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Not too long ago, Kirsten MacDonell was having a lunch meeting at Earl’s. She noticed her server—a woman in her early twenties—eavesdropping on her conversation, clearly interested in the words being exchanged over shared appies and salads. When Kirsten signed off on the bill, the server saw an opportunity to jump in. “Are you from YEG BOSS BABES?,” she asked, the same way you might ask a celebrity to confirm their identity.
“I am!” replied Kirsten.
“I love what you’re doing,” the server said. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
For Kirsten, moments like this illuminate the true value of what she and YEG BOSS BABES co-founder, Kayla Kaliszuk, are doing. “It’s like, ooh, they’re into it,” says Kirsten. “Our work makes a mark in society, and we want to continue.”
When you think of a typical “networking event,” what comes to mind? Probably a lot of suits. Probably a large, nondescript conference space or ballroom full of business types, chatting stiffly about growth or returns or establishing a brand identity. Probably lots of grey. Lots of black. Lots of men.
This, at least, is the atmosphere Kirsten faced most often while working in sales for a large company.
“The networking stuff we went to was 95% men. There weren’t a lot of women attending,” she says. “And the feedback I was getting from coworkers was like, ‘I was so uncomfortable going to those events because I didn’t feel like I could relate to anybody.’”
Kirsten decided to create a space where networking wouldn’t be such an intimidating, dude-driven experience. As a “solopreneur” herself (Kirsten has her own photography business in addition to a sales job) she knew how hard it was to gather resources and grow a business without a support network. She texted a few friends, including Kayla, a fellow small business owner, and asked if they were interested in starting a wine club (a terrific way to generate interest). “We can go to each other’s houses, meet women who are doing similar things, and swap resources,” Kirsten said over the group text.
“Kirsten sent us a logo and we were like, ‘this is awesome, let’s do it!,’” says Kayla.
Fast forward a couple years and YEG BOSS BABES—the outcome of the wine club—is now a thriving business with over 139 members and 1700 email subscribers. Their mission? To connect women entrepreneurs with the resources and community they need to grow and thrive in business.
“I feel like more and more women are wanting the freedom to start their own business, but they don’t have friends or resources to lean on,” says Kayla.
That’s where YEG BOSS BABES (YBB) comes in. Led by Kirsten, Kayla, and additional co-founder Amy Bender, YBB hosts everything from vision board workshops to holiday mixers to seminars with award-winning women entrepreneurs—“yegsperts,” as they’re called. They also have a membership program. Perks include a space on the YBB directory page (a beautifully-designed online database of women-run businesses in Edmonton), event discounts, and professional headshots. “We find that professional photos really help elevate a business,” says Kayla.
Kayla and Kirsten run YBB with a distinct (and rare) lack of corporate stuffiness: it wouldn’t be uncommon to find a photobooth, cupcake tower, or gorgeous floral display at their events. They’re not afraid to be explicitly feminine in their branding and event curation because not only does it feel authentic to them, but it creates an atmosphere that women find appealing and welcoming. “The typical entrepreneur look has really changed and we’re happy to be trailblazers in that,” Kirsten says. “We can be professional but we can still be ourselves.”
“I didn’t used to like pink but now I’m obsessed with it!” laughs Kayla.
For Kayla and Kirsten, staying true to themselves also means staying at home to raise their families. That’s partly why running YEG BOSS BABES is such an ideal enterprise for them both: they can be mothers and entrepreneurs simultaneously. “Even before we had kids, it was our goal to be at home and raise our kids,” says Kayla. “I’m so supportive of people who go to their nine-to-fives and have that career but it’s not for me personally.”
Kirsten feels the same. “It’s all about taking control of your schedule for your family,” she says, adding that integrating your work life with your family life shouldn’t be seen as a gold standard for all women. “Don’t let society define what having it all is,” she says. “That’s how you get in trouble and burn out.”
“Yeah. Everyone has their own needs,” adds Kayla.
