FOIRE AUX QUESTIONS : Comment Francine, Stéphanie et Marie-Ève s’adaptent-elles à une nouvelle normalité?

À la Boîte à Fleurs de Laval a été fondée en 1966 par Denise Locas, une femme avant-gardiste qui voulait financer les études de ses enfants. Cette femme dotée d’un talent extraordinaire et d’une détermination à toute épreuve a su diriger l’entreprise pendant près de 30 ans, pour ensuite passer les guides à sa fille Francine Locas-Joly en 1995.

Très jeune autodidacte, Francine prend plaisir à apprendre et à faire découvrir sa passion des fleurs aux gens qui l’entourent. Pendant des années, elle donne des cours, des conférences et des ateliers.

De 1999 à 2005, elle a été chroniqueuse en art floral aux SAISONS DE CLODINE. En 2003, elle a publié le premier numéro d’un magazine sur l’art floral intitulé Fleurs-Déco: une première au Québec! Ce magazine compte plus de 30 projets à réaliser, des conseils pratiques, des idées et la liste des fournitures pour les exécuter. En 2005, le second numéro paraissait.

Francine aime se ressourcer et rester à l’affût de tout ce qui est tendance dans l’industrie. Elle découvre chaque année un nouveau pays où elle trouve des idées qu’elle prend plaisir à partager avec vous à la boutique.

Comme sa mère l’a fait, Francine a transmis à sa fille Stéphanie Joly les gènes de l’amour et de la passion des fleurs. Toujours plus haut, toujours plus loin, Stéphanie a des projets plein la tête! Diplômée en design de présentation et détenant un baccalauréat en gestion de l’Université McGill, Stéphanie possède maintenant tous les outils et l’expérience nécessaires pour assurer la pérennité de l’entreprise familiale. Directrice de la Division Fleurs, Stéphanie adore relever des défis ! Sa mission? Toujours se renouveler et créer des «Wow !» avec l’aide de son équipe! Elle transforme chaque bouquet de fleurs en une expérience unique ! 

C’est à l’automne 2010 qu’une seconde fille de Francine, Marie-Ève Joly, sa fille aînée, s’est jointe à l’entreprise. Diplômée de l’Institut du Tourisme et de l’Hôtellerie du Québec et directrice de la salle à manger du renommé restaurant Les Menus-Plaisirs à Sainte-Rose pendant près de 10 ans, Marie-Ève a remporté en 2010 le Grand Prix du tourisme québécois, Lauréat OR, catégorie superviseure touristique. Depuis qu’elle s’est jointe à l’équipe, Marie-Ève est directrice de la Division Gourmet, et fait découvrir aux clients ses trouvailles gourmandes et ses judicieux conseils, sa passion des produits fins ! 

À la Boîte à Fleurs est fière d’avoir développé au fil des années, une clientèle très prestigieuse et d’avoir créé un lien de confiance avec des compagnies renommées tels Gestion Privée DESJARDINS, Financière Banque Nationale, Alimentation Couche-Tard, La Maison Simons, Remax, Les Productions Feeling (Céline Dion), Hôtel Intercontinental, Hôtel W, etc.

Parce qu’elles voient grand, Francine, Marie-Ève et Stéphanie ont créé un programme innovateur de cadeaux reconnaissance offert à l’ensemble des entreprises canadiennes et elles ont pris la décision de certifier leur entreprise We Connect International afin d’accéder à de nouveaux marchés, en vendant à des multinationales d’ici ou à l’international. Ces femmes entrepreneures transforment leurs rêves en occasions d’affaires et entrevoient l’avenir avec beaucoup d’optimisme !

 

À quels aspects de votre entreprise consacrez-vous le plus d’énergie et d’attention ? 

Notre mission est de mettre de l’avant des fleurs équitables et/ou locales dans nos bouquets et d’offrir des produits gourmets québécois dans nos paniers-cadeaux. Ainsi,  nous investissons dans les entreprises d’ici et encourageons les producteurs locaux. En ces temps d’incertitude, notre mission prend tout son sens ! 

Il est important pour nous de constamment nous renouveler et nous distinguer de la compétition en cherchant de nouveaux produits à offrir à notre clientèle. Nous nous efforçons de garder notre boutique en ligne à jour afin qu’elle représente bien notre grande variété de produits, notre créativité, notre minutie et notre professionnalisme.

Enfin, il est primordial pour nous de nous assurer du bien-être de notre équipe. Durant cette pandémie, il est encore plus important de prendre soin de nos employés en étant certaines qu’ils soient en sécurité et heureux au travail !

 

Quel est le problème le plus important que vous essayez de résoudre?

Actuellement, nous principal défi est la COVID-19. La peur, la réglementation et la distanciation sociale occasionnent une baisse d’achalandage en boutique et au bistro, et affectent nos revenus provenant des mariages, des contrats avec les hôtels et des funérailles. La santé et la sécurité de nos clients, de nos employés et de nous-même sont présentement au cœur de nos décisions, mais nous sommes optimistes et prêtes à traverser cette période.

Aussi, l’utilisation des services de livraisons confiées à des transporteurs externes sont pour nous un enjeu. En effet, dû à la situation actuelle, les délais sont très longs. Ces livraisons sont souvent coûteuses et demandent la plupart du temps un double emballage. Nous étudions plusieurs possibilités dans le but de réduire les coûts de livraison et réduire la quantité d’emballage nécessaire afin que le produit livré soit le plus abordable et écoresponsable possible. 

 

Quelle a été votre solution la plus fructueuse jusqu’à présent ?

Nous sommes très fières d’avoir investi à l’automne 2015 dans un site internet transactionnel, personnalisé selon nos besoins. C’était très audacieux à l’époque dans notre domaine de créer son propre site internet. Au fil des cinq dernières années, nous l’avons mis à jour, nous l’avons amélioré et nous avons eu la chance de l’apprivoiser graduellement. Notre partenaire web est une ressource précieuse et nous sommes fières d’avoir créé un lien de confiance avec lui depuis ces années. C’est ce qui nous a permis d’être prêt à faire face à l’explosion de commandes en ligne que nous avons reçues au début de la pandémie et spécialement à la fête des mères; plus de 400 commandes reçues pour l’occasion ! 

 

« Je pense que tout est une question d’avoir des objectifs et des prévisions réalistes. Il est bien de voir grand, mais il faut être prudent. Comme nous pouvons le constater cette année, personne n’est à l’abri d’une crise économique ou d’un arrêt temporaire des opérations. »

 

Comment êtes-vous restées en contact avec vos clients et vos employés? 

Il était primordial de rester connectées avec nos employés lors de la fermeture du commerce au début de la pandémie. Nous avons créé un groupe Facebook avec notre équipe afin de se partager des nouvelles et de se faire de petits 5 à 7 virtuels, c’était rafraîchissant et stimulant de se revoir !  Nous contactions aussi nos fournisseurs pour rester à jour avec les arrivages de fleurs et leurs nouveaux produits. Enfin, nous sommes restées connectées avec nos communautés Facebook et Instagram et nous avons aussi envoyé des nouvelles à notre clientèle membre de notre Bulletin Fleurs & Saveurs !

 

Quels conseils donneriez-vous aux entreprises qui ont des difficultés financières?

Tout d’abord, je pense que tout est une question d’avoir des objectifs et des prévisions réalistes. Il est bien de voir grand, mais il faut être prudent. Comme nous pouvons le constater cette année, personne n’est à l’abri d’une crise économique ou d’un arrêt temporaire des opérations. Entourez-vous de personnes compétentes et expertes dans leur domaine et n’attendez pas pour demander de l’aide, qu’elle soit financière, stratégique ou psychologique.

 

Qu’est-ce qui vous a surprise ? 

La pandémie nous a fait réaliser à quel point nous avions un beau métier et à quel point les fleurs et les produits fins faisaient plaisir à offrir. Au début du confinement nous avons clairement observé que les personnes avaient besoin d’envoyer des fleurs et des gourmandises afin de réconforter leurs proches. Nous avions le sentiment d’être un marchand de bonheur. Plusieurs clients faisaient livrer des fleurs pour la première fois !  Nous n’avons jamais reçu autant de beaux témoignages de satisfaction. Nous avons également été agréablement surprises par la réaction de notre équipe de 15 employés ! Ils font preuve de résilience et de compréhension. Ils sont très respectueux et rigoureux avec les règles d’hygiènes et de sécurité. Nous sommes très fières de notre belle équipe !

 

Quel est votre horizon de planification? 

Nous avons un plan stratégique sur un horizon de 5 ans ainsi qu’une revue annuelle avec notre comptable externe. Cependant, nous aimons beaucoup suivre notre instinct et notre feeling qui nous ont toujours bien servi. À court terme, nous avons comme objectif de trouver encore plus de producteurs et artisans locaux à mettre en valeur dans nos paniers-cadeaux. À moyen terme, nous avons comme objectif de réduire notre empreinte environnementale dans nos emballages et livraisons, et à long terme, nous souhaitons créer plus de partenariats d’affaires avec de grandes entreprises de distributions de cadeaux promotionnels et de reconnaissance.

 

Qu’est-ce qui vous fait garder le moral?

Nous aimons beaucoup travailler en famille. Je m’entends merveilleusement bien avec ma sœur et ma mère ! Les journées où nous sommes toutes les trois au bureau sont très agréables; elles nous permettent d’être productives et d’avoir du plaisir en même temps. C’est impressionnant de constater à quel point nous sommes complémentaires les trois ensemble. Il nous arrive souvent des passer plusieurs minutes le soir ensemble au téléphone à jaser de tout et de rien. Ça décourage parfois nos conjoints de voir que nous avons encore autant de choses à placoter, même si nous avons passé la journée ensemble au bureau ;)!

Il va de soi aussi que la fidélité de nos clients et le support de notre équipe nous aide énormément à traverser les périodes plus difficiles. Nous sommes reconnaissantes de la loyauté de nos employés envers l’entreprise. Ils sont en effet une ressource précieuse pour nous et nous tenons à les remercier. C’est grâce à leur talent et leur professionnalisme que notre clientèle est satisfaite et qu’elle revient.

 

Quel message voulez-vous faire passer aux entrepreneurs en ce moment? 

Continuez à vous surpasser ! Si les ventes sont à la baisse, profitez-en pour développer votre entreprise, prendre de temps d’analyser le marché et votre offre de service afin de bien rebondir. De plus, il ne faut surtout pas sous-estimer l’effet de son réseau d’affaires. Il est important d’être bien entouré, de rester connecté et de continuer à créer des liens. Pour notre part, le Réseau des Femmes d’Affaires du Québec (RFAQ), où nous sommes membres depuis de nombreuses années, nous a été d’une aide précieuse à tous les niveaux. En tant que membre du comité de gestion du RFAQ Laval, je vois de nombreuses opportunités d’affaires grâce à eux ; ce réseau connecte, inspire et propulse les femmes entrepreneures ! 

Meet Leanna Falkiner: a leader in harnessing digital disruption in the financial industry

As digital transformation continues to disrupt the financial services industry, Leanna Falkiner is respected for helping Banks, Credit Unions and Insurers harness that disruption to power profitable growth. She is the Founder and CEO of evoQ International, a strategy consulting firm focused on helping companies across the financial services sector excel in the digital economy. Launching with a mission to go where she was needed most, she landed in the Caribbean. After solving problems for the region’s biggest Banks and Insurers, evoQ expanded across Canada to help clients ignite brands, modernize products, optimize channels and architect growth strategies. In addition to leading her team, Leanna serves on the board of Coast Capital Savings and North York General Hospital Foundation. Leanna has a passion for the outdoors where she enjoys hiking and cycling with her active preschooler. 

 

My first job ever was… Selling newspapers. At 10 years old I was going door-to-door selling subscriptions and collecting monies owed for my neighborhood paper. I made sure that people on my route received their papers on time, plus managed the payments while growing my customer base. A paper route teaches responsibility and was my first exposure to understanding that I love building businesses.

The best thing I’ve done for my business so far is… Assemble an Advisory Board composed of veteran CEOs to guide the growth of my firm. Their input and disciplined approach has been instrumental in shaping my leadership and underpin the value I place on diversity of thought when working with colleagues and clients. I’m fortunate to count these senior strategists as friends.

My boldest move to date was… starting a strategy consulting firm in a highly competitive market. At the onset, I opted to capitalize on untapped potential in the Caribbean where we applied our digital payments expertise.

My proudest accomplishment is…Being a MOM. If you had asked me a few years ago, I probably would have rattled off a bunch of career-related successes and financial wins, but now I measure my accomplishments by the number of hugs and kisses.

I surprise people when I tell them… I’ve never had a cup of coffee — especially as I love to network!

My best advice to people starting out in business is… Build a network of champions. Everyone has a support system, who is in yours? I encourage you to make connections across sectors, disciplines and tenures and nurture these relationships. It’s the quality of these connections that will support your entrepreneurial journey.  Your network doesn’t have to be large to be effective. No one makes it alone.

My best advice from a mentor was…Listen for the subtext. It’s easy to focus on driving business results but the real value happens when we take time to reflect on the motives, anxieties and professional pressures influencing our decisions. Emotions are always at play. Be mindful to listen carefully and critically while acknowledging your unconscious bias.

My biggest challenges have been… similar to other consulting firms — challenges like: attracting top talent, struggling to keep pace with emerging technologies or unexpected scope changes. Entrepreneurship has no insulation; we experience every bump.

I overcame it by… Embracing a growth mindset.

 

“Listen for the subtext. It’s easy to focus on driving business results but the real value happens when we take time to reflect on the motives, anxieties and professional pressures influencing our decisions. Emotions are always at play. Be mindful to listen carefully and critically while acknowledging your unconscious bias.”

 

The once piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Embrace uncertainty. All business decisions contain some aspect of risk. Learning how to lean into calculated risk-taking is a skill. It requires you to evaluate the probability of success, identify mitigation actions and assess your personal perceptions, all at the same time. Making decisions with imperfect information can be paralyzing. However, having all the answers is not a prerequisite for success.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Spend time in nature enjoying a hike, bike ride, swim or soaking up the sunshine and scenery. Connecting with nature’s powers refuels my creativity, provides clarity of thought and nourishes my heart. My best business strategies happen when I am outdoors. Taking this time to reboot leaves me feeling energized.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know that… For over 10 years I was an active disaster relief volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross Society; responding to local and international emergencies like the Walkerton Water Crisis, Pine Lake Tornado, Eastern Canadian Ice Storm and Thailand Tsunami. I have witnessed the best of humanity as communities came together to rebuild and recover from these horrific events.

I stay inspired by… Networking. I’m a natural connector, who subscribes to a pay it forward philosophy, always willing to facilitate a connection, offer a solution, or share a laugh over lunch. The strong, trust-based relationships I have built along the way are the most strategic and valuable asset in my arsenal. I find it energizing to meet and learn about people.

The future excites me because… The sky’s the limit and I’ve only gotten started. Small businesses will continue to fuel our economy. I’m enthusiastic about the forces shaping the future and seizing new opportunities.

How to build a multi-million dollar, inclusivity-first tech business out of an economic crisis.

As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month, it’s with another Calgary-based leader with a passion for inclusion, Virtual Gurus founder, Bobbie Racette.

When Bobbie Racette first founded Virtual Gurus — a business offering remote administrative assistant services on a contract basis — she didn’t even have a website.   

Four years later, and Virtual Gurus is a thriving tech company, matching businesses with virtual assistants and freelancers using a proprietary matchmaking algorithm. The Virtual Gurus Academy trains new assistants, helping to fill their own pipeline with diverse talent. And they just launched the beta version of Ask Betty, a new by-the-task virtual service that’s integrated with the Slack app. 

A Cree-Metis woman who prides herself on building an inclusivity-first company, Bobbie says her most important goal is to create more jobs — and she’s already leading a team of about 250, with 6000 ‘Virtual Gurus’ in their database. 

I caught up with Bobbie to talk about building and scaling her business, putting her values first, and being a role model. 


