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Women Leaders in Business: Teen businesswoman hopes to attract campers to Northern Ontario

Mylène Coulombe-Gratton is the 18-year-old owner-operator of Follow Her North, a Hearst-based adventure company

Managing a business while being a full-time college student is no easy feat, yet Mylène Coulombe-Gratton does just that: operating her outdoor adventure company Follow Her North while sharpening her business skills at the same time at Confederation College in Thunder Bay.

At 18, Coulombe-Gratton handles everything from planning, building her own website, and booking clients to guiding them during the activities by herself.

“It can be hard at some point because sometimes I'm in class and clients would call me,” she explained.

Follow Her North offers different outdoor activities such as canoeing, day camping and hiking around the Hearst area.

The 18-year-old said some of the toughest challenges she faces in her line of work are because of her young age. She said getting people who didn’t know her to trust her with their children is one example, but her experience in previous jobs, as well as her many certifications, would often be enough to reassure them that she plans her trips as safe as they can be.

Coulombe-Gratton said she received her hunting and snowmobiling licences when she was 12 and also has lifesaving training, CPR, and aquatic safety instructor certifications. She is also certified as a wilderness first responder, a whitewater rescue technician, a level 2 canoe tripper, and holds certifications from Paddle Skills Canada, Leave No Trace, and the Field Leader Program.

“I have a hard time for people to take me seriously because I'm so young and I’m a woman in a men's field,” she said.

The young woman took interest in the industry as a child, often watching her father guide tours and snowmobile trips with big groups. She started helping him in his venture as his business grew but realized she only had limited capacity to grow it even more, as her dad only did this on the side of his full-time job.

“His business is more like a side gig so I decided to do my own thing,” she said, starting it all with her just wanting to share her outdoor adventures on social media.

Before graduating from high school, she had built her business plan and was awarded a young entrepreneur grant to start her own business.

At the moment, she’s looking into getting more certifications, such as in digital marketing, and plans to stay in her hometown next year to be able to do more trips in between her studies.

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With COVID-19 restrictions mostly lifted in Ontario, the teen expects Follow Her North’s upcoming season to be fully packed, offering bigger adventures than before as some dates for trips and day camps start to fill.

“I know that a lot of kids didn't have the chance to come to any of my camps last year because the dates would not fit with their schedule and the camps were full. So I hope that those kids have the chance this year to come with me,” she said.

Her first big trip, scheduled in May, is a seven-day whitewater canoeing trip along Pivabiska River — paddling down all the way from Hearst and then flying out.

Each trip is limited to six participants, with kids as young as eight years old joining the camps.

The camps have attracted parents wanting to give their kids a time out after spending the last two years stuck indoors because of the pandemic.

“When I started my business last summer, the kids’ parents would tell me, ‘Oh my god, my kids loved it. He hasn't stopped talking about it on the ride home and when they get home they would just sleep all night,’” she added, pointing out that one of the reasons parents would register their kids for the camps is because they’ve been spending too much time on their devices at home.

Most of her clients come from Hearst and the surrounding area, but some would travel from towns an hour or two away just to come to the camps, said Coulombe-Gratton.

“I really hope to get more people (from) outside of town so we can discover our region. I hope that people from the south can really experience Northern Ontario. It's not only mosquitoes!”