Alicia Woods’ eureka small business idea came via the call of nature.
She was a mile underground touring a Sudbury nickel mine 15 years ago in a bulky, oversized pair of men’s coveralls as part of job shadowing for her future sales position for a mining equipment manufacturer.
“I thought, ‘Uh-oh, what if I have to use the washroom?’ It was all men down there and all they had was a Porta-Potty, and I had all this gear on,” she recalls.
As her career in the industry grew, Woods found herself on numerous trips to mine sites across North America, but she discovered not even the smallest gear fit her petite frame.
About four years ago, she was in a potash mine in Saskatchewan and because it was so warm and dusty, she drank several bottles of water, resulting into an embarrassing trip to the loo that took far longer than the men because she had to remove the full safety outfit.
“That was it,” says the mother of two.
Covergalls was born soon after, when she found a seamstress to put together a sample design of women’s coveralls, with wrist snaps, adjustable Velcro at the waist and two-way zippers to fit various sizes — and of course a secret trap door for when nature calls.
Though women make up only 17 per cent of the staff in the Canadian mining sector today, or 46,000 people, her market research told her those who work hands-on as miners, geologists and engineers tend to buy several pairs of coveralls at a time a few times a year.
“No two women are alike, so why should they have to wear clothing at work that doesn’t fit any of them, and is made for men?” asks Woods.
The Sudbury native found a local manufacturer and the business took off. She pitched it to CBC’s “Dragon’s Den” in 2014 to help her grow her burgeoning clothing line, which has since expanded to include women’s safety gloves and even a men’s line known as Coverguys — since, after all, mining men come in different shapes and sizes and prefer easier access for trips to the facilities, too.
But it’s Covergalls that will be front and centre at the Women Who Rock mining fashion show Monday night at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The first-annual Hard Hats and High Heels event will bring together a rather odd couple: the Canadian fashion industry and women in the mining industry, many of whom are part of the Women Who Rock informal networking organization whose goal is to empower women who work in the industry.
“Mining is male-dominated and maybe clothing is not considered important or seen as frivolous,” said Elena Mayer, president and founder in 2014 of Women Who Rock in Toronto.
“But students tell us that no one puts enough emphasis on wardrobe, whether it’s in the mine or the office,” said Mayer, PWC Canada’s senior manager of client relationships.
So besides Covergalls for those heading underground, the show will feature Canadian fashion brand Judith & Charles with a collection aimed at integrating modern influences with feminine softness and strength — modelled by women who work in the metals industry.
“A lot of people don’t understand that mining jobs are not just at the site,” says Mayer.
Statistics Canada research shows that women who work in the sector tend to be highly educated, with nearly 60 per cent armed with a post-secondary education, and they also make more than the average working woman in Canada — an estimated $50,000 annual salary versus $37,050 a year for those outside mining.
She says many women transition from the grittier side of mining to head offices or the supply side over the course of their careers, and conversely, those who work in corporate mining often find themselves doing site visits and wonder about appropriate safety gear that will also fit.
“Fashion is as far removed on the mining spectrum as you can get, so it’s good for our industry to get out of our little bubble, and also get the message out about gender diversity in the business,” Mayer added.
She said Woods is a great example of the newer generation that is very passionate about the field and a perfect role model for those considering a career in the industry.
Woods originally struck a deal with three of the Dragons, including Michael Wekerle, who joined her on a visit with women miners wearing her gear underground at a Vale nickel mine in Sudbury, which was shown on the CBC show when the season wrapped last spring.
But they subsequently dropped out in the due diligence phase of negotiations, which Woods says often happens in the business world and is not a big deal since she her line is growing like wildfire, particularly after the “Dragon’s Den” exposure.
The women’s coveralls range in price from $135 to $280 depending on the material and safety detailing, such as reflective striping.