Laura: I want to start by asking about your origin story. You launched Virtual Gurus in 2016 — at a time when Alberta was in its worst recession in decades — and you still managed to build a seven-figure business. Can you share a bit more about that journey?

Bobbie: Virtual Gurus was really built because of that economic crisis. The first people to get laid off in a recession are always the administrators — so when the recession hit, the administration departments of all these companies in Alberta got laid off. There were thousands and thousands of administration people running around trying to find work, and at the same time, all these businesses still needed admin people, but they couldn’t afford a full-time admin person.  

I had been laid off from my oil and gas job, my EI was running out — I really was borderline homeless at the time. I literally had $300 in my pocket when I officially started it.

In the beginning, I was the virtual assistant. I was charging pretty low rates, but I was able to pay my rent from that. Then I built the website myself. When I got to 19 clients I brought in another virtual assistant — she’s still with the company today — and we went from there, bringing on more and more. 

We only hire Canadians right now, and we hire a lot of marginalized folks. People who are often forgotten. People who want to learn how to work from home, like single stay-at-home moms who can’t afford childcare, or trans women, who felt in their previous office jobs they couldn’t be themselves. We have a mandate with hiring freelancers — the onboarding team knows it, and the freelancers applying know, because they see it on the website — that we will always be 95% self-identified women, 65% are people of color, and 45% are part of the LGBTQ+ community.


Laura: Have you had challenges scaling while also maintaining those values? 

I had to toggle a lot with the fact that we’re not offshore, so we can’t pay our workers $2 an hour, which isn’t uncommon with services like this. But that’s the whole point of me starting — I wanted to be able to figure out a way to pay a fair wage while still making good margins for Virtual Gurus. It took a couple years of playing with the pricing. 

A lot of people didn’t think that Virtual Gurus would be scalable, because how can you scale the human aspect of it? We didn’t have the matchmaking algorithm, until about a year ago. But I was determined to just keep pushing and proving that we were able to do this. I started realizing what people really needed. We built it into a two-sided marketplace, where not only are we trying to make sure we’re bringing in the clients and taking care of that, but we also recruit and take care of the virtual assistants, the freelancers, and the remote workers that manage the back end. It’s a whole community. 


Laura: And how are things going with the business lately? Has the pandemic had an impact? 

Bobbie: I just had my board of directors meeting for my Q2 update — I bootstrapped up to a million, then closed my first funding round right before COVID hit — and all my investors are extremely happy. Looking at our numbers, we’re not hockey sticking, but we’re going up nicely. With COVID, what’s happened to a lot of businesses wasn’t the case for us. 

Obviously, we took a hit too — because April was ‘hardcore panic month,’ I’ll call it. While I’m panicking, my CSM team had to deal with all of the clients panicking, quitting or needing to pause. We came up with solutions that we could provide them and said, “Try not to panic” — because once the panic mode is over, pivot mode is going to kick in. And then when pivot mode kicks in for your business, at the end of the day you’re still going to need our services. 

At the same time, we’d realized that a lot of our startup friends were taking major hits and their staff have been laid off, so we gave 110 startups free services and then we gave all SMBs 40% off for a month — which worked out, because now most of them have turned into paying clients. Our clientele went up 66%.

The main point was to help these people, so that they can keep their companies afloat. I knew we were going to take a hit — but we’re a monthly subscription service, and the thinking was that they could potentially turn into paying clients. If not, they’d fall off, and that’s fine — because in the future they’d remember when Virtual Gurus came in and helped them. 

 

It felt good to be the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year. It felt good to have them there to witness it. I think it was a very proud moment for my family. A very proud moment for me, of realizing my resilience. I stuck to this, I kept going, I didn’t give up. I didn’t believe the naysayers and I proved them wrong. 

 

Laura: That’s really a win-win strategy. I think it takes a savvy entrepreneur to see the value in giving their product away for free, at a time when most businesses are thinking about preserving revenue. Which is a great segue into what I’d like to ask you about next: last year you were named the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year and Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Prairies Region, by Startup Canada. What was it like getting that recognition for what you’ve accomplished?  

Bobbie: I actually took my moms to Toronto for it, and they didn’t know that I’d won. It was more of a trip of giving back to my moms, thanking them for everything that they’d pushed me through. 

They would fly to Calgary for a family talk, and it wasn’t, ‘You’ve got to do this for the family, because you’re making money,’ it was, ‘This is your baby. You’ve got this.’ They knew that it was something I was passionate about. No mom wants their kid to give up on something they’re passionate about.

Taking them to the awards was my way of thanking them. It felt good to be the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year. It felt good to have them there to witness it. I think it was a very proud moment for my family. A very proud moment for me, of realizing my resilience. I stuck to this, I kept going, I didn’t give up. I didn’t believe the naysayers and I proved them wrong. 


Laura: You’ve talked openly about coming up against discrimination as an Indigenous, LGBTQ+, woman entrepreneur. Has it always been important to you to share that part of your story? 

Bobbie: For the first two or three years that I started, I didn’t want to share that story at all. I was very quiet about being lesbian, raised by two lesbian moms. I was very quiet about being Indigenous. If you look at any of the articles from before 2018, they don’t really discuss me being Indigenous — I just focused on being a woman in tech more than anything.

In the beginning of 2018, I started getting asked to be a mentor for Indigenous youth in business. That changed it all for me. I would do a speech in an auditorium, and they were all wanting to take pictures with me, saying, “Oh my God, it’s Bobbie Racette!” That made me realize I can’t shy away from this anymore. I have got to be loud and proud about my Indigenous culture. 

Then the same thing happened with the LGBT part of it. I got asked to speak at Venture Out. That’s where it really started. So many people said, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, trifecta!’


Laura: It’s wonderful that you’re embracing being a mentor and a role model. Thinking back to when you started, that few hundred dollars in your pocket, did you ever picture yourself where you are now? 

Bobbie: Honestly, five years ago, if you would have asked me if I would be where I am right now — no, absolutely not. I didn’t have a career directive. I didn’t know what I was going for. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was working as an administrator, worked in oil and gas as a safety technician. I don’t think I knew that I had it in me to be an entrepreneur. Now, when I think of it, I’m like, ‘Oh, yes, this is what I should have been doing 10, 15, or 20 years ago.’


Laura: And looking ahead, where do you hope to be? 

Bobbie: Providing work to 10 times more people than I’m providing work to now. That’s the most important part for me. 

A conversation with Sané Dube on the two health crises facing Black people in Canada: COVID and Racism

By early April, just a few weeks after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, the headlines started appearing: Black people were experiencing an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, and death from the virus. 

The stats were coming from the US and the UK, because we weren’t collecting race-based COVID data in Canada — despite awareness of the risks for Black communities, community members sounding the alarm, and supporting evidence by way of overlapping COVID and census data. 

As Black Lives Matter protests erupted globally at the end of May in response to the killing of George Floyd, accelerating calls from Black community health leaders in Canada to have anti-Black racism declared a health crisis — mainstream discussions were still asking, “Is Canada racist?” 

Sané Dube has been advocating for greater visibility and action with respect to the connection between race and health. Currently the Policy and Government Relations Lead, with a focus on Black health, at the Alliance for Healthier Communities, she has worked in community development, health promotion, research, and strategic policy development. 

I spoke with Sané about the link between anti-Blackness and the severity of COVID among Black people in Canada, the distinctly Canadian blind spot that serves to halt progress on the issue, and what we could be doing differently to dismantle systemic racism in healthcare. 

This interview has been edited for length. 


Statistics are showing that Black people are more likely to die from COVID — but while the numbers are making the headlines, not everyone is gaining an understanding of
why this is happening. Can we start there? 

Health is about a lot more than being able to walk into a doctor’s office or being able to walk into a healthcare facility. Health is really influenced by a range of factors and the environments we live in. Social determinants of health can be understood as the conditions that you live, work, and play in — it’s really a combination of the social and economic factors that impact your health.

Housing, for example, impacts health in very significant ways in terms of stability. We know that people who are unhoused or are experiencing homelessness tend to have worse health outcomes than people who have stability and don’t have to worry about housing. These social determinants of health are really looking at health with a much broader view than just through the ability to see a doctor, nurse or healthcare provider. They’re looking at the everyday things in someone’s life that can either help their health or lead to deterioration of their health.

 

Early on in the pandemic, when first called upon to collect race-based data with respect to COVID, Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario, responded that statistics based on race aren’t collected in Canada unless certain groups are found to have risk factors — which seems to completely ignore the existence of social determinants of health. 

That moment was really shocking. At the same time that Ontario was saying we won’t collect the data, we were seeing really striking statistics coming out of the United States and also the United Kingdom. We now know that in the US, Black people are five times more likely to be hospitalized and more than twice as likely to face fatal outcomes from COVID, compared to white Americans. 

We know that in Ontario it’s the same story. At the time when Dr.Williams made this comment, we were already seeing the impact of COVID on some communities. It was really disappointing to hear.

There was a lot of rallying, there was a lot of mobilization — I think people were pushing back against this thing that often happens in Canada, where we try and make invisible the way that systemic racism and structural inequality impact the most marginalized and vulnerable in our communities. We often get, ‘We’re not the same as the US,’ which invisibilizes the harm that Black, racialized and Indigenous people experience in this country. 


The efforts made by advocacy groups eventually led to the Ontario government changing course on the collection of race-based data for COVID, which is certainly a win. But to put that in perspective — this can’t be the first time this conversation was happening, right? 

You’re right. This is not new. People have been calling for this for literally decades. I was looking at something today — someone showed me a committee that had been put together in 1998, asking for the collection of this data. I think that this happened to be a window of opportunity because of the devastation that we have seen with COVID.

Data is collected in Ontario for other sectors. Education collects data by race. Justice also does. And there was a discussion, around 2017, to collect the data for health, but at the time the ministry said that there are lots of privacy concerns. I don’t think in calling for more data collection now, people are saying we should not be mindful of privacy. It’s also important to say that the collection of the data is not the end goal — but having the data means we have better tools to dismantle what causes harm.

 

This call was partly pushback saying, no, things are really awful, and this is not an issue just in the US. Even in Canada, Black people are dying, Indigenous people are dying, because of what happens with policing, because there isn’t a recognition of the ways that racism leads to death, or racism leads to us getting less services than other people, or getting care that just isn’t good enough.

 

You were a signatory on the joint statement calling for anti-Black racism to be declared a public health crisis. Can you share what led to its release on June 1, and what were the main goals of this joint effort?

You’ll remember that in the same week in the US, we had just seen the killing of George Floyd and Tony McDade, and we were talking about the killing of Breonna Taylor. Then in Canada, that same week, we had seen Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman, fall to her death in police presence. There have been two other deaths in Ontario under similar circumstances. In New Brunswick, we had just seen Rodney Levi, an Indigenous man, killed by an RCMP officer, and Chantel Moore, who was also Indigenous, killed by police who were called in to respond to a mental health and wellness check.

All these things were happening in Canada, and our Premier was asked about systemic racism, and his response at that time was that ‘we’re not as bad as the US’ — the premier did later reverse this, but in that moment it had the effect of minimizing the violence Black and Indigenous communities were facing.  

This call was partly pushback saying, no, things are really awful, and this is not an issue just in the US. Even in Canada, Black people are dying, Indigenous people are dying, because of what happens with policing, because there isn’t a recognition of the ways that racism leads to death, or racism leads to us getting less services than other people, or getting care that just isn’t good enough. Racism leads to our communities being underfunded, so that in the social sector, the health sector, our communities receive less. That ends up influencing our health.

With the declaration of anti-Black racism as a public health crisis, we were calling for it to be seen that racism was impacting people’s lives. It was a push to make things visible, and to then have the system be accountable for the ways that people are harmed. Declaring something a public health crisis shows urgency, that this is a critical issue that demands a response. It ensures health resources are designated, and there’s planning for the appropriate resources to be put in place, as well as accountability, infrastructure, and mechanisms for the system. 


A lot of the mainstream media stories have focused on the mortality rate of COVID being higher for Black people. What’s not making the headlines that should be, with respect to Black communities and health? What about mental health? 

When that question comes up, my first thought is always, how do you talk about this in a way that doesn’t pathologize Black people? Anti-Black racism, anti-Indigeneity has done so much harm and continues to do so much harm. White supremacy does so much harm to our people, and yet we often talk about mental health in a way that somehow again places the harms of these huge, unrelenting systems at the feet of Black people, without holding the system accountable for the distress that it causes to our people. What I would really like us to ask is, ‘What does this system do to Black people and in what way is it not accountable?’ 

I’ll give the example of healthcare workers who are dying in Ontario. Most have been personal support workers, many of them Black and racialized. It’s caused tremendous distress to their families, especially the circumstances under which they have died. I think that even the system has not held itself accountable for the way that it’s contributed to those deaths.

Earlier on in the pandemic, Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, was asked about personal protective equipment for personal support workers. He initially did not name them as essential workers, or prioritize access to equipment for them. Then personal support workers started dying, and there’s no apology for the way that they have been treated, there is no acknowledgement of the way that the system has failed them. Instead, when you read about their death, it’s almost framed like they are responsible for what systemic and structural issues have done to them.

 

Is there a way we can tell these stories differently, so that they are contributing to positive change?

We need to be able to tell these stories in a way that also holds the system and these structures accountable for the harm that they do to people.

With Regis Korchinski-Paquet, for example, I think we have to ask, as a 29-year-old young woman, what other support had she received to that point? Had she been able to find care that was culturally appropriate and that understood her very specific cultural issues that she was bringing? If she hadn’t, then why isn’t there more of an effort, even as we discuss her case, to talk about funding for mental health programs that are designed by and for marginalized communities, so that people can get the care that they need?

Even with Chantel Moore, I think that there just hasn’t been as much useful conversation talking about the way that policing continues to be part of the colonial project in Canada. It again goes back to that accountability. So much of the media coverage in Canada has been focused on the question, is there systemic racism? — which is just a distraction, and it takes away from what people are going through. 

And while we’re wasting time asking if there’s systemic racism, people’s lives are still being negatively impacted. People are still not getting the care that they need in Toronto’s  North West to deal with a deadly pandemic. While we’re asking, ‘Is there systemic racism in prisons?’, people who are Black and Indigenous — who are also overrepresented in prison populations — are not getting all the supplies that they need to deal with COVID, even though they are at some of the highest risk because of the condition that people in prisons live under.


Has the conversation around racism and health evolved at all, as a result of the pandemic?

I think that we are having conversations right now in 2020 under COVID that we weren’t having in 2018, which is great. But it would be naive not to look at the ways that already white supremacy is mutating and working to keep the status quo in place. I think there’s a lot of words that are being put out, but I don’t know that most of them are turning into actual work.

 

You have written about how anti-Blackness is a health crisis that deserves more than lip-service. Is there anything that gives you hope for change in what’s happening now? 

This is a question that we also see a lot in Canadian media. I think that hope is a critical part of resistance; hope is a critical part of being able to remake a world where we can live better. I think that often what happens when people are asked to be hopeful, is minimization of the very real pain that people are in and the difficulty of this moment. So I don’t usually answer that question, ‘what gives you hope?’ But what I do say is that I recognize hope is a critical part of resistance.

 

Cinq minutes avec Brigitte Jalbert, Présidente de Les Emballages Carrousel — un chiffre d’affaires de 162 millions et comptant 375 employés

Brigitte Jalbert se dirigeait du côté de la photographie et des communications lorsqu’elle travaillait durant les étés pour l’entreprise familiale. C’est en 1986 qu’elle joint l’équipe à temps plein.  Emballages Carrousel a alors un chiffre d’affaires de 8 millions et compte 30 employés au grand total. Au cours des années qui suivent, elle occupera différents postes au sein de l’entreprise, particulièrement du côté des ventes, des achats, du marketing et des ressources humaines, jusqu’à ce qu’elle devienne actionnaire et vice-présidente en 1997.  La compagnie continue d’évoluer : usine de fabrication de sacs de papier, ouverture d’une succursale à Québec et acquisition d’une entreprise concurrente à Drummondville.  En 2011, Brigitte Jalbert est nommée présidente alors que son père, jusqu’alors président-fondateur devient président du nouveau C.A.  Aujourd’hui, Carrousel a un chiffre d’affaires de 162 millions et compte 375 employés. Nous avons échangé avec Brigitte au sujet de l’entreprise, de son parcours et de ses meilleurs conseils.

