Cutting an Entrepreneurship Swath in Montreal

When you attend an International Women’s Forum conference, your head nearly spins as every woman you meet is even more accomplished than the last. No surprise when you’re at the annual convening of a global organization of preeminent women leaders, but still so very impressive in person.

Two women with whom I had the great privilege to meet during a great “behind-the-scenes tour” of women-owned businesses in Montreal at last week’s conference include Mariouche Gagné and Marie Saint Pierre.

What was most inspiring about these two women was not just that they are highly successful in their respective businesses, not just that they are incredibly innovative, not just that they are environmental in their approaches to their businesses, but that they are humble and gracious leaders.

The business idea of the very young 38-year-old Quebecer designer, Mariouche Gagné, like many others’ ideas, was born out of need. At 20 years of age, on a partial scholarship, studying at the Domus Academy of Milan, a highly prestigious post graduate school of fashion design, she didn’t have enough money to pay tuition. She had already sold all her possessions including her sewing machine and had borrowed money from family, when her mother called from Montreal to tell her about a fur design contest. Knowing nothing about fur, but desperate to stay in school, she cut through hermother’s old fur coat and made ski clothing, boots, and a backpack. Winning second prize allowed her to complete the program but more importantly, her designs spawned a new business. Mariouche Gagné was the first designer to use recycled fur for all her accessories and clothing. Today, her business Harricana has 20 employees, and her products are sold in 190 stores in 15 countries. Since its inception, Harricana has recycled 60,000 coats that are sold or donated by its clients.

Marie Saint Pierre, considered one of Canada’s greatest design icons, began our behind-the-scenes tour, not by telling us about her successful business, but by sharing stories about the children who live in the neighborhood in which her business is located. Observing that many children who live in the lower-income neighborhood did not have winter clothing, Marie founded SOUS ZERO, an organization that provides warm clothing to children.

Saint Pierre graduated from LaSalle College in 1986 as one of the most promising fashion-design students in Montreal. By 1989, she was the first Quebecer to be selected to show her work at the New York Fashion Coteries. That was only the beginning of the accolades and opportunities granted the designer for her collections, her entrepreneurial ventures, and her service to her community. Marie has a very warm, pragmatic approach. She knows her clients very well and describes them as intelligent, active women with busy professional and personal lives. Her personal vision of fashion is both innovative and functional. Equally important to Marie as the clothes she designs, is her intense commitment to environmental stewardship. She is adamant about not wasting materials, about the way fabrics are cut and reused, and about her employees, how she trains them, and the work environment she seeks to create.

In both women, I saw the integrity-filled ways in which they ran their businesses, their understated but assured self confidence. Marie especially was very clear about her strengths and competencies, and she had clearly learned how to delegate and give up control of the areas of her business that did not rely on her strengths. Both women spoke warmly about their teams and about the growth and development of their people.

I came away with the thought that these women are cut from the same cloth. They are not successful just because they are wonderful at what they do, but because of who they are and their strong and abiding characters.