What makes an innovative small business? Dr. Nuša Fain explains.

Nusa Fain

By Hailey Eisen 

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new hurdles and challenges for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Many are still reeling from the impacts experienced over the past 18 months, but there are also those that have made great strides in these unprecedented times, through innovation and reinvention. 

What can we learn from the businesses that thrived during the pandemic, and how can we leverage those learnings to help other SMEs post-COVID? 

According to Dr Nuša Fain, Director of the Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MMIE) program at Smith School of Business, the opportunities coming out of the pandemic will benefit the small business ecosystem for years to come. She has been eagerly tracking COVID success stories, looking for clues as to what other businesses can learn from these experiences. 

“Never have changemakers been needed more than they are now,” she says. “Our goal through the MMIE program is to build the changemakers of the future.” 

With business consulting experience in the areas of product development and innovation management in both Europe and Canada, Nuša has seen ‘innovation’ become a buzzword that people love to use — but often don’t understand well. “We define innovation as creating something new that generates value,” she explains. “That value can be profit, but it can also be social impact or operational value.” 

At their core, Nuša says successful entrepreneurs have the very skills required for innovation. And creating a culture of innovation can improve productivity, reduce costs, increase competitiveness, build value and boost employee engagement.  

“Creating a culture of innovation within a team means everyone is encouraged to think outside the box, improve processes and generate value,” she explains. “Those companies that really did well during the pandemic had flexibility and a culture of innovation already in place, meaning employees were engaged, incentivized and rewarded for providing new potential solutions to a particular problem.” 

Some of the questions these companies likely asked themselves were: What are our customers’ needs? What are things we can no longer do because of COVID? How can we better serve our customers in this new environment? What can we do to change? 

“Not everything needs to be a breakthrough innovation, but those companies that succeeded took time — but not too much time — to reassess and determine what they could do differently in order to continue to thrive and meet the needs of their customers, or potential customers.” 

“Take the example of breweries and distilleries that started to produce hand sanitizer in the early days of COVID,” Nuša says. “They understood the capabilities of their manufacturing processes and they had the flexibility to change. Instead of just continuing to do what they had always done, they pivoted to add value, creating something new that was needed at the time.” 

The same was true of manufacturers in other fields who quickly shifted to create PPE and ventilators. “Not everything needs to be a breakthrough innovation, but those companies that succeeded took time — but not too much time — to reassess and determine what they could do differently in order to continue to thrive and meet the needs of their customers, or potential customers.” 

The ability to identify and create additional revenue streams is another trait that allowed some businesses to stay competitive in this new environment. “Many businesses suffered during COVID when the fixed income they were used to from their loyal customers dried up and they didn’t have an additional stream of revenue to keep them afloat,” Nuša explains.

To counter this, they had to adopt new models. One model that performed really well during the pandemic was the subscription model, taken up by many small businesses in various industries. Many restaurants and food retailers, for example, offered meal subscription services on a weekly or monthly basis, rather than just relying on one-off purchases. “This type of model builds loyalty, is often cheaper for the consumer and ensures consistency in terms of revenue generation for the small business,” Nuša says. 

Paramount during the pandemic, and essential for success moving forward, was digital transformation — for sales and customer engagement. 

“It used to be that having a website with a contact button or a phone number was enough for many businesses — but that has changed dramatically in the era of social media,” Nuša says. When it comes to communicating with customers and potential customers, social media offers a two-way communication flow that’s proved essential for many SMEs. “Not only do brands need social media to connect with customers, many customers are also engaging in conversations about brands online; if you don’t have a presence in social you’re really missing out.” 

“We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how technology will help shape entrepreneurship and business in the future, which is why all of our MMIE students complete a certificate in disruptive technology which includes everything from engaging in branding on social media to blockchain and AI as future options.”

Some small businesses took their social media presence to new levels during the pandemic, expanding beyond bricks and mortar stores to social auctions and marketplaces. Small retailers held live auctions via Instagram or Facebook when their stores were closed, allowing them to engage with customers, keep them interested in their products and conduct sales in a more personal way without the need for in-person interaction. 

“We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how technology will help shape entrepreneurship and business in the future, which is why all of our MMIE students complete a certificate in disruptive technology which includes everything from engaging in branding on social media to blockchain and AI as future options,” Nuša says. “With the data and analytics available, online businesses can understand their customers better than ever and cater to them in new and innovative ways.”

The shift to a more online-focused presence also opened many businesses up to audiences and customers they didn’t previously have access to. “Yes, the focus during COVID was how to support local businesses, but inadvertently many businesses gained exposure to a much wider audience base.” The key beyond COVID, then, is to stay relevant and find ways to stand out online in an even more global marketplace. While competition may be fiercer, so too is the potential to really grow. 

The best ways for any small business to move forward beyond the pandemic is to learn from the efforts that did and didn’t work, and to get comfortable with failure and the idea that risk will always be present going forward. “We know that everything will continue to speed up and the most successful businesses will be those that can innovate quickly and efficiently,” Nuša says. “This time it was a pandemic, next it could be global warming. It’s how you plan, adjust and adapt that will determine your success in these uncertain times.” 

Meet Melinda Ponting-Moore, Co-Founder & President of Craft Coast Canning Ltd.

Seeing a need for a professional packaging option on the “craft coast” — Eastern Canada — Melinda Moore co-founded Craft Coast Canning in 2017. The company supplies cans, packaging materials, graphic design, quality control, mobile canning, and laboratory services to businesses, from small craft breweries to international brands. A practicing lawyer since 2019, Melinda completed three degrees before her thirties, and started a holdings corporation which owns interests in a number of brands that promote female-entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship.

My first job ever was…Working in the family business, cleaning grease trays and chrome polishing airplanes. Sometimes running errands for the office. First external job was Blockbuster! Worked there through high school and one year of University.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… For me it happened organically since I was raised by entrepreneurs. We had an idea that was marketable, so jumping in with both feet to actualize that goal was only a question of belief in the concept. I was in a place (just having completed my MA while still in law school) where I felt like I was up for an ambitious challenge and able to wear more than one hat, and my husband and I worked together to balance our family resources to make the energy and capital intensive startup phase work.

My proudest accomplishment is… Of course, there are some legal files that I am extremely proud of, but I cannot ethically disclose. But professionally overall, I think my proudest accomplishment was the day I was selected as a finalist for this award. Until then I had not taken time to stop and reflect on what I had been working towards for the last decade. It is so easy to have tunnel vision day-to-day. This nomination was the first time I really stepped back and thought, “hmm… I think I’ve actually built something!” I am proud of getting here, and even more proud of the team is going to keep the companies’ momentum going!

My biggest setback was… There are so many! I think there was a real low when I left University after my Bachelor’s degree. I had always wanted to practice law, but also wanted to continue learning through research, and of course, I needed to finance it all. For a time had no idea how I would pull this off, and I lacked any direction and felt completely lost. I doubted my ambitions and questioned my abilities. Looking back, I think I felt like I was cookie dough, I needed to be baked a little longer to turn out the way I needed to.

I overcame it by… Pushing forward regardless, and trying again when possible. I reinvested in myself, and IMPORTANTLY asked for help! My husband (then boyfriend at the time) shouldered a lot so I could pursue my goals. I overcame any fear of pivoting and reorganized my plans as necessary. My mantra was taught to me from my mother… never be afraid to try, but always try. It saved me.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… A google search does not show much about me. I have do not have many accolades to show. But I used to participate in a number of martial arts, I rescue animals on a 14-acre property in the sticks, I read books on theoretical physics for fun, I officiate weddings for charity, and I once spent three days straight awake watching all of the James Bond movies back-to-back. The point is, professionally I have a need to be hardworking in the face of challenges, and privately I spend time seeking out more challenges and tackling the ones that cannot easily be monetized. The latter is the part the internet will likely never see.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Never be afraid to try, but always try.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Stop. Breathe. And do not be afraid to ask for help.

Success to me means… Balance and the ability to actualize imagination. Success is different for everyone, but I believe if you can maintain your rationality and logic and apply your talents to the world that is success whatever dollar amount rests in your bank account.

I stay inspired by… The people around me. My mother, my husband, my step dad and brother, my in-laws, my friends, the memory of the amazing people who helped train my work ethic (my thesis supervisor Caroline Bassett, my Grandmothers Will Boer and Phyllis Moore, my Grandfather Edmond Boer, my Great Uncle Henri Boer, my dad Carey Moore), and my co-workers, employees and law clients. I constantly feel like I am being driven by their belief in my potential.

My next step is… Long term I plan on working on the balance component to my definition of success. Short and medium term, adjusting the business plans for our businesses to the new normal of our economic activities. In particular, reorienting the direction of our businesses that pivoted as they were deemed essential services during the pandemic for sustainable growth, and finding ways to reconnect with some projects that were dropped as a result during this time. In particular I have had an animal rights opportunity that had been pushed to the side during the pandemic and I would love to reinvest my efforts in to helping see that project move forward.  

Meet Hyla Nayeri & Adrien Bettio, Co-Founders of 437

Best friends Hyla Nayeri and Adrien Bettio launched 437 (previously known as 437 SWIMWEAR) after a summer of travelling across the Amalfi Coast and indulging in everything their hearts desired. The one issue they faced: finding swimwear that could keep up with their craving for adventure and carbs. The two set out to design a bikini that would accentuate their waist, elongate their legs and never stop them from grabbing that second serving of spaghetti bolognese. They launched the brand in the summer of 2017 out of the townhouse they lived in during their last year of university, 437 Johnson St.

My first job ever was… 

For Hyla: Hostess at Boston Pizza 

For Adrien: Sales support intern at Hugo Boss 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… 

For Adrien & Hyla: We weren’t passionate about the career options business school showcased, so we decided we wanted to do something we are passionate about. We saw a gap in the industry and decided to take a chance and start this swimwear business to create swimwear that flattered all bodies 

My proudest accomplishment is… 

For Adrien: Making Forbes 30 under 30 this past year was a dream come true! This has been on our vision board since day one 

My biggest setback was… 

For Hyla: Our new manufacturer in New York fled overnight with $40,000 from our company and we never heard from them again! 

I overcame it by… 

For Hyla: Re-evaluating the swimwear we had and turning versatility into one of the core pillars of our brand. We started tying the tops backwards and figuring out ways to reinvent our existing inventory to brand ourselves as a swim that could be tied various ways. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… 

For Hyla: How much I love reading, I’m an avid reader of finance, self help and wellness books

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is…

For Adrien: Don’t take everything so seriously. I think we were raised with so many high expectations put on us, and so much pressure to follow the traditional, linear route of excelling in school, then getting a secure job, then buying a house and starting a family. At 18, rather than having to look forward and make sure I was taking everything seriously so that I could follow that path, I should have been trying new things and having adventures. Life is short, everything works out as it should, and enjoying everyday by living in the present moment is the thing I wish I knew. 

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… 

For Adrien & Hyla: The importance of balance in your scheduling. Since day 1 of starting 437 we have prioritized balance in our lives. That meant sleeping enough, eating properly, working out, spending time with friends and family, and having personal downtime (on top of all of our work of course). We have had weeks, even months, where we feel like work is a non-stop grind. 

I stay inspired by… 

For Adrien & Hyla: We get countless emails, dms and messages about how someone has never felt wearing a bikini before and now feels empowered due to the way the suits are designed, the fabrics we picked and the messaging behind the brand. It is definitely something that we are so proud of and inspires us to keep working hard and inspiring more woman to feel their best selves. We attribute this accomplishment to our eye for detail and how focused we are on the design process alongside our design team. We always try on every style on a fit model from size XS to XXL and we don’t go into production unless every size feels extremely confident in their produced sample. 

My next step is… 

For Hyla & Adrien: We hope to focus on geographic expansion. Currently we only focus on the US and Canadian market (although we sell internationally they are not our focus of growth currently). This has been great because there are so many consumers that we still have yet to reach in these markets so there’s still a lot of room to grow. However in order to hit the next revenue milestones we want to begin to focus on geographic expansion to English-speaking locations such as the UK and Australia.

Meet Nicole Janssen, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of AltaML

Nicole Janssen is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of AltaML, a Canadian artificial intelligence scaleup that designs and implements applied AI solutions for businesses, helping them identify where AI and Machine Learning (ML) technologies can be applied to improve their day-to-day operations. Nicole is also actively involved in helping Canadian business leaders understand the importance of ethical AI, and has been recognized by AI Global for this work. Prior to AltaML, Nicole co-founded Janalta Interactive Inc., an online media company as well as Stratus Holdings Inc., a private real estate investment firm. Active in her local community, Nicole currently serves as a Director at Innovate Edmonton.

My first job ever was… Bookkeeper at my mom’s company 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I grew up around entrepreneurs so it seemed natural for me. That being said, I might have taken a different path had it not been for participating in the Junior Achievement Company Program in high school. This experience allowed students to collaborate over several months to build a company together. The first step is always the hardest, and I was lucky to take my first leap into entrepreneurship in such a supportive environment. 

My proudest accomplishment is… My two children. They are both beautiful, inside and out. 

My biggest setback was… Being diagnosed with epilepsy. Lack of sleep and stress are two seizure triggers for me, which can be difficult to avoid as an entrepreneur. 

I overcame it by… Adjusting my perspective; I chose to look at epilepsy as a signal instead of a setback. I have something that tells me right away if I push too hard or don’t take the time I need to process. It is also a clear reminder that people face diverse constraints that might not be apparent on the surface, and that we all need to extend a little extra kindness. This awareness elevates my ability to lead, by demonstrating and communicating the importance of life balance. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… A lot of things! Caring for my horse gets me through the toughest of times; I love to get outside on my bike and have cycled from Jasper to Banff twice; my favorite drink is a Boulevardier; an organized pantry always makes me happy. 

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Don’t wait. The longer you wait the more reasons you will find not to take the leap.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Commit to “no” to protect the most important “yes’s” 

Success to me means… I have a vision statement I keep in my wallet that reads: 

Celebrating each moment by choosing happiness. Living a life of trustworthiness, loyalty, honesty and competence. Having a healthy body through physical exercise and proper nutrition. Nourishing the mind through continual learning. Creating and maintaining healthy relationships with myself, my husband, children, family and friends; always sharing my love. To inspire everyone who has come in touch with me to live a life of fulfillment using their full potential. But most importantly, knowing when to put all that aside and just enjoy a good glass of Cabernet! 

I stay inspired by… My children. I want to build something that contributes to making Canada a country full of opportunity so that when the youth of today are grown, they have extraordinary opportunities right here at home. 

My next step is… Continuing to push towards our company mission of Elevating Human Potential through Applied AI and being ready for the next curveball!

Rencontrez Isabelle Dion, PDG Boost Affaires Inc.

Isabelle Dion cumule plus de 25 ans d’expérience en communication et en service client. Sa volonté ferme de donner un élan à ses affaires la motive à créer Boost Affaires avec une associée d’expérience, en 2012. C’est à la fin 2016 qu’Isabelle reprend seule l’affaire. La mission de Boost Affaires: Ouvrir des portes à de nouvelles opportunités d’affaires B2B par une approche téléphonique rigoureuse, humaine et audacieuse basée sur une écoute authentique.

Mon tout premier emploi était… Caissière dans un dépanneur tout près de chez moi. J’ai obtenu cet emploi en prenant  une marche un dimanche de Pâques. J’ai parlé au propriétaire qui m’a embauchée sur le  champ!  

J’ai décidé d’être en affaires parce que… Comme un oiseau, la vie m’a fait tomber du nid pour que je vole de mes propres ailes….  On m’a référé mon premier client au moment où je venais de terminer un emploi et c’est  ce qui m’a lancée en affaires.  