 

Commençons par nous familiariser avec votre entreprise : comment pourriez-vous la décrire en quelques phrases ?

Emballages Carrousel est une entreprise de distribution de produits d’emballage alimentaire, d’emballage industriel, de produits sanitaires et d’entretien, de machinerie d’emballage. Nous opérons également une manufacture de sacs de papier (principalement sacs à pain et sacs à pharmacie).  Carrousel est une entreprise familiale créée par mon père, Denis, en 1971. Nous allons célébrer le 50e anniversaire l’an prochain !

 

Vous avez commencé à travailler dans l’entreprise familiale pendant vos vacances scolaires. Aviez-vous dès le départ l’intention d’en prendre la direction ?

Absolument pas !  Je suis arrivée chez Carrousel en attendant de trouver ma voie.  J’étais entre deux années d’université et j’ai étudié dans trois domaines différents. Ça été bien difficile pour moi de découvrir mes forces et mes réels intérêts afin d’aligner ma carrière.  J’étais très loin de me douter que 34 ans plus tard je serais encore active chez Carrousel et encore moins que j’occuperais le poste de présidente-directrice générale.

 

Décrivez l’évolution et la croissance de l’entreprise depuis le début de votre leadership en 2011.

Carrousel a toujours eu une belle croissance au fil des ans, néanmoins, je réalisais que pour assurer sa pérennité, il fallait se doter de meilleures pratiques (principalement pour la logistique, la chaine d’approvisionnement et la planification stratégique) et ajouter certaines compétences qu’on n’avait pas à l’interne.  J’ai tout d’abord fait monter dans l’autobus d’excellents collaborateurs et ensemble, nous avons bâti un plan de croissance. Nous avons notamment changé nos logiciels et ajouté des nouveaux tels que gestion d’inventaire, gestion des routes de livraison, de prise de rendez-vous; nous avons développé de nouvelles lignes de produits, révisé notre mission et nos valeurs et revampé complètement notre image de marque pour ensuite bâtir tout le volet web et les commandes en ligne.  

 

Faites-vous une relation entre les choix faits pour monter votre équipe et le succès de l’entreprise ?

S’entourer des bonnes personnes est selon moi la clé de la réussite.  Chez Carrousel, la culture d’entreprise est forte et bien présente.  Lorsque nous devons ajouter de nouvelles personnes à l’équipe, au haut de notre liste d’aptitudes et d’habiletés se trouvent le respect, une attitude positive, le savoir-être, le leadership, l’écoute, la bienveillance.  Nous privilégions les candidats (tes) qui nous ‘’ressemblent’’ à ceux qui auraient peut-être tous les diplômes et l’expérience requise mais qui n’épouseraient pas nos valeurs.  C’est ce qui fait que nous ayons l’équipe la plus solide qui soit !

 

“Chaque être humain a une responsabilité face à la protection de notre planète. Une entreprise qui distribue des produits faits de plastique ou d’autres matériaux dommageables doit se donner une ligne directrice afin d’en minimiser l’impact sur l’environnement.”

 

En 1971, votre père à démarré l’entreprise en vendant deux produits. Aujourd’hui, vous en vendez environ 12 000. Que dire de cette croissance faramineuse ?

Notre modèle d’affaires a évolué au fil des ans, mais le fil conducteur est de faire de Carrousel un ‘’one stop shop’’ pour notre clientèle.  Et pour ça, il nous faut une offre de produits des plus diversifiée.  Graduellement depuis 1971, nous ajoutons des lignes de produits pour répondre aux besoins de nos clients et avons ainsi élargi le spectre de notre clientèle cible qui visait au départ les boucheries et épiceries de quartier. Aujourd’hui nous sommes en mesure de servir tant le fabricant de portes et fenêtres, le producteur de brocolis, le traiteur, le transformateur alimentaire, les cafétérias d’hôpitaux, d’écoles, de centres de détention, etc… 

 

Vous vous êtes fixé une mission écologique. Pourquoi avoir pris une telle décision ? Comment avez-vos rencontré cet objectif ? En adoptant quelles étapes ?

Chaque être humain a une responsabilité face à la protection de notre planète.  Une entreprise qui distribue des produits faits de plastique ou d’autres matériaux dommageables doit se donner une ligne directrice afin d’en minimiser l’impact sur l’environnement. Parce que Carrousel est leader dans son industrie, nous avons rapidement choisi de nous positionner comme précurseurs en adoptant certaines pratiques et en nous engageant à ajouter annuellement 500 nouveaux produits écoresponsables à notre offre, et ce, pour une période minimale de 5 ans.  Également, nous avons créé notre ‘’Catalogue écoresponsable’’ qui a circulé partout au Québec, tant sur les réseaux sociaux et sur notre site web que par le biais de notre équipe de vente.  L’écoresponsabilité, c’est aussi une question d’éducation.  Nos 370 employés ont été formés afin d’être en mesure de mieux comprendre les tenants et aboutissants, de faire de meilleurs choix et d’encourager tant nos clients que nos familles à contribuer à la protection de notre environnement.

 

En tant que leader, quels défis avez-vous surmontés ?

Il y en a eu plusieurs, mais je dirais que les plus marquants ont été de prendre conscience de mes forces et de réaliser qu’elles étaient d’une certaine manière, nécessaire à la pérennité de Carrousel.  Également, ça été tout un défi de réussir la transition entre la première et la deuxième génération (mon père a eu beaucoup de difficulté à lâcher prise), de bonifier le niveau de croissance et d’excellence tout en m’assurant de maintenir la santé financière à un niveau supérieur.  Et je dirais que ce dont je suis le plus fière, c’est que nous ayons réussi à préserver la culture qui est si signifiante chez Carrousel. 

 

Quel impact la Covid-19 a-t-elle eu sur votre entreprise ? Quelles mesures avez-vous prises afin d’y répondre ?

La Covid !!!  Heureusement, nous nous en sommes quand même bien sortis.  Nous figurons parmi les privilégiés car Carrousel fait partie des entreprises de service.  Si on ne compte pas le personnel d’entrepôt et nos livreurs, 95% de nos gens se sont retrouvés du jour au lendemain en télétravail (nous avons été surpris de constater que tous les postes s’y prêtaient finalement!).  Notre équipe aux achats a passé des jours complets et des nuits entières à chercher des masques, visières, gants, produits nettoyants, désinfectants, bornes sur pied,  produits que nous vendions déjà, mais jamais autant !   Un des enjeux majeurs fût aussi de revoir notre chaine d’approvisionnement.  Certains produits comme par exemple les plateaux pour traiteur ne se vendent absolument plus et en contrepartie, les produits à usage unique (sacs à bretelles, ustensiles de plastique, pailles, contenants pour emporter…) ont retrouvé une grande popularité.  L’environnement aura aussi beaucoup souffert de cette crise, car il est devenu impératif de limiter les risques de propagation en jetant le plus possible les produits d’emballage dont on se sert. 

 

Avez-vous des conseils pour les entreprises familiales souhaitant transmettre la propriété et la direction à la génération suivante ?

Oh oui, en voici quelques-uns !  

  • Préparer longtemps d’avance le processus de relève, en discuter régulièrement avec les personnes-clés de l’entreprise (pas seulement cédant-repreneur).
  • Impliquer dans les discussions des gens de l’extérieur en qui vous avez confiance, qui vous connaissent bien, qui ont un regard neutre et moins émotif (ex. votre comptable, votre 
  • banquier …).
  • Le repreneur doit s’entourer de personnes solides qui épousent les mêmes valeurs et qui ont des compétences complémentaires.  Un dirigeant n’est pas expert en tout, il est important de bâtir une ‘’équipe de relève’’. 
  • S’entendre d’avance sur un échéancier, une date de départ du cédant et s’y tenir.  Même lorsque c’est difficile pour lui de lâcher prise …

Meet Ria Aikat and Jennalee Desjardins: the Giggle Queens — a dynamic fusion dance duo

 

Giggle Queens is a choreography/performance duo by Ria Aikat and Jennalee Desjardins. They specialize in fusion dance projects that combine Eastern and Western dance styles such as Bollywood and Bharatanatyam with Waacking and Hip Hop. They also like laughing. Giggle Queens has performed in the Culture Shock Canada Showcase 2017, Bollywood Monster Mashup in 2018 and 2020, the City Dance Corps Annual Showcase, as well as several video/music video works. Giggle Queens are pioneers in fusion, inclusion and positivity, hiring and supporting young dance artists across the GTA. It is their mission to add a layer of comedy and charisma to their dance acts. If you are feeling brave, they have kindly choreographed a beginner level dance video for the WOI community to try out.

 

Our first job ever was…a babysitter! We both love kids. 

Our proudest accomplishment is…creating a niche for ourselves in the dance world. 

The idea for Giggle Queens came to us when…we realized we loved dancing, creating, and laughing together. We wanted to create a space for us to explore and experiment with movement and fusion styles on our own terms. 

Our boldest move to date…taking a very silly performance piece to a choreographer’s hip hop showcase. No regrets! 

Our advice for aspiring artists is…figure out what you really like and stay true to that. There is space for everyone in the world of art and sometimes that means creating your own path. 

Our best advice from a mentor was…When faced with different opportunities or contracts, integrity always pays off, stick to your plan. 

The dance industry does not motivate us because…it doesn’t always value diversity and creativity in a way that speaks to us. This is why we have created Giggle Queens as a place for us to dance the way we want to dance. 

Our biggest setback was…Jennalee’s back injury a few years ago. (she’s okay now!) 

We overcame it by…expanding our dancer roster for performances that year. 

 

 

“There is space for everyone in the world of art and sometimes that means creating your own path.” 

 

We decided to go into performance arts because…we come alive when we perform and it’s where we feel most at home! 

Our favourite thing about Giggle Queens is…our 12 days of Christmas videos! So far, we’ve done 12 days of TV themes, movie themes, and reality TV themes. They are always a blast and make us laugh years later. 

If you google us, you still wouldn’t know…we have another company! In 2019 we launched Dance ‘N’ Culture: cultural dance programming for schools. Indian, Chinese, Afro, and more dance styles!

Our biggest professional influences have been…

For Ria: Her bosses Amy and Libby at Moving Edgeucation. 

For Jennalee: Her bosses Tina and Estelle at City Dance Corps. They are all uncompromising, focused, and creative women in the biz. 

The most challenging thing about what we do is…being self-motivated and staying creatively inspired when we have to deliver performances and classes. 

We stay inspired by…Music is a big one for us. We try to constantly share new and old music that we love. We also actively participate in the dance scene by taking classes and attending other artists’ performances. 

The future excites us because…We are both devoting more time this year to GQ and DNC, and quarantine has forced us to hunker down. As a result, we are ready to unleash some creative juices on the world.

Maryam and Nivaal interview Mariana Atencio

By Maryam and Nivaal Rehman

In our second interview for our Perspectives column, we were able to speak with the incredible Mariana Atencio. Mariana is such a big inspiration to us in our work because of her incredible career in journalism. She is a Peabody Award-winning journalist, speaker, author and the co-founder of her own production company, GoLike. She was an anchor at Univision/Fusion and a national correspondent at NBC news — travelling the world to cover some of the most volatile conflicts of our times, in English and Spanish, for more than 10 years. Her amazing TED Talk, “What Makes You Special?”, is one of the top 10 most-watched on YouTube, and has been translated into 11 languages. Her first book, Perfectly You, was an Amazon Best Seller for Latino Biographies and an Audible Editor’s Pick and AppleBooks “Must Listen.” In this interview, she shares her journey of being a Venezuelan immigrant who came to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. We were able to discuss the ups and downs of her magnificent journey, from covering mass shootings to hurricanes, and her advice to others on finding their authentic voice on social media, in their writing, and on-screen.

 

What inspired you to become a journalist?

When I was growing up, there were so many things that I liked to do, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Overtime, I realized that I like writing, I like theatre, I like public speaking, and I have this sense of social justice. I grew up in Venezuela, which is a country that was going through tremendous socio-economic and political upheaval at the time so that also influenced my sense of “whatever I have to do has to be of service to others and has to build bridges of understanding.” So if you put all of that in a blender, what comes out? A journalist! 

I didn’t quite know it at the time, but it was when the government was growing more and more authoritarian down there, when they shut down the biggest television station in our country, we went out to protests as students. And I still remember holding on to my younger brother and my younger sister, and we had our hands painted white, and we had flowers in our hands as a sign of peace in front of the national guard. It was a lot of what many young people today could also see happening in the United States in some way. And it was in that moment where I said this is my calling. To be a journalist. To tell these stories that aren’t really being told. 

Still though, it was tough to admit it to my parents because I grew up in a really traditional conservative home where my mom always said to me “I would love for you to be a dentist. That way, you’ll get your own practice, and have your own kids and go for like half a day,” and I would say, “I have nothing against dentists, mom, but I don’t really see myself with my hand in someone’s mouth the whole day.” But I studied advertising in the beginning because I was like I don’t know if my parents are going to be okay with being a journalist here in this country in this context. But I was miserable sitting down inside that advertising agency. And I said to myself, “Why would I put myself through this?” I have to do what I feel most passionate about. And it was finally then where I said, out loud, “I want to be a journalist.” 

 

We even read about this in your book. It’s just so inspiring the way that you shared your story, and went on to stand up against these challenges that came your way. And going off of that, what was the biggest challenge that you faced when starting your career, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge was embracing my authenticity. And what do I mean? There’s always a tendency and it’s really easy to copy other people. And wherever you’re starting out, whether it’s at a newspaper or at a network, and to think this is what the successful person here is doing, it’s easy to copy them. Your bosses and your higher-ups are also going to want you to do that because there are these systems that exist, right?

At NBC they sent me to the Today Show makeup room and they said somebody will teach you how to do your makeup, and they send you a stylist who says this is what you should wear. And little by little, it’s not that they do this purposely, but little by little you start actually telling the stories that you see are getting on the air. But what’s the point of someone like you girls, or me, being at a place like that if we’re not really being true to our voices and telling the stories of our communities? And I always say that for me, that realization came from something as simple as how I pronounce my name on television. Because my name is Mariana, and if you see early clips of me, and you could still find them on YouTube, you can see me going, “This is Mary-Anna!” I remember I did some clips for the Huffington Post, and for Ariana Huffington, and I literally said the Mary-Anna thing, and it’s like who’s Mary-Anna? That is just taking away the very essence of my power, and giving it to somebody else. 

So the biggest challenge for me was understanding that I had to be myself, from the way I dress, to my name, and the stories that I push forward, and not copy what everybody else was doing. And yes, that’s going to be hard because you’re going to be met with “Really? You think so? That’s not really the way we do things around here,” but if you respectfully speak up, you will stand out just like you girls stand out because you are yourselves among a sea of people who look and sound the same.

 

“There’s always a tendency and it’s really easy to copy other people. And wherever you’re starting out, whether it’s at a newspaper or at a network, and to think this is what the successful person here is doing, it’s easy to copy them.”

 

That’s so true, definitely. And it’s so great to see that you don’t only represent the LatinX community, but also are able to tell their stories in a meaningful way. And not only people in the LatinX community, but also any minority group who might not see people like themselves on television. It’s so important to have storytellers that look like us as well on the screen and it’s so great to see someone like yourself really shining and doing such amazing things. And so can you tell us a little more about the most impactful or interesting stories you have told during your time as a journalist, and throughout your career? 

Wow, so many. I’ve covered everything. Being a breaking news journalist, especially covering in Spanish and English, I was especially sent to the big natural disasters and the big tragedies. Why? Because I think that cultures like ours and communities like ours and our families also have this empathy, and our generation has this empathy that’s just such a positive tool that you can bring with you in these instances. Because I’ve had to interview people who have lost loved ones during a mass shooting. I’ve had to interview people who have lost everything during a hurricane. So, whenever I interview those people, I always treat it as, I’m inviting them into my home. It’s okay to put your arm around them, it’s okay to cry if they’re crying. 

