Savoy “Kapow” Howe may challenge your definition of success as an entrepreneur. While she is not earning anything close to a six-figure-salary (her business is struggling to stay afloat), she has accomplished a tremendous amount in terms of women’s empowerment. As the owner of Canada’s first woman-owned boxing club for women and transgender people, she has trained women with mobility issues and visual impairments in her gym. Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club is a sole proprietorship with 12 volunteer coaches and 250 members. In 2007, Howe developed, along with Brock University professor Cathy Van Ingen, the Shape Your Life program, offering free boxing to hundreds of survivors of violence at her gym. The Newsgirls have shown up at the Toronto Dyke March, the Women’s March on Washington, and in newspapers around the world, and they have successfully faced off against men’s rights activist Roosh V.
Howe’s one-woman show, Newsgirl, runs at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club from September 21 to September 24. Carmelle Wolfson spoke to Howe about her experiences as a boxing coach and a business owner.
This is part one of a two-part interview. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CW: Tell me about how Newsgirls got started.
SH: I came to Toronto to pound the pavement as a performer, never ever thinking about getting into boxing. I came from New Brunswick, did my theatre degree in Hamilton, and then moved to Toronto. At the same time, I was coming out of the closet. Thirty years ago there were lots of stories of gay-bashing. I wasn’t one to walk around scared but that was the first time that something was starting to make me fearful. I thought, “Nope, I got to find something so that I don’t have to be afraid.” I tried an aikido class and taekwondo class, but it didn’t really grab me. Then one day I saw an image of a woman wearing boxing gloves in the newspaper and I was like, “Whatever that is!” It was almost like a big light bulb went off.
I walked into a guys’ boxing club called the Toronto Newsboys. That was in ’92, and I had my first fight with them in ’93, and I was still trying to pound the pavement as a performer. As most performers lived in poverty, I was trying to figure out how to pay the rent and I really didn’t want to waitress. I thought, “Huh, I wonder if I could convince a few people to pay me to teach them how to box.” So every Saturday I put up posters up and down Church Street and Parliament Street in the queer community that said “Boxing for Women.” Within a couple months I had 40 women. So I asked the Newsboys if I could use the gym when it was closed, and I rented the space and started running women’s-only classes.
CW: How long had you been boxing at that point?
SH: Two years. I started teaching in ’94. And then in ’96 I left Newsboys.
CW: What was the motivation to leave and get your own space?
SH: Well, I never really thought about having my own space. Our club was still surviving month-to-month because we had to pay rent. I left Newsboys because Newsboys picked up a different flavour, and it wasn’t exactly a safe place for me to be bringing my clients. So I headed for the west end and rented space in a gym called Sully’s. I started going in two nights a week with people who wanted to compete so that they could see the men’s environment, they could see the sparring. And we stayed with Sully’s for eight years. Still, I never thought about having my own space because it’s not a money-making business. But when Sully’s decided to move to a smaller space in 2006, it didn’t make sense for us to go with them because by that time we kind of had it with the boys and didn’t want to move into a smaller space. So it was either go big or go home.
So we did a PATH, which is a big goal-setting adventure. I invited about 15 of the gals down. A PATH is something I’ve been doing for about 15 years. It’s a process taught to me by Judith Snow, who was an advocate for people with disabilities. We put a great big piece of paper on the wall and we started in the dreaming section. I said, “If we could have anything, what would that look like?” And what came up was: a big space close to the TTC, showers, kitchen, an official-sized boxing ring, international travel, a competitive program, and a disco ball. Then we created first steps towards that. One of the first steps was to have a realtor show me a couple spaces. I went along with it, knowing that it wasn’t going to go anywhere because I had $200 in my pocket. But I thought, “Let’s play the game.”
