome?
Deborah: How much time do we have? No, joking aside, that's a difficult question because right now I'm trying to be more and more aware of the biases but not just towards me but towards men and women. Particularly towards women because we so often hear about it and this is the opportunity. as I said earlier, to look at yourself in the mirror and to ask where I’m wrong or where have I done something wrong over the past few years or over the past few months?
And, in relation to me, I would say without a doubt there are still images or events within society that affect me. For example, I am a black woman, born outside of Quebec. I am bald, I am not married, and I have no children. So, as we go down that list, we’ll see that I belong to a category of people that we see often and that we did not see often. The reflex these days is much less than in the past, but it's true that 10 or 15 years ago, when I joined a networking activity or an event, I would often have the reflex to go into my little corner because I felt that maybe I did not belong to this network, even if I was there to create a place for myself. But very often I really had to motivate myself internally and say to myself, “Okay, you are going for such and such a reason and you are going there because you belong there and because you want to create your place there even if it doesn’t exist yet.” Because the stereotypes that are linked to us in relation to the model of the angry black woman, means that we overcompensate by being very nice, by smiling and being approachable so that we don’t fit into that image. I say ‘we’ because we are several women within that category, not all the black women, but several women who don’t want to be associated with that stereotype. We feel like we have to create as much distance as possible from it, even if we are not the type to shout at everyone and break everything in sight. But we are so afraid unconsciously of falling into that stereotype that we overcompensate. We have a fear of falling, of missing opportunities, of missing invitations to lunch with colleagues, of missing promotional opportunities, because we’d end up all alone in our office, eating alone at our desks. Maybe we’re afraid that someone heard us burst out laughing and thought, “Oh my God, she’s loud!” So this is the kind of unconscious bias that we have, that society has handed to us and we haven’t beaten it back.
Regarding skills, you mentioned this defect of perfection. As women we think that we have to wait for the perfect moment, if our skills aren’t 98.999 percent perfect, we aren’t going to apply for that promotion and we don’t think that it is the right moment. In short, it’s a problem, because we often question our own competencies and we never think that we are good enough. Yes, I received my DESS, so now is the time to go and get my masters, and after that, the post doctorate. Until I get the post doctorate, I cannot say that I am an expert in my chosen field. You miss out on so much! I'll get back to you in 5 years when I know more. But, in 5 years, the opportunity has passed, it's over.
And, there is a double standard here as well. There is the woman who will say, give me five years and I'll come back to you with the doctorate and the post-doc. I’ll be able to answer your question and I'll do some research on it. And then there is the woman who is ready and ambitious and wants it, but is perceived as too aggressive. She can’t be trusted because she doesn’t have the skills yet and all she wants is just to get to the top, she’s just driven by ambition.
Marie-Noëlle: How did you manage to overcome that, you mentioned earlier a little bit about giving yourself pep talks.
Deborah: You have to talk to yourself. That is what is at stake, that is the challenge. And it is a fine line. We talk a lot about mental health these days and indeed we can have these discussions with ourselves without becoming paranoid about what is going on. You always have to ask yourself the question: Am I being given this job because I’m a woman, because I’m black, because I’m fulfilling a quota? Sometimes that will be the first question to come to mind. But you know what? Those thoughts have no hold over me anymore. I made peace with these aspects of filling quotas. I’ve said to myself that once I'm at that table, giving that advice, at this event, people are going to realize that I'm not here just to fill a quota, I’m here because I have the skills, I have the level and the expertise to be a part of the conversation and that I will remain in that position. If you’ve opened the door to me, be careful, I’m planning on sticking around! Talking to oneself in these terms, I’d call it a type of power talk, that’s something we have to do on a regular basis.
Marie-Noëlle: Why we’re doing the things we’re doing.
Deborah: Why are we doing the things we are doing? That doesn't mean we have to stick to the same goal. In 2017 I was aiming for certain things and then in 2019 I wanted more. It's okay, we flow with the trends, with our feelings, with our energy too, and our motivation. I think these are the elements to have within our power talks, so that we regularly say to ourselves, “Yes, yes, I can do this, I am capable.” I‘ve been there. I'd love to share a little exercise with you. It’s something a friend shared with me and I still do it. This might seem a bit pretentious at first, but make a list that not only features your skills, but also your successes, your achievements. Because sometimes we forget. Given our feminine, generous, cooperative and collective character, we say to ourselves: “Yes but, no, it's not about me.” But in fact, when we dig a little deeper and we do the exercise, we say to ourselves: “Ah, if I had not said that at such a time, if it wasn't done the way I said we had to do it, we would not have had the result we achieved.”
So at some point, we have to be able to take the credit and in addition we must remember the opportunities, the moments, the exact occasions when our decisions created moments of success. Our power talk can become even deeper and through that we can reach our highest level. I sincerely believe in this practice because unconscious biases, as the name suggests, are unconscious.