I think, in terms of journalism, we really break ground by breaking down the stereotype of being this cold reporter that can’t express any feelings. People are so saturated with information and news, that it’s really those moments of just being a human being in those tragedies and natural disasters that will connect with somebody watching you, in Ohio or in California, or in New York, or wherever it is. So for me, it has to be the big stories that also seem really historic. Now, with what we’re seeing in the United States, having covered Ferguson, Missouri on the ground for weeks, having spoken to Michael Brown’s family, I was tear-gassed, and I reported in front of burning buildings and I saw all of the dynamics that we’re seeing now, play out in that community. And that is something that for me as an immigrant, not having grown up in America, made me really understand the plight of the Black communities in the United States in a way that I don’t think I ever could have really understood had I not covered Ferguson.

 

Yes, that’s so important. And you’ve also written your book, Perfectly You, can you tell us more about the inspiration behind that? You do a really good job of again sharing your story really well and being authentically yourself, and “Perfectly You” as you describe it. 

So the book! I love that you have it, we brought it to the Girl Up Summit which was just an incredible platform and all you girls who are leaders in the world were reading it. What inspired me was, honestly this idea that everybody has a story worth sharing. Writing a memoir at my age, I still got those comments from people like, “You really think that people are going to read what you have to say? Aren’t you a little young to be writing a memoir?” But there’s so much value in our stories, and I want everybody to really take that with them after our conversation today. Your story is worth sharing, and if you can tell it as authentically as possible, that’s when it will really resonate with somebody who says, “Oh my god! Look at what Maryam went through, or look at what Mariana went through. I see myself reflected there.” 

But writing a book is still hard, right? And I had to write through hurricanes and elections, and all of these things almost on notes on my phone, as I travelled around the world. I still asked myself “Can I really do this?” And it was the passing of my dad, who was my best friend, my personal hero, I know he’s still around me every day and watching this interview now, but it was that moment when I said to myself that wow, we really don’t have a minute to lose on this earth. And I think after what’s happened in the past couple of months and after what we’re seeing this week and last week, there is this sense of urgency for everybody now. We have to put pen and paper, and a form of activism is and can be to tell our own stories on our own terms.

 

Mariana Atencio at 'Perfectly You' book launch
Mariana Atencio at ‘Perfectly You’ book launch

 

Yeah, definitely. And to expand on that, what was the experience of writing the book like? If you came through a time where you didn’t know what to write necessarily, how did you overcome that? What was the experience like? 

It was like “Ahh!!” To summarize it in a gesture. We did it in a really short period of time, I had less than a year for everything, even for the book to come out, which is an incredibly tight deadline. And that deadline was just for me. There was an opening in the universe where I had to write that book. And it helps to have a tight deadline because I couldn’t really procrastinate much. For me, the challenges were two mainly. The opposite of what you said, so the opposite of “I don’t know what to write,” I had too much, and I had to really focus it and say, okay, what is it that I really want the reader to take away with them? And also I really had trouble figuring out where to start. And here I have a takeaway for people reading, an exercise that you can do if you’re thinking about “How would I start my own story?” or “How would I write my own book?” I literally sat down, and I wrote two columns. One for everything positive that had happened in my life, and one for everything negative that happened in my life. Literally bullet points. Because all those moments, I identified as junctures. As moments where my life really took a different turn because of something that had happened or a decision that I made, things like my sister’s car accident, or when my dad passed away, or when I migrated to America. 

In the negative column, there was this incident that when I wrote it down, I thought, I haven’t really spoken about this, and I hadn’t really internalized what it meant in my life. It was a moment when I was 23 years old and I was held at gunpoint in my native Venezuela, which could have been the catalyst for me moving to the United States in search of a better life. But it was so traumatic that I had practically erased it from my brain. And that’s what happens with trauma, right? You just put it in a drawer, you shove it in there and you really don’t want to relive it. And what I realized, when I saw that in the list, I was like, this is the beginning of the book. And reliving that moment, from the way that the Earth smelled on that hike when that happened, and what I was feeling as that man drew a gun, all of that made that chapter really make sense as the beginning of my story. 

 

And that moment, us reading that as well, was so powerful in the sense that you described everything, it felt like we were actually there with you. It’s really incredible how you were able to take that trauma but also make it a learning experience for all of the readers and really take them on that journey with you. And so that was really awesome to read as well, so thank you for sharing that. You shared some really great writing advice, but what other advice do you have for aspiring writers who want to write their own book based on your experience of writing your own book? 

People will want to read your story. There’s a huge thirst for diverse voices and young voices. You may think that there isn’t, because what we see in bookshelves isn’t really reflective of that, but there is. So take your story, and fight really hard for it. If you see one door shuts in your face, go somewhere else, there’s a ton of publishers out there. I would advise, if you can, get a book agent and really have somebody that believes in you as much as you believe in the book and in the story. Have a book proposal, all of that helps. And also, have everything else be aligned with the coming out of your book. You have to see it as a realization. And you girls do such an amazing job at this, which is that all of your social media is aligned with the book and the message. 

A publisher is going to look at you as a brand, so there’s people that I speak to that say, “Obviously Mariana you’re a journalist, you’re a public figure, you’re a brand.” You girls are a brand, too. But I always tell them “No, it’s not just me because I’m a public figure. Today, everybody is a brand and you have to see yourself as a personal brand.” So whenever someone’s going to publish you, and you send them an amazing book proposal, they’re going to look at your instagram account, and they’re going to look at your TikTok account. So have all of that, if your message is about authenticity, or if your book is about dogs or about whatever it is that makes you light up, have everything be aligned with that because they’re going to buy you as the whole package.

 

“Look within yourself, especially at things that society and employers and your peers have told you are negatives, and instead of eliminating them, try to see how you can flip the script, and turn them into things that would make you stand out.”

 

That’s a really good point to make. And a lot of people don’t realize that especially when they think about if they have a private account or whatever, but you could be tagged in things. Growing up, our teachers and everyone told us to make sure that you’re careful about what you share on social media because when you put something out in the world, it’s there for the world to see and so that’s also important to consider. In the book you talk about being true to yourself and finding your voice as you navigate your career. What advice do you have for other immigrants and people in general struggling to be their true selves in their work? 

I think you have to really look at all of the unique traits you bring to the table, even those that society and other people have told you are negatives. In my case, I was laid off from my first job in journalism and my first ever job in America. So I thought that I was going to die and I have to go back to Venezuela and I was a failure, like this can’t be happening. And I really had to sit down, and I’m a really big fan of lists as you can tell, but I had to write “what makes me who I am?” I always had to start from scratch. And what are these things that employers are telling me are negatives? And these are things like my accent, or my name, or my long hair which you didn’t really see on television, or the way I dressed, or the community that I represented or the fact that I didn’t have a Visa, like I came here without a Green Card also. 

And I looked at that list and I thought, these are things that I can’t change. I can’t really change the fact that I don’t have a Visa. I can’t change my name. So how can I turn these things around and make them competitive advantages? And I started looking for opportunities in places where those things were a sought-after skill set. So my first-ever job was at a newspaper where knowing Spanish really well was something that really put me at a different level than everybody else. I said to myself “Okay, if I’m an immigrant and I can’t really change that, how can I cover immigration with my unique viewpoint and one that nobody else has?” I just literally became an American on Valentine’s Day. I will be voting for the first time, and that’s also something that I’m asking myself, “How can I showcase that unique experience of being a first-time voter, on television in these platforms where nobody else is going to have that?” 

So the message for you all is to look within yourself, especially at things that society and employers and your peers have told you are negatives, and instead of eliminating them, try to see how you can flip the script, and turn them into things that would make you stand out. 

 

Yes, that’s so important. And being able to share your voice is really incredible not only for yourself but we think that, that’s something that everyone needs to be doing and you show that so incredibly in all of your social media and all the things that you do, but also in the new production company “Go Like,” that you launched. Can you tell us a little bit more about this venture, what inspired it, and what it’s all about?

I’ve been on national television now for ten years between Spanish and English, and there was always this whisper in my ear, and this rumbling of, “there’s more that you could be doing.” I wasn’t fulfilled, and as much as it was the kind of job where people would be like, “Are you crazy? Nobody leaves NBC,” or “People are here for 20 years of their life!” I just kept asking myself, and thinking that there’s more that I can do. And sometimes you will be kind of scared of those whispers and you will be like, “Shhh, I don’t want to listen to you today.” But, trust your gut because ultimately that’s your instinct and that’s your sense of purpose. 

And the more I listen to that whisper, the more I realized that I really believed in telling positive stories about my community in a way that would make a difference in the mainstream. I think that’s something that not everybody can do. And I really believe in that. Traditional media, as much as there was so much growth for me there in these networks, and they allowed me to have so many of the experiences that I have nowadays, it was just that you can’t tell your own story in your own terms. It just won’t happen at a national news network. And so I said I’m going to venture out and do it on my own. 

And what I loved was that I actually found the perfect partner to do this with. Because I always say if you’re going to jump off a cliff, if you do it holding somebody else’s hand, it’s not that scary. And the person holding my hand was my mentor, and then she became my business partner. And over time we were both thinking that we so believe in this that we both want to dedicate our time to doing this full time. And it has been an amazing ride, with Perfectly You the book, it was our first product and it was a big success so everything else that comes, TV or speaking wise, I know will be a big success as well.

 

“For those of you who want to be journalists, storytellers, authors, tell stories through social media, or just communicate, do it! We need you. We need you more than ever, and if you have any questions I’m always here for you. The world needs your voice now more than ever.” 

 

That’s amazing! And you also have incredibly positive and influential presence on social media, which we have kind of touched on before too, but can you tell us about how you use social media to connect with your audience and your viral hashtag #GoLikeMariana. And what inspired you to use social media in this way, because a lot of people (and you touch on this in your book as well), you could be sharing about putting on makeup, but you have a different story and a different take on all of this so can you tell us a little bit about that?

I think when you’re growing your social media and curating it, it has to be really authentic to you. I write about it in the book. It makes no sense to become a real big hit doing cooking videos if cooking isn’t something that you’re really into. And that’s literally my example. I can’t cook to save my life so if a video of mine went viral cooking and I had to do it every day I would be like, “No! This is not sustainable!” 

I really believe in inspiration, and I really believe in positive messages. I believe obviously in journalism that is reflective of our voices and our communities and I really strive to create a community on social media that has those values. Where people that are there, if you see the comments and all that, it’s all positive, it’s all growth. I think that people have to see you and know that you are real close to them, there has to be an intimacy there, and I really believe in changing the world through positivity so that’s also something you’ll find on my accounts.

 

Awesome! And you also feature some amazing individuals through interviews on your platform and also share about several social causes. Why is that important to you and why is it important for you to be sharing about these kinds of things and amplifying the voices of others?

It’s critical to what I do as a journalist. It’s lending your platform to other people. It is also joining voices of people who are beacons, like Joy Reid, and I had Amara La Negra on yesterday, and actually today I’m announcing the next guest for Friday. They’re all black women. Why? Because this week, we need to hear from them. And we need to hear how their struggle intersects with the LatinX community in my case for example. 

So being able to share your platform and make it a service for other people to have important discussions that you wouldn’t really see on national news, that’s exactly my dream. It’s what I left NBC to do. To have these kinds of conversations that a national network might not say, like “Oh yes, let’s have a conversation between a LatinX immigrant and a black woman about solidarity between the black and brown community, and what both of them could be doing at this time.” That just won’t happen on national television right now. I think the time has passed to wait until more traditional outlets cover these stories and put them on the air. We have to put them on the air ourselves, and then one day, not very far away, they’ll say “Look at this! Did you look at the interest? Did you look at the comments? Why aren’t we covering this?”  

 

Exactly. And social media is a really great tool to do that as well. Sharing the stories that aren’t on national television like you mentioned. And perhaps social media is even more influential now among youth because kids don’t watch television as much and so social media is a really great place to be doing all of this which is really awesome. This brings us to the end of our interview! Is there anything else that you would like to add or another message that you would like to send to our readers and listeners?

I’d love to just say that for those of you who want to be journalists, storytellers, authors, tell stories through social media, or just communicate, do it! We need you. We need you more than ever, and if you have any questions I’m always here for you. The world needs your voice now more than ever. 

 

How I’m navigating COVID as a mom and essential business owner

By Elyse Stoltz Dickerson

The spinning plates I tend to can be overwhelming in “normal” circumstances — like running an essential business, participating on boards, running charitable donation drives for my community, and being a parent, wife, and daughter. Add on a pandemic and suddenly things get far more challenging. There are two things I’ve learned as a CEO navigating through a pandemic with two teenagers: One, I can’t do it alone. The second thing I’ve learned? That’s okay.

Since I can’t drop any plates, I have to think creatively, delegate, and be okay with not doing it all. Surrounding yourself with a positive, helpful team is key to keeping everything spinning. My kids are old enough now to be a part of my team, and they’ve surpassed my wildest expectations. The other day, I told them that I needed them to pitch in by cleaning the house and doing laundry. When I arrived home at 6:15 pm, the house was impeccable. Spotless. Floors were mopped and vacuumed, laundry was folded, and everything was put away. At first, I assumed my husband had done it, but I quickly learned that my 12- and 14-year-old had done it all. I told them they were hired!

Asking for help and seeking advice from others when you are in uncharted waters is essential to survival. It helps you realize you are not alone in your daily struggles and failures.

Redefining and reframing what failure is also aids in keeping those plates spinning. A failure is a learning opportunity and reframing it as something gained instead of lost is a mentally strong move.

 

“Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. And in tough times, being kind to yourself is a top priority — that includes giving yourself a break when you need it.” 

 

For instance, if you’re struggling with homeschooling your children and a math session ends in tears for the both of you, it might feel like a failure. However, if you reframe, you might find that there’s something to gain. Perhaps appreciation for teachers and educators might come to mind. Additionally, the fact that your child is still able to receive an education thanks to technology is a win. Sure, not everything about the situation is ideal, but making these mentally strong moves can improve your mood and outlook.

Since my business is essential, not only are we up and running, but we are shipping out inventory almost as soon as we make it due to high demand. Keeping everyone six feet apart with masks and face shields on is no easy task, but it’s necessary. Things feel hectic, but the same lesson applies to business: it’s okay to ask for help.

Women are disproportionately affected by the virus due to societal disparities in home and family workloads. Women with children are often the teacher, chef, principal, mom, boss, and employee all at once during quarantine. It can be overwhelming, to say the least. Asking for help from your boss, members of your team at work, kids (if they’re old enough), partner, and others helps lighten the load and leaves you feeling less alone.

At the end of the day, I think we’re in this together. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. And in tough times, being kind to yourself is a top priority — that includes giving yourself a break when you need it.

Elyse Stoltz Dickerson

Elyse Stoltz Dickerson

Elyse Stoltz Dickerson, CEO and co-founder of biotech company, Eosera. She resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband and two children. She was recently featured in ForbesWomen Magazine and recently named one of the Great Women of Texas by Fort Worth Business Press. Elyse has over two decades of experience leading teams in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Elyse holds a BA from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. A lifelong athlete, Elyse has completed marathons, triathlons, and an Ironman.

Q&A: How Erin Kelly is adapting to a new normal.

Erin Kelly is President and CEO of Advanced Symbolics Inc. (ASI), a company that uses Artificial Intelligence to augment market research and prediction. ASI’s patented AI, named “Polly” is the world’s only AI for Augmented Human Behaviour and Market Research. Polly quickly catapulted to fame in 2016 after correctly predicting both BREXIT and the Trump election and she is the AI of choice for leading consumer companies including Disney, Mastercard and GM and is well known in the medical research field for her work in mental health and suicide reduction. Erin is frequently called on by national and international media for her insights into AI and its future impacts on society. She shares how the pandemic has impacted ASI, including what financial resources she is tapping into and what has surprised her most. 