La réalisation dont je tire le plus de fierté, c’est… D’être certifiée BonBoss et d’avoir persévéré comme entrepreneure depuis 14 ans maintenant. J’ai une équipe formidable avec laquelle j’ai créé une relation étroite. C’est  fantastique d’être sur notre X, de se réaliser et de permettre à ses collègues de participer  activement à l’atteinte de la vision d’entreprise. 

https://bonboss.ca/bonboss/isabelle-dion/ 

Mon plus gros incident de parcours fut lorsque… J’ai eu une associée de 2012 à 2016 et que j’ai dû racheter ses parts dans l’entreprise.  C’était prévu, toutefois, c’était pour moi une démarche de haute importante. J’allais de  nouveau être l’unique décideur de l’entreprise et assumer la pleine réalisation de ma  vision d’entreprise. 

J’ai surmonté le tout en… Étant accompagnée d’un mentor avec qui j’ai pris le temps de revisiter mon plan, mes  aspirations, mais surtout, de prendre mon courage à deux mains pour poursuivre mes  ambitions de croissance pour mon entreprise. 

Si vous me cherchez sur Google, vous ne saurez sûrement pas que… Je suis une passionnée de voyages et de découvertes, j’ai d’ailleurs travaillé de  l’Argentine et du Brésil à distance avec mon équipe. Mon côté aventurier, m’amène aussi à partir de façon spontanée selon l’inspiration du moment. J’aime avoir ma moto, traverser les frontières quand c’est possible. Ça me permet de ressentir la liberté et l’accélération qui sont une source de bonheur pour moi.  

Lorsque je me suis lancée en affaires, j’aurais aimé savoir que… Ma vision allait se réaliser et que pour cela je devrais y consacrer plusieurs années. J’ai  fait preuve de beaucoup de résilience. J’étais loin de me douter que mon entreprise serait  ma plus belle école et que mes succès comme entrepreneure seraient mes plus belles  réussites et source de fierté.  

Le meilleur conseil que je pourrais donner à ceux et celles qui veulent faire croître  leur entreprise, c’est… Que selon moi tout est possible. Pour y arriver il est important d’être ouvert, à l’écoute de  ses instincts, à l’affût des opportunités, se fixer des objectifs et y croire.  

Un grand leader est une personne qui… Inspire son équipe à se dépasser et à s’investir dans les défis de l’entreprise, mets en  valeur les forces de ses employés, développe une belle relation avec eux. Fais confiance  et encourage l’autonomie ainsi que le sens des responsabilités et possède une grande écoute. Les gens accompagnés d’un grand leader diront « Nous l’avons fait nous-même » et c’est ce que je prône dans mon entreprise.  

J’entrevois l’avenir avec enthousiasme, parce que… Je suis fière de mon équipe, de ce que nous accomplissons et des valeurs que nous  vivons. J’aime relever des défis et surprendre les gens en atteignant les objectifs fixés. J’aime réunir des employés de talents et les voir se déployer. C’est ensemble que nous  réussissons! 

Pour moi, avoir du succès, c’est… D’avoir de l’impact pour nos clients en ouvrant pour eux la porte à de nouvelles  opportunités d’affaires. De contribuer à bâtir des entreprises, et ce, par des relations authentiques, gagnant-gagnant. D’atteindre nos objectifs avec une équipe heureuse,  engagée et performante. 

Meet Evelyne Nyairo, Founder of Ellie Bianca

Evelyne Nyairo is the founder of Ellie Bianca, an all natural, environmentally sustainable, and socially conscious skincare line. Named after her daughter, the brand was inspired by Evelyne’s deep desire to bring change to the women of the world. She has over fifteen years experience working globally in Environment and Social Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement, which has helped her develop authentic relationships that now allow her to source natural, sustainable, and ethical ingredients.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I wanted to be creative with solutions without any limitations. I always wanted to provide solutions for Africa in the oil and gas sector. Years ago, I found myself doing fieldwork among the most beautiful wild mango trees in Chad. Not one to waste an opportunity for an incredible fresh fruit, I was introduced to a family where the mother and kids proceeded to expertly climb the trees in the hot sun to harvest mangoes for me to eat. Towards the end I was told to pay the husband when it was the wife that had picked the mangoes. I felt a knot of anger in my heart as I customarily handed the money over to the man, and I was motivated to help improve the lives of the women there. That is when I decided to start Ellie Bianca, a natural skincare line built on the pillars ‘Kind to Your Skin, Kind to the Earth, Kind to Women.’

My proudest accomplishment is… To see my daughter start university. I’ve had a lot of business accomplishments, but the bottom of it all is to see my daughter work being her own person. Holding Ellie 18 years ago ignited my passion to raise her to be a smart, happy and well-adjusted young woman with a successful future. Determined to ensure that gender inequity, bias, or prejudice of any kind would never hold me or my daughter back from reaching our desired vision or happiness, today I am so proud to see Ellie on the path to achieving that dream!

My biggest setback was… I never see setbacks as challenges and believe in living a life of no regrets. I see setbacks as an opportunity to comeback and ask myself how do I make the best out of a challenge. 

I overcame it by… I actively shift my mindset when presented with a challenge by looking at it as an opportunity to learn. With every challenge there’s an opportunity of a comeback.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I was born in a rural village in Kisii, Kenya and went to an all-girls boarding school. My clan is called the House of Wealth hence I aim to upload my clan’s legacy with my entrepreneurial experience. 

My best advice for small business owners is… If your dreams are not scaring you, they’re not big enough. Be scared but do it anyways

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Taking time for oneself and scheduling time in my calendar for selfcare

When starting my business, I wish I knew…  To reach out for help. There’s a lot of help by both the government and various other organizations who are there to support entrepreneurs. I’d been doing it all by myself and I wish I had tapped into the resources out there to grow earlier and not done it the hard way

The future excites me because… Each step in this journey is getting us closer to building a billion dollar business. While the journey is not easy, our resilence is inspiring hope in others along the way.  

Success to me means…To me success is not just meeting the financial goal but the ability to give back to others along the way, even if it means having a positive impact on one person to reach their full potential.

Meet Xenia Chen, Founder of Threads

Xenia Chen is the founder of Threads, a direct-to-consumer tights and hosiery brand with a mission to make luxurious and high-end hosiery affordable to everyone. Threads has been featured in FLARE, NBC, FASHION Magazine, CBC The National, and several other media publications. Prior to Threads, Xenia worked in private equity and investment banking at top firms in Toronto and New York for 5 years, over which time she worked on transactions and mandates with a combined value of over $12 billion.

My first job ever was… Lifeguard/swim instructor.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I faced an everyday problem/frustration that I knew so many other women were also facing. I had this burning desire to fix it and come up with a solution!

My proudest accomplishment is… Launching Threads with my own personal savings and bootstrapping the company to what it is today. 

My biggest setback was… The COVID-19 pandemic. Being a young business in an industry that depends on people getting dressed up (either to go out or to go to work) was not easy. 

I overcame it by… Nurturing existing customers and finding new, unexpected customer groups and launching new products. A true testament to the idea that sometimes, the best ideas can come out of times of incredible challenge. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I love cooking! My idea of the perfect night is cooking up a great meal with my husband and having our friends over. 

My best advice for small business owners is… Be open minded when listening to other people’s advice but be discerning about which pieces to actually take and implement. Trust your gut. 

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Take time to rest. It’s so important but I definitely need to be reminded of this at times. 

When starting my business, I wish I knew… Failure is not the opposite of success: it’s a stepping stone to success. 

The future excites me because… There’s so much possibility! We’re living in such a great time in history right now where we have so much knowledge at our fingertips – you can essentially learn anything off of YouTube and the internet and that is really exciting to me. 

Success to me means… Creating a life that you truly love and enjoy. And personal growth – accomplishing things that you, at one point, didn’t think was possible or in the cards for you. There’s no better feeling than looking back and knowing that past-you would’ve been so proud of present-you. 

Meet Connie Stacey, founder of clean energy technology company Growing Greener Innovations.

Connie Stevens

Meet Connie Stacey, Founder and President of Growing Greener Innovations (GGI) Inc., an award-winning clean energy technology company based out of Edmonton, Alberta. With a BA from the University of Alberta and 20 years of experience in the IT and computer programming sectors, Connie founded GGI in 2014, intent on creating a generator that was silent, cleaner, and safer, free of fumes and carbon emissions. Since creating GGI’s patented GRENGINE™ solar battery generator, Connie and her company have expanded into the battery energy storage sector. In addition to being President of GGI, Connie is on the steering committee of NAIT’s Centre for Grid Innovation, is a frequent speaker at cleantech events, and has been the recipient of several awards herself, including the Alberta Business Award for Woman Entrepreneur of the Year.

 

My first job ever was… Camp Counselor for the YMCA Summer Camps in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I wanted to use business as a way to create positive social change.

I founded Growing Greener Innovations because… Once I learned about global energy poverty and realized the technology I was inventing could make a real difference, I felt compelled to take the leap and build my new technology.

My biggest setback was… People had a hard time seeing a woman inventing new battery technology — there was a lot of skepticism. 

I overcame it by… I kept talking to and meeting as many people as I could, trying to find believers who would support me and I looked for alternative ways to get past the barriers I came up against.  

I’m passionate about cleantech because… I believe that cleantech is not just imperative for the environment, it is imperative for people. Clean air, drinkable water, sustainable food —these are essential for our planet, and they are essential for all people. 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Stick with it! There will be so much to learn in the beginning and so many obstacles to overcome, but if you believe in yourself and stick with it, you will get through it. 

“I believe that cleantech is not just imperative for the environment, it is imperative for people. Clean air, drinkable water, sustainable food —these are essential for our planet, and they are essential for all people.” 

The thing I love most about what I do is… I can’t pick one! I am picking two things. One, I love talking to people: My colleagues, our customers, our vendors, and everyone and anyone with interest in cleantech. Two, I love inventing; I love the process of unravelling a problem and finding innovative ways to solve those challenges.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… The love and support of my friends and family. Many of them did not understand the deep technology I was building, but they believed in me and made sure I knew it. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I am a huge fan of Star Wars and all things geeky! My coffee mugs are Star Wars, I have a Rey bobblehead on my desk, and I even have rebel alliance cufflinks! I spend my (few minutes of spare time) making 3D prints and toys for my kids and I love it! 

I stay inspired by… Spending time with my kids. I have three beautiful children and they remind me of how important it is to leave the world a better place than we found it. I want them to enjoy the beautiful planet we inhabit and truly be equal with all of the people who live on it. 

The future excites me because… Now that we are moving from development into commercialization, we are truly starting to see the positive outcomes our work can create. Knowing we are on the brink of so many positive results is unbelievably exciting, and I cannot wait to do even more!

This tech entrepreneur is changing how businesses serve their customers.

Kathy Cheng

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

Think about the last time you were asked by a company to take a digital survey about their customer service. You were likely asked to rate their performance in a variety of areas on a scale of one (not so great) to 10 (incredible). Halfway through the survey, you may even have started answering the questions on auto-pilot in an attempt to complete it in as little time as possible. It’s not the most fruitful experience for consumers nor does it net the most accurate results for companies.

“There was a specific need to develop a better way to understand consumers,” says Kathy Cheng about how her company Nexxt Intelligence came to be. “We feel very fortunate that we made some decisions early on that gave us a competitive edge.”

At its simplest, Nexxt is a digital, AI-powered platform that facilitates in-depth research conversations with consumers of brands and products. Instead of throwing a “traditional 20- to 45-minute survey at someone,” the innovative tool uses a chatbot to engage with the consumer real-time — it can even ask open-ended questions that prompt the survey taker to think about how they feel. The result is a fun and fresh platform that drives engagement and delivers incredibly accurate responses that companies can leverage to better understand their customers. “We deliver rich qualitative insights alongside reliable quantitative data companies can trust,” she says. 

Kathy never thought she would be an entrepreneur, let alone one who would help change the way an entire industry evaluates consumer insights. In fact, she started her career as a simultaneous interpreter for qualitative research groups in China. Her end goal was to translate group research into English for some of the largest multinational corporations that wanted to make inroads in the country. 

“Nearly 95 per cent of the tools used were built with a North American consumer in mind, but we know in Canada we have immigrants, and they think differently than a lifelong Canadian would.”

“I am a very curious person, and the profession allowed me to get to know consumers as humans and to understand their motivations,” she says. After years doing research for organizations like Nielsen, Ipsos, and Environics, she started to contemplate how to develop a technology that could change the way insights were collected. One of her biggest goals was to create a platform that took cultural differences into account. 

“Nearly 95 per cent of the tools used were built with a North American consumer in mind,” Kathy says, “but we know in Canada we have immigrants, and they think differently than a lifelong Canadian would.” Many survey tools also lump Canadians and Americans into the same cultural group, but that’s not accurate either because of the nuances in how each group thinks, she adds.

Enter Nexxt. 

“We spent about a year exploring various technologies and methodologies with the goal of understanding these hidden insights and a person’s views,” she says. “We knew participants would need to be fully engaged and that people had to be presented with real situations to gauge how they would feel about something.” 

Instead of a bullet point survey, then, a taker of a Nexxt survey would be asked a question like: It’s your child’s birthday party and you’re at work completing a project with your colleagues and you’re on deadline. Do you stay and finish the project with your colleagues, or do you go home to see your child? A person’s actual response plus how long they took to answer the question then gets translated into data that is then leveraged as insights for a company. 

Similar insights have been used to serve some of Nexxt’s biggest clients like Loblaws, Coca-Cola, Rotman, TD Ameritrade, Toyota, and RBC, among others. 

“I wasn’t a natural at technology. I was very afraid of it for a long time. But I am curious and I asked a lot of questions — and I kept my eye on doing the best I could, knowing I wanted to solve an immediate need.”

“I often reflect on how far we’ve come,” says Kathy. “I wasn’t a natural at technology. I was very afraid of it for a long time. But I am curious and I asked a lot of questions — and I kept my eye on doing the best I could, knowing I wanted to solve an immediate need.”

She adds she wouldn’t be where she is without being a little stubborn and never compromising the quality of the product she wanted to put to market. “Doing the right thing at the right time has helped — and always following intuition. If you know you need to fulfill a need, don’t cut corners, don’t compromise.”

One of the greatest challenges Kathy has faced as an entrepreneur is saying no to quick fixes to hard-to-solve problems. “If there was a small voice that said a path wasn’t the right one to go down, we wouldn’t do it,” she says, even if that meant more work in the short-term.

The other challenge has been finding the support needed to actually build a start-up from the ground up. Kathy says she and her team have struggled to source funding and win competitions, so they have often gone their own way. When funds have been lacking, for example, her solution has been to double down on research and development instead of product creation. This has led to a better product overall. 

In the end, she says she wouldn’t change the trials and tribulations she’s faced along the way to creating her groundbreaking platform. She’s more focused than ever on transforming the tool into something that can be leveraged for a variety of use cases — and not just for companies who want to understand their consumers. 

“We can change the world. If we understand each other, the world will be a better place,” says Kathy. “By creating more opportunities to foster an in-depth understanding of people, we can be a part of that change.”

How Vivian Kaye embraced her differences and built a multi-million dollar hair business.

Vivian Kaye

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

People have been trying to get Vivian Kaye to conform to preconceived societal standards since she was a kid. As a Ghanaian immigrant and one of four sisters, it was expected she would attend school, get a degree, and settle into a solid and stable career. But spend just a few minutes chatting with the effervescent and empowering entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of KinkyCurlyYaki — a first-of-its-kind, premium hair extension company for Black women — and you know fitting into a mould was something she was never going to let happen.

