How one employee’s story inspired Scotiabank to enhance their benefits plan for everyone.

When Eileen Bonetti saw her child struggling, she knew she had to do something to help. 

Eileen’s daughter, Ashley, was assigned male at birth. In 2016, at the age of 22, Ashley came out as transgender. 

“But what we realized was that Ashley coming out was just the tip of the iceberg,” says Eileen, Director, Country Relationship, Chile, International Banking at Scotiabank. “Underneath, there was a lot of pain and anxiety, which led to severe depression.” 

It’s well-documented that transgender youth face increased mental health challenges. A 2017 study by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) found that transgender youth had a higher risk of reporting psychological distress, self-harm, major depressive episodes, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. The 2015 Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey found that 1 in 3 trans youth had attempted suicide in the past year. 

Seeing the pain that her daughter was in, Eileen was overwhelmed with worry. 

“Being a parent of a child who struggles with depression is really paralyzing,” she says. “You don’t know what to do.”  

To get some help for Ashley, Eileen looked to her employee benefits plan to fund therapy sessions. Ashley began therapy and was covered up to her twenty-fourth birthday, but after that, she was no longer eligible. After a call to her insurance company, Eileen discovered that her benefits only cover dependents for mental-health support if they are under twenty-five years of age and studying full-time. It was a heavy blow.

“I had all these benefits, but I couldn’t use them for the person in my family who really needed it,” she says.

Eileen reached out to her Scotiabank manager and he suggested she connect with Scotiabank’s Pride Employee Resource Group (ERG) for advice. Their mission is to help create an inclusive and supportive environment for LGBT+ employees, customers, their allies and friends. Eileen attended a meeting of the ERG to share her story.

“I remember that day. They all hugged me and they said, ‘You’re in the right place. We are going to work with you on this,’” Eileen says. “I felt very secure and very supported.”

The group asked Eileen to share her story and perspective as an LGBT+ parent through a series of panel discussions they were organizing throughout 2019. Through these panels, Eileen was able to relay the roadblock she encountered in trying to use her benefits for Ashley’s therapy. 

Ayman Alvi, Director, Global Benefits, Scotiabank Total Rewards, was in the audience for one of Eileen’s talks, with other members of his team. Ayman says the issue she raised resonated with them.

“We are always incorporating employee feedback, and the experience Eileen shared was a powerful one,” Ayman says. “We want to provide flexibility in our benefits to try to meet a wide variety of needs, and this seemed to be a gap.”

Ayman says the team reached out to their benefits provider to understand how they could expand eligibility for their employees’ mental health benefits. They were told the federal Income Tax Act does not allow for increasing the age of children who can be covered by benefits (Scotiabank pays up to $3,000 per year, for a variety of mental health professionals) — so those benefits could not be changed. 

 

“People think, I’m not going to say anything because nothing will happen. Or, I’m afraid to ask. And you know what? Things happen. You just need to speak up and ask.”

 

Undeterred, they found another way to address the gap. Scotiabank already offered a Wellbeing Account where employees could allocate benefit dollars towards mental health-related expenses. So the team updated that policy to allow for reimbursements for mental health-related expenses for any family members, such as adult children, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles.

“We assume that there are many in the bank who may be dealing with similar concerns, whether it be an adult child, an elderly parent for whom an employee has caregiving responsibilities, or another family member who needs support,” Ayman says. “We believe this is an important and valuable resource to provide our employees and therefore the right thing to do.”

The changes came into effect earlier this year. When Eileen found out, she was relieved and grateful that she would be able to access funds from the Wellbeing Account to pay for Ashley’s therapy.  

“I thought, Oh my God, this is really life-changing,” she says. “I wrote an email to HR to say thank you and that I appreciate the bank for listening. Being listened to — that’s really touching.”

Eileen says Ashley is now doing well. She’s “building up her confidence,” working part-time and engaging with a writing coach to write a book. “The therapy has made a difference,” Eileen adds. 

June is Pride Month and at Scotiabank, the company works to raise awareness for the inclusion of LGBT+ communities and build futures that are free of discrimination, where LGBT+ people feel safe and open to be their true selves. In 2019, Scotiabank was the first Canadian bank to sign the UN Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business to strengthen its work around human rights and in promoting equality for LGBT+ people.

