Some Walls Come Down, Others Stay Up, Says Entrepreneur Barr

August 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Entrepreneur Irene Barr

Some walls come down, others stay up, says entrepreneur Barr

By: Diane Strandberg – Tri-Cities News

After some 25 years in business and involvement in provincial and local politics, Irene Barr can offer a unique perspective on both worlds.

Women are making great strides in business but only baby-steps in politics, says Irene Barr, a longtime Tri-Cities business woman and provincial Liberal.

In an interview across her polished desk in the elegantly-appointed Headquarters Office Services in Coquitlam, Barr was asked to consider the changes faced by women in businesses since she started her own company 25 years ago.

Like many entrepreneurs, a passion for pursuing challenges prompted her to start a word-processing business out of her home with a $22,000 hybrid between a computer and typewriter. With previous experience in computer conversions, she soon branched into technology training, starting Headquarters Office Services and moving into a 7,000-square foot space on Lincoln Avenue. A federal contract then enabled her to expand the business to 70 training seats.

She got involved with the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce, became its president in 1988 and made connections that helped her students get jobs.

“It’s about building relationships,” Barr said of her network that grew withher community work.

Throughout the Tri-Cities, Barr said, women are becoming successful by helping each other. They might not do deals on a golf course but they build relationships with other professionals through business exchanges, and community service, through groups such as such as Sunrise Rotary, where Barr was a member.

But breaking into the world of local politics is a bigger challenge. It’s not just her own experience running for office as a Liberal candidate she cites. She tried for years to get more women involved in politics as the president of the BC Liberal Women’s Commission. Barr said getting nominated is the first stumbling block. She narrowly lost a 1996 bid for the Westwood Plateau/ Port Coquitlam seat and tried twice again, failing to get the nomination each time. (As a north-east Coquitlam resident, she also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Port Coquitlam.)

“I see it as this barrier stopping us. When we do see women make it, they do a great job. They use their power well,” she says.

“Everyone recognizes we need more women in politics but women have a tough time getting nominated. The local community still has these back-room boys – they call the shots.”

Stalled in her drive to get a seat in the B.C. legislature, Barr focused her attention on her business, which had expanded to include branches on North Road and in PoCo. But even there she was discouraged. The federal government pulled her contract while it proceeded with other job training models, and Barr had to retrench, firing staff and closing one of three offices.

It took years to rebuild, she said, but the effort was not without a silver lining. Women she met through informal networks came to her aid, some acting as sounding boards for major decisions, others holding her hand through the rough spots.

“That’s when you know who your friends are,” she said.

Capitalizing on the trend toward business incubation in which small start-ups need an office presence but don’t want the hassle and the cost of starting their own, Barr was able to evolve once again, leasing office space and providing communication services to a wide variety of clients. It’s a model that has been successful: Barr has secured a marketing relationship so she can provide even more services to her clients as a division of Elite Headquarters Office Services Inc.

Unlike politics, the business world is much easier for women to enter, Barr says. Women entrepreneurs are more common now than when she first set up shop and more successful than they’ve ever been. It may be a way to get out from under the glass ceiling but, whatever the reason, Barr applauds women’s business success and plans to mentor women entrepreneurs coming up in the ranks.

“I just think there are no barriers [for women],” she said. “They don’t expect barriers and they don’t receive them.”

Photos from Irene Barr’s 25th Anniversary:

Irene's 25th Anniversary 1

Irene's 25th Anniversary 2

Irene's 25th Anniversary 3

Irene's 25th Anniversary 4