“People have always tried to fit me into a shape, but I’m a rhombus or parallelogram,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the black sheep. I’m the queen of the pivot, the queen of solving problems, and the queen of being me!”

Vivian says her entrepreneurial spirit likely developed as a young girl, watching her mother selling wares at Ghanaian markets to feed her family. “She did it all with me strapped to her back,” she says. Her family eventually immigrated to Canada with the help of her father, and she went on to graduate high school. By university, Vivian realized school wasn’t really her thing, and that she would rather find work by capitalizing on her “superpowers” — namely confidence, curiosity, innovative thinking, and the ability to speak two languages. 

It was a gamble that paid off. Vivian immediately found work in call centres, which evolved into roles in medtech and fintech. This led to a job at a company supporting entrepreneurs, working for a boss who pushed her to try new things. “Even though he was the most random white guy, he helped me to see myself and to be who I am today,” she says. 

With that encouragement, Vivian started a wedding business as a side hustle. “I saw an opportunity to help brides find better wedding decor without spending millions,” she explains, and her instinct was right — it grew to six figures. 

“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed. I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad.”

And then a chance meeting with a woman in 2012 changed her career trajectory forever. “I had been looking for protective hair in the form of a wig, weave, or braid, but there weren’t a lot of options for women on the market — everything was based on white, European hair textures,” she says. “I really wanted to solve my own problem, so I joined social media groups with people like me.” They shared specifics about vendors who sold the kinds of hair Vivian was looking for, from curly to braided.

“Then one day I wore some hair to an event, and a Black woman pulled me aside and said, ‘who does your hair?’ I was like ‘girl, this is a weave.’ And I thought, if she would buy my hair, a ton of other women would, too.

So, with the help of some human hair sourced from India, a Rubbermaid bin, and the support of the Internet, Vivian launched KinkyCurlyYaki. It immediately took off. Today, the company stands as the originator of an entire niche in the hair industry and has become so popular that companies have begun trying to replicate its business model.  

“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed,” Vivian says. “I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad. It was all about influencer marketing on social media before influencer marketing was a thing, and using social media groups to talk about my products. I also hit the jackpot with online shopping. KinkyCurlyYaki started when people were becoming more comfortable with spending money online.” 

Vivan says learning the ins and outs of doing business in a digital world has been paramount to her success, but she openly states her company wouldn’t have become successful if she wasn’t the person running it. 

“I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me.” 

“What no one can compete with is me. I get high on my own supply, and I resonate with customers because I’m not afraid to go to work with my afro. I know what it feels like to be judged by others because of my hair, so I can communicate with my customers in a way no one else can.”

She also attributes part of her success to her approach to business in general. “I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me,” she explains. 

And from there, Vivian defined success on her own terms — which she recommends all entrepreneurs do. “If you’re worried about ‘making it,’ you have to define what that means for you. For me, it was about flexibility, especially after my son was born, because as a single mother, I wanted to stay home and raise him. I wanted a business I could do at 2 a.m. while he was sleeping,” she says. “If money is your number one driver, you are going to be sorely disappointed in anything you do.” 

Vivian also has advice for anyone who doubts themselves: sit back and ask, “What would Chad do?” 

“There are some mediocre men out there who don’t have any idea what they’re doing, but they walk into roles because they know they might not know B, but they have A and C figured out. You, as a woman, can figure it out. Stop looking for someone to give you permission to be you and be successful. Don’t be the damper to your own light. If someone doesn’t like the path you’ve taken? Well, they can kick rocks with flip-flops.”

Vivian adds that everyone will face challenges when building a business, but it’s the ability to push through difficult times that will make the impossible possible. 

“The past 18 months of the COVID pandemic have been difficult — as a business person and a mother,” she says. “But shit transforms into manure. Manure helps things grow, it fertilizes. In order to grow, you sometimes have to wade through the shit to get to the place where success happens.”

Meet Marie-Claude Desjardins, Owner & COO of Hardware Rebels.

Marie-Claude Desjardins never imaged that her lifelong interest in drawing, organizing space, and planning would one day be used to create products. She founded Hardware Rebels in 2019, a hybrid import/export and industrial design co-development company that supports manufacturing companies in the creation of products and the supply of specialized components in the field of commercial, residential, government and hospital furniture.

My first job ever was…

Working in the kids’ department of a Globo shoe store when I was 16 years old.  Who knew that sandy little feet, torn socks and Disney movies on a loop would be essential to solidifying English as my second language?

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… 

I saw a need in my industry for a new way to do things and I decided to go for it.  In that moment, I just felt it was my calling.

My proudest accomplishment is…

Aside from my kids, of course, my proudest accomplishment is to have made groundbreaking changes in a male-dominated industry. 

My boldest move to date was…

Leaving the comfort of a position as General Manager.  As a single mom with no safety net, I jumped into a gigantic void of unknowns to start my own business.

I surprise people when I tell them…

That I did my motorcycle licence and bought my first motorcycle at the age of 40.  I approach riding the way I face my entrepreneurship; I decide of the destination and I’m steering my way forward.

I knew it was time to launch my business when…

I realized that the cliché of having to move on when you know you can do it better than your boss was true.  I just had to do it.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is…

My favourite quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘’Do Not Go Where The Path May Lead, Go Instead Where There Is No Path And Leave A Trail.’’  It sums it up.

My best advice from a mentor was…

‘’Just try it!  If it doesn’t work, try something else.’’  For me it means, don’t give up and don’t believe those who would tell you that you are crazy.  Use it instead as fuel to succeed.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself…

Well, Marie, grab a coffee and roll up your sleeves, because it’s going to be a long night…

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would…

Love to mentor young adults coming into the workplace in order to help them best develop their skills and achieve their full potential.

I stay inspired by…

The difference that my team makes in peoples’ lives through smarter designs, creative solutions and out-of-the-box thinking.

The future excites me because…

For the first time in my life, I get to truly lead, not follow.  I love what I do and I just can’t get enough.

My next step is…

To further develop two new business divisions within Hardware Rebels.  I guess that’s why people think I don’t sleep.

Meet Naomi Blackman & Mikayla Wujec, Co-Founders of Alder Apparel.

Founded by National Geographic Explorer Mikayla Wujec and fashion marketing leader Naomi Blackman, alder apparel was created in Toronto, Canada. Naomi and Mikayla met as childhood friends and shared similar frustrations with outdoor clothing options for women. With their combined backgrounds, they decided to take a chance at making something better. They offer inclusive sizing, community-informed design, sustainable and ethical production, and a playful brand that starkly contrasts with the performance-driven, hard-core athletic brands that currently dominate the outdoor space.

My first job ever was…

For Naomi: working at a neighbourhood sandwich counter/bakery. I was fired after less than a month for switching a shift so I could have the day off to celebrate my mom’s birthday. It took me years to admit that I was fired because I was so embarrassed. I can now see the influence that (and many other work horror stories) had on my philosophy around building a better workplace. 

For Mikayla: Working at Soft Moc shoes in Toronto during high school. It instilled in me a) a true love for comfortable shoes and b) a deep respect for retail workers. Being in the retail business now, I recognize how that early experience taught me the value of excellent customer service and the reward of helping people find products that will improve their everyday life!

I decided to be an entrepreneur because…

For: Naomi: I wanted to be part of building something from the ground up. I’ve worked for a lot of big brands in my past and I was always excited by new initiatives and the possibilities of designing and growing something from scratch. 

For Mikayla: I believed in the purpose of alder and knew that time spent chasing a dream of getting more people outdoors was time well spent, regardless of the outcome. I’ve always been attracted to having the independence and autonomy of being your own boss, to succeed and to fail on your own plan of action and to the challenges of learning on your feet.

My proudest accomplishment is…

For Naomi: seeing alder in MEC stores. While we are still primarily direct to consumer, MEC was always a special place growing up and it was almost surreal to see alder merchandised in-store!

For Mikayla: Starting the non-profit Riparia with two fellow National Geographic Explorers, Andrea Reid and Dalal Hana. Through Riparia we run free canoe-camping trips & day camps on rivers and lakes in Canada to steward a love for science, learning and fresh waters in young women aged 13-18. Working with young women to build their confidence in the outdoors, expose them to exciting scientific tools and methods like underwater drones and portable microscopes and watching lasting friendships emerge between them has been so unbelievably rewarding. That age is such a difficult time for so many and the difference a week in woods and on the water with supportive women around you can be truly transformative.

My boldest move to date was…

For Naomi: quitting my well-paying, full-time job when alder was just an idea! I quit my job at Joe Fresh in September of 2018 and we launched alder in September 2019. It was most likely a bit premature, but I was so excited about the idea of alder and was so confident in our vision for the brand that it felt like the right decision. 

For Mikayla: Other than starting an e-commence apparel business with zero business and fashion background or experience? I would say quitting my job, giving up my apartment and booking a one-way ticket to the Solomon Islands to work on marine conversation project for National Geographic in my mid-20’s. The professor’s, scientists and researchers thatmet with my co-researcher and I before we left laughed in our faces and said there was absolutely no way two women could do research there solo. Look who’s laughing now!

I surprise people when I tell them…

For Naomi: that I’m a registered Canadian amateur boxer.*

*I did a charity boxing match during my advertising days and would 100% still lose in a fight. 

For Mikayla: I’m an advanced SCUBA diver with over 500 dives! Being in the water is one of my favourite ways to spend time in the outdoors and scuba diving is such a spectacular way to see underwater environments. Swimming with bull sharks in the south pacific is one of my top scared-as-all-hell but exhilarated-beyond-belief experiences to date. 

I knew it was time to launch my business when…

For Naomi: it just felt right. I’ve had ideas for businesses in the past, but there was always an excuse not to go for it. When Mikayla and I started talking about alder, everything just clicked into place.

For Mikayla: My cofounder Naomi and I decided to do it together. Our skillset was perfectly matched with her background in marketing and apparel and mine in sustainability and the outdoors. We became absolutely captivated by the idea of launching an outdoor brand that centred belonging in the outdoors instead of performance and building products that were versatile enough for adventures + everyday life. We talked about it non-stop, researched our eyes red and were full to bursting with excitement about building it together. Within months we quit our jobs, got a small loan from Business Development Canada and didn’t look back. 

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is…

For Naomi: find a group of likeminded entrepreneurs and be vulnerable together. It WILL get tough and the attitude of going it alone or pretending everything is great when it isn’t won’t help you. Commiserating and celebrating with entrepreneurs who are either in our stage or a little bit ahead of us has been unbelievably transformative for my mental health and for our business.

For Mikayla: My top three tips would be: 

1.There truly is no perfect time to start, just get going.
2. Done is often better than perfect.
3. You don’t have to learn and know everything yourself. Outsource competencies you don’t have, ask for advice and hire people who are better than you!  

My best advice from a mentor was…

For Naomi:” You’re probably putting tough expectations on yourself that no one else has for you.”

When the going gets tough, I tell myself…

For Naomi: to be grateful for what these past few years have given me. It can be tough, but the engagement with work, mental challenge and flexibility of running alder has made my life so much more rewarding than I could have imagined. 

For Mikayla: How stoked would 8-year-old Mikayla be to be living my life. How proud will 80-year-old me be to look back at it? I find I feel the lowest when I’m focusing on specific challenges and frustrations and taking a step back to view the larger landscape of things gives me so much gratitude.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would…

For Naomi: sleep. We underestimate the power and importance of rest, particularly in the entrepreneur community. I love my full nights and sleep ins and don’t think I could do this if I burned myself out with 3-4 hour sleeps. 

For Mikayla: Write more terrible poetry. I’ve always dreamed of being a writer and before I write some good stuff I know I have to write a lot of bad stuff. I’m firmly in bad-stuff-stage but writing uses such a different part of my mind and takes me completely into another world. It’s a wonderful break from work and fuels creativity in other areas of life. 

I stay inspired by…

For Naomi: listening to podcasts and reading articles about other founders’ stories and fantasizing about the future of alder. Sometimes when I’m stressed out, I go for a walk and play my favourite music and just daydream about what it will feel like to open alder’s first store or hire our 100th employee. 

The future excites me because…

For Naomi: of our team. We’ve been so fortunate with our team so far and I’m excited to continue growing it! One of the more motivating and exciting parts of owning a business for me is the ability to structure a work environment that I’ve always wanted to have. We work hard at alder, but both Mikayla and I wanted to create an environment that recognizes there’s life to be lived outside of work. We also wanted to build a workplace that feels both supportive and exciting while also providing opportunities for growth and ownership within the company. We started alder from the beginning with work hour flexibility, work from anywhere and a 4-day work week so that our employees can structure their work around their lives and not the other way around. We also decided early on that our employee happiness is the most important thing and to us, that meant focusing on lots of touch points, feedback and communication to make sure our employees feel heard and supported. 

My next step is…

For Naomi: raising funds! Mikayla and I are gearing up for our Seed Round this Fall. We’ve had amazing success to date and have some big plans for 2022 and beyond. 

 

Meet Esther Vlessing, Co-Founder & CEO of Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers.

While pursuing her bachelors of science degree at U of T, Esther Vlessing built and scaled a national clothing line. She then went on to work on the Canada Goose design team. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Esther connected with the Deputy Ministers Office and Department of Economic Trade and Development in Canada to plan and execute a nation-wide emergency manufacturing response unit. She co-founded Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers (CEMM) to tackle Canada’s personal protective equipment shortages and logistical needs. CEMM activated and retooled two dozen domestic factories, created hundreds of domestic jobs and supplied over a million units of PPE to various levels of Canadian government.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… There were problems I wanted to solve that other companies or individuals weren’t yet addressing. In the case of my current venture, Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers, there was a huge need for local manufacturing during the pandemic, and I stepped up to meet the need. 

My proudest accomplishment is… CEMM! Building a company with zero upfront investment into a profitable and meaningful enterprise within 3 months. We were able to manufacture sufficient isolation gowns to protect Canada’s front-line healthcare workers and kept over 450 local seamstresses and factory workers employed during the height of the pandemic. 

My boldest move to date was… cold-calling the Premier’s office telling them I’d be able to help set-up a national manufacturing effort. 

I surprise people when I tell them… that I started my last company during a 3-day water-fast. 

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is…“Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage” (from the movie, We Bought a Zoo). Mustering up the courage to do something you’re scared to do can move your idea or business forward in immeasurable ways. 

My best advice from a mentor was… As an entrepreneur you don’t have to be good at everything. There is a huge advantage to hiring other people who are better, smarter, and have more experience than you. Especially if you’re starting something that’s new for you, look for guidance in veterans who have walked the path before you. 

When the going gets tough, I tell myself…  to view set-backs, obstacles and instances of rejection as universal protection or redirection. A favourite mantra of mine is: “everything happens for you, not against you.”

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… walk to more places! So many of us lead such sedentary lives and travel from point A to point B without moving our bodies. I’m a big believer in healthy-body, healthy-mind, so the extra hour would definitely be spent moving.   

I stay inspired by… reading interviews and memoirs written by fellow entrepreneurs. There is such a wealth of knowledge from those who have walked the path before us, and so many are willing to share their experiences! Some of my favourite reads include “What I Wish I Knew When I was 20” by Tina Seelig, “Girlboss” by Sophia Amoruso, and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.  

