While Natasha Ferguson has been demolishing and rebuilding walls on job sites for her company’s residential renovation projects, she’s also been breaking down gender and race barriers in the construction industry.
In addition to running her Toronto company, EthelFox Construct, Ferguson has founded A Women’s Work, a non-profit initiative to provide training in construction jobs for women and resources to bolster their self esteem.
“I want to focus on disenfranchised women coming from other countries, single mothers, older women, younger women, all women looking for a new career who want to be able to take of their families,” she said. “I was one of those women, and so was my mother.”
Ferguson, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, grew up in Toronto tagging along with her father to his job as a tradesman doing electrical and plumbing work, and repairing appliances. But her early career path led her to large advertising agencies, and a role in corporate communications.
That changed in 2013, when she met her husband Daniel, a roofer. Together they started their own roofing company and she began helping on jobs. “It’s unusual for a woman to be a roofer, but I really loved the work,” says Ferguson.
When her husband accepted a union job, she took over running their roofing business. But since the work is seasonal, she would also take on freelance contracts with ad agencies. “The money was good, but I wasn’t enjoying that industry as much – and was finding it very stressful.”
In response to roofing client queries, Ferguson and husband started a landscaping company and she learned to hardscape, another physically demanding job. As well, she learned to paint, drywall and tile by working with various mentors and attending classes offered by suppliers. After the birth of her daughter Fox in 2018 (Ferguson also has a 20-year-old daughter, London) and the death of her mother Marian from cancer in November 2020, she decided to concentrate on creating her own company.
“I’d been discouraged after applying for some jobs in the industry. But Mom had said, ‘Why don’t you do this on your own?’
“She was right – no one was doing what I was about to do and I started focussing on a brand,” she said.
Ferguson said when she talked to her mother about how discouraged she was about the discrimination she faced as a Black female in the workplace, her mom offered a few simple words of advice and encouragement: “Change it!”
Ferguson named her company in honor of her mother, Marian Ethel Osbourne, and her youngest daughter, Fox. She says the combination reflects that Ethel means noble and foxes are clever. The EthelFox Construct Group includes EthelFox Construct, SkyGarden Landscaping, SkyLimitless Roofing and TKO Demolition.
Ferguson’s background in corporate communications has proved valuable to her as an entrepreneur – she’s skilled at marketing and branding, project management, and creating proposals, estimates and timelines that clients can easily understand. That and EthelFox’s attention to customer service helped her business flourish during the pandemic. A typical day for her may involves visiting job sites, working on projects, meeting with clients, preparing estimates and proposals, then wrapping up at her workshop / studio.
Last year, EthelFox Construct was named one of the Best Businesses in Canada by the Canadian Business Review Board. Ferguson was also selected to participate in the Starter Company Plus Female Founders Program, offered through Enterprise Toronto and received a $ 5,000 grant to grow her business.
She started A Women’s Work to provide training for women in the trades through pre-apprenticeship programs. She’s in talks with various government agencies and retailers about her program, with the aim of securing funding opportunities in order to offer free training to interested women. She hopes to start with 50 women next year.
Ferguson says she relates to the struggles of the women she hopes to attract. “I came from very humble beginnings. When my first marriage ended, I was on welfare. Now I own properties and have a big truck.
In her own business, 70 per cent of her 17 workers are women; seven are on site while several others do project management.
“It’s difficult finding women in the industry,” she says. “I’ve got to build it. I need to get the school up and running. I have had so many women and girls’ fathers calling me and emailing about it. It’s been insane. “
According to a 2019 Prism Economics and Analysis report for the not-for-profit Ontario Construction Secretariat, women account for 12 per cent of the province’s construction workforce including off-site work in business administration, management and sales. They represent just three per cent of workers in on-site jobs and skilled trades, with the province’s northeast and Muskoka-Kawartha economic regions having the highest female participation while Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo-Barrie have the lowest.
Ferguson plans for Women’s Work to offer more than hands-on training. “I want to teach women how to brand themselves and create success for themselves in the trades,” she said. “I want them to see they can make $ 25 or more an hour and have control over their destiny.
“I can tile, roof, drywall or paint and with just one of those skills, I could support myself and my family,” said Ferguson. “It’s not about the industry. It starts with women and changing their mindset. “
She also wants to work with retailers that sell workwear, as currently there is little selection for women who work in construction.
“Mom said, ‘When I leave here, you are going to have blessings beyond your wildest dreams. You took care of me and you will be honored, ‘”says Ferguson. “I was chosen for the Starter Company Plus Female Founders Program a month after she died and since then, it’s been blessing after blessing.”