Engine for Change: How Sandra Odendahl is mobilizing social impact and inclusion for every future.
Scotiabank Vice President reflects on intersecting experiences as leader, professional engineer and woman of colour.
By Shelley White
During these challenging times, many in the corporate world are asking: are we doing enough to make things better?
As Scotiabank’s Vice President of Social Impact and Sustainability, Sandra Odendahl thinks about that question a lot. She is constantly evaluating how the bank is embedding good environmental and community practices into its business and operations.
“The biggest positive impact we can have on society is through our business: the people we employ; the way we provide products, services and advice to customers; and how we help the economy,” she says. “But our community investment activities also contribute to positive benefits to society, and our business thrives when communities thrive.”
Sandra and her team divide their work between four key pillars: donations to not-for-profits and charities, academic partnerships, corporate sustainability, and overall corporate responsibility strategy. The pillars are part of an overarching goal to make a positive impact on the communities where we work and live.
“If we’re providing grants or creating charitable partnerships, we’re evaluating them by asking: what is the social impact of this partnership? But we also consider, is there an opportunity for a positive alignment to our business? Is there an opportunity for employee engagement and employee involvement in that partnership?“ Sandra says.
The events of 2020 have made Sandra’s team more important than ever. For example, after the killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd, widespread protests were spurred across the U.S. and Canada and the focus on anti-Black racism gained momentum at the bank, Sandra says. Employees across different areas of the business wanted to do more to address racism and discrimination.
“Some businesses were looking at renewed product or service offerings, while other areas of the bank were more interested in enabling our people by deepening learning to help them confront bias,” Sandra says. “There was so much great work going on, but it needed to have a shared direction, so I was tasked with leading the charge to pull it all together.”
Sandra was asked to lead the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) Inclusion Task Force at Scotiabank, a project that is nearing completion.
“At the beginning, we looked at the results of employee surveys and executive listening sessions with employees on the topic of racism, and then studied best practices across different companies in addressing diversity and inclusion to determine where the gaps were in how we are dealing with racism. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we best honour our commitment to anti-racism when it comes to our employees, customers and business partners? How can we demonstrate it within our community?’” she says.
Following the assessment and recommendations of the Task Force, Scotiabank’s Inclusion Council will determine an appropriate framework for the bank’s anti-racism actions, in order to “sustain thoughtful and strategic activity over time,” Sandra says. “We don’t want to lose momentum once it’s no longer front-page news. It’s something that we’re permanently building into the existing D&I framework.”
As the child of a West Indian mother and a German father, Sandra says that her life growing up in Ottawa was a “typical child of immigrant parents experience.” She was one of very few women in her chemical engineering classes at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto, and as a result, she formed strong relationships with her small cohort of fellow women students, some of which have lasted for 30 years.
Sandra began her career performing environmental impact assessments for pulp mills, mines and hydroelectric projects in Indonesia and across Canada. She eventually found her way into the financial sector, where she was a resource sector analyst for one of Canada’s top five banks and then led one of the first environmental risk management teams on Bay Street. Her passion for environmental sustainability issues runs deep — she recently completed a five-year term as Chair of the Board for the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and is a Board Member of the Ontario Clean Water Agency and the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.
But while her workplaces were mostly male-dominated, Sandra says she feels fortunate that she didn’t encounter many barriers as a woman working in science and engineering.
“I know that I am really fortunate to have had many positive experiences as a woman of colour, and I realize that’s not always the case for people who struggle or feel alienated because of their race or gender.”
Having said that, there were moments “where I wanted to roll my eyes when someone said or did something ignorant,” she says. She remembers working at a petrochemical plant where an older male colleague put up a magazine centrefold of a nude woman in their shared workspace. (She moved it so she wouldn’t have to look at it.) And then there was the time as a grad student when a visiting international professor rudely asked her: “What’s with the hair?”
“I don’t remember the exact words, but my hair was a little bit wild and unkempt — compared to someone with straight hair,” Sandra recalls. “I always wore my curly hair pretty much natural back then. So, I just laughed and said, ‘What’s with my hair? Well, it grows out of my head this way, just like your hair grows out the way it grows out.’ He didn’t pursue the conversation!”
Sandra thinks her pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude has served her well over the years in dealing with tone-deaf comments.
When confronted with an uncomfortable comment or action in the workplace, Sandra’s advice is to assume positive intent, but to also stand up for yourself, “as politely and concisely as possible,” she says.
“You can ask a question like, ‘I’m not sure what you mean by that — can you please elaborate?’ Sometimes you realize they didn’t mean anything by it. I think that’s really important.”
And when someone really does mean something by it? That’s when it’s time to speak up for yourself, speak out and raise your concern, Sandra says. “Sadly, there are ignorant people in the world, and you’ve just got to figure out how to go around them.”
One of most effective ways to make a positive impact on diversity and inclusion in the Canadian workplace is to set a good example for the next generation, Sandra says. “As a successful woman engineer and professional, who is also a person of colour, I feel that it’s important to support and mentor young people.”
That’s why she volunteers with the University of Toronto’s engineering school and has also served as an advisor to Ryerson University’s Social Ventures Zone, where she mentored engineering students and advised student-founded startup companies.
Representation matters, Sandra says.
“It matters to see somebody who you can identify with doing something you may never have thought of doing,” she says. “I hope I am inspiring other women and people of colour to think, ‘Of course, there is a place for me in all this.’”