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.”