If Kirsten and Kayla seem in-sync professionally, you should see them as mothers. At the time of our interview, Kayla was weeks away from giving birth to her second child, while Kirsten had a two-week-old baby girl at home. “Before we started a business, that was the plan: to be pregnant together,” Kayla says.
But the reality of near-simultaneous pregnancies was a little daunting at first.
“It’s not that Kayla wasn’t excited to be pregnant at the same time as me,” says Kirsten. “But from a professional standpoint, she was like, ‘oh no, what are we going to do? We’re due two months apart! How will the business be affected?’”
To their surprise, their dual pregnancies affected the business positively, in part because the demands of (impending) motherhood meant passing along jobs to other women and hiring new people to help run YEG BOSS BABES. “I think if the pregnancies didn’t happen, we would have kept trying to do it all ourselves,” says Kayla.
“In order to grow a business, you do need to let go a bit.”
There have of course been personal benefits to growing—both in a physical and business sense—in tandem. “It’s one of the coolest things ever to walk through life at the same time with someone,” says Kirsten. “Especially as close friends, and especially professionally. We just get each other.”
Their lives may be closely entwined, but Kayla and Kirsten maintain separate, unique working lives outside the Boss Babes umbrella. Kirsten, for example, has a photography business. Her favourite niche is boudoir, which she loves for the unexpected, personal benefits it gives clients. “I love meeting all shapes and sizes of women and getting to know their journey with their body and self-confidence,” Kirsten says, adding that letting clients see the editing process is particularly inspiring. “Showing them unedited photos and showing them how beautiful they are is the point of boudoir for me. It’s empowering, really.”
Kayla has a creative side, too, which she puts to use in several family business ventures, including a soap-making business she co-created with her mom (Cherry Creek Soap Co) and her husband’s lifestyle brand, Flossy Bumz. But Kayla’s main focus right now is Boss Babes. “I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I like to start businesses, grow them, and then pass them off. I have a drive to be creative and busy.”
Boss Babes is growing fast—in members and visibility. Kirsten’s celebrity moment at Earl’s is one of several instances of public recognition, a sure sign she and Kayla have tapped into an underserved demographic—women in business. “We’re trying to set ourselves apart from what other companies do. So we’ll ask people, what types of workshops do you want to see? And we try to bring that to them,” Kayla says.
Paying attention to their community has also illuminated how strongly people, particularly women, are craving support networks that benefit them in an all-encompassing sense. “We recognize that entrepreneurs don’t just need professional assistance,” says Kirsten. “They need personal assistance, too, and so we provide mental wellness services and those types of events as well.” In other words, they’re refusing to view the Business Self as separate from the Emotional Self or the Mom Self or the Friend Self. All of these selves are integrated; all of the parts need to be healthy for the whole to function properly.
At the end of the day—or, more likely, in the wee hours of the morning—Kayla and Kirsten’s kids serve as their biggest motivational sources. “Now that I have a daughter, I just want to grow a community that looks exactly like what YEG BOSS BABES is growing,” Kirsten says, adding that it’s especially important to highlight this mission in online spaces like Instagram, where negativity often flourishes. “Putting something like Boss Babes out there into the universe—women supporting women in a genuine community—it’s really important. It’s the main drive.”
Meanwhile, Kayla is proving to be quite the role model for her son who, being integrated into her working life (he often accompanies her to meetings and sees her work from home), believes he is an entrepreneur himself. At age four.
“He thinks he sells houses!” Kayla laughs. “He’ll be like, oh yeah, I got a lot of work to do. A lot of people want a house today.”
“He gets to watch his mom be a bad-ass! Then he goes to work,” Kirsten says.
Kayla’s son’s real estate career offers solid proof that anyone can be a Boss Babe, if only they put their mind to it.
Writer: Mica Lemiski
Photos: Janelle Dudzic Photography & Nicole Constante Photography