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus?
At the moment we are focused on product development and getting our AI, Polly, as fast, streamlined and easy to use as possible. This will get results to our customers faster and allow them to test different scenarios easily because the data will be very easy to manipulate. 

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve? 

We are solving the insight problem. Traditional market research relies on vanity metrics and proxies instead of directly answering what marketing executives really want to know: Why aren’t people buying my products or resonating with my message, and what top 3 things can I do right now to change that?

Traditional market research hasn’t evolved in 70 years and that’s a big problem because we no longer consume products and messaging the way we did 70 years ago. The conversations today are all happening online and to properly gain insights you need artificial intelligence. A web panel isn’t going to do it – those studies suffer from the same contrivances as traditional market research and are not randomized samples. Companies today compete on analytics and AI is going to be part of the toolkit for a leading company.

What has been your most successful solution so far? 

I need to pick 3! Our most in-demand solutions right now are Look-alike sampling, Topic Discovery and Attribution Testing.

Look-alike sampling allows us to create cohorts of people online that are very similar except for one thing we want to measure, which enables us to determine with high accuracy, the effect of that influence on human behaviour. We are using this with great effect during COVID. With each region opening under different policies and innovating with different programs and ideas, we can determine what works best to help people feel more comfortable and safe and to optimize revenue for our customers during this very challenging time.

Topic Discovery is a solution marketers love because it tells you the top factors affecting sales of your products without you having to know to ask about it ahead of time. With traditional market research, you have to know the questions to ask in advance. Topic Discovery gives you insight into what you should be exploring even if you hadn’t thought of exploring that before because it wasn’t on your radar. 

Attribution enables you to determine, very precisely, why people will choose your product over the competition and to tailor your message and your media buy accordingly.

 

“The key is to focus on solutions and not surrender to feelings of hopelessness.”

 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees? 

Initially, we have been staying connected through Zoom. We have bigger plans for the fall though as we realize that the traditional ways of staying connected, through conferences and other face-to-face opportunities, have gone away. So stay tuned for fall programming! 

What financial resources are you tapping into?

When we kicked off the company we applied for and received a loan from the BDC which allowed us to hire our first employees. The BDC turned this around very quickly and they have been terrific giving ongoing support and guidance – very proactive. In September 2018 we also did a small private equity round and have some great angel investors who have all offered to provide ongoing financial support should it be needed. During COVID, we applied for the financial funds that we were eligible for as soon as the lockdown was imposed in case we needed it. I like the financial mix that we have, and I think it is important, from the point of view of financial sustainability, to have a healthy mix of equity and debt investment. Most importantly, we have strong revenue and we are able to sustain our operations through revenue. When we take cash injections it is to grow and diversify.

What has surprised you?

Aside from COVID? I think the biggest surprise is how hard it is to find great talent. I sound like an old curmudgeon but universities are simply not preparing business students with the right skills for the current business environment and businesses really do rely on universities to produce that talent. We find we have to re-train all of our staff almost entirely from scratch when they start with us. And who runs a business program without teaching students about sales… the most important business function?! Even when we hire students with Econometrics backgrounds they have huge gaps in knowledge even after 4 years of studying. We can get them up and running in 3 months so that tells you something. I am also surprised at how many students graduate from marketing without knowing the first thing about analytics, sampling and other basic market research techniques. This has to change. 

How far ahead are you planning?

We are very long term thinkers. We are not building a company to flip we are building a company to grow internationally. That means making significant sacrifices in the short term for the benefit of the long term health of the company. I think it really helps to have a North Star high up in the sky that you work toward. In the short term, it’s all about cash flow – and there are lots of solutions for that, fortunately.

What keeps you positive?

My business partner. We keep each other buoyed when things get difficult! Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely and I think it is no coincidence that companies with 2 or more founders typically do much better than companies that have only one. In fact, many investors won’t back a company that has only one founder.

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now?

I sometimes find it difficult not to be dragged down by all the negative headlines because that can be a real poison pill. Find a way to stay positive – whether that is by focusing on the businesses in your industry that are getting it right and modelling yourself after them or finding short term opportunities to make money until you can get back to doing what you love or borrow until the economy gets better and you can rebound. The solution will be different for everyone but the key is to focus on solutions and not to surrender to feelings of hopelessness. 

 

The 3 big “Wish I would Have Knowns” all working moms need to know

By Janet Winkler

On our journey to create Hacking Sophia, a digital platform designed to deliver career and life wisdom and solutions to time-starved working moms, we heard dozens of “I Wish I Would Have Knowns” from the more than 150 in-depth interviews we conducted with working moms. 

Things like: “I wish I would have known that despite all the little screw-ups, all the moments of self-doubt, all the times I asked myself if I was doing the right thing, my kids were going to turn out ok, because they did.”

This lesson, like all the rest, was unfortunately learned in hindsight. 

I too wish I had known them. There were too many nights that I laid in bed, after keeping it together for my kids, admitting to my husband “I don’t think I can do this anymore.” I had founded my own business, grown it to a company that serviced global clients with a best-in-industry reputation, worked with an incredible group of inspiring, committed, brilliant women and men — and I also had 3 children, a husband, and in time, a dog. I often felt like I was busting at the seams.

I knew all too well the challenge of being a working mom and navigating two competing time-consuming worlds — work and family. For my next chapter, I was determined to help all women, but with an emphasis on working moms living in, what we call, the Cram it all in Years, the years where career acceleration and babies and young children collide. 

Out of all the “I Wish I Would Have Knowns” that inspired the wisdom we share with the Hacking Sophia community, three big jewels emerged consistently as the foundations to prioritize, to help the shift from ‘post-baby just hanging on’ to living life more fully. Most of our Sophia Contributors learned these through challenges, often (also) experiencing a “can’t do this anymore” moment and wishing they would have known and acted on these pieces of wisdom earlier. Personally, I really wish I would have known and acted on these three early on. I know I would have saved myself a lot of hardship. 

1) Define Your What Matters (and you’re ‘not so much anymore’).

“It took me until my second child to really think through what mattered most to me. It was my immediate family, my career and my well-being. Full stop. The rest of the shit I was doing, that I thought was really important or gave me joy, just couldn’t fit anymore.” — A Sophia Contributor

Early on, everything that used to matter is still there plus add in a baby, then maybe children, and things quickly get overwhelming. Deciding what you really care about as it relates to baby/children/family, life and work in your new reality is essential. If how you spend your time doesn’t align with the core of what you really care about, your world is out of sync and you’re left feeling frustrated and certainly exhausted. Here’s how:

  • Define the big categories of things that matter most to you. Think about where you want to spend your energy, and in the Cram it all in Years think in shorter windows, like a 6-month horizon. Categories could include: immediate family, career, self-care, social time, creative outlets, etc. Just jot them down.
  • Distill your big categories of “what matters most now” list down to a top 5 and identify and define what doesn’t matter so much to you anymore. Choose your top 5, and by default, deprioritize what is less important to you. It can help to assign a value, a simple 1 – 10, to force choice.
  • List your Supposed To’s: Get these off your chest, your mind, your conscience! We’re overloaded with “I’m supposed to’s” whether it’s from social media, assumptions about what others think you should be or do, or other expectations that you accumulate. List your supposed to’s so you make the invisible visible, eliminate what doesn’t serve you and hold onto what’s important to you. Examples include: being my extended family’s ‘go to’ for advice, serving homecooked meals to my family, returning to my pre-baby fitness level, and more.
  • Write your clarity statements: For your top 5 categories, assisted by your list of ‘supposed to’s,’ add in your “why” these matter as a reinforcement and a check that you’re prioritizing for the right reasons (for you, for your family) and what you want to achieve (how). Here are some examples:

(What) Spending time with my immediate family is important to me (why) because one of my greatest joys comes from being a mom (how) so I’m going to make sure I invest quality time with them when I can be most present.

(What) Advancing career is a priority for me (why) because I enjoy the stimulation that comes from applying my skills and I want to continue to advance upwards (how) so I’m going to make sure I focus on what is going to drive my career forward, minimizing ‘other distractions” while I’m working. 

“There were too many nights that I laid in bed, after keeping it together for my kids, admitting to my husband “I don’t think I can do this anymore.” … I often felt like I was busting at the seams.”

2) Fierce Prioritization and Ruthless Boundaries.

You’ve done the hard part — the choices around how you spend your time and energy. Turn these “top 5 matters” into activities and actions, assigning time and get them in your calendar. This is what you fiercely protect and communicate to others, unapologetically. Continuing with the above two examples:

Immediate Family:

  • Spend quality time with my family: 
    • Be home by 6:30 pm 3 nights a week to bath and put my baby/kids to bed. 
    • Be fully present with them during that time; no emails, texts during that time.
    • And, relax my ‘supposed to’s’ around homecooked meals.

Career:

  • Advance my career:  
    • Ruthless focus on career advancing priorities by defining the 3 business critical priorities that will demonstrate success in my role. 
    • Defining the associated action steps to make that happen, the resources/support required, determining what to delegate and what to eliminate that doesn’t fit.

3) Assemble Your Team (Personal & Professional)

I wish I had leaned on my tribe more. You need an outlet of realness. You need a friend who you can call and say anything to without judgement. — A Sophia Contributor

We can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. Action it. Start by choosing which people are most critical to you and give yourself time to find them. It’s not a race!

Here are some examples that emerged as the early important ones:

Life: Childcare Team, 911 Friends, Trusted Advisors, Moms who have your back,
Work: Got Your Back Peers, Advocates, Mentors, Investors

Remember, as you consider the above, perfection is the enemy of done! Get started so you make choices. 

While I wish I would have known that despite the many screw-ups and agonizing periods of self-doubt of whether I was a good mom and business leader, I’m happy to report that I have three amazing adult children, each accomplished in their careers, each in healthy relationships, the same loving husband and a career that I can honestly say, “Wow, I got to do that!”

Janet Winkler

Janet Winkler

Janet is an experienced leader, entrepreneur and marketing specialist. Janet founded in-sync, an insights-based brand consultancy which was acquired by Publicis Groupe where she was appointed Group President, Publicis Health. Following her retirement from Publicis, Janet became a Senior Advisor at McKinsey & Company. However, Hacking Sophia was calling. It was born out of a desire to help working moms thrive in personal and professional lives.

Q&A: How Monika Jaroszonek is adapting to a new normal.

Monika has always been fascinated by dynamic cities. She believes that technology can be used to build more liveable cities through increased density, affordable housing, well-designed municipalities, and better access to urban information. After 15 years in the architecture industry, Monika co-founded Ratio.City, a proptech company that helps city builders make data-driven decisions for urban transformation. Since launching in 2018, Ratio.City has become a trusted source of information for some of Canada’s largest real estate developers and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). Monika is frequently asked to speak about the future of city building and the intersection of real estate and technology. She shares how she plans further for her business, what areas are getting the bulk of her attention, and advice for other entrepreneurs.

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus? 

I’m focused on reframing these unusual times to see the unique opportunities. It is of critical importance to not only keep moving our business forward but be able to contribute meaningfully to the greater discussions about how our cities and urban areas can thrive in the coming months and years.

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?

For my entire career, I have been focused on answering the hard questions about cities: how can we house a growing urban population sustainably with limited resources? How can we build better, more liveable and equitable cities? How can we empower professionals to access critical information more easily in order to allow them to focus on solving complex problems about our built environment?

What has been your most successful solution so far? 

Our platform allows professionals in the City Building space to access, visualize and analyze urban data. We take fragmented and siloed information and make it accessible and searchable, and allow anyone doing any kind of business in cities to derive complex, geospatial insights. 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees? 

Like everyone else these days, we are using video conferencing to the extreme. We are in a fairly traditional industry where in-person meetings were the norm and we have been able to develop relationships over time as a result. It is much harder to read a room or react dynamically to an audience via video conferencing so we have to be very conscious to actively listen and give space to others to react. We have a number of weekly team meetings where we can share information and make collective decisions, and I have also started having regular one on one meetings with employees to be able to check in informally.  

What financial resources are you tapping into?

In times of uncertainty, we have been looking at the financial implications of the extreme scenarios and modelling them up. Once we have a game plan in place for both the worst case and best case, we can get back to work confident that reality will fall somewhere between the two extremes and we can adjust accordingly as more information becomes available. 

 

“It is of critical importance to not only keep moving our business forward but be able to contribute meaningfully to the greater discussions about how our cities and urban areas can thrive in the coming months and years.” 

 

What has surprised you? 

We expanded our team significantly less than a year ago – we have an incredible group of diverse and talented people with a wide range of professional experiences. What has been amazing for me to watch is how they have all contributed towards a very ambitious product launch under remarkably challenging circumstances. Everyone has adjusted to new roles and responsibilities and been remarkably successful at pulling together.  

How far ahead are you planning? 

I am always looking at next week, next month, 6 months & 12 months out. As a start-up, we always need to manage immediate short term concerns but I want to always be looking to the horizon to make sure we are heading towards our larger vision. I tend to spend most of my time thinking about how to best spend my time to get us into an ideal position half a year from now.  

What keeps you positive?

I get energy from talking to customers, listening to their daily challenges, and seeing their initial reactions when they see how our platform can help them. I have also really enjoyed the creative aspect of designing a business around a complex problem.  

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now? 

Entrepreneurship has been incredibly challenging and also personally satisfying. My advice is to make sure you have a strong personal and professional support system.

Meet Meseret Haileyesus: Founder of the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment and Maternity Today

A social entrepreneur Meseret is the founder of both the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment and Maternity Today. With a background in, midwifery, economics, and global health, she drives social change by advocating for high-quality and accessible sexual and reproductive healthcare for women on a global scale, with a goal of ending gender-based violence. By starting and leading the non-profit research and educational organization, Maternity Today, Meseret has assisted many African women through their new motherhood journeys. As the founding president of the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment, she inspires research, advocacy, and policy for economic justice in Canada. Meseret is a member of multiple UN and World Health Organization programs, where she produces strategies to reinforce the reproductive health components for health sector reform programs in developing countries. Meanwhile, she is supporting Centre Town Community Health Centre and Community Development Framework Learning Forum in Ottawa while building her plant-based wellness and lifestyle brand, Nacre Organics. She is the proud mother of one beautiful daughter who inspires and motivates her every day.

 

My first job ever was… as a midwife at a rural place in Ethiopia — a place without enough water, electricity, technology, and reliable transportation to save mothers’ lives during childbirth. 

My proudest accomplishment is… 1) I’ve demonstrated through my own journey that women can be successful leaders. I’ve empowered my community to improve women’s access to economic empowerment, achieve gender parity and financial independence, and serve as role models. 2) I have mentored women-owned businesses and emerging women leaders and provided opportunities to marginalized groups in Ethiopia and Canada.

3) I’ve served as a zero-waste advocate: promoting healthy lifestyles by promoting nontoxic plant-based personal care products, green cosmetics, fairtrade, biodegradable, and zero-waste packaging.

4) I have created a platform to address mental health problems, that has supported over 45 women during the pandemic with mentorship. Most of them are already dealing with a lot of PTSD symptoms, loneliness, and isolation, which are then made worse by the pandemic. 

My boldest move to date was… learning how to say “no.” After pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I can now work towards my goals and dreams. 

I surprise people when I tell them… about my journey, my resilience to thrive, and my goal of helping others. 

I launched the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE) because… Economic abuse is misunderstood in our community. I have seen domestic violence victims and survivors struggle with financial abuse, even after separation. Their partners regularly take their money, paycheques, social assistance payments, and tax refund checks, leaving them with little or no money. Most survivors have also accumulated debt because their partners used their credit cards, took out loans, or put bills under their names. It directly impacts a woman’s future, including mental health, and her ability to rebuild economic security and develop emotional well-being. As I see it, the solution is to invest in survivors and their financial security and build an ecosystem to support their long-term safety. 

Usually, in the public policy context, women’s economic security and violence against women are often examined separately from each other. Understanding the impact financial abuse has on women’s safety, and economic security is critical for developing policies, programs, and practices that promote these aims. CCFWE seeks Economic Justice for a victim of domestic violence.