My next step is… to reach back and offer the support and guidance I wish I’d had as a post-grad entering the work-force. I’m currently writing a book that recounts my entrepreneurial journey from the first company I started during University to the second I built into an 8-figure business, and all the struggle, challenges and down-time in between. The book is an example of how trusting and listening to life’s signs and directives can help us navigate our path to build the career (and life!) of our dreams.

Meet Alison Duke & Ngardy Conteh George, Co-Founders of OYA Media Group

In 2018, celebrated veteran filmmakers Alison Duke of Goldelox Productions and Ngardy Conteh George of Mattru Media joined forces to create OYA Media Group: a woman-led, award-winning production company based in Toronto. Named after a powerful African goddess, OYA brings an authentic perspective to media platforms, from film and TV to virtual reality through socially relevant, life-changing stories that amplify Black experiences.

My first job ever was…

For Alison: as a clerk in a department store. I was in the jewellery department and was responsible for changing watch batteries and bands. I got a lot of props from the customers for being a young woman working with tools. I enjoyed that.

For Ngardy: Delivering newspapers with my older siblings, I must have been 6 or 7.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… 

For Alison: I wanted to be an independent filmmaker who made socially conscious films that catered to underrepresented communities. Early on in my career, I knew that there was an untapped market that was hungry for quality entertainment and programming that reflected their realities. I thought it would be a great business model to make work specifically for this market. For 15 years I produced community films to understand the type of films this audience wanted. Now I’m incorporating this research into mainstream films.  

For Ngardy: Opportunities were not coming my way to tell the stories that I wanted to tell so I created my own production company to create the opportunities for myself.  

My proudest accomplishment is…

For Alison: I have two: being a co-founder of OYA Media Group, and turning it into an award-winning production media company with full-time staff in just a few years is something I am extremely proud of;  and creating the OYA Emerging Filmmakers program, which gives back by providing a pathway for young talent who are eager to work in our industry, is equally rewarding.   

My boldest move to date was…

For Alison: getting an agent. I am now represented by Gary Goddard Agency. (So is Ngardy) 

For Ngardy: Walking away from a full time job while being offered a promotion to work full time for myself.Then over ten years later pivoting from that to form OYA Media Group with Alison.  

I surprise people when I tell them…

For Alison: that I am inducted to the Sports Hall of Fame at the University of Windsor for Basketball. 

For Ngardy: My age.

I knew it was time to launch my business when…

For Alison: Ngardy and I were about to produce the television documentary Mr. Jane and Finch for CBC. We had similar business and creative sensibilities but working in different silos. It just felt like we would be much stronger working together under one company instead of in our separate companies with redundancies. Working together allowed us to develop more projects at a faster rate while lowering our business expenses.

For Ngardy: I realized how well we work together and that we clearly had a similar vision that would be better achieved together. 

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is…

For Alison: Start slowly, and build as you gather information. Understanding what works best for both you and your clients takes time. Finding successful entrepreneurs that you can talk with is key. We participated in a few different business accelerators that teamed us up with successful entrepreneurs. They gave us a fresh perspective on how to assess our business properly, in terms of productivity and growth. They were also able to advise us on how to overcome certain challenges that we were facing. It was great to hear that we were not alone. A lot of entrepreneurs go through the same things so why not get a mentor who can help walk you through some of the challenges. Getting information is the key. 

For Ngardy: Under promise and over deliver.  Listen to your inner voice, it’s there for a reason, trust yourself.

My best advice from a mentor was…

For Alison: find an easy way to communicate your business structure and how your business works to your staff.  

For Ngardy: Definite your long term goals and dedicate a percentage of your time and energy to them each day/week/month/year.  

When the going gets tough, I tell myself…

For Alison: The sun will rise again tomorrow. 

For Ngardy: I’m strong enough to get through. 

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would…

For Alison: Learn to speak French. 

For Ngardy: Play tennis more often. 

I stay inspired by…

For Alison: Setting goals, working on our OKRs (Objectives, Key Results), talking to other female entrepreneurs through networking groups and accelerators. Also reading a lot of books. It could be fiction, biography, or even non-fiction. I am always inspired by a good story.

For Ngardy: Learning, constantly learning through multiple mediums, these days it’s mostly watching documentaries and television shows, listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

The future excites me because…

For Alison: We’ve planted creative seeds over the past 3-4 years and many of them are starting to sprout. It’s exciting to see our company grow in the number of staff and projects. I am excited by how well we are doing. 

For Ngardy: Underrepresented and systematically excluded perspectives are being centred in all aspects of creation and across the industry. I look forward to telling these stories and working with these creators.

My next step is…

For Alison: We are looking to expand our slate of projects internationally. There are a few Canadian companies that do that quite well and we are building relationships with them. Slowly but surely, we will find the right international partners because our audience is there too.  

For Ngardy: To keep growing and to see OYA grow into the force it’s on track to become.

Meet Julianna Tan & Shawnda Blacklock, Co-Owners of The Little Market Box

Shawnda Blacklock and Julianna Tan were neighbouring vendors at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market who wanted to tackle the question: How do we support the individuals and the families who are relying on the farmers’ market as their livelihood? The day after the In comes The Little Market Box: an online platform for purchasing market goods that fosters the success of local producers who are doing what they love to do, like feeding their animals, planting and harvesting their crops, or getting up at the crack of dawn to bake fresh bread. Simultaneously, The Little Market Box offers customers accessible fresh food without the time constraints or parking complaints of a traditional farmers’ market and without compromising the dedication to locally produced goods.

My first job ever was…

For Julianna: as a dishwasher at my parents’ restaurant. I was in grade 3 and I had to stand on a milk crate to reach the sink!

For Shawnda: working for my Grandparents in their small town grocery store and then working for my mom in her own clothing store.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… 

For Julianna: I was just taking a “break” from my academics and it turned out to be a much longer break than I imagined!

For Shawnda: I enjoy the freedom of following my own path (plus I’m not really employable!).

My proudest accomplishment is…

For Julianna: building both of my current companies (Those Girls at the Market & The Little Market Box) with no formal business education or funding. It’s fun to have an idea, launch it with limited resources (we started our chocolate company with $300), and grow it into something that gives back to you and back to itself. 

For Shawnda: the sincere relationship I have with all of our customers and producers. 

My boldest move to date was…

For Julianna: signing up to have a chocolate booth at our local farmers’ market before I had any experience or knowledge in making chocolate. My sister’s life motto is “Jump! Then build your parachute on the way down.” It forces you to learn quickly and adapt- there is no room for excuses when you’re in action. It worked!

For Shawnda: opening The Little Market Box the day after the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market closed.

I surprise people when I tell them…

For Julianna: I was adopted! My sister and I are biological sisters, but we were adopted together when I was 3 months old and she was 2 years old. We reconnected with our biological parents when we were young and lived between the two families as we grew up. 

For Shawnda: that I’m a Certified Laughter Therapist.

I knew it was time to launch my business when…

For Julianna: we needed a solution that no one else was offering (and I had a very enthusiastic friend and soon-to-be business partner aka Shawnda). 

For Shawnda: we could see the possibilities of our own vision becoming REAL.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is…

For Julianna: reframe the paths you wish to explore as “experiments.” Three-month experiments, one-year experiments, five-year experiments. With this reframing, you cannot fail- you only succeed or learn something. Remember, you can revisit the paths you strayed from after your experiment. Take the shot.

For Shawnda: baby steps, learn, develop as you go and don’t be afraid of change.

My best advice from a mentor was…

For Julianna: life is not a singular road you travel down. It is a vast journey through many mountains that will constantly change your perspective and consequently change your path as you explore yourself and the world around you.

For Shawnda: Learn SOMETHING from EVERYONE. 

When the going gets tough, I tell myself…

For Julianna: we’re all here just spinning on a big rock that’s floating in the universe. You might as well have fun.

For Shawnda: DON’T GET in my OWN WAY.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would…

For Julianna: take a Spanish class!

For Shawnda: spend more time outdoors with my cats and the people I LOVE. 

I stay inspired by…

For Julianna: constantly listening to podcasts on a wide range of topics, reading books (I’m addicted to self-help), and using my Passion Planner (I highly recommend checking out this day planner).

For Shawnda: watching and helping others choose and follow their dreams. (When the pictures on the vision boards become real ~ I get goosebumps)

The future excites me because…

For Julianna: we’re building it now. I’ve realized it’s easy to overestimate what we can accomplish in a short period of time (in one week or a couple of months), but it’s easy to underestimate what we can accomplish over longer periods of time (one to five years). We’re planting seeds everyday that have the potential to grow into something bigger than we ever imagined they would be. How exciting!

For Shawnda: I believe in the products and the PEOPLE we support. 

My next step is…

For Julianna: Redefining our dream store and making the moves that support that dream.

For Shawnda: More space, expansion to support our dream store.

Q&A: Jennifer Denouden, President & CEO of Avana, is reimagining real estate development to be purpose-led.

Jenn Denouden

Jenn Denouden is the President and CEO of Avana, a purpose-led real estate development company in Saskatchewan that has grown by 9888% in five years, holds 45% of Regina’s new development permits, and was named Canada’s tenth fastest growing company on the Profit 2020 Growth List. Transitioning out of a career in private banking to real estate, Jenn founded Avana in 2014, intent on disrupting the male-dominated space of real estate and property development while providing people with quality housing. Additionally, Jenn is passionate about helping women and children that are victims of domestic abuse find safe and affordable housing with privately funded housing support through her work with the Avana Foundation.

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic? 

Sadly, during the pandemic, women and children needed our business more than ever. Due to the economic downturn, homelessness has been on a steady incline in Saskatchewan. This meant that the need for affordable housing is at an all-time high. With that being said, our team has continued to grow at a rapid rate. Not only did we not lay any of our employees off, we extensively grew our team in order to continue to provide housing to people in need. Although we experienced slight disruptions due to lower processing times, we did not see a significant impact on cash flow. 

The only government program we utilized was the Canada Emergency Business Account loan of $40,000, which we repaid the same year. Because we continued to grow and expand so aggressively through COVID, the financial institutions’ hesitancy to provide assistance during the peak of the pandemic posed the biggest risk to our strategic business plan, but we were able to navigate that successfully.  

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

Like most businesses, when the pandemic initially hit, we were forced to pivot what had once been done in-person to online or virtual spaces. When you’re a rental home company that traditionally would rely on potential residents seeing themselves in the space, the pandemic made things more challenging. However, the reality is that you can either pivot and try something new, or you can attempt to stick to old habits that no longer fulfill their purpose. We chose to pivot, ensuring we still could give our potential residents the Avana experience in-person or virtually: socially distanced viewings, 3D tours of our homes, better video and photography on our listings, and a more holistic, personalized approach to every single inquiry. 

Our marketing strategy has been changing non-stop over the last seven years of business. As we grow and work our way through hypergrowth, our marketing needs change. The pandemic was simply another factor to consider when we thought through our strategy for the next few years to come. Over the last year and a half, our digital presence has grown exponentially. Sure, the pandemic put added stress on ensuring your digital marketing was where it should be, but that was inevitable. Digital marketing, social media, and engaging online content are at the forefront of the new marketing era, and COVID-19 just expedited that transition. We’ve begun investing heavily into these channels and will continue to do so. Not only have we put a heavier emphasis on our digital efforts, but we also decided to bring on an in-house marketing team. 

How has technology played a role in your business during this time? 

In our efforts to implement more efficient and effective procedures, we’ve upgraded the technology and systems we use immensely. We leaned heavily on our property management platform. We needed to quickly provide leasing, maintenance, and resident support services, with as little in-person interaction as possible. This meant that we needed to digitize our interactions with residents. Our software system allowed us to communicate and engage with residents through the platform. This helped to lessen our in-person interactions and contact while still providing the care our residents needed. 

Without these platforms, we would have seen a significant drop in our ability to support our residents properly; however, we saw our positive ratings and feedback rise. This pandemic was a direct opportunity to show us some of our blindspots. A more automated, less manual cadence to our resident support processes has benefited our team and residents. 

How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)? 

I avoid burnout by ensuring I still found moments for myself. My moments are my time with friends and family, the glass of wine before bed, the “geeking out” over spreadsheets, or cooking a meal. No matter how busy or chaotic things may have been or will be, I will always take opportunities to do the things I enjoy most. It also helps if you love what you do while driving with your purpose and ethos first. Before anyone starts with Avana, we ensure they have similar values and beliefs; this helps them succeed in the long run at Avana. If we do a good enough job in the recruitment process, the work rarely feels like work for the team hired. 

It is a rigorous process to find people who are so purpose-led in their own beliefs that they wholeheartedly believe in Avana’s mission, but it has proven to be the most critical step. We look for big picture thinkers who can aid in our journey towards a better future. When an organization has employees who understand that the work will lead to more significant social change, they will stay motivated. Our relentless pursuit of gender equality is inspiring and rejuvenating to our employees. Standing side-by-side every day with people who share this same passion is an immense motivator. On top of this, regular check-ins and as much communication as possible were and are vital for our team during the pandemic and beyond. 

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today? 

In order to pave the way, to do something that has never been done, to change the status quo, you need to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. In order for your business to be extraordinary, you’re going to have to make hard choices — the type of choices that may keep you up at night. Stick to your values, lead with your purpose, and push past fear. Take calculated risks and trust your gut. Be unapologetic in your pursuit of becoming purpose-led. Our business changed forever when we “pivoted to purpose” a few years ago, and our hypergrowth truly began. Throughout the pandemic, it was more important than ever to stick to this approach. 

Practical ways to live less wastefully, spend more consciously, and support local communities.

Laura Reinholz

By Hailey Eisen

 

We’ve all heard of conscious consumerism — but do you know what it really means or where to begin? With an increasing number of global and local issues in need of our attention, many are looking for real ways to make an impact. While we may aspire to “do more,” it’s not always easy to know which actions will actually make a difference. 

Laura Reinholz — the current Head, Workplace Experience GTA and former Director, BMO for Women — has done a pretty significant life overhaul, changing the way she lives and shops to be more conscious, sustainable, and thoughtful. Her journey began four years ago, but as she tells us, it’s not nearly complete. 

Laura found inspiration through work, where her focus is on breaking down barriers for women in their personal, professional, and financial lives. As she began to make these changes, she became so passionate that she enrolled in a graduate diploma in Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability. Her commitment has increased year over year to a point where spending money consciously has become second nature. 

That being said, it doesn’t take a huge overhaul to make a big difference. In fact, the easiest way to begin is by taking one or two conscious steps in the right direction. 

Where did your journey into conscious consumerism begin?

In my role with BMO, I began focusing on supporting women-led businesses as a means of economic development. I also became a SheEO activator around the same time, and began to take an intersectional look toward supporting Black women owned businesses, Indigenous women owned businesses, and 2SLGBTQIA+ owned businesses. 

I wanted to understand how I could show support through my spending and create economic empowerment amongst those historically underrepresented groups, while also increasing my support in the community. What I found through my research was that many of these groups had products and services that were doing something through a lens of sustainability as well — whether intentional or not. Many were solving local issues while also addressing larger global issues as a result.  

“The first step is awareness; recognizing that you want to make a change, learning more about the things you’re purchasing and their impact on the world as a whole.”

Where does someone even start when it comes to making changes?

The first step is awareness; recognizing that you want to make a change, learning more about the things you’re purchasing and their impact on the world as a whole. For me, it began with sustainability. And, while carbon emissions seem to be an almost overwhelming issue, there are small things you can do within your own home that can contribute in some way. 

What was the first thing you changed?

I started by looking at the impact my purchases had on the environment — be it single use plastics or fast fashion. An easy way to start is to pay attention to the stores and restaurants you frequent. Are they using other products instead of plastic? Can you bring your own bags, containers, and cups? Can you buy refillable products that produce less waste?

