Uncanny timing and an astute reading of the market earned this entrepreneur national recognition, but Barb Gamey’s gaze has always been on the welfare of others—her gifts as an authentic leader bringing people together for the good of the cause.
A lifetime of community work was launched by a chance meeting on a tour of a children’s after-school program at Winnipeg’s West Broadway Family Resource Centre, when Gamey [ExtEd/90], the co-founder of Payworks, was in her early 30s.
She arrived just as the doors opened and children rushed in. There were snacks and homework and a small area with computers where kids started to line up for a turn. One boy, about her daughter’s age, walked away looking dejected. Gamey approached him.
She recalls the boy telling her: “My favourite time of the day is when I get to go on the computers but we only get 15 minutes because everybody needs a turn.”
“And I thought to myself, I’m a single mom and I’ve got my daughter at home and we have a computer in our living room that she has access to anytime she wants. How can the playing field be so unlevel at age eight?”
Her boss at the time had encouraged her to start donating to the local United Way. After the incident at West Broadway, she had the capacity to give more and began what she calls her “journey of support.”
Gamey has now been involved with The United Way of Winnipeg for 30 years as a donor, and a board and cabinet member. In 2018, she took the helm as campaign chair and guided the organization toward raising a record-breaking $21.3 million. She was tireless in her efforts, speaking nearly every day at a different workplace or community gathering, building momentum for something she deeply believes in.
Humble about her knack of getting people behind a noble effort, Gamey says effective storytelling and enthusiasm is what rallies people to a cause.
“I think some people said the 7:30 a.m. meetings we had were probably the loudest and the most fun meetings we had,” she says. “We all recognize the good work that United Way does. But, you know, you need to balance that with your personal reasons for being there. Why are you doing this?”
Building up communities in the city she’s always called home is close to her heart. She’s brought the same commitment to her volunteer roles with Special Olympics Manitoba, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the TELUS Manitoba Community Board and the Prairie Theatre Exchange Foundation, among others.
“Just because you love something, it doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require some investment and some time and some focus, and I think that Winnipeggers have that desire to collectively make Winnipeg a better place.”
Something about Winnipeg
Her company, Payworks—a workforce management firm with 300 employees and more than 20,000 customers across Canada—is headquartered here and has been from the beginning. Gamey says Winnipeggers are unique in that they form a particularly strong, interconnected community.
“We’re a little bit isolated where we are and I think we truly have a community spirit of wanting each other to succeed,” she says. “We want success here. And so we’re very open to helping entrepreneurs and others on their journey to success, very unlike in Toronto or Calgary, where it’s something far more competitive in terms of success. We have this collective desire, I believe, to foster success at a business community level.”
She brings her volunteership and vision to the Women’s Enterprise Centre Manitoba as a board chair and fundraiser, helping women entrepreneurs remove barriers.
“Many women don’t have access to capital without a co-signature from a partner. If your house is in both names or you don’t have assets of your own, it’s very difficult to find the financing as a woman or to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “The Centre also helps women craft a business plan and makes sure their ideas are fully developed. You can be that champion and help them along that journey.”
Gamey also gives generously of her mentorship and business knowledge through Athena Leadership, a Manitoba-developed forum which brings together women to network, develop themselves professionally and learn from one another.
“We’re reluctant to say we don’t have the answers, but we don’t have the answers. And so as women, and as entrepreneurs, I think it’s important to be open to those networks that are either natural to you or networks that you can get access to, to get answers, to get confidence, to get validation, to vet ideas.”
She launched Payworks after recognizing there were technological gaps in the industry; Gamey had the foresight to develop a proprietary application supporting a customer-centric philosophy. The rapidly growing company was recently named a platinum club winner of Canada’s Best Managed Companies program and its success is deeply rooted in serving others.
Gamey understands the responsibility of a business owner to their community—especially one the size of Winnipeg—and committed Payworks to a $800,000 donation match during the United Way campaign, bringing in hundreds of new leaders as donors. Her company continues to support 200 charitable organizations each year.
Entrepreneurship runs in her family and it’s how Gamey learned to appreciate risk. Her father had a business selling typewriters and then computers, and her uncle sold motorcycles and snowmobiles. Gamey’s mother proved to be a cautionary tale about following your passion.
“My mother—we always called her ‘the reluctant florist’—was a florist for 50 years…still making boutonnieres and corsages in her 70s, and hated flowers. So that was the irony of her role.”
Gamey describes herself as “a Windsor Park girl.” After graduating from Windsor Park Collegiate, she got a job at Great-West Life and worked part time at Eaton’s. She went to university to develop her management skills.
“I took the certificate in management at the University of Manitoba as a single mother in the evening over three years, which was a huge commitment. When I look back on it I think to myself, ‘Wow. That was a lot of work.’”
Recognizing the role of education to strengthen communities, she now sits on the Business Council of Manitoba’s education committee and helped develop the Horizon Manitoba Report, together with presidents of Manitoba’s post-secondary education institutions. Gamey was recently named the next Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.
Post-secondary graduates joining the workforce will be looking for leadership in companies that echo their own values, she says.
“Whether it’s a belief in work-life balance, whether it’s cultural diversity, whether it’s corporate values in terms of philanthropic activities, the environment—those are the things that drive the most satisfaction for individuals in their job and those are the things that are sometimes intangible.”
She’s generous with her mentorship and support of those finding their way in business. We asked Barb Gamey for five things any good entrepreneur knows.
- The importance of being transparent. “You can’t be authentic if you’re not transparent.”
- Not to be afraid to replace yourself with someone who knows more than you.
- If a job doesn’t feel right, go with your gut and step away.
Look for advice from the entrepreneurs all around you—from your dentist to your florist. “When you turn on the lens of entrepreneurship, you really realize how many entrepreneurs you interact with.”
- Any decision made too late is a bad decision. “I’m not afraid to call a play.”