When Margot Franssen left York University with a philosophy degree
in 1979, she had no idea what lay in store. Five years later,
along with husband Quig Tingley and sister Betty-Ann Franssen, she
brought The Body Shop to Canada and oversaw one of the British
cosmetic chain’s most profitable markets. It set a benchmark
for combining retail savvy with social activism. As president of the
company, she stood behind her promise never to test on animals,
while vigorously campaigning for the environment and human
rights long before those causes became chic among CEOs.
In 1954, when I was two years old, my parents and I emigrated from Holland. Although my father was trained as a mechanical engineer, no one in Canada would accept his degree, so he and my mom were forced to start from scratch. He learned English, pumped gas, and went to night school, while my mom cleaned houses. I remember a time when there wasn’t enough food to eat, but my parents’ determination to make a good home for my sister and me was a real inspiration. I watched them slowly and steadily climb the ladder to the middle class.
When I was eighteen, we were living in Lethbridge, Alberta. I desperately wanted to be in Toronto. I yearned for the bustle and liveliness of the big city. The second I finished high school, I hopped on a train to Toronto in search of a job. I found a rooming house where I shared a bathroom with six girls and a kitchen with four and paid $12 a week in rent. I was happy as a clam.
Having already worked in retail throughout my teenage years, I decided to look for an office job.
Though confident in myself, I had no marketable skills. I had to fib on all my applications, claiming I could clerk and type.
Miraculously, I landed a job at an investment firm called McLeod Young Weir. I posted retail stock sales and made coffee for $80 a week. I watched these young men come through the office as part of the training program and I’d say to myself, “I could do that. I’m easily as smart as they are.” But when I asked about the program, my boss just laughed. “We don’t pay for women to do that,” he said. “They wouldn’t pass.” The culture at McLeod Young Weir was clearly defined: I would be left posting stock sales forever. I said, “Too bad, your loss,” and left.
My next job was as a secretary in the human resources department at a mutual funds company. I interviewed women and was required to ask the most bizarre and appalling questions: “What is the state of your marriage?” “Does your husband allow you to work?” “What kind of birth control are you using?” Those were the standard legal questions in the 1970s. I couldn’t stand it, so I left again.
Then I got a job as a personal assistant at another investment firm. After I kept bugging them, the company finally paid for me to take the Investment Dealers Association course. I was amazed, thinking I was finally going to be allowed to trade. I passed the first and the second tests easily. On the third test, I even had higher marks than the president of the company, who was taking it at the same time. After each one, I approached management and asked if I could trade. The answer was always the same: “Maybe next year.” One day, I stepped back, took stock of myself, and realized I couldn’t wait for others to allow me to achieve my goal. I had watched my mother and father fight their way through hardship. I wasn’t going to let anyone hold me back.
“Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started”, © 2008 by Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel. Published by Dundurn Press, www.dundurn.com