You mentioned fast fashion. Were you able to change the way you bought clothes?

Yes. When it came to clothing, I chose to overhaul my wardrobe slowly. The fashion industry creates a massive amount of landfill waste and uses a huge amount of water in its production process. Much fast fashion is also produced under poor working conditions. You end up buying clothing that you wear for six months, and even if you donate it, so much still ends up in the landfill. There’s also some fitness attire that’s now seeping microplastics into the laundry and making their way into the waterways. 

When I started to make personal changes to my wardrobe, I looked at the impact clothing brands were having and started choosing more sustainable brands that were locally made. It just so happens that there are a lot of women-owned companies making sustainable clothing, paying living wages, converting ocean plastic into clothing, and making capsule collections that can be mixed and matched. While it will cost more up front, I do see it as an investment. When I stopped buying frequent inexpensive fast fashion items and chose fewer, more costly pieces that would last, the amount I spent on clothing evened out. Take my winter jacket, for example. I bought a Patagonia jacket in 2015 that I’m still wearing. Their lifetime warranty means you can take it in and have it repaired when needed. I no longer need to buy a new jacket every few years. There are also amazing finds at vintage, consignment and second-hand stores. The majority of my “designer” items were purchased this way.

OK, what’s next? Beyond your closet, where else can you make meaningful changes?

The next obvious place I looked was the kitchen. Food waste was something that really bothered me. To solve for all the food that was going bad and being thrown out, I started to meal plan. Every Saturday morning, we sit down and plan out our meals (breakfasts, lunches and dinners now that we are working from home) for the week. I then go to the St. Lawrence Market to do my shopping, buying only what I’ll need that week. The next thing I do is clean all my fruits and veggies and prep them into containers so they’re easily accessible. By Friday night — our night for takeout — there’s nothing left in our fridge. 

The reason we shop at the market is because on Saturdays, they have a farmers’ market and we have the option to buy from local growers and producers. I like to know that my dollars are going toward people from this region who are growing and producing food. I also bring all my own cloth bags, because there’s nothing that bothers me more than all the plastic in the grocery store. 

“I recognize that I’m fortunate to live in downtown Toronto and have so many options when it comes to local small businesses I can support. I’ve also invested time to research businesses online and find individuals who are making what I need to buy.”

Going to the market every Saturday sounds like a conscious decision. How do you decide where to shop and is that part of conscious consumerism?

For sure it is. But I have to say, I recognize that I’m fortunate to live in downtown Toronto and have so many options when it comes to local small businesses I can support. I’ve also invested time to research businesses online and find individuals who are making what I need to buy. I won’t shop at some companies because of the way they treat their employees, and while that means I may pay more for certain items, I want to know that employees are being treated and paid fairly. 

Where do you look to find businesses you’re aligned with?

As I mentioned, Google searches often turn up lots of results. Google ‘sustainable activewear in Canada,’ for example, and you’ll find articles listing different companies. You can then go to the individual company’s website to do more research. I also have found great brands by wandering into local stores that have values similar to my own. There’s also a lot on social media now. Once you start following a couple brands, you’ll end up seeing posts from others like them. 

Have you experienced any secondary benefits from making more thoughtful choices about how you shop?

Yes! The best thing to come of this is the customer service. Last Christmas because of COVID, I couldn’t see my family who all live in B.C., so we decided to send gifts (usually we opt for experiences instead). Our agreement was, everything we bought had to be sourced locally. So, there I was, looking for local, women-owned, BIPOC-owned, socially conscious gifts that I could ship to my family in Vancouver Island and Whistler. I was able to create these amazing Christmas care packages. With every order that was delivered to me, I got this nice personalized message; when I wrote to engage with them on social media, they would engage back; and if there was ever an issue, I was contacted by a human being very quickly who was committed to making things right. That level of service you just don’t get with large companies. 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had with all of this?

The area I’m having the hardest time switching over is personal care. Not all natural products work as well, and I’ve found it harder to make the switch. I just — after years — found a shampoo line that’s locally made and has removed all the water in the manufacturing process. The shampoo comes in an aluminum tube you can recycle when it’s done and there’s a plastic cap they take back and reuse. 

That’s great. When you find a product you love, do you share it with others?

Oh, all the time. That’s a big part of the process. I do a bit of that on Instagram and I talk about it incessantly. That’s a philosophy I’ve taken with BMO for Women as well. We walk the talk. Every vendor we use for the program, even if not at the enterprise level, is women-owned. My journey with BMO has gotten me to where I am personally. 

I believe spending deliberately helps level the playing field for historically underrepresented groups. When you consciously spend money with those businesses, you’re creating an environment in which they can thrive, which means they’ll be more likely to access financing to grow their businesses. The ripple effect also happens when these business owners succeed and are able to invest back in their own, often marginalized communities, and can continue to empower others. 

Now that you’ve inspired us to make a change — is it time to throw everything out and start over? 

No, definitely not. Making a total change all at once could end up being unnecessarily wasteful. For me it’s been a four-year process, and I still see myself as only being half way there. Identify areas where you can make the most impact, and start there.

Is there crying in business?

A woman crying at work.

By Christine Laperriere

If you weren’t around for the movie “A League of Their Own,” here’s Tom Hanks (circa 1992) delivering the incredibly famous line “there’s no crying in baseball.” Clearly we can see there’s no crying in baseball, but it poses the question: is there crying in business?

A client of mine brought up a humiliating moment in a coaching session. She said, “I was recently in an important meeting and I got very frustrated. To my surprise, I started to cry. I am absolutely humiliated and am worried that this will cause lasting damage to my career and how I’m seen by others. I can’t seem to let this go — I keep beating myself up about it. What should I do?”

Yes, sometimes, there’s crying in business.

In my role, I get the opportunity to interact with hundreds of professionals at varying levels within their organizations, from CEO’s to administrative assistants. Given my work with numerous clients in leadership, this topic comes up sometimes. So if this is you, please be assured that you are not alone — sometimes it just happens. Hopefully it will comfort you to know that even the top and most impressive professionals can, on occasion, find themselves caught off guard and emotional in an important meeting.

Understand why this happens. 

It’s important to note that just because someone is crying, it does not mean they’re sad or displaying weakness — often, it can be a sign of anger or severe frustration. We may be familiar with the way some people experience these same feelings in the workplace — their external appearance looks different; their face can turn red, their voice gets raised, choice words get sputtered and on rare occasions a fist might get slammed on the table (Exhibit A: see Tom Hanks in movie clip above). Because hot-headed leaders have often traditionally been in power, our unconscious bias can sometimes feel more accepting of these responses to anger and frustration as opposed to crying as a response to anger. 

Appreciate what your emotions are telling you.

These days, more and more companies want employees who are passionate about the work they do, engaged in getting results, and willing to take risks. When we work this way we are investing a big piece of ourselves and our identity into what we do each day. If you want people to really put their heart and soul into their work, this comes with emotion. And when we are committed at all costs, crying is often a signal that someone is no longer operating at their fullest and it’s time to take a closer look at what’s happening that is causing such an intense reaction.

Assess your overall stress level. 

An emotional outburst often has more to do with how someone is managing a large load of stress rather than their response to the single issue at hand. If you have been at home, trying to keep your kids fed, entertained, and educated — all while trying to concentrate on every work-related task — don’t be surprised if during a big meeting, overwhelming emotions finally catch up to you after “staying strong” for a number of days.

Notice trends. 

As much as self-forgiveness and understanding are key to moving forward in this situation, it is important to note whether you are seeing a trend. Have you had numerous emotional spells at work lately? Is it happening at home too? Is it happening in certain types of meetings? Is there someone you feel intimidated by at work? If this situation doesn’t feel like a one-time circumstance, start to track and look for trends as to when you feel this intense trigger of emotion bubble up.  

Do damage control. 

Sometimes, it helps people move forward if they have a quick conversation to clear the air after having an emotional response in a meeting. That said, it’s important to note that being emotionally engaged in your work, which sometimes results in anger or frustration, is not a sin. If you choose to, apologize for how you made others feel in the meeting and feel free to share what actions you plan to take to help bring your best self to work. Be careful not to undermine your own strengths in the process, though; your commitment to a project or your passion for getting results are positive traits. And don’t apologize for being authentic at work. 

Christine Laperreriere

Christine Laperreriere

Christine Laperriere is the executive director of the Women of Influence Advancement Centre, president of Leader In Motion, a leadership development organization, and the author of Too Busy to Be Happy — a guide to using Emotional Real Estate to improve both your work and your life. A seasoned expert in helping women professionals advance their careers, she’s had the honour of guiding hundreds of women in various companies and roles to reach their full potential.

Meet Christal Earle, founder of sustainable fashion brand Brave Soles.

Christal Earle

Meet Christal Earle, a serial entrepreneur, public speaker, agent for social change, and founder of Brave Soles, a brand that upcycles tires from landfills to create handcrafted shoes and accessories. Before working in the sustainable fashion space, Christal was the co-founder of Live Different, an international youth humanitarian charity. In 2017, Christal launched Brave Soles, working with artisans in the Dominican Republic to create products that are conscious of people and the planet.

My first job ever was… as a seating host at a breakfast diner in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. 

Before my work with Brave Soles, I was… the founder of an international humanitarian charity.

I founded Brave Soles because… I worked for many years with landfill workers in vulnerable communities around the world. I began to see the opportunities for circular fashion and a circular business model based on what I saw being discarded.

The thing I love most about what I do is… I get to work with some of the most kind and generous people — that includes both our team and our customers. 

I love public speaking because… I come alive when I have the chance to connect with an audience and help them begin to see the power of their choices in a new perspective.

“Listening and learning from people who are living in a challenging environment day to day helped me see the possibilities from their perspective and think about how to start in the most simple and effective way possible.” 

My best advice for anyone that cares about a cause and wants to contribute to it would be… to learn about it and to challenge your perspectives and assumptions. For example, before I started working with landfill workers, I assumed that discarded materials would be useless at that point and that there would be no way to reclaim them. Once I started to ask questions to the people who lived and worked in that landfill, I began to see a thread of common opportunities emerge. Listening and learning from people who are living in a challenging environment day to day helped me see the possibilities from their perspective and think about how to start in the most simple and effective way possible. 

One tangible way you can be a more conscious shopper is… to look for transparency. If a brand is truly being transparent, it means they are working to do better and better. When it comes to building a more sustainable and resilient world, we can’t get stuck on looking for perfection. We have the opportunity to look at what is being done with an honest and transparent effort and we can put our resources and attention into those places. 

I like to think of the way forward as a reflection of what served humanity for thousands of years before now: If you were to go back 125 years, chances are you would have known who made your clothes, who made your shoes, or who crafted the items in your home because you would have been connected to them. However, we have become very disconnected from what we own and the stories and people behind what make those products possible. To be a conscious shopper is like an adventure in curiosity and in learning to see the story behind what you are putting your money into. 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… never being scared to ask questions — of myself, of trusted advisors, and of the people I am seeking to serve. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I get weak in the knees for anything with maple syrup!

I stay inspired by… always learning from others through reading, listening, and through the people I have in my life from around the world. 

The future excites me because… I have the opportunity to create meaningful change for myself and my daughter, and those who will come after her.

Sarah White puise dans son courage pour conduire le changement et être elle-même authentique.

Sarah White

On dit souvent qu’il faut du courage pour être entrepreneur, mais je pense que c’est plus compliqué que cela. Après avoir travaillé pendant près de 27 ans auprès d’entrepreneurs à BDC, j’ai appris que chaque personne avait sa propre définition du mot courage. 

Parfois, il s’agit du courage d’un innovateur qui lance une idée inédite n’ayant jamais été éprouvée jusqu’ici dans le monde. D’autres fois, il s’agit de la capacité à faire face à n’importe quel obstacle et à le transformer en une occasion de croissance. Il arrive aussi qu’un entrepreneur doive faire preuve de courage pour être simplement lui-même et bâtir son entreprise comme il l’entend (un problème pour de nombreux propriétaires d’entreprises sous-représentés – problème que mon équipe et moi aidons à résoudre). 

Il est rare que ces trois définitions s’appliquent, mais c’est le cas pour Sarah White et Denise Taschereau, cofondatrices de Fairware. Au cours des 16 dernières années, elles ont fait de leur entreprise de Vancouver, qui a démarré dans le garage de Sarah, le premier fournisseur nord-américain de produits promotionnels durables et éthiques.

Non seulement Sarah et Denise ont maintenu leur engagement ferme pris dès le début quant à l’impact sur l’environnement et la communauté (elles possèdent la certification B Corporation [BCorp] depuis des années), mais elles se sont également inspirées de leurs propres difficultés en tant que petite entreprise appartenant à des membres de la communauté queer, qui plus est à des femmes, pour orienter leurs politiques d’entreprise. Elles ont délibérément mis en place une équipe diversifiée et surtout, une culture qui encourage à être soi-même au travail. 

J’ai rencontré Sarah pour qu’elle nous parle de son parcours personnel et entrepreneurial, notamment de son engagement permanent en faveur de l’approvisionnement éthique et des pratiques commerciales durables, de l’importance qu’elle accorde aux objectifs ainsi qu’à la diversité et à l’inclusion, et de sa capacité à survivre et à prospérer en période d’incertitude. Sarah est une force à ne pas négliger. Elle s’est engagée, avant tout, à se servir du monde des affaires pour faire le bien. 

Laura : Lorsque vous et Denise avez lancé Fairware en 2005, l’accent mis sur la durabilité et la volonté d’améliorer le monde par le biais des affaires était une idée relativement nouvelle. Comment vous est-elle venue?

Sarah : Fairware a vu le jour parce que mon amie Denise, qui est désormais ma partenaire commerciale et qui travaillait à l’époque comme Directrice, développement durable et relations communautaires à MEC dans le domaine de la durabilité et de l’approvisionnement éthique, avait constaté que de nombreuses marques de qualité offraient des cadeaux publicitaires fabriqués dans des conditions suspectes. À cette époque, le sujet de la responsabilité sociale des entreprises commençait à être abordé dans la presse et un peu partout dans le monde, et il y avait un décalage avec ces grandes marques qui distribuaient des produits inconvenants. C’est de cette constatation qu’est née l’idée de Fairware. 

« Notre objectif a toujours été d’aligner nos valeurs d’entreprise sur nos valeurs personnelles. »

Laura : Comment l’idée a-t-elle été reçue à l’époque? Comment vous êtes-vous aperçues que les choses évoluaient? Je suppose que les entreprises sont aujourd’hui plus ouvertes à parler des pratiques durables. 

Sarah : Si le développement durable est aujourd’hui bien plus ancré dans les esprits, ce n’était certainement pas le cas à l’époque. Dès le départ, lorsque nous prenions le téléphone pour appeler un fournisseur potentiel, nous lui disions « nous aimerions discuter de l’origine de vos produits », et souvent, on nous raccrochait au nez. 

Au fil des ans, cette conversation a considérablement évolué. Nous avons commencé avec la conformité et la sécurité des produits, puis nous nous sommes intéressées aux droits des travailleurs et à l’impact environnemental. Depuis quelques années, nous discutons avec d’autres distributeurs de l’antiracisme et de la justice sociale. Nous discutons avec les fournisseurs d’emballages durables d’une représentation diversifiée dans les catalogues. Ce que nous vivons aujourd’hui est en net contraste avec la situation qui prévalait au début de notre parcours entrepreneurial. 