He showed me a couple spaces, and then I met him at Carlaw and Gerrard. As we walked by the back alley, I heard the train go by over my head and thought, “Oh my God, that’s like Gleason’s in New York.” Their gym is below a train track and when I was there and heard the train, I thought, “Oh, that’s so cool. It makes it feel like a boxing ring.” So when I heard the train at this place, I was like, “Oh my God, is that a sign?” He kicked open the back two doors and we walked into this massive empty space with dust on every surface possible. I saw the steel beams and said, “Oh my God. This is it. This is, like, my dream space.” He said, “I’ll be showing it to three other people this afternoon,” and I said, “I’ll take it.” I signed up for a five-year lease and wrote him a cheque for two months’ rent of $9,000—with $200 in my bank account.
CW: How did that work out?
SH: I went home. I had a shot of whiskey. And I sat up all night going, “What the fuck was I thinking? I’m going to jail. I’m going to friggin’ jail. I don’t have $9,000!” It was on a Friday and I spent the whole weekend on the phone: “$20? I’ll take it! $50? I’ll take it! Oh, $500? Thank you!” I just did that all weekend. And by Monday, the cheque went through.
CW: So you raised $9,000 in one weekend?
SH: Yeah. Because I had a lot of students by that point, and a lot of people who loved Newsgirls who really supported what we were all about. I still can’t believe it. We got the set of keys on October 1, and we spent the next month dusting, cleaning, painting, and I had two heavy bags. No lockers, nothing. There were no walls anywhere. Just floor. I hung two heavy bags and I started selling. I said, “The gym is open!” [Laughs] And they came. They friggin’ came. We’re in our 21st year of Newsgirls and October 1 will be our 11th year in our own gym, and I still can’t believe it!
CW: Was raising that $9,000 in one weekend the biggest challenge you have faced?
SH: No. We’ve been surviving month-to-month for over 20 years. At the end of every month it’s kind of like, “Okay, now what do we do?” So I’m kind of used to it. I’m actually really good at it. I’m not a businesswoman. I mean, I’ve been a business owner for 20 years, but I’ve never wanted to be a business owner. I just wanted to be a coach. And the only way I can be a coach is to have a roof over our heads. So it forced me to learn to be a business owner, and I’m not even the best business owner, but I love my job.
CW: As someone who doesn’t come from a business background, did you have to teach yourself?
SH: Absolutely. And there’s still so much I don’t know. Because I am so focused on teaching my students and getting my competitors ready for fights that I’m not even thinking like a businessperson. I just take the cash, put it in an envelope, count it four days before the end of the month and go, “Holy shit. We’re $900 short. Let’s figure out how to sell a couple yearly memberships on sale.” I’m still not a good businessperson. It’s not my dream to be a good businessperson. My dream is just to keep doing what I’m doing.
CW: Have you learned any lessons about business along the way?
SH: Keep receipts. I think in my sixth year, I sat down with somebody and we went through two big hockey bags of receipts trying to get out of a tax mess. When we found out how much we owed, it was hell. So I would say, learn how to either become a businessperson before you open a business or take somebody on that knows how to run a business and let them run your business. Now I know how to, for the most part, stay legal, so I do it. But I’d rather be doing something else.
CW: Have you considered hiring someone to run the business side of things?
SH: I think I’m getting to the point where in my 21st year, maybe it’s time. I just don’t know who that would be, what kind of skills I’m looking for, because I’m pretty much the boss of myself. So it would be hard to have somebody telling me what to do. But if I can meet somebody who got it, understood what goes on here, who could take that on, that would be great.
Publisher’s Note: Watch out for Part Two of this article on September 26. And if you like what you read about this enterprise, note that they are looking for donors (they call them Sugar Mamas). Even as little as $5/month will help.
For more information on Newsgirl the play, go to: http://www.soulo.ca/newsgirl/. Limited run from Sept. 21 to 24 at the boxing club. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.
Related Article: Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club on the ropes, but optimistic, by Joanna Lavoie (Inside Toronto, Aug. 22, 2017)
Punching Bag Therapy, by Carmelle Wolfson,