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Woman of the Week: Cheryl Hickman

Cheryl Hickman is the founder and general and artistic director of Opera on the Avalon, a company in Newfoundland that showcases traditional opera and musical theatre. The company is dedicated to promoting work by female artists and empowering them through mentorship programs and gender parity policies.

A singer herself, Hickman was inspired to create Opera on the Avalon after being mentored herself. She has performed with some of the most prominent operatic companies in North America and Europe, including the New York City Opera, Vancouver Opera, Calgary Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, Manitoba Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Florida Grand Opera, and Opera Français. When she speaks, she does so with passion and poetry. She wants Opera to adapt to the times, employing more women and engaging more youth.

In 2017, Hickman was appointed to the Canada Council for the Arts and is the chair of the Governance Committee. Women’s Post spoke with Hickman over the phone about the future of Opera, how to keep a community engaged in such a traditional art form, and the potential of women in positions of power.

Question: Did you always have a passion for music? When did you first discover opera?

Answer: I discovered it at quite a young age. My mom tells me I sang before I spoke. I was a child of the 70s. I still remember terrible 70s lyrics that should be out of my head, but alas, it’s not. My first memory is singing in a Kindergarden production in Newfoundland.

Were you able to get a job as a singer right after graduation or was there a delay? 

I did an undergrad at the University of Toronto and graduate work at The Juilliard School. Literally one of my mentors called New York City Opera – across the square. I walked out of my masters program to a job. But again, that was a mentor who believed in me and picked up the phone. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time. 

Why did you found Opera on the Avalon? 

The reason why I started Opera on the Avalon was because of Diana Leblanc at the Canadian Opera Company.  I was in the ensemble and as a young performer you didn’t really see a lot of women. It’s a very male dominated world. She was the first female director I worked with. I think it made such an impact in terms of how she worked. It was a revelation. It was such a rewarding and creatively and artistically and emotionally satisfying experience. I realized later I was trying to re-create that experience in my whole professional life.

I started also, because in my genre, there is little opportunity for women. There are very few artistic directors, heads of companies, producers, and little opportunity in the higher levels.  If you aren’t going to invite me to the party I’ll start my own. The company has evolved.

Power balance will only change if you act on it. And so, in the East coast or in Canada we are the only company that insists on gender parity. We hire people from diverse backgrounds. We also insist on parity in all hiring.

Why is it so important to insist on gender parity in the arts?

It’s so topical now. As a young singer, [opera] was a school of “if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger”. There was a lot of sexism and misogyny. It was an unconscious bias people aren’t aware of. It’s only when you are aware of the fact that people of power are all men, you don’t realize how much that impacts you. 

How do you deal with it? You don’t deal with it. You realize what the rules are. The person who gets fired isn’t going to be the abused. You learn very quickly that in the arts talent forgives all. Success is a motivator for people to look beyond someone’s faults and sometimes the faults are quite large and harmful to other artists. You want to work – if you complain you won’t work. You put your game face on.

What is making Opera on the Avalon such a success?

We embrace artistic risk. What interests me is that we are bringing a quality, high callibre to widest audience possible – especially attracting younger generations because that’s the audience we are building. If we are going to attract wider audiences we need to widen the stories we are telling. We can’t allow stories we tell to be only those of dead white men.

I think one of the things we do is you have to reflect the lives of the community you live in back on the stage. We did a new show “Ours” [about] WWI battle that has a tremendous impact on Newfoundland and Labrador. We are doing an opera called ”As One”, focusing on the transgender [identity] and young people finding out who they are and discovering at a young age who you are as a person.

Do you believe in mentorship? What do you do to help young women?

I mentor through a couple of programs, university programs, and through Opera on the Avalon. We mentor young conductors. The number of female conductors in Opera in this country is shameful, so we are working to change that. I often think there is an unconscious bias – men hire men. That happens with mentorship and encouragement. It is really difficult for set designers, conductors, and directors if they don’t see women in power doing those things. You have to have guidance from somebody that has that lived experience and can also speak about the difficulties and challenges, and encourage you every step of the way. I was mentored by some pretty amazing women and we have to lift each other up. 

Any final thoughts?

I guess what’s interesting, or what’s important is that for too long we have been afraid, as women, to speak up because it’s fear of embarrassment or retribution or contempt. And I think now is the time [to speak]. In the last couple of weeks you’ve seen how that is changing. Someone said to me that a young man got hired for something and someone said he was a boy wonder. The female equivalent is bitch and for me, that’s true. As women, we owe it to the next generation to speak up without fear of retribution. It is incumbent on us.

