Women on the COVID Front Lines: Sydney-Anne Porter, Owner and Manager, AG Valley Foods

In honour of International Women’s Day, and in partnership with the BC Gender Equity Office, I’m sharing Women on the COVID Front Lines, profiles of women in British Columbia working to serve the needs of their communities through the pandemic.

Sydney-Anne Porter has always had a soft heart. She describes herself as a young girl as compassionate and sensitive, and these kind traits have followed Sydney-Anne into adulthood, where they serve her well as a business owner and leader. Alongside her two sons, Sydney-Anne is owner and manager of AG Valley Foods, an independent grocery store in Invermere. She sometimes works seven days a week, and up to fourteen hours a day, when “cottage country season” kicks in during the summer. At one point she did all ordering for the store, but these days focuses on scheduling, bookwork, and oversees the bakery, deli and kitchen, always with an eye for improvements. Sydney-Anne is humble about her achievements— running a business is no easy task, and every element has been further complicated by the pandemic. While she’s seen plenty of kind and generous acts, there are always short tempers and people exhausted with COVID-related restrictions. Sydney-Anne, however, tackles these challenges and all the tough parts of life with no-nonsense determination.

While Sydney-Anne is quick to downplay her achievements as a woman in a male-dominated industry, it’s clear she’s always followed her own path, regardless of societal norms. “When I started in grocery 37 years ago, you did not see women as managers,” Sydney-Anne says. “I had a proactive male boss… [who] placed women in management roles. [But] people didn’t expect to see women in roles like that, or running the business. You’d have to ask, are you okay working with a woman?”

Sydney-Anne is glad she doesn’t have to ask that particular question anymore. Even if the beginning of her career was a “bumpy and challenging ride”, she doesn’t want to say she’s better than anybody, and shares with pride the equal opportunities for men and women in her store. “I’m thrilled every day that I can look at our staffing forecast and see men running the tills,” she says, “you never saw that when I was growing up. Now you go to the meat room, and see two out of the three people working there are women. The produce manager is a woman. We promote and hire based on what you can contribute.” It’s a balance, Sydney-Anne explains, so everyone has a “voice in the choir.”

Being in this leadership role “just feels normal” to Sydney-Anne. She’s immensely proud that she works alongside her sons, citing how much she learns from them. At a conference, she was once asked if she was disappointed that after working so hard to develop her business, that she didn’t have a daughter onto whom she could pass the torch. But to Sydney-Anne, it’s important to celebrate the successes of everyone. In fact, working in a grocery store over the pandemic has brought her a unique perspective on the changing roles of men and women. She’s been surprised over the years to see how many men now take on traditionally “domestic” tasks, like grocery shopping with the kids. As a newly divorced young mother, Sydney-Anne had to be “prepared to go out and fight” to survive. She got a job in a little corner store (noting with gracious amusement how this foreshadowed her future career) and prepared her family to live with less. “I stayed home with my kids—it was you’re the woman, you stay home—there wasn’t a choice. Now men and women make that decision together, looking at careers and seeing which person is more passionate about being home.”

In a post-COVID world, Sydney-Anne is looking forward to the healing. Invermere is a small community, and differences in opinions on how best to approach the pandemic can reverberate in this region. She hopes to continue to do her best in helping people be less judgmental, to accept others for who they are, and for their choices. She’s committed to doing the absolute best for her staff too. AG Valley Foods was recognized by the Canadian Independent Grocer of the Year Awards with gold for the 2019 Top Independent Grocer of the Year. It’s a reflection of her hard work and, as she says, “her heart”. She aims to treat every person she encounters, on every level, with respect and dignity. “I’m really proud of my wonderful sons and how they’ve celebrated my career by joining in,” Sydney-Anne says. “I will forever be grateful to our mothers and grandmothers for leading the way to this time where women get to enjoy equal opportunities too.”