On the other hand, while we can’t eliminate them entirely, I do think we can decrease them more and more. If I evaluate the files of two people, a man and a woman, and then I say to myself: “Ah yes, I went with the man because in his interview he spoke to me about figures and the position needs someone who understands finance. But the woman did not talk to me about figures because she had a little more difficulty in communicating, but she did not have less skill. But, for her, it's not her way of communicating her passion, of communicating her skill, she has another language. We need to be open to this type of thing, to learn the different languages of different people. And it is also the same thing with unconscious biases, we focus on a way of conceiving life which is ours or that of people who resemble us. We are not ready to open up to how that woman was talking to me about her projects. I’m focused on the language that I understand— a table with graphs and statistics—while she was talking to me about watching her children grow up in a society where all buildings are LEED-certified. She simply has another language.
I told you that I grew up in Haiti, with a very Christian, Catholic education and a very Haitian education. I also spent 13 years in a religious school, or at least one that was managed by nuns and the notion of politeness, of respect, of speaking only when we are given the floor, is very very strong. I am more aware of this today, but very often when I would be on boards of directors or attend business meetings, I wouldn't speak very often or I’d be the last person to speak. This comes from education but it’s also a question of personality. I have to take the time to form my ideas, because I am not one of the people who speak just for the sake of saying something. I take time, I wait for the people who are older than me, we are talking about 65 and over, to speak first. That notion comes from my education. But, very often it is perceived as a lack of presence. If she doesn’t speak, she has no capacity as a leader. But really, it’s a question of education, a cultural question, it's a question of style. My language of communication is to wait until the president, the president of the board of directors, the VP, the secretary, in short all the people who have a position to be able to speak, to speak first. That's how I was educated, that's how I was taught how to do things for over 13 years and I have continued it here. But when I see the business culture here, that's not necessarily how things work. We talk when we want, if we have something to say, we say it. There is no hierarchy, but historically with the French heritage, there is precisely the aspect of hierarchy. So this is just a little example that underlines what happens if I'm evaluated by someone who grew up here. A man, for example, who was born and who grew up here and who says, “Deborah never speaks, that means she has nothing to say, so I don't want her to lead the project.” On the contrary! I shouldn’t be discredited immediately just because my way of doing things is different, because I do not have the cultural or business code of Quebec, or haven’t totally integrated because I have barely been on the job market for 10 years ...
Marie-Noëlle: It reminds me that recognizing diversity of point of view is a skill that more and more organizations recognize, especially for leaders, the workplace is enormously diversified with women from all sorts of backgrounds and all ethnicities …
Deborah:of all ethnicities…
Marie-Noëlle: So this ability to be able to decode different languages, to look for different perspectives is an aptitude that will be extremely important in the management of organizations in the future. We need to start working on embracing these perspectives now.
Deborah: Do I rate a person based on the fact that they speak the same language and have the same style, or I am ready to open myself up a bit. That’s it, exactly.
Marie-Noëlle: In closing, do you have any advice for young women who want to succeed in their careers, who are wondering exactly how to start a business, how to succeed in their family life if they want one …
Deborah:For me, one piece of advice that I actually received 10 years ago was to dare. Dare to create your place, because your place is there, there is room for everyone. It’s really a piece of advice that stuck with me and that’s why I wasn’t afraid, afraid to create things, to go places, to apply for things as well. This is really a piece of advice that I continue to give and today I would indeed add that it is important to move forward, but the goal that you are moving toward needs to be defined by you, according to your criteria. What does going forward mean to you? Do you need to be successful? Have a car, a condo, a house? Do you want to buy a cottage, a boat? What does it mean exactly? I think we have to democratize, but also personalize our needs, not to say the same thing. It's not the same for everyone. People are stressed to accomplish so many things, because unfortunately they see so much on social media— which has helped us in a certain way, but has not helped us in another. We see the lives of so many people and then say to ourselves, “Why am I not at that same place in my life, why can’t I do that? Why can’t I travel every week?” But we don’t know all the details of how this all came to pass in other people’s lives. And, is this really what we want?
Marie-Noëlle: So, I think that this notion of moving forward, must be personalized, must be adapted to each of our cases because we do not have the same definitions of success, of what work-life balance means.
For some, it’s a gourmet dinner every night, and for other people it means being at every single one of their children’s performances and for others it’s having enough money to pay the nanny’s salary to take care of the children, so that we can just be there for outings. Different people have different measures. Collectively we have not yet reached the point where we are comfortable with saying that we each have our own model. This is the way that I view things, it is my model, and I think unfortunately it's going to take some time before everyone accepts it, but we're moving forward. It’s positive that we are moving forward.
Marie-Noëlle: Thank you very much Deborah, very nice conversation