We got the chance to catch up with one of Canada’s most recognizable female entrepreneurs, Alicia Woods, the founder and creator of Covergalls workwear for women. You might remember her from Dragon’s Den, the exposure which Alicia admits made a huge impact in the then new business. It’s been almost four years since the launch of Covergalls and the company continues to grow and evolve rapidly. Here’s an in-depth look into how it all got started and the plans Alicia has going forward.
What has the journey been like over the last four years? To be honest it flew by quickly. It’s been really exciting and encouraging to receive the support that we have, whether it’s through industry, women or media. It’s neat to see everyone come together to really support women who are considering or already operating in non-traditional roles.
What has been the most surprising lesson you’ve learned since starting Covergalls?Surprisingly, it took me well over a year to find a manufacturer because every time I approached one the moment I said ‘female’ the calls stopped and the emails weren’t returned. I was shocked and surprised. I guess it’s because most manufacturers just look for big volume and the number of women in roles that requires workwear is very low. There was just simply no interest. It was kind of discouraging at first, I thought, ‘I’ve got this great product that is going to help women to be safe, help to keep them healthy and it’s going to actually be used as a tool to attract and retain women to these non-traditional roles, and nobody wants to produce my products.’ But after a little over a year, I came across a woman who was working at a manufacturing company and once I shared with her the story and why the product was so important she bought in, and that company took on the product.
Was it always the plan to keep the garments made locally? Yes, I wanted to keep the production in Canada for a number of reasons: I wanted to support the Canadian economy and it was a way for me to control quality. We were also just starting, so we were in the trial phase and didn’t have that requirement to produce tens of thousands which other manufacturers required.
What are you working on currently? We’ve shifted now from being Covergalls coveralls to covering gals from head to toe. We’re working really hard on completing a full product line for women workwear. We’re looking to explore with new materials and new pieces of garments so it’s pretty steady.
What other areas of the mining industry would you like to see progress for women? A lot of the major mining companies are creating initiatives or strategies to attract and retain women, which I think is fabulous. For example, Goldcorp Inc. is creating a program called Creating Choices and they’re really encouraging women to enter the organization; and to remain in the organization. I know that Vale has a similar program and other mining companies are doing the same. I think companies are realizing that it’s the right thing to do.
How long have you been a part of the mining industry? I’m born and raised in the mining industry. My father, grandfather and uncle started a company to repair and rebuild, and eventually build new mining equipment; so I spent my weekends in the shop. It was a family-owned company but when I was in grade eight my father passed away. He was running the company at the time so it was then taken over by my grandfather. It was sold a couple years later after my grandfather passed away. Growing up I always wanted to fill my dad’s shoes so when it was sold, I thought that dream was gone. I started to pursue something else but found myself back in the mining industry at the company he started, Marcotte Mining. I worked there for a number of years then left to pursue a different opportunity. Then, I started Covergalls and I thought that it would be a company that I would take on full-time, but the opportunity came for me to run Marcotte Mining so I took on that challenge a little over a year ago. Now I’m wearing both hats! I’m running Covergalls and I manage the business that my family started.
How are you managing everything? I really think it comes down to the team you have around you and the support system that’s in place. I have an extremely supportive husband. He helps to keep me balanced and he supports me. I think the friends that you have around you, the colleagues, the industry — I truly think I would not be in the position I’m in if it wasn’t for the people who are around me on a daily basis.
What advice would you give to a woman starting a business in the mining industry? There are two pieces of advice that I follow. One piece is you have two choices, you can either build your own dream or you can build somebody else’s, and I chose to build my own which is why I started Covergalls and to return to Marcotte Mining. The other piece of advice: Never use fear of failure as a reason not to do something.
You had the idea for Covergalls 10 years before you decided to pursue it, what changed your mind? I got stuck underground where the cage went down for maintenance so we had to stay underground for a few more hours. I had consumed about three bottles of water thinking that I was going to surface. When that didn’t happen I had to use a porter potty with no door and had to turn off my cap lamp and had to take everything off… it was a nightmare. I said (to myself) you know what, I can’t be the only woman struggling with this.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur? It’s something I always wanted to do. I watched my father and I just admired everything that he did.
What feedback have you gotten from women using Covergalls overalls? This particular female, a geologist, who was always climbing on and off equipment, kept getting her garment stuck because it was too big and baggy for her. She said to us ‘Now I feel safe.’ Another woman had developed a kidney infection because she was just not drinking (water) underground. You can imagine not drinking or keeping yourself hydrated every day. She said, ‘I can actually now keep hydrated during the day because now I can take off my workwear and it’s not a pain to go to the washroom.’ I think the third bit of feedback that stands out was at a speech I did at a high school and the females said, ‘Wow!’ (when they heard about Covergalls) because they felt like they belonged in the industry because we (women) have our own workwear.
How has your vision for the company evolved? Originally when I started it was more about providing a safe and functioning coverall for women and I pursued that. Then I thought, well if we actually want to create a company and grow we really need to expand our products; we can’t rely on one SKU in order to grow.
What advice would you give women who are considering getting into the mining industry?Oh my goodness, it’s an exciting industry. It’s definitely filled with its challenges, it’s cyclical, it goes up and down but if you want a challenge, if you want to grow personally and career-wise, if you want to make a good income with the option for travel, I would definitely consider the industry — it’s one that I’ve certainly been very happy to be involved in. Things are also changing (in the industry for women) which is exciting and great.
What’s the single most strategic move you’ve made for the company? The garment is so applicable across so many industries from forestry to construction to gas – so just really introducing it to other industries and not focusing on one silo. But I think the other strategic move was really expanding the product line and not relying solely on the coverall. And I think being on Dragon’s Den was the best decision in terms of bringing the product to market. It was instant exposure to so many different people, so many industries and so many companies.
Why is charity work important to you and to Covergalls? It’s just our way to encourage and support women in these industries whether they’re considering them or whether they’re in the industry. We team up with organizations like Women in Mining Canada and Women Who Rock because we support the work that they do. They do tremendous things.
What’s next for Covergalls? We’ve got some new pieces coming out in the spring and we launched our new catalog which is pretty exciting, to go from one spec sheet to actual catalogs is neat. We’re also in the process of onboarding with Mark’s Work Wearhouse!