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Women Leaders in Business: Teacher-turned-Thunder Bay brewer relies on grit and hard work

Sleeping Giant Brewing's Drea Mulligan leans on like-minded entrepreneurial women for sounding board
Drea Mulligan Sleeping Giant Brewing
Drea Mulligan, CEO of Sleeping Giant Brewing (Photo supplied)

Mix a high-achieving kindergarten teacher, a family physician, a passion for beer, and a lot of hard work, and you have the recipe for the successful Sleeping Giant Brewing Company. 

Founded in 2012, in Thunder Bay, by the wife-and-husband team Drea and Kyle Mulligan, the brewery is now a multi-million-dollar business. They did it all while maintaining their full-time jobs and raising two kids. Most recently they have been lauded for opening two childcare facilities.

There were times when Drea Mulligan, CEO of Sleeping Giant, found herself in the grocery store at 5:30 a.m., after dropping her nationally ranked daughter off for swim practice, to buy the groceries that she needed for the six-week meal plan she’d laid out. 

“With two full-time jobs each, and young children who were eight and 11 years old when we started, it wasn’t an easy time. We were working for the greater good of the business, and were in survival mode.”

She calls herself a ‘hardcore mom’ and hopes that from those startup years her kids learned the importance of a strong work ethic.

“It’s all about hard work, grit, having a great team, and support at home,” Mulligan said. 

For women entrepreneurs she added, “You really have to trust yourself, and believe that you can hold your own in any room. Be authentic and don’t worry about what other people are thinking.” 

Mulligan, initially, didn’t know that she was the best person to run the company, but when she figured that out, she really found her stride.

She also recommends that women surround themselves with like-minded women. 

“As CEOs of our businesses and homes, we face different challenges.” 

With that in mind, she created an advisory board of all female entrepreneurs, who meet once a month to provide her company with arm's-length advice. Her primary sounding board for years is her friend Lisa Maltese of Maltese Grocery in Thunder Bay.

Growing up, Mulligan wanted to be a fashion designer, but after a stimulating high school co-op placement in a senior kindergarten classroom, she switched gears. Now, after 23 years as a kindergarten teacher, Mulligan is considering early retirement from teaching to focus on her CEO duties. 

“We want to be the best in our field. We want to be amazing.” Mulligan said. 

She calls her childcare facilities hyper-focused local, and that all of the food is farm-to-table. 

Mulligan attributes the business's success to amazing teams of people, and to their passion, common sense, and good instincts.

“You can have all the experience and education in the world, but that won’t guarantee your success. We were very green, but we figured it out.” 

She also credits her husband Kyle.

“My husband is an amazing business partner and life partner; he’s the co-founder and head brewer. Kyle is self-taught and makes delicious beer.”

Before the couple opened the business, they wrote their goals on small pieces of paper. 

One of the things they wrote was, “Make Thunder Bay proud.” 

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Accordingly, Mulligan is always happy to hear when people call Sleeping Giant Thunder Bay’s brewery. To support the community, they also turned to sanitizer production during COVID to meet the community’s needs. 

“I believe things will work out as they should, and when we’re faced with decisions we often say, ‘If we can we should.’ It was difficult, and we did lose sleep, but we could make sanitizer, so we did. It’s just about hard work; and we’re very hard workers.” 

From her first business as a youth selling pictures that she drew in front of a local clinic to making beer that she loves with her husband to opening childcare facilities, Mulligan believes that no business is worth doing unless you are passionate about it. 

Her passion and hard work was recognized this past year with the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce’s Business Person of the Year award. 

“It was affirming that I’m meant to do this job.”

Women Leaders in Business is a series of monthly articles profiling women entrepreneurs and leaders who are making their mark in Northern Ontario and are contributing to the betterment of their community's and this region's economy.