For Eileen, Pride means visibility in the community. That’s why it’s important for LGBT+ people, their parents, and other allies to share their stories to open up hearts and minds.

“I think that listening to these personal stories can really make a difference. That’s when it clicks. There are so many stories out there and one will resonate with you and then you will be an ally with passion,” she says.

Through this experience, Eileen says she has learned a lot about herself. 

“What I learned is that I’m stronger than I thought I was. As parents of LGBT+ children, we come out too. If I didn’t take part in that panel discussion at the bank, nobody would know. It’s a step for me too to say, ‘I’m the parent of a trans kid.’ So you find out how courageous you are,” she says. “I also learned that unconditional love is very empowering — that is what empowered me to fight for a good cause.”

Eileen says she’s also learned that the actions of one person can make a big difference. She encourages others to speak up in the workplace if they see something they think should be changed. 

“People think, I’m not going to say anything because nothing will happen. Or, I’m afraid to ask,” she says. “And you know what? Things happen. You just need to speak up and ask.”

Meet Vanja Bannan: Founder of the highly creative communications consulting agency BannComm

Vanja Bannan cites fleeing war-torn (former) Yugoslavia in 1992 as a child as a defining moment in her life — her family’s struggle and determination to thrive taught her the importance of perseverance and the power of building relationships. Cultivating strong relationships through chemistry, empathy, and respect became one of Vanja’s core life strategies. In 2014 Vanja Bannan founded BannComm, a modern communications consulting agency specializing in highly creative digital marketing solutions – based on these principles. Despite multiple personal setbacks, including some heartbreaking ones, her resilience carried her through: today, Vanja and her award-winning teamwork with some of the leading companies in culture, architecture, and technology.

 

My first job ever was… working at Timothy’s World of Coffee. My family had recently fled the vicious conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and my brilliantly resourceful parents purchased the franchise in order to survive. My sister and I worked long, long hours alongside mom and dad. We all wore a lot of hats, we were tired more often than not, but we were together and we were alive. I was 15 years old.

I launched BannComm because… it served two important purposes for me. First, I was fascinated with the constant evolution and innovation of the communications sector. I needed a job that wasn’t chained to a cubicle, a job with dynamism and a constant pressure to thrive. A firm that pushed the digital envelope was the ticket.

Second, BannComm was my rock throughout several huge life challenges. It was one thing I knew I had complete control over, during times when life decided to throw a lot of curveballs my way.

My proudest accomplishment is… going from ESL to LSE! The mirrored acronyms are a coincidence: English as a Second Language and The London School of Economics—but they are a constant reminder for me. I came to Canada with limited English skills, something that puts many immigrants at an immediate disadvantage. But through hard work and resilience, the situation can absolutely be flipped 180 degrees. 

Fluent in English, I graduated from LSE with a Master’s of Science in Communications in 2007. The effort made to get through my academic career was as much for myself as it was for my family: a way to say thank you to my parents for all their sacrifices, to show them that it was absolutely for something. That is what I am most proud of.

My boldest move to date was… falling in love and building a life with a man who had cancer. 

When I met Brian, he had already been diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As we started to fall in love, I had a lot of conservations with myself and my support network. Tough ones. But in the end, I decided I wasn’t going to base my life on a “what if.” 

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is… learning how to ride the rollercoaster and leading by example for my children. The highs in this life are high, and the lows are really low. But it’s forced me to grow a thicker skin and made me more mature. I’ve learned how to better accept feedback, in all its forms. Every hard lesson was a good lesson in the end.

And since I am the business, and the business is me, my children get to experience facets of the rollercoaster. I try to show my children what hard work and perseverance looks like every day, and I know they’ll be better for it.

 

“Heartbreak will make you stronger. Lessons, good and bad, will make you wiser. You will end up where you are supposed to be.”

 

The most difficult thing about what I do is… learning how to cope with risk, yet still, always be taking it and meeting it head on. Risk is everywhere. There’s risk in sitting and doing nothing, there’s risk in betting it all. I feel like many people have a limited relationship with risk and understanding its nature and how you invite it or mitigate it. It’s scary stuff, and exciting stuff, and necessary stuff. Difficult, always. Essential: you bet! 