What is the goal of CCFWE… to address Economic Justice through education, advocacy reviewing systems, policies, procedures, and advocates to remove any barriers to economic safety. We fight to influence policy that supports survivors’ successful transition to economic independence and healthy and safe life. Our advocacy efforts include engaging with survivours, policy-makers, developing education and awareness campaigns, and creating a policy agenda.

Gender-based violence is increasing during a pandemic… The top three reasons are 1. Self-isolation: It makes women more prone to domestic abuse as they are cooped up at home with their oppressors 2. Financial abuse: Financial abuse is on the rise as women and oppressors feel the pinch in this unprecedented time 3. Lack of a support system: The lack of a support system for survivors, such as counsellors, friends, or other means, is another main factor for the increase in domestic violence. Women are finding it difficult to reach out for help during this unprecedented time.

 

“Know your value and how much you are worth. Push your boundaries as it will help you reach the sky and surround yourself with positive people.”

 

My biggest setback was… As I reflect on the last 10 years, two big challenges stand out for me. The first was learning how to get out of my own way. This meant letting go of what I think others expect of me and focusing on being myself. The second was learning how to juggle priorities as a working mother. 

I overcame it by… Recognizing that I can’t do it all helped me learn how to trust and delegate.

One piece of advice that I often give but find it difficult to follow is…because I truly love my work and have ambitious career goals, it can be difficult for me to keep a healthy balance between work and my personal life.

The best thing about what I do is… I am creating a unique platform for marginalized women leaders to address economic justice. I also want these women leaders to support other women. I want them to stand together to raise their voice, fighting against poverty and social justice. We need more women acting as global leaders!

My best advice from a mentor was… The best advice I received from a mentor was to stand up against the odds. Know your value and how much you are worth. Push your boundaries as it will help you reach the sky and surround yourself with positive people. 

I would tell my 21-year old self… To find the power of knowledge, aspire to inspire, and set periodic goals. To look for mentors and invest in relationships- be authentic, but see things through another lens. To embrace the opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone and learn from them. And finally, don’t let anyone define who you are and what you can do. 

If you Googled me, you still would not know… In 2012, I was a co-host of a local fashion blog, Be-Inspired, in Nigeria. I love to paint, cook and have a keen interest in interior design. 

The future excites me because… Professionally, there’s a lot to be excited about and manifest. A year ago, I remember thinking, “If only we could” do A, B or C. Now, we have actually made some of those wishes come true, and I have no doubt that we are on the right track. I can be a part of a group of inspiring global women leaders while also watching my daughter grow up at the same time. The strong people around me who collectively want to help others and make this world a better place make me excited.

My next step is…Innovating for the future by maintaining a dual focus on present performance and future trends and opportunities. I want to keep CCFWE adapting to change, to develop self-understanding, to go through renewal and self- preservation to keep improving as a leader. I am always looking for authenticity, talent, a clear vision, and the motivation to succeed. I will ensure continual high performance by all marginalized women leaders, leading to tangible progress toward the goals we wish to accomplish.

A conversation with Sarah Kaplan on COVID’s greater impact on women — and how we can rebuild equitably

At this point in the pandemic, we should no longer be asking if COVID is affecting women to a greater degree than men.  

The evidence shows it is, and in many ways; a primer on the gendered impacts of COVID-19 released in April by the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) pointed to higher participation in risky front-line work, greater susceptibility to economic uncertainty, increased domestic and caregiving responsibilities, increased vulnerability to domestic violence, and barriers to sexual and reproductive healthcare — with Indigenous, racialized, low-income, LGBTQ+ and other vulnerable groups worse affected.

Even as social distancing rules are relaxing, the situation has not improved. The latest statistics show women suffered a greater loss of jobs and are experiencing a slower recovery, have higher reported mental health issues, and a higher COVID mortality rate in Canada — and relatively speaking, this is still just the immediate impact. We don’t have a clear view of the long-term effects of the pandemic for women. 

I spoke with Sarah Kaplan, Founder and Director of GATE, to get her take on why it’s important to look at COVID with an intersectional gendered lens, where we are headed with respect to gender equality, and what we can be doing to build a more inclusive future. 

The interview has been edited for length. 

 

From the very beginning, you’ve been looking at the pandemic with an intersectional gender lens. Why is this so important? 

When we first put out our primer on the gendered impacts of COVID, I had a colleague reach out to me irate that at a time when people were getting sick and dying, and the economy is in the tank, that I would dare be talking about gender issues — as if gender were something on the side, a nice-to-have, but it has nothing to do with the core economic or health impacts. 

And of course, when you actually do look with a gender lens, you see how much it does have to do with gender, and you see the very unequal economic and health impacts. Gender, or women’s issues, or issues of masculinity, are not just something you focus on when times are stable — this moment of crisis is when we should be spending the most time looking at these kinds of issues. 

 

Some people might argue we should take a ‘neutral’ approach to these issues, rather than a gendered approach. Is that even possible? What do you think could be the impact of that kind of thinking? 

There is evidence from previous economic downturns and previous corporate layoffs that often diversity suffers, because if you approach it with rules like ‘we’ll furlough all the part-time workers’ or ‘we’ll furlough the people with the lowest evaluations’ or ‘we’ll furlough the people who are most recently hired’ — all of those are gendered. Women are more likely to be part-time, we know that performance evaluations are often gender-biased, and because companies have historically been bad at diversity, women are less likely to have seniority. 

These supposedly gender-neutral rules have really gendered outcomes. We need to have an explicit diversity lens on these decisions, or you’re going to kill off whatever diversity we’ve been fighting to get in the last decade or so, including in corporate Canada. 

 

That’s a very bleak thought — but not unsurprising, considering how many ways women are being affected from an economic standpoint. Are there any repercussions that you are particularly concerned about? What’s the worst case scenario here? 

I think we could end up quite far back. Take a situation like yours, with young kids at home — if there has historically been a gender division of labor in the household, then it’s much more likely that the woman is going to drop out of the labour force, because it’s too hard for her to manage small children and perform in her job. 

Among heterosexual couples, we know that we don’t have equal sharing of responsibilities in Canadian households — there is an incredibly gendered division of labour. The likelihood that we are going to see a whole generation of women with pre-teen children dropping out of the workforce is extremely high. It’s just not manageable. And until we get a vaccine, I think we’re going to see a whole slew of people leaving the workforce, and that will undo a lot of the progress. 

 

“We’ve known for 30 years that childcare is the secret to women’s advancement in their jobs, and now we’re talking about how the secret to economic recovery is going to be childcare — it gives me some hope that we might actually get a universal child care solution.”

 

What about the argument that men are now seeing how much work is involved in care responsibilities?

Yes, on the positive side, and again talking about heterosexual couples, there are situations where the male partner is seeing exactly how much care work is required at home, and actually participating more and becoming more committed to getting corporate policies adjusted to adapt. 

This may be a wake up call for many male leaders about what exactly has been happening behind the curtains. Some people predict that maybe we’ll get a wave of more equal households going forward, but I’m not sure about that. I think it remains to be seen exactly what social changes are going to be wrought from this. 

I think one thing is true: we are never going to go back to everyone always working in their offices, now that people are set up to work from home. The future of work is going to change because of this, or accelerate at least, and I don’t think we have a good way to predict which way it’s going to pull — whether it’s going towards more gender equality because men have gotten more involved in care work, or it’s going to uphold inequality because women will have to give up their work in order to deal with the additional care work. 

 

In the face of losing ground in the push for gender equality, what gives you the most hope? 

A few things give me hope, including this broader conversation about care work. We’ve known for 30 years that childcare is the secret to women’s advancement in their jobs, and now we’re talking about how the secret to economic recovery is going to be childcare — it gives me some hope that we might actually get a universal child care solution. That would be great. 

The second thing that gives me hope is that we all got thrown into a period of experimentation. We had been talking for years and years at the Rotman School about doing some online education, and there was resistance to that change — and then from March 13 to March 16, the entire in-person experience got transferred to online. We’re seeing similar things in all sorts of companies; between experiments with collaborative work, and different tools, we may come up with a better way of working. 

We’re also able to include so many more people at work than we were ever able to include before. For example, people in smaller communities can now get a remote job at a big corporate in Toronto, get the advantage of that salary, and the advantage of staying in their communities. And many of the things that we have ended up doing because of the pandemic have been things that people with disabilities have been asking for for years. We can still do a better job of including people with disabilities — virtual meetings can be harder for people who have a vision impairment, or people who have a hearing impairment if they can’t read people’s lips — so it’s not perfect, but I see all kinds of experimentation leading us to think about ways of work that could actually be much more inclusive, and that gives me hope.  

 

These are all examples of positive side effects of the pandemic, which are great, but what do you think we could be doing to intentionally rebuild in an equitable way

GATE has actually partnered with the YWCA to develop a feminist recovery plan — because we definitely need to be intentional about what is included. From a more narrow focus, corporate recovery plan, to a broader focus, like where governments should invest in infrastructure. These kinds of big projects have major feminist dimensions to them. 

As an example, investing in caregiving pays huge dividends — it basically pays for itself in a very short period of time — but it seems really expensive and so people don’t want to do it because it’s just caregiving, it’s not a highway. Investing in social infrastructure as opposed to physical infrastructure is a way of reconceptualizing the major government spending that will happen to help recover the economy.  

It would be very different from how countries typically spend to recover the economy, and without some more very serious conversations, it’s unclear we’re going to get the feminist solution that we need.

Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment

The Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering domestic violence survivors through policy influencing & advocacy, mentorship, education and economic empowerment. Our mission is to raise awareness of economic abuse and transform responses to it. We advocate for and support the development of new approaches to economic abuse, working with organisations to review existing systems, policies and procedures. 

Q&A: How Bobbie Racette is adapting to a new normal.

Bobbie is the Founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus, a Talent as a Service platform that matches its users with Canadian and US-based virtual assistants and freelancers, a proprietary matchmaking algorithm, and curated client success managers. Recently named both Canada’s Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year and Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Prairies Region by Startup Canada, Bobbie is an unstoppable force in the Canadian startup community. She is a Cree-Metis woman who prides herself on building an inclusivity-first company, championing for indigenous people and the LGBTQ+ community. She is a natural leader, sharing her passion by mentoring First Nations youth who have demonstrated interest in Tech and Business. Bobbie shares how Virtual Gurus has been adapting to the pandemic, including how she stays connected with customers and her advice to fellow entrepreneurs.

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus?

Right now I would say our new Slackapp, askBetty, which is launching very soon. We leverage human-powered assistants through our Slackbot, giving you easy and instant access to a live virtual assistant whenever and wherever you need for one-off tasks.

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?

We want to be a cost-effective solution to entrepreneurs, business owners, or someone who is just super busy to allow them time to spend on ​the routine tasks that keep the business running.​ While doing so we want to provide work to marginalized folks who have struggled to find work. Virtual Gurus is one of the largest freelance teams in Canada and is made up of 95% who identify as Female, 65% are People of Color while 45% are part of the LGBTQ2+ community.

What has been your most successful solution so far?

Freelancers & Virtual Assistants have been around for a while now, but we found that our clients like that we provide onshore dedicated Assistants based on the skills they need. Providing full back-office support to clients who may not need a full-time Assistant while providing work-from-home positions to hundreds of Canadians has really worked well for us. Through the pandemic, we, like many others, had to pivot so we launched our people over profit program and provided free services to 110 startups that were affected by COVID-19.

 

We can’t plan for a pandemic or any sort of economic crisis but we can plan to help others through it…

 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees?

​We reach out regularly to our clients, whether it’s just to check-in and see how they are or checking if they need any further assistance. We also make it easy for them to access any of our staff or their VA through our messaging system. With our contractors, our client success team contacted them via telephone throughout the pandemic a bit more than usual to check in on them. We also had a channel set up in our Slack titled “Values Check-in” where we would all check in regularly on how we were doing – it was a safe space for us to just talk and get support from our colleagues.

What financial resources are you tapping into?

 We closed a $1.25M equity round right before COVID-19 hit which put us into a good position. We have accessed NRC IRAP IAP wage subsidy funding through COVID-19. We also have been lucky to receive grants from IRAP and Alberta Innovates and we have a few other grants that we’re in the second and third approval stages of.

What has surprised you?

Even when the times get tough the grind never ends.

How far ahead are you planning?

I always plan ahead even in my personal life, but in the startup life you can try and plan ahead but really you have to go day by day and you have to be able to adapt as you go.

What keeps you positive?

My team – the client success managers, the sales managers, the dev team behind the technology, our COO – we are united as a team and I am extremely proud and thankful for that.

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now?

We can’t plan for a pandemic or any sort of economic crisis but we can plan to help others through it whether it be supporting a local restaurant to purchasing apps and services that are local.

My entrepreneurial life as since May 26th

If you found this article through Amanda Munday’s Perspectives page, you may be wondering why it isn’t written by Amanda. In her own words: I’m taking a pause this month to amplify the voices of Black women entrepreneurs and use this amazing platform to make sure their voices are heard. Meet my friend and fellow entrepreneur Cheryl Sutherland, and her experience of life after May 26.

 

Hi, my name is Cheryl Sutherland and I am a Black woman.

I am also an entrepreneur, an amazing dancer and I have a delightful laugh and a smile that lights up the room, but what most people see about me first is that I’m Black.

Growing up in Canada, I’ve never really noticed how it’s affected my life. Understanding the reality that is mine, is one where the sky is blue and water makes things wet. The understanding that it’s my responsibility to make a police officer feel calm when I get pulled over, the understanding that when somebody is following me in a grocery store it’s for a very particular reason, understanding why that person would ask me for drugs at a party over everyone else. I just inherently know that people are going to treat me differently and that’s what life is.

Now when I moved to the US that was a different ball game. I had the opportunity to be with other Black people who have a very different experience of being Black. Where a valid reason not to get hired or to fire someone is because they wore their natural hair to work. Where you could never really own your achievements, because it often gets explained away as affirmative action. Where you should know someone at the bank when getting a loan, otherwise you’ll get a horrible interest rate.

What really frustrates me is when these things show up in business. This was supposed to be the space where I’m able to break the glass ceiling, make an impact in other people’s lives, and retire my Mom. Instead, there were new obstacles I had to learn to handle, only due to the color of my skin. To be Black in business for some of us means mostly selling our goods and sharing our story to people that may not look like us, who often ask us to present a different version of ourselves.

I’ve ignored many micro-aggressions and “seemingly” small details in the name of being in the same room of those who can deem success our way. Things like going to wellness events and being the only melanated person there and being pointed out as the one with the crazy hair when you wear your natural curls. Worse even, when people who don’t know you, attempt to tell you about yourself, your culture, your struggles, and what you need to do better while other faces awkwardly look away and say nothing.

Then May 26th happened.

I keep using this analogy of when I lost my dad. I was 22 when he died and I remember being in a room for the first time with people who knew. The awkward glances, the sad faces, the understanding of how completely broken my life was in that moment.

That’s what it’s been like to be a Black person since May 26. Our secret has been revealed. The badly kept secret that we kept telling and nobody felt “comfortable” enough to do anything about it. Irrefutable evidence that our lives were never the same, based on the colour of our skin.

Unable to be denied.

Things got awkward.

People lost friendships.

People made new friends.

People got angry.

People cried.

A line in the sand was drawn.

For those who were unaware of this reality, there’s been a mad scramble and they are attempting to figure out what they should do, what they could do, how to not mess this up, and how to talk to their children.

So how are you handling this new normal?

The only thing I can say is that I have hope. Hope that enough people in power care enough to not let things go back to the way they were. I hope that people actually listen to what I have to say in all of my vulnerability and authenticity and understand that this is a reality that exists, even though it’s not one you may have experienced. I also hope that the opportunities that I’m getting are not because of guilt; they’re because now people can see me, finally allowing my work to be used in a way that it should’ve been seen 4+ years ago. I’m constantly asked for tips and tricks and the only thing I can really give you with this:

You’re gonna mess up and that’s OK. A baby doesn’t learn how to walk in one day. They fall and stumble and we never yell at them to give up, do we?