Aujourd’hui, nous allons également au-delà de notre chaîne d’approvisionnement traditionnelle pour travailler avec des entreprises qui ont un impact – des entreprises à vocation sociale, souvent locales, appartenant à des entités issues de la diversité – qui n’auraient pas autrement la capacité de répondre à de grosses commandes d’entreprise. Nous consultons ces entreprises pour les aider à fixer leurs prix et à renforcer leurs capacités afin qu’elles soient en mesure de créer des produits à notre intention. Ainsi, notre succès nous permet non seulement d’aider les autres à se développer, mais aussi de contribuer à construire un écosystème qui soutient nos convictions en matière de durabilité et d’équité.   

Franchement, si nous avons créé notre entreprise, ce n’est pas parce que nous aimons les babioles, mais parce que nous voulions faire bouger les choses. Notre objectif a toujours été d’aligner nos valeurs d’entreprise sur nos valeurs personnelles. 

Laura : Et je sais que cela s’applique non seulement à la façon dont vous faites affaire avec vos clients et vos fournisseurs, mais aussi à la manière dont vous avez façonné la culture d’entreprise de Fairware. Pouvez-vous nous dire en quoi vos valeurs personnelles et même vos expériences personnelles ont joué un rôle à cet égard?

Sarah : Je plaisante parfois en disant que j’ai créé une entreprise simplement pour pouvoir m’habiller comme je l’entendais et être en accord avec moi-même, mais franchement, je pense que c’est en grande partie la vérité. Donner le ton de l’acceptation et de l’inclusion confère un certain pouvoir, et en me montrant telle que je suis, j’espère encourager les autres à en faire de même. Pour vous donner une idée de la culture que nous avons créée, une année à Halloween, un de nos employés s’est habillé en tenue de travail, juste pour nous embêter. 

Mais être moi-même n’a pas toujours été facile. Étant de genre non conforme, j’ai souvent été mégenrée et confrontée à l’homophobie et à la misogynie, sous forme de micro-agressions. Alors que de nombreux membres de la communauté des entreprises progressistes se considèrent très au fait des questions d’antiracisme, de LGBTQ+, etc., nous nous sommes rendu compte cette année que la plupart d’entre nous ne l’étaient pas. Nous avons tous encore beaucoup à apprendre et à faire.  

Laura : Nous savons que de nombreux propriétaires d’entreprises LGBTQ+ cachent cet aspect de leur identité pour éviter les répercussions. À votre avis, qu’est-ce qui vous a donné le courage de faire preuve de tant d’ouverture et de transparence pour vous montrer comme vous êtes?

Sarah : Le parcours a été long. Je suis avec ma partenaire depuis 36 ans et j’ai deux enfants adultes. Avoir des enfants en tant que couple homosexuel était pour le moins avant-gardiste dans les années 1990. Je ne suis pas certaine d’avoir beaucoup changé depuis, mais j’hésite maintenant moins à être moi-même, je suis plus consciente des problèmes qu’éprouvent les personnes LGBTQ+ et j’en parle ouvertement. 

Toutefois, pour le bien de mes enfants, même à l’époque, je n’ai jamais cherché à dissimuler qui j’étais vraiment, même si c’était difficile pour eux d’avoir une maman qui ne ressemblait pas aux autres mamans. Si j’avais dû changer à l’époque, mes enfants en auraient conclu qu’il n’est pas acceptable d’être soi-même et que l’on doit se conformer pour ne gêner personne. De plus, certains d’entre nous n’ont pas d’autre choix que de s’accepter. Certaines personnes peuvent passer pour cisgenres, d’autres non. Je veux que les autres se reconnaissent en moi et sachent qu’eux aussi ont leur place dans le monde de l’entreprise. 

« Pour nous, la culture consiste à laisser les gens mettre leur propre diversité à contribution. »

Laura : Pouvez-vous indiquer aux propriétaires d’entreprise qui espèrent créer la même culture inclusive que la vôtre – y compris ceux qui n’ont pas vécu les mêmes expériences – quelques tactiques précises que vous avez utilisées pour harmoniser votre équipe avec vos valeurs?

Sarah : Pour nous, la culture consiste à laisser les gens mettre leur propre diversité à contribution. Bien que Denise et moi ayons toujours été des militantes – elle en politique, et moi dans le milieu communautaire – nous faisons de notre mieux pour ne pas engager des personnes comme nous. Nous encourageons tous ceux qui travaillent avec nous à intégrer leurs propres intérêts et passions à l’entreprise. Nous sommes également très transparentes sur notre site Web et dans nos offres d’emploi : si vous postulez pour travailler avec nous, vous rejoindrez un environnement de travail inclusif. Si cela ne vous convient pas, vous ne postulerez pas.

De plus, ce n’est pas parce que la durabilité est un sujet qui nous passionne, à Denise et à moi, qu’elle doit susciter le même degré d’intérêt chez nos employés. Lors d’un entretien d’embauche, nous posons la question suivante : « Sous quelle forme contribuez-vous au développement durable dans votre vie quotidienne? ». Si la réponse est : « Je recycle, mais je veux en savoir plus », cela nous suffit. Avant tout, nous recherchons des personnes ouvertes et intéressées. 

Lorsque nous accueillons de nouveaux employés, nous appliquons une pratique que j’ai apprise durant un atelier sur la réconciliation. Nous demandons au nouveau membre du personnel de donner son nom, son nom traditionnel s’il en a un, et son identité culturelle, ainsi que toute information à son sujet dont il souhaite faire part à l’équipe. Dans une entreprise comptant moins de 20 employés, on parle au moins 11 langues différentes. La diversité est incontestablement ancrée dans notre culture. 

Laura : Vous êtes également une société certifiée B Corporation, ce qui signifie que vous vous êtes engagées à créer un impact positif pour vos employés, ainsi que pour les communautés et l’environnement. Ce n’est pas chose facile, mais vous l’avez fait en 2010, en tant que l’un des membres fondateurs de la Canadian B Corp. Comment s’est déroulée cette expérience et pourquoi était-elle si importante pour vous?

Sarah : Au début, nous étions une petite entreprise dont l’équipe était restreinte. Nous nous sommes demandé si, étant donné que nous observions déjà ces pratiques de toute façon, nous disposions de la capacité ou du temps nécessaire pour nous soumettre au processus rigoureux d’obtention de cette certification. Mais à mesure que nous rencontrions des personnes du milieu des affaires de Vancouver qui avaient les mêmes idées que nous, nous avons commencé à comprendre qu’il ne s’agissait pas seulement de nous, mais de faire partie d’un mouvement qui utilise les entreprises comme une force pour faire le bien. 

L’obtention de la certification B Corp a contribué à structurer nos engagements, à nous responsabiliser et à nous montrer les points que nous devions améliorer. Aujourd’hui encore, cette certification nous pousse à aller plus loin, à réfléchir à des choses auxquelles nous n’aurions pas pensé autrement et à nous dépasser pour atteindre nos objectifs. Cela va de la gestion de la chaîne d’approvisionnement aux pratiques durables, en passant par la culture interne, les salaires, les engagements sociaux, et bien plus encore. 

Nous avons eu beaucoup de chance d’avoir BDC comme partenaire de financement, car non seulement vous nous avez fourni d’excellents conseils et services au fil des ans, ainsi que de l’aide pour renforcer nos capacités, mais vous avez vous-même obtenu la certification B Corp, ce qui signifie que nous avons encore plus de valeurs en commun. 

« L’obtention de la certification B Corp a contribué à structurer nos engagements, à nous responsabiliser et à nous montrer les points que nous devions améliorer. »

Laura : Je suis certaine que votre engagement à construire une entreprise basée sur des valeurs et une culture inclusive a joué un rôle primordial dans le succès de Fairware, mais qu’en est-il pendant les périodes difficiles? Comment avez-vous, vous et votre entreprise, vécu les 18 derniers mois d’incertitude engendrée par la pandémie? 

Sarah : En tant que jeune entreprise, nous avons survécu à la récession de 2008-2009, ce qui nous a donné un bonne idée du comportement à adopter pendant la pandémie de COVID-19. Lorsque la pandémie a frappé, nous venions de terminer une année durant laquelle nous avions engagé des dépenses importantes, ainsi qu’une rénovation majeure de nos bureaux. D’ailleurs, notre équipe de Vancouver avait été configurée pour travailler à distance en raison de cette rénovation, puis personne n’est revenu au bureau à cause de la COVID-19. 

Nous avons alors compris que nous avions très peu de marge de manœuvre; Nous savions que nous devions procéder à des mises à pied et que si nous tergiversions, nous pourrions perdre l’entreprise. Ce furent les moments les plus durs et les plus pénibles de notre vie. Nous avons dû licencier la moitié de notre effectif. Vous parlez d’un impact sur la culture. Heureusement, nous sommes restées proches de tout le monde et avons aidé ces gens à accéder à des ressources et à du soutien. Petit à petit, nous avons pu les réembaucher grâce aux subventions du gouvernement. 

Pendant la pandémie, comme vous le savez, de grandes questions sociales ont également surgi, notamment le mouvement Black Lives Matter et, plus récemment, la découverte de tombes non marquées d’enfants autochtones assassinés. Malgré tous ces événements, nous avons continué à parler, à travailler et à apprendre. Notre objectif et nos valeurs sont demeurés les mêmes. Nous nous réunissons quotidiennement en ligne et, petit à petit, les gens commencent à revenir au bureau.

Malgré les défis auxquels sont confrontés le monde des affaires et notre secteur, la COVID-19 a fourni à certaines entreprises une bonne occasion d’utiliser les budgets normalement alloués aux événements ou aux conférences pour montrer de la bienveillance à leurs employés en leur remettant des colis et des paniers, et nous avons pu les aider dans cette démarche. Nous sommes demeurés engagés à n’offrir que des produits et des cadeaux pratiques qui ne finiraient pas à la décharge, et nous avons mis au point un programme qui permet à une personne qui ne souhaite pas recevoir de cadeau de choisir de faire un don en son nom. 

Dans l’ensemble, nous en sommes sorties plus fortes et plus dévoués que jamais à notre mission. Et nous nous réjouissons de voir notre bureau nouvellement rénové, qui était trop calme, rempli de gens à nouveau.

Sarah White taps into her courage to drive change — and be her authentic self.

Sarah White

As Vice President, Client Diversity at BDC, Laura Didyk is leading the bank’s efforts to understand and address the challenges faced by underrepresented and underserved entrepreneurs — whether they be racialized, identify as women, identify as members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, be living with a disability, or exist within a combination of these identities. She’s sharing their journeys through conversations, and this month it’s with Sarah White, co-founder of Fairwaire, North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.

 

It is often said that being an entrepreneur takes courage — but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. After nearly 27 years of working with entrepreneurs at BDC, I’ve learned that courage tends to take on different meanings for each individual. 

Sometimes it’s the courage to be an innovator, bringing a new and unproven idea out into the world. Sometimes it’s the ability to face down any obstacle and turn it into an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it’s a courageous act by an entrepreneur to simply be their authentic self, and build their company their own way (an issue for many underrepresented business owners — one that me and my team are working on improving). 

Rarely is it all three, as is the case with Sarah White and Denise Taschereau, co-founders of Fairware. Over the past 16 years, they have built their Vancouver-based business — which got its start in Sarah’s garage — into North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.

Not only have Sarah and Denise maintained a steadfast commitment to environmental and community impact since day one (they’re a Certified B Corporation (BCorp) and have been for years) — but they’ve also tapped into their own struggles as a queer-owned, women-owned, small business to guide their corporate policies. They’ve intentionally built a diverse team and, more importantly, a culture where people are encouraged to bring their true selves to work. 

I sat down with Sarah to unpack her personal and entrepreneurial journey, including her ongoing commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainable business practices, her intense focus on purpose, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and her ability to survive and thrive during uncertain times. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with — committed, above all else, to use business as a force for good. 

Laura: When you and Denise launched Fairware in 2005, a focus on sustainability and bettering the world through business was relatively novel. How did the idea come about?

Sarah: Fairware started because my friend, and now business partner, Denise was the Director of Sustainability and Community at MEC in sustainability and ethical sourcing, and she found that many really good brands were giving away swag that was manufactured under suspect conditions. This was at the time that corporate social responsibility was bubbling up in the press and around the world, and the disconnect between good brands giving away bad stuff meant there was a gap — which was how the idea for Fairware was born. 

“To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values.”

Laura: How was the idea received then? And how have you seen that evolve? I imagine companies today are more open to conversations around sustainable practices. 

Sarah: While sustainability is now much more embedded in the mainstream, it certainly wasn’t then. From day one we’d pick up the phone, call a potential supplier, and say, ‘we’d like to talk to you about where your products come from’ — and we were often hung up on. 

Over the years, that conversation has evolved significantly. It began with compliance and product safety, and moved into workers’ rights, environmental impact, and over the last few years, we’re now talking with other distributors about anti-racism and social justice. We are talking to suppliers about sustainable packaging and diverse representation in the catalogues. What we are seeing is night and day from the beginning of our entrepreneurial journey. 

Today, we are also reaching beyond our traditional supply chain to work with impact businesses — diverse-owned social enterprises that are often local — that wouldn’t otherwise have the capacity for large corporate orders. We consult with these companies to help them with pricing and capacity building so that they can create products for us. So, through our success, we’re not only lifting others up, we’re also helping to build an ecosystem that supports our beliefs on sustainability and equity.   

To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values. 

Laura: And I know that applies not only to how you do business with your customers and suppliers, but also to how you’ve shaped the corporate culture at Fairware. Can you share a bit about how your personal values and even your personal experiences have played a role in that?

Sarah: I sometimes joke that I started a business just so that I could dress and be how I wanted to be — but honestly, there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s power in setting the tone of acceptance and inclusion, because when I show up as myself, I hope I make it easier for others to do the same. To give you a sense of the culture we’ve created, one Halloween, our staff dressed up in business attire just to bug us. 

But being my true self in the world hasn’t always been easy. Because I’m gender non-conforming, I’ve often been misgendered, and I’ve experienced homophobia and misogyny in the form of microaggressions. While a lot of folks in the progressive business community see themselves as up to speed with anti-racism, LGBTQ+ issues, etc., what we’ve learned this year is that most of us aren’t. Some of us have a ton of work and learning to do.  

Laura: We know that many LGBTQ+ business owners actively hide this aspect of their identity to avoid repercussions. What do you think gave you the courage to be open and transparent about who you are?

Sarah: That journey has been a long one. I’ve been with my partner for 36 years and I have two adult kids. Having kids as a gay couple in the 1990s was pretty trailblazing. I’m not sure I’ve actually changed too much since then, but I do have more courage now to be myself, I feel more aware of LGBTQ+ issues, and I openly speak out about them and myself. 

But for my kids’ sake, even back then, I never wanted to change who I was, even if it was tough for them having a mom that didn’t look like all the other moms. If I were to have changed then, I would have given my kids the message that it’s not okay to be who you really are, that you must conform for others’ comfort. Plus, some of us don’t have a choice but to embrace who we are. Some people can pass as cisgender, and others can’t. I want others to see themselves in me and know they too have a place in the corporate world. 

“For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company.”

Laura: For business owners that hope to create the same inclusive corporate culture that you have — including those that don’t have the same lived experience to draw from — can you share a few specific tactics you’ve used to align your team and your values?

Sarah: For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company. We’re also very transparent on our website and in our job postings that if you apply to work with us, you’ll be joining an inclusive work environment, and if that doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not going to apply.