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Women of the Week: Mandy Rennehan

Staying humble and true to yourself after achieving success in the business world may seem like a difficult feat, but CEO of Freshco Mandy Rennehan, makes it look easy. Rennehan leads the retail construction supergiant, an enterprise that has spread across Canada and the United States. Rennehan is one of the top CEOs in Canada; yet, anyone in her presence feels extremely comfortable and important, a rare and welcome way to treat others in the high stakes modern business world.

“Growing up in a small town on the East coast, people are humble and simple. People will give you everything they have because they truly care,” Rennehan says. “I didn’t know I was going to be an entrepreneur, it just picked me and I’m 41 now. When people from home see me and talk to me, they tell me I’m the same way I was when I was 10. I left the east coast with a personality, a smile and a work ethic. I want to treat people like I want to be treated.”

Freshco is a boutique facilities firm that focuses on maintenance, projects and reconstruction. The company has landed some massive clients including Home Depot, Lululemon, Sephora and Apple, among others. “Freshco does everything on the mechanical and cosmetic level to retailers with any form of structure,” Rennehan says. “As soon as they are ready to open a store, we renovate, maintain and come in when there is an emergency. We call ourselves ninjas sometimes. All you see is the beautiful design, and merchandise and Freshco is the company that maintains that look all the time. We are there in the morning, and overnight.”

Rennehan believes that employee happiness is paramount to the success of her company. She handpicks all of her employees with her management team and then dubs them with a nickname. The chosen nickname for a new employee is put on company hoodies and business cards.  “I don’t believe in work-life balance and I think employers put too much strain for people to have two lives,” Rennehan says. “I create an environment that is cool, trendy and comfortable. I believe in the fun and narrowing in on people and bringing out the personality in them. Happy people are productive. We jam up the music and have fridges full of beer.”

Rennehan is also invested in helping others who need support in the trades industry. She launched the Chris Rennehan Scholarship in 2015 that supports people in dire financial circumstances to go to trade school or work for Freshco. “I launched the scholarship because my brother is a lobster fisherman and before he died, we were making a plan to get him into the floor renovation business. His death really affected me and my family. There are so many people who are lost and don’t have the time to go to school. They need to learn something right now because they have bills and families,” Rennehan says. “The scholarship fund sends them to trade school, or sends them to me and we can teach them. People are donating to the fund because they know I am going to do the right thing with it. These people are almost on the brink of mental health issues. My philanthropy and objective long-term to fund the passion of any trade and any individual.”

Due to her amazing work as a Canadian entrepreneur, Rennehan has received a number of awards including being on WXN’s 2015 Canada’s most powerful women: Top 100 award, in which she also received a letter from the Minister of the Status of Women. She also won EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 and was named 20th in Profit’s 2016 W100 list for top female entrepreneurs in Canada. Rennehan is often asked to be the keynote speaker at various events, most recently at the Women with Drive Summit on March 2.

Rennehan is clearly an innovative and forward leader that is taking Freshco to the next level with projected growth across the United States in the next year. The company is a success story, but had its trials as well. In 2010, FreshCo, a grocery chain owned Sobeys, was launched and there was little Rennehan could do about the extremely similar name (only difference on Sobey’s part being the capital ‘C’). The rub? Sobeys was one of Rennehan’s first clients. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that’s the truth. We got our heads kicked in with this, and Sobey’s was my first client,” Rennehan says. “I should’ve trade-marked Freshco and I didn’t. They took my font, my colours and everything. We completely rebranded and with the media attention I get, people are seeing the difference between the two.” Rennehan, true to her positive and upbeat attitude, decided to make a joke out of the issue and even launched a national campaign that including rebranding her trucks to say “FRESHCO, not the grocery store”.

Rennehan is also an avid supporter of women in the trades. Though she has been immersed in a male-dominated industry for the last 20 years, she has never felt discriminated against in her field.  “The trades are still very male-dominated, but it has never bothered me because they know I’m better than them,” Rennehan says. “Despite my sexuality, I’ve never been discriminated against a day in my life. I don’t listen to the garbage and I arm myself with knowledge. I’ve really been a poster child for not being a woman, but being amazing at what I do. Feminism is all fine and well, but just be amazing at what you are and you won’t face that discrimination.”

Rennehan is reading a book called “Spark”, based on a study between physical exercise and how it improves brain function. “Being married to Jane Fonda [a nickname Rennehan calls her partner] for years, I’ve been very involved in exercise,” Rennehan says.”She also loves to golf, play tennis, travel ad is a big wine connoisseur. Her favourite travel destination is Tuscany.

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