EOY: Crashing the Old Boys’ Club

Female entrepreneurs have come a long way in the past two decades, but real estate developer Renee Merrifield Wasylyk thinks there's still work left to do


BCBusiness + ERNST & YOUNG

Credit: Darren Hull

New colleagues are a direct result of the exposure from receiving an EOY award, says Wasylyk

Female entrepreneurs have come a long way in the past two decades, but real estate developer Renee Merrifield Wasylyk thinks there’s still work left to do

Twenty years ago, Renee Merrifield Wasylyk, 2015 EOY Pacific Region winner in the Real Estate and Construction category, burst onto the construction scene. She launched her business armed with little more than a master’s in theology, a six-week internship in property management and half a year of industry consulting.

Today, her Kelowna-based Troika Management Corp. group of companies is on track to break $100 million in annual revenue. Wasylyk has made power lists including the Women’s Executive Network’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada in 2017, the BDO Top 40 Under 40 in the Okanagan in 2015 and the Canadian Home Builders’ Association‘s Top 20 Most Influential People in Real Estate in 2012. Here, the Troika partner and CEO reflects on what it was like to join the old boys’ club—and why we need more women around the boardroom.

When you launched your company, how was the business climate for women entrepreneurs?
Initially, the work I did as a consultant wasn’t too surprising for a female: I was mostly doing public presentations and neighbourhood consulting. What was out of the box was when I decided that I could do land development.

I started building a business plan, and I interviewed huge developers that didn’t see me as a threat. One developer I worked for on a consulting basis told me I would never be as good a developer as he was, because I’m a woman. That turned out to be the greatest blessing, because when I’m told there’s something I can’t do, I just do it. I returned his blessing by saying that I was going to be a better developer than he was. He said, “How could you say that?” I said, “Because I actually use the kitchens that I’m about to design.”

What challenges did you face as you built your business?
I was one of the first female developers on the Urban Development Institute’s Pacific board, and that was hard. I didn’t realize that the boys’ club still existed. But the story for me is not just that the boys’ club exists; it’s that most of the old boys don’t want it. They want to be inclusive; they just don’t know how. They are good people, and I’ve met some of the finest individuals in the development community where I work.

There are bad apples, but there are those in every industry. I get strange looks sometimes, and I use my very androgynous name to my advantage.

How so?
When I get emails that say, “Dear Mr. Wasylyk,” I don’t correct them until I see them in person. I’m not about to undo their bias over an email, but I certainly will undo it with talent and merit. My CFO is about 20 years older than I am and male, so often people look at him and say, “Mr. Wasylyk,” and he’ll say, “No, I’m Mr. Klassen. Ms. Wasylyk is right next to me.” I’ve been called everything from his receptionist to his assistant.

How have things changed for women in business over the past couple of decades?
We’ve made a lot of strides. In the entrepreneurial world, females outperform males on revenue and profit, and that’s better understood. Women tend to be less risky, they take on lower loans, and ultimately, they’re better performers. That’s not as celebrated because sometimes they’re the tortoise and not the hare.

Societally, we are starting to train women to be more courageous. What needs to change now are societal norms. Women still do 85 percent of the workload in the home, regardless of whether they work full-time.

With the rising awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination in Hollywood, are other boardrooms feeling the #MeToo effect?
I don’t feel like when I walk into the city I get treated differently. The banking industry has probably one of the best track records in terms of getting females on their boards and in their senior executive positions. That said, I did get turned down for my very first loan from a Big Five bank because I wouldn’t have my husband at the time co-sign the loan. I said, “The project is 80-percent leased up. How is this not a completely bankable project?” They said, “We just have some discomfort.”

But we’ve come a long way. I don’t feel like it’s the boys smoking cigars, playing golf and telling rude jokes. In fact, I also know a few of my own.

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