Also, while Denise and I are both hugely passionate about sustainability, our employees don’t necessarily have to be. We’ll say in an interview, ‘how does sustainability show up in your life?’ and if the response is, ‘I recycle, but I want to learn more about it,’ that’s good enough for us. We want people who are open and interested, above all else. 

When we on-board new staff we have a practice that I borrowed from participating in a reconciliation workshop. We have the new staff member say their name, their traditional name if they have one, and how they identify culturally, plus anything else they want the team to know about them. In a company of fewer than 20 employees there are at least 11 different languages spoken. Diversity is unquestionably ingrained in our culture. 

Laura: You’re also a Certified B Corporation, which means you’ve committed to create a positive impact for your employees, as well as for communities and the environment. It’s not an easy feat — and you did it back in 2010, as one of the founding members of the Canadian B Corp. What was that experience like and why was it so important to you?

Sarah: In the beginning we were a small company with a small staff. We wondered, if we are doing all of this anyway, do we have the capacity or time to undergo the rigorous process to gain this certification? But as we began to meet more like-minded folks in the Vancouver business community, we began to see that this wasn’t just about us, it was about being part of a movement that uses business as a force for good. 

Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve. To this day it pushes us to go further, to think about things we wouldn’t have otherwise, and to stretch us to meet goals. This is everything from supply chain management, to sustainable practices, to internal culture, to wages, to social commitments — and more. 

We’ve been really fortunate to have BDC as a funding partner, because you’ve not only provided great advice and service over the years, helping us build capacity, but you’ve become B Corp certified, which means we have even more values aligned. 

“Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve.”

Laura: I am sure your commitment to building a values-based business with an inclusive culture has played a huge role in Fairware’s success, but what about during the tough times? What have the last 18 months of pandemic uncertainty been like for you and your business? 

Sarah: As a young business, we survived the recession of 2008/2009, and that gave us a lot of insight into how to behave during COVID. We had just come out of a significant year of spending and had completed a major office renovation right before the pandemic hit. Incidentally, our team in Vancouver was set up to work remotely because of that reno —and then because of COVID, no one came back to the office. 

From there, we knew our runway was short — we knew we’d have to lay people off, and procrastinating could lead to losing the business. Those were the hardest and most brutal moments of our lives. We had to let half of our staff go. Talk about an impact on culture. Thankfully, we stayed close with everyone, and helped them access resources and support. Slowly, we were able to hire people back, thanks to Government subsidies.

During the pandemic, as you know, some major social issues also came up, including the Black Lives Matter movement, and more recently the discovery of unmarked graves of murdered Indigenous children. Through it all we kept talking, kept working, and learning. Our focus and values haven’t shifted at all. We meet daily online and slowly, people are starting to come back into the office.

And despite the challenges to the corporate world and our industry, COVID provided a nice opportunity for some companies to take their budgets that they weren’t spending on events or conferences and show their employees some love with packages and baskets — and we were able to help with these. We remained committed to only providing products and gifts that were practical and wouldn’t end up in the landfill, and we developed a program that if someone opted out of the gift, they could choose to have a donation made in their name instead. 

All in all, we came out stronger and more committed than ever to our mission. And we’re certainly excited to see our newly renovated office that’s been all too quiet, filling up with people again.

les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2021 sont annoncés

Nous sommes fiers d’annoncer les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2021. Un nouveau record a été battu cette année, avec plus de 10 000 candidatures de femmes des quatre coins du pays nommées par leurs collègues et leurs pairs. Après examen approfondi, 21 finalistes ont été sélectionnées dans l’ensemble des sept catégories de prix traditionnelles. Cinq autres candidates ont été choisies pour recevoir le prix Entrepreneure prometteuse, qui vise à récompenser des entrepreneures qui ont lancé des entreprises ayant connu un succès étonnant en moins de trois ans.

Les femmes qui forment ce groupe exceptionnel, diversifié et résilient ont été choisies pour leurs réalisations dans un large éventail de secteurs, dont les médias, la gestion du capital de risque, les vêtements, la construction, les services médicaux et la cybersécurité.

Compte tenu de l’incroyable essor du programme, la catégorie Évolution sociale a été élargie cette année. Ce prix comprend maintenant deux catégories : 1) le Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence régionale, qui est remis à la gestionnaire d’un organisme de bienfaisance enregistré, d’une entreprise sociale ou d’un organisme sans but lucratif se consacrant à un aspect précis du changement social, à un niveau local ou régional ; 2) le Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence nationale, qui est remis aux gestionnaires dont l’organisation a une portée nationale ou internationale.

Les Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC rendent hommage à des femmes propriétaires
d’entreprise partout au Canada qui retiennent l’attention en raison de leur importante contribution à la vitalité des économies locale, canadienne ou mondiale. Les candidates sont des visionnaires du secteur des affaires, et font preuve d’une détermination à toute épreuve afin de concrétiser leurs rêves. Les prix sont accordés à des femmes d’affaires et à des dirigeantes d’organisme sans but lucratif des trois grandes régions du Canada : l’Est, le Centre et l’Ouest.

« Nous sommes honorés de célébrer les parcours et réalisations extraordinaires de nos finalistes de 2021, a déclaré Greg Grice, vice-président directeur, Services financiers à l’entreprise, RBC. Nous nous réjouissons de voir l’influence grandissante des femmes entrepreneures au Canada, qui sont des pionnières, des mentors, des créatrices d’occasions pour d’autres femmes, et qui contribuent d’importante façon à notre économie et à nos collectivités par leur leadership. Il importe de soutenir leur avancement et de célébrer leurs réalisations pour créer un milieu des affaires plus inclusif et inspirer la nouvelle génération d’entrepreneurs dans une économie post-pandémie. »

Le nom des lauréates sera annoncé à l’occasion du 29e gala annuel de remise des prix, le mercredi
17 novembre. Il s’agira encore une fois d’un gala virtuel. Le gala, qui sera diffusé en simultané dans le monde entier, soulignera l’excellence des entrepreneures canadiennes. La conférencière invitée sera Nadine RenaudTinker, présidente régionale, Québec, RBC.

Pour plus d’information, visitez le communiqué de presse. 

Voici les lauréates du prix Entrepreneure prometteuse 2021:

Voici les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2021:

Prix Micro-entreprise Portail de connaissances pour les femmes en entrepreneuriat
Prix Nouvelle entreprise
Prix du dynamisme RBC
Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence nationale
Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence régionale
Prix de l’innovation
Prix de l’excellence

Announcing the 2021 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Finalists!

Pour la version française, cliquez ici.

We are proud to announce the 2021 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards finalists. A record-breaking year for the program, Canadian women entrepreneurs were recognized by their colleagues and peers with over 10,000 nominations from across the country. After an intensive judging review, 21 finalists were selected across seven categories. An additional five recipients were chosen to receive the Ones to Watch Award, which recognizes entrepreneurs who have launched businesses that have made an incredible impact in fewer than three years.

The women in this exceptional, diverse, and resilient group were chosen for their accomplishments in a wide range of industries including media, venture capital management, apparel, construction, medical services, cybersecurity and beyond.

In recognition of the incredible growth of the overall program, the Social Change category has been expanded this year. This award has now grown to include two categories: Social Change: Regional Impact, which recognizes a leader of a registered charity, social enterprise or not-for-profit that is dedicated to their unique brand of social change at a local or regional level; and Social Change: National Impact, which recognizes those whose organization has national or global impact.

The RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards recognize women business owners from across Canada who make impressive and substantial contributions to the local, Canadian, or global economy. Candidates share a strong entrepreneurial vision and a relentless passion in pursuing their dreams. These awards recognize businesswomen and leaders of non-profits from three major regions across Canada: East, Central, and West. 

We are grateful to all of our partners whose contributions make this celebration of women’s entrepreneurship possible, especially the dedication and commitment of our Title Sponsor, RBC. 

“We are honoured to celebrate the stories and accomplishments of our 2021 award finalists,” said Greg Grice, Executive Vice-President, Business Financial Services, RBC. “We’re excited to see a growing force of women entrepreneurs in Canada who are trailblazing industries, mentoring and creating opportunities for other women, and making significant contributions to our economy and communities through their leadership. Supporting their advancement and celebrating their achievements are critical to creating a more inclusive business community and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs as we strive for greater growth and resilience in a post-pandemic economy.”

We are honoured to celebrate the accomplishments of our 2021 award finalists. These entrepreneurs have displayed remarkable resilience over the course of the year, demonstrating exciting growth and innovation as they adapted their businesses to a new environment.

The winners will be announced and celebrated at the 29th Annual Awards Gala, on Wednesday, November 17, where all attendees will be once again digitally transported into our Virtual Awards Gala. The Gala, which will be live streamed around the world, will shine a spotlight on all these amazing Canadian women entrepreneurs. Keynote remarks will be shared by Nadine Renaud-Tinker, Regional President Quebec, RBC.

For more information, view the press release.  |  Pour plus d’information, visitez le communiqué de presse

How Suzanne Trusdale’s personal journey has shaped her small business role at TELUS.

Suzanne Trusdale

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

For the last year and half, entrepreneurs have faced numerous, varied, and entirely new challenges — all thanks to COVID. 

Suzanne Trusdale, Vice-President of TELUS Small Business Solutions, can relate. Early on in her career, she ran her own small business — a restaurant and catering company in Western Ontario. Now, she’s leading a team that not only provides everyday support to TELUS’ small business customers, but also creates initiatives and programs to enable entrepreneurs to thrive. 

Running her own business has brought her closer to those who want to follow an entrepreneurial path. “I always wanted to have my own business, long before university,” Suzanne says. “I went to Ryerson University in Toronto to study hotel administration and believed that one day I was going to have my own restaurant and hopefully a catering company.”

After graduating, Suzanne spent a few years working for a prominent restaurateur. When they announced they were going to sell one of their locations, she seized the opportunity to get her start as a small business owner. Alongside a business partner and team, Suzanne built a strong brand and continued to grow the catering side of the business enjoying every exciting moment and challenge of her journey. That was until the recession of the late 80’s hit. After months of trying to stay solvent and keep things afloat, she realized that she needed to make the very difficult decision to close the business.  

“This all happened before I was 30,” she says. “If you come from a place where you go from university to making your dreams come true to losing everything and then having to start all over again… it’s daunting.”

Ready to start again, she left Ontario for British Columbia, and eventually took on a role at BC Tel, a telephone company that merged with TELUS in 1998 to become the second-largest telecom company in Canada. 

“If you come from a place where you go from university to making your dreams come true to losing everything and then having to start all over again… it’s daunting.”

“I thought I would go there for a bit, but that I would eventually get back to what I was passionate about: hospitality and starting another business.” Instead, Suzanne was given the opportunity to grow her position at TELUS and to bring some of her passion for small business to the roles she took on. “I’ve been able to build a tremendous career for myself in a space I’m incredibly passionate about. Some may say I have the best of both worlds.”

Suzanne credits mentorship and sponsorship — having internal champions that helped guide her and connect her to opportunities — for playing key roles in her career growth. It’s become a passion point for her as well; she regularly volunteers her time with organizations that look to advance opportunities for women and girls, especially in STEM. She’s also taken on the role of global co-chair for TELUS Connections, a resource group that looks to empower and create development and leadership opportunities for women within the organization.

As of late, Suzanne’s focus has been on leading her team to help support small businesses as they navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic. “There was a lot of panic last March. What’s been so inspirational is how quickly the majority of small businesses were able to pivot. Some were able to move faster because they had great digital infrastructure in place, and we saw an influx of organizations come forward with products enabling small businesses to connect with their customers in new ways,” she notes. “TELUS is one of those key partners for small business owners. We’ve been able to offer tools and products to help small businesses and entrepreneurs go from brick and mortar stores to digital, or vice versa.”

Suzanne served a key role in advocating for TELUS’ small business customers through the ideation of the now viral campaign called #StandWithOwners. The initiative has done everything from surprising business owners with gift certificates to giving them the funds they need to enhance their digital presence or improve their advertising. Since mid-2020, TELUS has invested $1.5 million (and counting) in the entrepreneurial community.

“I am proud of so many things that we have done this year, but this one is near and dear to my heart,” Suzanne notes. “TELUS has done so very much to give back and that is so important to me as a team member, as a Canadian, and as a woman in business.”

“It takes a ton of courage to ask for help. But why not stick up for yourself? Why not be your biggest advocate and get in there and get involved and see who can help you?”

The “she-cession” — a term coined to describe the unequal impact COVID has had on working women — has been difficult for Suzanne to witness first-hand. “If you think about the pressure of balancing home and work, especially when the sectors that have been impacted the most are sectors led by women — everyone has a breaking point,” she says. “It’s been unfortunate to see so many women forced to choose between supporting their family and career. It’s the wrong direction we need to go in Canada.”

The two big things Suzanne wants women entrepreneurs struggling in these COVID circumstances to know is they are not alone, and “this too shall pass.” 

“I do think so many women entrepreneurs feel they’re alone, but they’re not. Women aren’t really great at saying ‘I’m on the cusp of giving up or shutting it down and I just need some help,’” she notes. “It takes a ton of courage to ask for help. But why not stick up for yourself? Why not be your biggest advocate and get in there and get involved and see who can help you?”

Her advice for small business owners is to take a step back and assess the stress of the times and the “tyranny of the now.” She says it’s always better to “stop, calm down, breathe, and step back for a second,” so you can figure out who to lean on for support. 

“If a person doesn’t have a mentor or coach and isn’t actively working with an organization that can provide education and advice — organizations like local chambers of commerce and Women of Influence — they need to start taking advantage of them,” she says. “There are so many people and companies that want to help small businesses and entrepreneurs. All someone needs to do is reach out and ask.”

How Tanja Perry is establishing trust between Indigenous communities and Scotiabank.

Tanja Perry

By Shelley White

 

Tanja Perry’s passion for allyship with Indigenous peoples has always come naturally. It stems from her upbringing, her friends and family, her environment, and her job. 

“I grew up in a very small town in British Columbia and went to school with many Indigenous kids my age. They were my friends, my neighbours, and I’ve always had very strong relationships with their families,” says Tanja, who is District Vice President for Alberta/Northwest Territories at Scotiabank. Tanja also met her Indigenous husband living in the north. “My children embrace their Indigenous heritage and it is my role as a parent to ensure it is valued and honored. And living in remote communities has always been in my wheelhouse. I love the remoteness, and all that it has to offer.”

Tanja moved to the Northwest Territories at a very young age to work as an apprentice mechanic. But her chosen career would take a turn when she was approached by a recruiter from a local bank. 

“They said I had the personality to talk to people, so why am I not in banking?” recalls Tanja. “Once I stepped into my role as a banker, I saw very quickly that there were a lot of challenges with credit and accessibility to banking in the Indigenous communities around me. And my passion and advocacy started there.” 

Now, with 30 years of experience in the banking industry, Tanja is a driving force for allyship and positive change in both her role as District VP and as Co-chair for the National and Prairie Region Indigenous Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Based in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Tanja has made it her mission to build trust and forge relationships between the bank and the Indigenous communities in her district and across Canada. She’s particularly passionate about improving relationships with those that are challenged geographically and lack access to banking services. 

“These are relationships that we need to repair as bankers, not the other way around.”

“These are relationships that we need to repair as bankers, not the other way around,” Tanja notes. “And I continue to try and show others what I do, how I work within Indigenous communities, and the relationships that I have been able to build.” 

Another passion of Tanja’s is financial literacy, or, as she prefers to call it, “financial fitness.” Over the past year, in cooperation with the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association, she helped to develop customized Financial Fitness modules specifically tailored to Indigenous community needs. The four modules — targeting Grades 3/4, Youth, Adults and Older Adults/Elders — will soon be making their way into Indigenous communities across Canada via trained facilitators. 