I surprise people when… I tell them about my personal obstacles. I’ve shared some of the big ones here already. In person I can come across as bubbly, positive, and living a charmed life. Behind the curtain, there are hardships, grave mistakes, and ugly cries. 

My best advice from a mentor was… it’s actually not from a mentor, it was from a psychologist on a TV show of all places. They spoke about removing the word “just” from your vocabulary and paying attention to how damaging it can be to your tone, your frame of mind, your ambition. The word “just” is weak. It does nothing but undermine your efforts: everything you have done and everything you are trying to do. Think about this! Take for example: Hi, I am just following up on the email I sent vs Hi, I am following up on the email I sent. “Just” is an unnecessary placeholder. I took this to heart and it truly changed my overall attitude and the way I do business.

I would tell my 21-year old self… to worry less, to trust her gut and intuition. To as quickly as possible internalize the fact that lack of control is inevitable. Heartbreak will make you stronger. Lessons, good and bad, will make you wiser. You will end up where you are supposed to be.

My biggest setback was… my husband and I struggled with fertility. In the end, it worked out—we have two beautiful kids—but dealing with it all put my growth plans for BannComm on the backburner for some time. I was distracted, scared, vulnerable. 

I overcame it by… leaning on BannComm! Despite being backburnered, BannComm was still there for me. It was my first creation and the one element that wasn’t completely out of my control when all else seemed to be. It served as an oasis of stability and calm, a port in an otherwise soul-wrenching storm.

One piece of advice that I often give but find it difficult to follow is… non-existent. I rarely give out advice in general; I do not think I have all the answers. In the rare case that I do, it’s going to be something I have lived and followed as well. I strongly believe in dialogue vs monologue. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… how incredibly important relationships are to me. They are the core resource that I rely on for everything good in my life. My job title and web bios surely imply that relationship building and maintenance is a top skill, sure. But it can be hard for me to succinctly express the depth to which I value and respect the power of a strong relationship.

One thing that is keeping me motivated is… leading by example for my children—Theodore and Vivienne. This experience with Women of Influence and all that led up to it has only further crystallized how important it is to be a role model for them. Vivi or joiedevivi as I affectionately call her especially motivates me. As a girl growing up in today’s rapidly evolving world, she is beginning to face her own challenges, ask her own questions, and become her own woman. Being her guide is my greatest honour. 

My next step is… to continue helping my clients navigate through this aggressive, pandemic-catalyzed digital shift, and prepared them for the post-COVID-19 digital world.

Sarah Jordan on how she became CEO of Mastermind Toys in January — and how she has transformed and inspired the retailer since.

By Hailey Eisen 

 

Within the first 100 days of becoming CEO of Mastermind Toys — Canada’s largest speciality toy and children’s book retailer, with 69 stores across the country and online — Sarah Jordan faced store closures, work-from-home protocols and other unprecedented ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It was certainly an untraditional way of starting out as a CEO of a retailer,” says Sarah, who stepped into the role in January. “This is going to be an experience that will be a defining one for leadership, at least in my lifetime.”

While Sarah says her first priority was (and still is) the wellbeing of her employees and customers, she’s embraced the opportunity to lead the company through the transformation that she committed to deliver. She passionately believes that employee experience drives customer experience — and has empowered her team to keep Mastermind special, to be bold and scrappy and to come out of this stronger together.

Digital transformation is among Sarah’s top priorities. From increasing Mastermind Toys’ social media presence (hosting daily storytime readings and weekly virtual birthday parties), to improving digital capabilities and online shopping, to expanding upon the sense of wonder for shoppers online and in-store, Sarah is taking the Canadian retailer to the next level.  

There’s no doubt Sarah is taking things in stride. “This experience has lent itself to my strengths, giving me the chance to rally the organization to get behind and believe in my vision for the future.” One of her strengths is building a diverse, powerhouse team. She has proudly reshaped the leadership team to include balanced gender representation.