Everybody’s grieving right now and grieving looks different on everyone. Be nice to yourself and be nice to other people.

“The only thing I can say is that I have hope. Hope that enough people in power care enough to not let things go back to the way they were. I hope that people actually listen to what I have to say in all of my vulnerability and authenticity and understand that this is a reality that exists, even though it’s not one you may have experienced.”

 

Educate yourself. I’ve created a giant resource library with the help of my friends, and you can learn about the history they never taught you, learn to look inside, learn about what you can do in order to support the people you care about. Podcasts, books, movies, training, terms, history, and more. Check it out.

Not every person needs the same thing. I have an e-commerce company all about positivity and gratitude, and what I’m looking for are places to speak and do workshops, connections to stores that will stock my goods, and how to finally figure out inbound marketing for my website, PleaseNotes.com. It’s OK to ask people what they need, it’s not OK to ask them what you should do.

Help in your own way. Offer to support something you do for work or that you’re passionate about. If you’re a marketing professional, offer your service to a Black-owned business or offer to help in a way that feels good to you. If you have a huge platform on social media or otherwise, offer to elevate and amplify the voices of people who are just as good in this industry, but are continually overlooked.

To make this a long-lasting change, it has to be something that we can do easily and we can commit to, individually. From making monthly donations, signing petitions, visiting Black-owned markets, writing to school boards, or calling out the biases you notice with other people, and within yourself, this work is going to be ongoing. The people that came before us didn’t get a chance to do it yet and I would like this generation to be better known for breaking this curse than avocado toast.

Q&A: How Sarah Selhi is adapting to a new normal.

Sarah has over 25-years experience in sales, management, marketing and operations including General Manager at start-up Mainstream Media, which brought linear television online with a social media platform. Sarah worked in executive management in Fortune 500 companies before launching SpaceiShare. Her passion for the environment, tech and the disruption of traditional mindsets fuels her tenacity to create the world’s largest space-sharing platform. Sarah completed Mergelane, the 12-week accelerator in Boulder, Colorado and was the top graduate in her cohort at Founder Institute in Toronto with SpaceiShare being part of Founder Institute’s “Select Portfolio.” Sarah discusses how SpaceiShare is navigating the pandemic including how she remains positive and her advice to fellow entrepreneurs.

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus? 

SpaceiShare started the year off strong with some new opportunities and clients coming our way. However, once the pandemic hit, decisions were put on hold. SpaceiShare has taken the down-time in our business to focus on the product. We currently have our development team implementing some key features and upgrades that will really define our vision further. We are also working on a new project that we feel is truly going to help Canada’s most marginalized communities.

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?

 A few years back, my aunt put all of her belongings into self-storage. After finding out that she would be shelling out over $12,000 over the two years she was away, I realized the enormous opportunity for neighbour helping neighbour. Since that time, our mission is to help people who need space, find people who have space. Our goal is to help make space finding simpler and protect users with legal documents and user reviews.

Since the pandemic hit, SpaceiShare immediately became involved in two great organizations, both looking to assist front-line workers. Working with them illuminated the extremely difficult task that people were having in finding somewhere safe to stay whilst they were working in hospitals, plus the PPE required to keep people protected.

It was that initiative that moved us forward to work with our long-term partner Aangen: A Community Service Organization. For years and years, housing agency workers have had extremely limited information pertaining to housing units available to their clients. Through ongoing meetings with our partner and other housing agencies, we’re working on a solution for them that will be far superior to anything they’ve used before.

What has been your most successful solution so far? 

So far, I think what we’re working on over these next two quarters will have big payoffs for us in the future. We have been working with some of Canada’s largest property management companies and the feedback we’re hearing is that their under-utilized spaces need to be monetized. We’re also building technology that will make it easier to share space for multiple properties. While our new solutions are something we know people need, it’s the P2P sharing, the community money-making opportunity that we feel is going to help people earn additional money each month.

 

It’s truly amazing to see entrepreneurs step up and adjust, pivot and adapt to fast changes.

 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees? 

 Our team has all been working remotely since day one as many are located out of the country or even different parts of the GTA. Much of our communication is through tools like Slack, Zoom and Gdrive so we’re all connected that way. After the pandemic hit, I felt it was important to reach out to all of our customers, supporters and investors and let them know about what new initiatives we had on the horizon. Overall, however, I’m keeping our “pandemic” speak minimal. I feel there’s far too much emphasis on COVID-19 and I’m about looking forward to a future where we resume our way of life.

What financial resources are you tapping into?

We have received support from the BDC and are in the process of applying for a government grant that would assist us tremendously in moving the new initiative forward. We were also the recipient of OCEs SmartStart seed fund plus other grants that have helped us hire great staff.

What has surprised you? 

 This year, what’s most surprising is the amount of people coming together to help others during the pandemic. It’s truly amazing to see entrepreneurs step up and adjust, pivot and adapt to fast changes. So many of us felt helpless a few months back but the entrepreneurial tenacity kicked-in and we made lemonade out of lemons.

How far ahead are you planning? 

We are looking at the next two quarters as more of a build and learn vs. scale and grow. From there, we are looking to launch our new initiatives and go full-on with promotion. We are expecting a lean year so are keeping our costs low and hope to have a year’s worth of runway to get us through. From a vision standpoint, we have expectations of where we’ll be up to 5 yrs. from now.

What keeps you positive?

Definitely my family. My husband is a great motivator and positive person so he’s always helping me get through any tough times. My two daughters – aged 8 and 11, are my bright lights. They are lovely, charming and funny characters who are always positive, no matter what.

Add to that my amazing team of dedicated, passionate and smart people, and I feel so blessed to be surrounded by such a great group. I love it when my team is galvanized to work on something and come back to me with such great work.

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now? 

There’s a LOT going on in the world right now and many of us don’t know the whole story. It’s important to conserve as much cash as possible and prepare for a possible long-term downturn. (The Head of Founder Institute, Adeo Ressi, suggested that we should have at least a one-year runway, if not two). With that in mind, entrepreneurs are the ones leading the way for how a new world might look. Keep your vision alive, don’t get distracted or upset by what’s going on in the media – in fact, pull the plug completely. Mindset, balance and inner peace should be your guiding principles. Lastly, if it “feels” right, don’t let others dissuade you from your vision. They don’t walk in your shoes and their objections are theirs alone, not yours. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, a mentor or someone you admire. Be your own navigator.

Q&A: How Kristal Lewis is adapting to a new normal.

As Founder/CEO of Senior Care Connect, Kristal is a registered Social Worker (RSW) who holds both a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Social Work (BSW, MSW), with over 10 years of experience in the field. Her experience includes: health care system navigation, senior care planning, hospital discharge planning, cancer care, palliative care, community crisis intervention, community outreach and education, amongst other areas. With an expertise in working with seniors and health care, Kristal is well aware of the numerous issues impacting this population and holds a wealth of knowledge regarding our health care system and senior care planning. Kristal is passionate about educating the community and acting as a support to help seniors/families get the care they need, in order to ensure they maintain the highest quality of life as they age. Kristal shares how Senior Care Connect has adapted to these unprecedented times, from the financial resources she has been tapping into to how far she is planning ahead.

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus?

With a recent pivot and MVP built, our focus right now is gaining feedback from our user base so we can adjust and tailor our solution to best meet their needs. So our energy and focus currently is getting our solution in the hands of professional caregivers and families. 

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?

I want to simplify the process for finding and arranging care for yourself or an aging loved one, so we can all have the best quality of life possible as we age. In my career, I’ve worked with hundreds of families in search of care and overall I get the same responses. Families are stressed, not only because their loved one is sick, but they are stressed at the whole process of finding, arranging and paying for care. Understandably this is a very complex issue and no one solution can solve it all. As our starting point, however, we want to address some of the pain points for families by creating a platform to provides easy access to care at the best possible price. 

What has been your most successful solution so far?

Thus far we have received positive feedback from families who we have been able to match with caregivers.  Families appreciated being able to easily find a caregiver and knowing that the caregiver they were being connected with had been pre-screened. 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees?

Like most companies, we of course have social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. We also stay connected via our monthly newsletter.  We use this as a form of engagement as we encourage our community members to reach out to us with questions or concerns. I love getting e-mails and questions in response to our newsletters, as it allows for greater engagement and allows us to provide tailored answers or support to people’s particular needs or questions. We do also have a chat feature on our website, as well as a phone number for those who want to speak directly with us. For team members, we use slack as a means of communication.

What financial resources are you tapping into?

As far as financial resources, I have accessed grants, competed/won pitch competitions, and have used my own personal funds. We’ve been fortunate to be a part of some amazing entrepreneurial programs such as York University’s Launch YU business accelerator, as well as YEDI(York Entrepreneurial Development Institute)- which provide the opportunity to compete and/or apply for access to grant funding. Grant funding is always great, as it allows for a source of funding without giving up equity in your company and it isn’t a loan you have to pay back (with interest). I also made it a point to compete in various pitch contests as some of them have cash prize rewards.

 

I think it’s important to really have a strong support system around you who can help you during those really difficult times and to remind you that your inherent value is not dependent on your business. 

 

What has surprised you?

Starting a business can be extremely challenging, with lots of ups and downs. What has surprised me is how challenging it can be to get product-market-fit, even when you bring industry expertise.  With Senior Care Connect, although there is a clear problem, it is a complex one which makes it difficult to address all aspects of it.

How far ahead are you planning?

Our initial offering helps connect families with pre-screened caregivers, however, we have much larger plans for the future in regards to how we want to help families. Addressing the care of an aging loved one has multiple factors to consider, which makes this issue such a difficult one to tackle. Our end goal as we grow is to create a centralized access point for senior care options, which will allow families to go to one access point to explore various options whether finding caregivers, private retirement homes, purchasing needed equipment and other senior care related needs.

What keeps you positive?

My co-founder, family and friends help me to stay positive and optimistic.  Starting/building a business is a very arduous process and there can be many down times. It can be very emotionally taxing. I think it’s important to really have a strong support system around you who can help you during those really difficult times and to remind you that your inherent value is not dependent on your business. 

Furthermore, what keeps me going is my “why”- which are my parents who are seniors. From my professional experience, I witnessed how distraught families were dealing with caring for an aging loved one and it made me think of my own parents. I see the families I work with and I empathize with them. I want to be able to be a part of creating solutions that will help not only my family but everyone’s families get the care they need and deserve as they age.

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now?

Entrepreneurship is not easy.  Always remember why you started and be persistent. Try to surround yourself with a great support system. Immerse yourself in the start-up eco-system, as there are great opportunities to apply for grants, connect with industry experts, network with investors and gain mentorship.

Meet Harjas Grewal: Founder of UnitedWomxn and 2020 Diana Award Recipient

Harjas Grewal is a 22-year old passionate and innovative leader from Brampton, Canada with a degree in Global Development from Western University and an Urban Humanitarian Emergencies certificate from Harvard University. Her work has revolved on addressing human rights and sustainable development goals with a focus on gender equality, reducing inequalities across the board, and education. Harjas has worked extensively in the United Nations and Youth Assembly ecosystems on gender equality and human rights through meaningful engagement, such as advocacy, community building, and policy work. She is the Founder of UnitedWomxn, a platform aimed to cultivate conversation surrounding sustainable development and highlight leaders’ from all over with an emphasis on the BIPOC community. Furthermore, she is a recipient of the 2020 Diana Award for her social impact work. 

 

My first job was… as a media production assistant and I volunteered doing Seva at Gurudwaras, which propelled my mindset to serve the community. 

My proudest accomplishment is… speaking at the United Nations General Assembly week in New York City about women in leadership at an event key-noted by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus. I am also proud of winning the Diana Award, one of the highest accolades a young person can get for their humanitarian work. 

The idea for UnitedWomxn came to me when… I spoke to a young person who recently left women’s shelter and realized there was a lack of resources and diversity of mentors for youth from disadvantaged communities. Providing inspirational and educational content to create the agency needed for empowerment is what this platform is about. As someone who has been close to a shelter once and has faced difficulties, I know how hard it is to imagine beyond the four walls you are in. I want to create tangible and lasting change. 

My boldest move to date was… accepting who I am and publicly advocating for causes I believe in; an example, running a rally against white supremacy. It took a while for me to own my voice and realize that is the single most powerful thing I have. Sometimes I stayed quiet due to fear of consequences, but I haven’t been scared to call people out for wrong-doings, advocate for change and put myself out there for the past years. I aspire to carry myself with No Fear (Nirbhao) and No Hate (Nirvair) as I learned from Sikhism. 

I surprise people when I tell them… I am a creative and writer. I have helped produce sold-out concerts, acted in theatre, and wrote plays. I am a published playwright (Bloodline), a play about mental health, I co-wrote in high school which won me the Ontario Young Authors Award. Also wrote a short story called Curfew Clocks, which was published in an anthology. People tell me I am a “jack of all trades”. 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… to stay resilient and accept rejections. That is the single best advice I have learned from my own experiences. Many doors will close, many rejections will come, but eventually one will open, and it will lead to a world of opportunities and possibilities. It is up to you to hustle, keep your vision consistent, and remain resilient. 

 

“Many doors will close, many rejections will come, but eventually one will open, and it will lead to world of opportunities and possibilities.”

 

My biggest setback was… I grew up with a lack of resources and opportunities. Due to difficulties in my childhood, I eventually faced mental health issues. My anxiety and depression caused a lot of roadblocks. 

I overcame it by… imagining a world where my voice mattered. This pipe dream became a goal and I learned to voice my dreams, talk to as many people as I could, and remain inspired. My immigrant mother’s resilience in the face of a seemingly cold world taught me to always be brave and remain resilient…like her!

My passion for Global Development began when… I learned about Seva or service through Sikhism and volunteered at multiple organizations. I wanted to learn from different humanitarian organizations and when I was 11 years old, I learned about the United Nations General Assembly, and I made it my goal to be there one day (which I succeeded in doing)! As I grew, I eventually learned about the impact and the gaps in these organizations, especially in how Global Development was being taught. Though my time at these organizations, I learned you have to work WITH the communities at stake to see a sustainable difference. Thankfully, I found a program at Huron at Western University that taught Global Development in a critical anti-oppressive and collaborative lens. All of this caused me to become passionate about international affairs, global development and politics – because I believe that you can make a tangible impact in these areas. 

Work/life balance is... a hard feat. For me, I work full time tackling gender, inclusion and equity with Matrix360 and in my free time, I am working on launching UnitedWomxn. I dedicate my waking hours to my passions, however, due to my mental health – I realize unplugging and doing some self-care is SO important! For me, this is ensuring I am doing my robust skincare routine, limiting social media in the evenings, and reading before bed (currently reading Songs of Kabir and Remnants of a Partition by Aanchal Malhotra).

If I had an extra hour in the day… I would write short stories, poems and work on play ideas! I’m always getting random interesting ideas to write about.

If you googled me… you still wouldn’t know I love stargazing and used to read about the cosmos for hours at end. 

Also, I am a big believer in idealizing your own life. An example, embodying yourself as the main character of your own movie and living life with endless passion, belief and hope. 

Another fact, I am a big fan of Korean Dramas. 

I stay inspired by… young leaders from marginalized communities whose time to rise is now. And I stay inspired by the child me. The girl who grew up imagining she was walking the halls of the United Nations, travelling to big cities, and having a voice that mattered on platforms to elevate other young change-makers. 

The future excites me because… there is so much growing, realizing, and learning to do. Youth today are so powerful, from mobilizing communities to running start-ups to actionizing change…they excite and inspire me every day. There are endless opportunities and I cannot wait to see what life has in store. 

My next step is… to launch UnitedWomxn. The rest of the story will follow. 

A conversation with Maayan Ziv on COVID and people living with disabilities

Maayan Ziv is an award-winning tech entrepreneur and disability advocate. Frustrated by the barriers she was experiencing living with muscular dystrophy, nearly five years ago she founded AccessNow — an app that uses crowdsourcing to pin-point the accessibility status of locations on an interactive map. 