In order to ensure success in the best of circumstances, but especially in trying times, Sarah says a clear vision and strategy with constant communication is critical. With Mastermind’s signature wrapping paper adorning her Zoom background, Sarah is hosting virtual coffee chats, company-wide town hall meetings, and more intimate conversations with employees, all with the intention of building momentum, celebrating successes, and managing with a clear focus. She is also passionate about bringing the philosophy of Mastermind Toys to life — Play Is Kids’ Work — and has been leaning on that founding principle in making decisions. “I’m reminded through this time that play plants a tiny seed of curiosity in a child’s mind that grows into knowledge that lasts a lifetime,” she says in one of her emails to Mastermind customers as they navigated closures, curbside pick-up, and reopenings.

“At Mastermind Toys, we know that play is a central and critical part of kids’ lives. We want to inspire imagination, wonder, education and development, and empower Canadian families to help their kids become lifelong learners,” she says. That mandate couldn’t be more timely given that, due to COVID-19, schools closed early this year and children have had to learn in new and different ways at home.

With her own two kids taking on the unofficial role of Mastermind toy testers, Sarah is able to bring work home in a way she couldn’t in previous roles. She’s also aware that as a 38-year-old mom, she’s in the minority among retail industry leaders — very few store chains in Canada are run by women. “I’m motivated and excited to show that leadership comes in a variety of forms.” 

Sarah has always felt comfortable doing things her own way — she affectionately credits her parents for instilling that “can-do” attitude. In university, she studied engineering chemistry. Growing up she loved math and science. Upon graduation, she took a job in consulting with Accenture. At 24, she enrolled in the MBA program at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. “Yes, I was the youngest in my MBA class, but I never focused on that,” she recalls. “I really liked the business world and wanted to build that foundational skillset — to up my game.” 

Through the MBA program, Sarah was able to successfully transition to a business management career. A key element was learning different leadership styles through the school’s team-based approach. “It gave me a chance to reflect upon what type of leader I wanted to be and to learn from others in a safe space.” 

 

“Be unapologetically authentic; don’t feel the need to adopt a classic or traditional style of leadership. Leading through difficult times is certainly easier when you’re doing what you love.” 

 

Sarah’s academic journey came full circle when she started as a lecturer with the Smith MBA program last year. “I’m passionate about making sure more young women see leaders that they can see themselves in, both in educational and business settings.” 

Even without having that advantage herself, Sarah stepped into the role of CEO at Mastermind with confidence — succeeding the company’s co-founder, Jon Levy, who’d been at the company’s helm since 1984. That self-assurance came in part from the years of experience she had tackling retail and banking transformation as a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where she worked with Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, boards, and a host of stakeholders, driving change from the outside. She left BCG in 2017 to join Scotiabank with the desire to focus on transformation from the inside. “I transitioned from a consultant to an operator and leader with an agenda for innovation and value creation,” she recalls. 

Ready for another career leap and excited to get back into the retail space, where her true passion lies, she joined Mastermind Toys. She credits what she calls her “personal board of directors” for helping her step up. “Mentorship and sponsorship from my personal board have provided the compass for my success,” she says.

When advising others on how to create their own personal boards, Sarah suggests recruiting people who will cheer you on, provide advice, give tough love when needed, hold you accountable and remind you to celebrate along your journey. Ideally, your board will have a variety of perspectives and will include managers, coaches, professors, sponsors, mentors and peers who have grown up alongside you in your career. Sarah’s board also happens to include her spouse, whom she met while doing her MBA. 

When asked to share other tips for young leaders, Sarah says “be unapologetically authentic; don’t feel the need to adopt a classic or traditional style of leadership.” And play to your passions. “Leading through difficult times is certainly easier when you’re doing what you love.” 

Looking ahead to the next few months, Sarah is optimistic that Mastermind will come out of the pandemic crisis stronger and ready to embrace “the next normal.”

“As a retailer that focuses on multi-generational customers — grandparents, expecting mothers, kids and kids at heart — we plan to lead the way in terms of providing innovative experiences that have wonder and delight around every corner while keeping health and safety paramount,” she says. “We have reimagined our experiences. Our customers can now choose their own adventure — in-store, online and curbside — and we will continue to provide new and flexible ways of shopping while managing the complexity that lies ahead.”