A few days before our conversation, the federal government announced new funding: $15 million to enable community organizations to help Canadians with disabilities adapt to the realities of COVID-19, and up to $600 for individuals who qualify for the Disability Tax Credit (DTC). 

While that measure would have reached about 1.2 million eligible Canadians, one study estimates it would only cover roughly 40% of working-aged adults with a severe disability. What’s worse, on June 11 the bill that included these benefits failed to pass, as opposition parties withheld support. Party leaders blamed one another for the impasse, and so far, no new initiatives have been announced.

Maayan Ziv spoke candidly on the challenges COVID presents for people with disabilities — and the opportunities.

 

I’d like to start by asking, how are you doing?

I’ve been okay. At first there was a lot of fear that I was experiencing — especially being someone who fits into the category of being immunocompromised. Whenever I listen to stories about how this is really, really dire for people who fit my criteria, there’s a lot of fear around that. And that is a shared experience. Pretty much everyone that is in a similar situation as me, we have had to take a lot of precautions. 

It was difficult at first. Before there was even a lockdown, I was starting to self-isolate. I used to live in Toronto and I just moved out to the country to be in a less dense population. I’m not going to the grocery store or anywhere really, and basically everyone who’s living in the same house is in the same boat. It’s pretty extreme. 

It can be frustrating or difficult, especially now when things are starting to open — it’s really not the case for me. I’ve gone through cycles, from fear, to a sense of grieving for what life was like pre-COVID. Now, I’m in a state of acceptance and really working on leveraging the silver lining that comes along with this new reality. I think that there’s a lot of change and it’s not all bad.

 

One of those silver linings, from what I’ve been reading, is that some of the ways we’ve adapted because of COVID are actually beneficial to people living with disabilities. Would you agree with that?

A lot of the things that we were seeing in the very beginning — like people writing about what it means to work from home, to access services online or remotely, and people having this panic of, how do I do life if I haven’t done this before? — that was general across the board, every person we talked to said the same thing. 

And for our community of people with disabilities, it was a very interesting experience, because the things that people started realizing that they needed are things that people with disabilities have been advocating for years. The flexibility, working from home or having different work hours, the ability to use online tools as opposed to meeting in person.

Specifically, if you just look at employment, it’s been a huge conversation that has been happening within the disability community for a very long time. Part of it has actually resulted in barriers where people don’t get the job, or they’re not given a fair chance to pursue an opportunity because people will say, ‘Well, if you can’t come into the office every day or if you can’t work in this way, you can’t work for us at all.’

Now, there’s a bigger sense of advocacy for the disability community, that’s been demanding these types of accommodations, you might call it, for years — from home delivery to telehealth. There are so many different aspects of how we’re revolutionizing the world to be post-COVID that have been part of the DNA of how people with disabilities have been wanting to live their lives, and not always been granted access to.

There’s a sense of, welcome to my world, and a real opportunity to develop a sense of empathy and work towards a greater understanding of inclusion because things that were considered accommodations, or things that are accessible specifically for people with disabilities, are now things that every person needs. That is a really unique opportunity to capitalize on and keep working towards inclusive progress.

We’re in a really important moment in time where we hope that things will continue in this direction. We hope that restaurants will continue to offer options, and that offices will continue to embrace a remote work style, and that we won’t just go back to a one-size-fits-all model without the flexibility to be there for every person. That’s something we’re advocating for within the disability community.

 

“There’s a sense of, welcome to my world, and a real opportunity to develop a sense of empathy and work towards a greater understanding of inclusion because things that were considered accommodations, or things that are accessible specifically for people with disabilities, are now things that every person needs.”

 

Is there a degree of frustration that you’ve been advocating for this for years and people have been saying, ‘We can’t do it’ — and now all of a sudden, en masse, the world has started doing it?

It’s a good question. For sure, I think that there is some frustration there, but the frustration has always been there. The fact that people with disabilities haven’t been given the same rights and opportunities, that’s a systemic issue, and it’s global. 

That’s why the largest minority group in the world has been advocating for that for so long. But rather than just leaning on that anger and that frustration, having the opportunity to then use that frustration as fuel to capitalize on this chance for change, I think is really the approach that I’m taking personally and I see a lot of people in the community doing as well. 

So knowledge-sharing, improving access with our Access From Home product, and we’ve launched a campaign that’s focused on storytelling, so that people with disabilities can share their own lived experiences about what access from home looks like, so that it becomes more personal and it becomes real for people, rather than this blob of immunocompromised people. 

 

You mention your Access From Home product — which seems to be the opposite of what you were offering with AccessNow. How did that come about?

At AccessNow we were originally focused on connecting people to the physical world, the built environment, and encouraging and empowering people to get out and do things and be independent. With COVID, we had to quickly start thinking about what our role is now, in a world where people can’t really go out. 

That’s really where Access From Home became part of the solution. We’ve been hearing a lot of people in our community saying, ‘I’m having a difficult time finding access to groceries,’ or ‘What opportunities do I have for online employment? What tools can I use?’ or ‘What sources of education or entertainment do I have access to from home?’

We started building this directory of different companies and services, where people can look for the things that they need in their life, and so have that sense of accessibility and empowerment at home. So we’re contributing in the same way that we’ve always done, connecting people to an accessible world — even if our world is now digital, and accessed through devices at home.

And we continue to invest in our main platform, the AccessNow app. We know that accessibility in the built environment is still, and will always be, critical to achieving independence and equity

 

What about other supports — like group programs and at-home care? I’ve read they’ve had to change how they’re delivered, or they’ve just gone away. How is this being managed?

Many people are really struggling. I’ve heard nightmare stories from people who are without enough support, because their caregivers have had to pick only one place of employment or don’t feel safe coming to work. I’ve heard from people who have had to isolate from loved ones in order to limit the risk of exposure, or those unable to get basic needs met due to new financial constraints or gaps in care. It’s just hard, it’s hard on everyone, with or without the disability. 

But for those with disabilities, it can be really trying right now and that story is not widely known. We still have a lot of people hanging out in big groups or not practicing proper social distancing or not wearing masks. Many people I feel are not thinking about how those actions, although they might not actually hurt them personally, are hurting other people. 

 

Do you feel like, as we’re all figuring out this new normal, that your voice is being heard?

Early on Minister Qualtrough put together an advisory committee of people that were focused on disability and COVID-19, and that now there is also a new effort from Stats Canada to collect survey data on the impact of COVID on Canadians with disabilities.

But is it too little too late? I think the $15 million for programs, that’s a significant number but when we talk about funding on the personal level, there’s a lot of people who fall through the cracks. The important thing to realize, and I don’t think people do, is that people with disabilities have a lot of expenses, especially now, and many are without the support they need.

Here’s one tiny example: a caregiver that’s coming and going daily — you need PPE not just for you, but for all the people who come in and out of your life every day to support you. There are all these microtransactions that people don’t really think about, and there’s a whole body of work that talks about the cost of disability — and during this time, it’s even more significant. I’m glad that some funding is there, but I’m not sure it will be enough.

 

Is there a lesson you hope that we learn out of this? If there was one thing you wish we could hold on to that will lead us towards a better future, what would that be?

I honestly think that it boils down to empathy. I think when there is a sense of empathy we react differently, and we’re kinder to each other, and we are more thoughtful about our actions. I think we’ve been given the opportunity to empathize with another person’s fear, another person’s reality. People start meetings with a meaningful ‘how are you?’ — it is not necessarily something we would have seen in the past, but is a chance to connect with another person, authentically.

Having that kind of human element, we have a unique opportunity to now grow from this experience, and I hope that we do. Human tendency is to get these new paths and then eventually forget about them and go back to the old ways. I hope that that’s not going to be the case. I think we have an opportunity to learn from this, and to invest in a future that is welcoming and inclusive.

How does COVID affect gender dynamics at home? This researcher is finding out.

By Hailey Eisen
(Photo Credit: Rich Blenkinsopp/Memorial University) 

 

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the way we work—from massive layoffs to millions suddenly working from home. When the pandemic hit, many also faced the pressure of added responsibilities in the home and beyond. Early research into the way we work during COVID has unveiled notable gender discrepancies in the balance of responsibility and burden of care. 

“It’s been a fascinating time to look at gender roles in the home and workplace,” says Dr. Alyson Byrne, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. “Despite the terrible and tragic things going on—and we must not make light of these—this pandemic has exposed cracks in the foundation in terms of gender and the burden of child care, elder care, and domestic care.”

According to Alyson, whose research has focused primarily on leadership, status, gender and relational outcomes, anecdotal evidence gathered during this time reveals an imbalance in women’s roles and responsibilities. “With the burden of care falling more on women, who are often simultaneously working full time, there will be potential long-term impacts of this time period which I’m not sure will disappear quickly, even with a vaccine.” 

With that in mind, Alyson has begun a research project with her mentor and former academic supervisor, Professor Julian Barling of Smith School of Business. Alyson and Julian published a paper in 2017 in the journal Organization Science about the impact women’s high-status careers have on their marriage and family lives. Their new research will focus on couples in a different context.

“For the time being, we are taking a snapshot of couples, trying to capture the dynamic of life as it is now during the pandemic,” Alyson explains. “We will plan to study the same couples during two more time periods: when regulations are lifted and again when the pandemic is over.” The research will focus on the roles of each partner, how COVID impacted work and the family interface, and what changes, if any, were long-lasting. “We don’t have clearly defined ideas yet as to what we’ll find, but we do have some ideas.” 

Working from her home and sharing responsibilities for their two small children with her accountant husband, Alyson says she doesn’t usually incorporate her personal experience into her research, but it’s hard not to see the connection in this case. “We’ve always been egalitarian parents,” she says. “We each took six months of parental leave for both of our babies, and continue to negotiate all aspects of domestic life, including who makes dinner, who gets up in the night with the kids, cleans up, etcetera.” 

While it’s been a challenge to manage child-care responsibilities while working from home, and many women seem to be facing an increasing burden of responsibility — it hasn’t all been negative. The pandemic may also have a few outcomes that improve couples’ work and relationship dynamics, according to Alyson’s early observations. 

For one, the pandemic has blurred the divide between work and home. “Suddenly your boss has his kids popping up on a Zoom call, and it’s completely OK,” Alyson says. “When you see others going through the same thing you are, you don’t feel so bad.” 

The pandemic has also increased the amount of time that families spend together. “Even if it’s not quality family time, there has been a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’, which is really nice.” 

It has also provided an unprecedented opportunity to see what each partner’s work really looks like. In fact, the pandemic has forced many couples to have important conversations about their careers, about who gets to work when, who gets the home office, if there is one, and who is responsible for groceries and the kids’ online learning, among other things. “It may lead to increased respect and a greater understanding of the types of demands each partner faces.” 

Alyson’s own upbringing was decidedly egalitarian. Her parents, both teachers, had no difference in the status of their jobs, and she was “raised to believe it was normal for women to want to work, and be expected to work.” But after a few years in her first job out of university — a role with Export and Development Canada in Ottawa — she realized she wanted to study work and teach about work, rather than be in the workplace. 

Alyson reached out to a professor from her undergraduate studies, a PhD graduate from Smith, who connected her with Julian. “While I knew little about academic research, I had passion and questions I wanted to explore, and Julian decided to take a chance on me,” Alyson recalls. 

“When we first met, I didn’t know about his credentials or the level of publications he had accumulated over his career, only that he was a nice guy who was willing to meet with me and let me explore the MSc/PhD program at Smith.” 

Looking back, Alyson sees Julian as her greatest champion, and his lab group formed an incredible network that was instrumental in her success. “The people in our lab group became collaborators and best friends, and over the years we have celebrated our publications, weddings, and the births of our children together.” 

While at Smith, Alyson says the support staff was also instrumental in ensuring she secured funding, got participants for her studies, submitted ethics, and was supported throughout the duration of her PhD. While she certainly struggled with imposter syndrome at times, wondering if she would get published (she did, many times) or if she would get a job (she did, her dream job in fact), she found the entire experience to be overwhelmingly positive. 

Having been interested in leadership since she was young, Alyson began her research in this field. “I was one of those young, extroverted children who took on leadership roles from student council to sports teams,” she says. “And when I started in the workplace, I was fascinated by the impact various leaders could have on my own motivation based on their behaviours.” 

Her work with Julian began by focusing on the small attributes of leaders, such as humour, and their impacts on employee outcomes, and then shifted to women’s careers and when women are the higher-earning partner in the family. The changes she’s studying now around COVID and couples’ work dynamics may, she hopes, lead to some bigger shifts in corporate culture, especially around family-friendly policies, the ideal scenario being true equality in the workplace that spills over into the family. 

“Wouldn’t that be a silver lining?” she says. “If more men came to respect the roles of their wives, to see more clearly the heavy lifting that’s being done on the home front every day that they weren’t aware of before? Truthfully, if this doesn’t transform the way we think about gender and work, I don’t know what will.”

Q&A: How Farah Brunache is adapting to a new normal.

Lagatos is headed by Farah Brunache, who has a combined 14 years experience. Both as a Software Engineer and Program Analyst in the United States Intelligence Community working in distressed regions. In 2015, Brunache was named by the Obama Administration as an Emerging Global Entrepreneur. Lagatos turns devices into an anonymous local server that buffers content for others to use in their local community. Lagatos de-centralizes and unlocks internet access in markets that before have been in-penetrable. Farah shares how her company is adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, issues and successful solutions, and advice on financial resources and looking ahead for other entrepreneurs. 

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus?

Before COVID-19 at first glance, many would consider our product to be a “nice to have.” As many believed that people without home Internet were not a priority as they “all” had mobile phones. And could access the Internet there or at a library.

Post-COVID-19 has shown that high bandwidth Internet access is a long-overdue necessity. Most of our energy is spent educating and the solutions that can be implemented today.

 

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?

Providing high bandwidth Internet access to people who disproportionately only have access to mobile data. And providing them opportunities to earn in the digital global economy.

 

What has been your most successful solution so far?

Potential and existing customers were always aware of the digital divide. But never thought of it in such concrete phrasing. COVID-19 has provided an opening for Lagatos to provide education around the lack of Internet. As it is not only a service we are selling. But a broader mission for equality.

 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees?

Fortunately, since the inception of Lagatos, we have been a digital-first and remote-only company. Maintaining this has enabled us to continue reaching and communicating with customers.

With our customers, it is social media, email, and video conferencing. And with our employees, we remain 100% operational. Using video conferencing and productivity web applications to stay connected throughout the week.

 

What advice do you have for businesses struggling with their finances?

These are difficult times for many businesses. And Lagatos is no exception in impact as customers begin to have less money to spend each month. Our suggestion is to seek grant opportunities. Understanding that COVID affects everyone. So funding opportunities will be limited. My suggestion is to look at how your business can switch gears or adapt to a COVID-19 issue. As a simple example, some companies shifted to manufacturing PPE material. Or software companies that shifted to helping brick and mortar companies get online. Whether it is setting up e-commerce sites or helping automate delivery services.

 

“The new normal is here. And so it provides an opportunity to provide services that people find essential. And will allow your business to grow. And to help people in need now.”

 

What has surprised you?

During COVID-19, our team expanded from one to six. This is a time of instability for many. And grateful for everyone who is moved by the mission. And willing to invest in continued innovation in the technology space.

 

How far ahead are you planning?

COVID-19 hasn’t changed how far out Lagatos plans its future. But has changed what activities we will engage in. This is because we believe Lagatos can have a global impact.

We have a short term (12 months), mid-term (5 years), and long term goals (10 years). And we ensure to always stay flexible. One of our core values is “passionate beliefs loosely held.”

 

What keeps you positive?

People are resilient. And every day I see many extend themselves to help. Whether it is online communities sharing grant opportunities. Or people supporting their brick and mortar stores.

 

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now?

Post-COVID-19 is an opportunity for communities to reset priorities. If your startup has been majorly impacted by COVID-19, and it has to stop operations; this is an opportunity to work on products and services that people need now. The new normal is here. And so it provides an opportunity to provide services that people find essential. And will allow your business to grow. And to help people in need now.