“We’ve selected 12 Scotiabank employees from across Canada to act as facilitators due to their outstanding work within their Indigenous communities,” she says. “They have all completed their facilitation training and as of September, they will be supporting our branches going forward to offer these great programs. So, I’m really proud of that,” she says. 

Tanja points out that the modules aren’t meant to be one-size-fits-all. They have been developed so that they can be adjusted based on an individual community’s needs. “We can really come in with something to offer that’s meaningful, to help individuals plan for their future. It will also allow us to be in our communities to listen, learn, and be partners.” she says.

Another important aspect of Tanja’s advocacy and community-building work has been through her work with the Scotiabank Indigenous ERGs, which are composed of both Indigenous employees and allies. “Employee Resource Groups are a fantastic way to grow opportunities for leadership, networking, and professional development,” she notes. 

The groups’ mandates include striving to recruit and retain Indigenous employees, strengthening partnerships with Indigenous-focused organizations, establishing and maintaining an inclusive banking experience for Indigenous customers, and acting as a key influencer to foster, support, and raise awareness of the bank’s National Indigenous People Inclusion strategy. 

“The collaboration, vision, and work that the Indigenous ERG team is doing is truly inspiring, and I am honored to be a part of it.”

One important project Tanja helped to create is the Indigenous Cultural Competency program, a mandatory learning course for all Canadian-based employees to further enhance their learning and allyship, she says. The Indigenous ERGs have also been increasingly exploring opportunities for collaboration with other ERGs at the bank, to great success. “The collaboration, vision, and work that the Indigenous ERG team is doing is truly inspiring, and I am honored to be a part of it,” she says.

Tanja notes that September 30, which will be the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, marks a critical step to honour survivors of residential schools, their families, and communities. “It is a time to learn and reflect on how we can do our part to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination,” she says. “We must stand together to learn this history and take action to ensure it is not repeated — it is the only way forward.”

There is still much work to be done to repair and build relationships with Indigenous peoples, adds Tanja, and all Canadians can do their part to help support the healing process. “We must recognize the unique history, culture, and traditions of each community as a fundamental first step. Educate ourselves, be knowledgeable, empathetic, and respectful of Indigenous peoples,” she says. “The culture is beautiful, steeped with values, spirituality, and connections to the land. It is important we all develop a greater understanding, know what is important to them and what they will fight to protect.”

Tanja says she treasures her own connection to the natural environment. When she’s not at work in Fort McMurray or travelling through Northern communities, she and her family spend time in the wilds of British Columbia. “We have a 600-acre ranch where we enjoy our horses, developing our land, kayaking, quadding and taking in the breathtaking surroundings. It’s my happy place.”

In her role as a business leader, Tanja hopes to send a message to others in positions of power about the importance of an inclusive and diverse workplace, offering this advice to managers and executives looking to become diversity champions: “Lead by example by fostering transparency and two-way communication in which every opinion is valued. Embrace the uniqueness people bring to the table and ask yourself what perspectives and voices have not yet been heard,” she says. “Be a leader who creates an environment where individuals feel they can be their true authentic selves.”

Sandi Treliving is committed to closing the gender gap in mental health care — here’s how.

Sandi Treliving

By Shelley White

 

When asked how she became one of the country’s leading advocates in the area of mental health, Sandi Treliving remembers the evening in 2010 that sparked an enduring passion in her philanthropic work. 

Sandi and her husband, businessman and star of CBC Dragons’ Den, Jim Treliving, were living in Texas at the time but were in Toronto for the weekend. They had been invited to UnMasked, a fundraising event put on by CAMH: The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, an organization that Sandi wasn’t familiar with back then.

“My husband said to me, ‘So, what are we doing tonight?’ His typical question. I said, ‘Well, we’ve been invited to this event. It has something to do with mental health,’” Sandi recalls. “It ended up being a game changer for me.”

At the event, Sandi and Jim were seated at a table with the late Michael Wilson, a former federal Finance Minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Michael had lost his son, Cameron, to suicide when Cameron was just 29 years old, and dedicated his later life to raising awareness and ending the stigma around mental health. Also seated at the table with Sandi and Jim was a representative for the CAMH Foundation, which raises and stewards funds for CAMH, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital and research centre.

“I was really blown away with the people that I spoke with that evening,” Sandi says. Listening to her tablemates talk about the advances in support and treatment being pioneered at CAMH, she knew she had found her calling.

“Being exposed to mental health challenges at a very young age with my brother’s illness, I always knew that I was going to do something in the mental health world. But I had been quite discouraged throughout the years because of the lack of change in treatment and the stigma attached to mental health.”

“I was just so happy to hear that the transition had been made from a life sentence of no support for people living with mental illness to an opportunity for wellness. And the respect and the dignity that goes along with that. It just completely changed my own thinking and was the impetus for me to get involved,” she says. “I toured the campus the next day and said, ‘How can I help?’” 

Now a director of the CAMH Foundation, Sandi has headed many fundraising initiatives, including co-Chairing CAMH’s signature UnMasked event in 2015 and 2017, and acting as a Campaign Adviser for CAMH’s $200-million Breakthrough Campaign, Canada’s largest hospital fundraising campaign for mental health. Her current focus is womenmind, a CAMH initiative that seeks to close the gender gap in mental health and achieve equality in the way that mental health is researched and treated. 

“Our focus is education, awareness, reducing stigma, and building a community of support,” Sandi says. “We are getting that message out to show people: here’s the hope.”

A personal connection that sparked a passion 

While that special evening at UnMasked was the catalyst that prompted Sandi’s tireless advocacy work, she had long had a personal interest in the area, stemming from her family’s own experiences with mental illness. 

Sandi was seven years old when her teenage brother, David, began exhibiting the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. It’s a disease that can cause delusions, hallucinations and disorganized thinking. When in the grip of psychosis, David would have violent outbursts, Sandi says, and it wasn’t until later in life that he was able to get the treatment and medication he needed.

“Being exposed to mental health challenges at a very young age with my brother’s illness, I always knew that I was going to do something in the mental health world. But I had been quite discouraged throughout the years because of the lack of change in treatment and the stigma attached to mental health,” she says.

She notes that back in the 1970s when David first began experiencing symptoms of his disease, they weren’t recognized as schizophrenia. 

“Our family doctor said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s rebellious. He’s a teenager.’ So that started the trajectory downwards, because the psychosis led to more psychosis, more illness, and so on,” she says. “Now, had this happened today, we would have completely different options available to the person with the illness and for the families. And that is the reason that I advocate daily for changes in people’s attitudes towards mental health and for getting to that wellness stage that we all want for our loved ones.”

The more we talk about mental health, the better we will be able to support people and families living with mental illness, says Sandi, even though it can be uncomfortable to talk about sometimes.

“Let’s break down this mystery, and recognize that the brain is an organ, and sometimes organs get sick,” she says. “The best outcomes happen when we can recognize mental illness as soon as possible and act on it.” 

Towards gender balance in mental health

For the past year and a half, Sandi has been a founding member and leading voice of CAMH’s womenmind, a community of philanthropists committed to closing the gender gap in mental health and driving change for women’s mental health and women in science. 

Sandi says the initiative came about after a conversation with Deborah Gillis, President and CEO of the CAMH Foundation. “She pulled a couple of the female board members aside after a meeting and said, ‘I’ve asked for some information on women’s mental health and I’ve been digging deep into gender gaps.’ And she laid it out for us.’”

Sandi learned that the challenges facing women in mental health are significant and pressing: women experience depression, anxiety, and trauma to a greater extent than men across different countries and settings. Many treatments used today have been disproportionately tested on men and not equitably studied on women. And women in science face biases as they work to advance their careers.  

“During the conversation, a light bulb went off for me. I thought, this is something that we could get our girls involved with. So I talked to my husband, and I said, ‘I’ve got an idea here. Why don’t we give a gift from the Treliving women to women’s mental health?’ And Jim said, ‘That’s the best idea I ever heard in a long time.’”

Sandi spoke to the women in her family, who include her daughter and daughter-in-law, Jim’s daughter and daughter-in-law, as well as six granddaughters and one great-granddaughter. (“The men are scattered in there, but we are heavily weighted on the female side in our family,” Sandi says with a laugh.)

The Treliving women and girls were thrilled to be a part of a project that focused on women and  mental health. “My daughter Katie said to me, ‘Mom, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get involved,’ and I just knew we were onto something.” 

The family gave a $5-million intergenerational gift to launch womenmind in March 2020. In the first five years, the initiative aims to raise $10 million to recruit new women scientists, provide early career start-up support, hold research and seed grant competitions, offer mentoring programs for women in science, and host an annual global research symposium. 

“There’s got to be other families out there that are thinking the same way, and how amazing would it be to have families come and join us in the womenmind community? Sisters, mothers, daughters, come and join us. I think that when we gather together, especially as women, we make change happen.”

womenmind has already achieved several significant milestones, like recruiting Dr. Daisy Singla as the first-ever womenmind Family Scientist specializing in women’s mental health, and launching the first womenmind Seed Funding Competition with awards going to support three women researchers whose fields of study focus on new clinical tools to treat depression, women and nicotine addiction, and safer, more effective use of benzodiazepines by women. It also developed a mentorship program for women scientists to provide training and skill development, and created the inaugural Treliving Family Chair in Women’s Mental Health in conjunction with the University of Toronto. An international search is currently underway for a chair who will lead the development of a research program focused on understanding and improving mental health outcomes for women. 

“The goal of womenmind is to support, recognize and celebrate the work of female scientists who are working to improve mental health outcomes for women,” says Sandi. “I am confident the research they are conducting today will make all the difference to the lives of girls and women in the future.”

The focus on women and mental health is something that’s especially needed now, Sandi says. She points to a July 2020 paper released by CAMH called “Mental Health in Canada: COVID-19 and Beyond” that revealed the negative impact of the pandemic on Canadians’ mental health. A poll found that 50 per cent of Canadians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic, stemming from fear and uncertainty about health, employment, finances and social isolation. Women were identified as one of the groups most vulnerable to the mental health impacts of COVID-19. 

“Women are the majority of essential workers, they are the caregivers, they could be caring for an elderly parent at the same time that they’re caring for a child at home. And they’re dealing with COVID on top of that,” Sandi says. 

As a founding member of womenmind, Sandi points out that there’s yet another goal in what they are doing, which is mentoring the next generation of philanthropists. They are hoping to inspire other women to join the womenmind team to make real change for women and girls in mental health.  

“There’s got to be other families out there that are thinking the same way, and how amazing would it be to have families come and join us in the womenmind community? Sisters, mothers, daughters, come and join us. I think that when we gather together, especially as women, we make change happen.” Sandi says it’s been a joy to have her daughters and granddaughters involved in this very special endeavour.  

“It bonds us, moving in the same direction with the same focus. I can’t wait to see all of the innovations and discoveries; I can’t wait to watch the scientists as they develop their careers. I’m excited that my youngest granddaughter is six months old, so in 20 years, what will womenmind researchers have accomplished? That’s powerful.” 

It’s also been very rewarding from a personal standpoint, Sandi adds.

“I didn’t realize the impact of my brother’s illness on me. I always looked at my father and mother and how challenging it’s been for them, but David’s illness has impacted me tremendously as well,” she says. “Because my brother is ten years older than me, I didn’t really get to know him ever. And I’m sad about that. I’ve heard that he was a great brother, but I never really experienced that relationship with him. So being able to do what I’m doing now is very healing.” 

Roots CEO Meghan Roach leaned into the challenges of the pandemic — and transformed the lifestyle brand.

Meghan Roach

By Hailey Eisen 

 

In January 2020, Meghan Roach was appointed interim CEO of Roots. The nearly-50-year-old Canadian outdoor lifestyle brand, known for its iconic salt-and-pepper sweats and beaver emblem, was underperforming. Meghan’s job? To improve operational efficiency and execute on profitable growth opportunities, while honouring the brand’s heritage.

A mandate that would have proved challenging under normal circumstances, Meghan’s task was compounded when the COVID-19 pandemic hit just months into her tenure. But for someone who admittedly thrives in chaos, the pandemic played to the 38-year-old’s strengths. “Honestly, it was one of the most invigorating experiences of my career,” she recalls. 

The obstacles facing the retail industry were unprecedented: store closures and layoffs, a pivot to e-commerce, upended work schedules, sweeping lockdowns, increased demand for safety protocols, and the repurposing of resources to provide PPE to those in need. 

The way things were always done would no longer serve. Meghan embraced a company-wide shift that included a focus on outcomes versus ‘face time’ or hours worked. She put trust in her large team — from head office to factories, distribution centres, and retails outlets — to do what needed to be done in a much more flexible format. 

With two small children at home, Meghan also had to adapt. “When COVID hit, we were living in a condo and my husband was also working from home,” she says. “My kids were literally running in and out of my meetings all day.” 

Developing the skill set and mindset needed to thrive in these unsettling times started at a young age for Meghan. She credits her family with teaching her the value of hard work and perseverance. It was her grandfather who sparked her interest in finance and investing when he gave her BCE shares as a child. An undergraduate degree in Commerce from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University allowed her to expand upon those interests and solidified what she wanted to do beyond school. 

“I am not the smartest person in the room and never want to be. If I am, then I’ve failed at my job. Working with others who are smarter or more experienced creates a better business — together.”

“It was unique at the time to have a four-year program in Commerce which focused on finance, investing, and marketing, among other things,” she says. “We focused on case studies, group work, and leadership skills, and learned to think on our feet, collaborate with others, and work to our own strengths.” 

After graduation, Meghan explored a variety of career paths, including accounting, investments, and private equity. She served on a number of boards, including a stint on the Roots board from 2015 to 2017. In the summer of 2019, she was brought on as Roots’ interim CFO, and come the New Year was promoted to interim CEO. The CEO title became permanent in May 2020 after she had proved herself in the early days of the pandemic. 

Meghan says there were times she felt like an “imposter,” being a young woman in her CEO role. But she’s held on to an important lesson from her business school days that proved helpful on her C-suite journey. “I am not the smartest person in the room and never want to be,” she says. “If I am, then I’ve failed at my job. Working with others who are smarter or more experienced creates a better business — together. That’s how we succeed.” 

Bringing in a variety of perspectives, deeply understanding Roots’ customers, and collaborating with local and grassroots partners have all been part of Meghan’s strategy over the past year. “Roots has done a great job creating high-quality, long-lasting, comfortable products, and we wanted to expand upon that legacy with a focus on diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and global impact, among other things. This includes looking at our corporate culture, suppliers, and marketing.” 

Meghan’s current focus is diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion in terms of campaigns, product development, and partnerships. “Being a well-known brand in Canada and internationally, I want to use our platform to amplify different voices and talk about issues going on today in a way that’s aligned with our values,” she says.  

“Having gone through a pandemic and come out stronger, we know that muscle is in us and we have the capacity to deal with challenges, whatever they may be.”

Under Meghan’s leadership, Roots has partnered with Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in support of its “Dear Everybody” campaign to include more people with disabilities in ad campaigns; signed the BlackNorth agreement with the Canadian Council of Business Leaders; donated to Indigenous communities; and launched a limited-edition collaboration collection in honour of International Women’s Day, which saw a portion of proceeds go to Girls E-Mentorship (GEM), a program that helps high school girls overcome barriers in their transition to adulthood. 

Meghan has also embraced the idea of storytelling, ensuring a variety of voices are heard and represented within Roots — as part of the Diversity and Inclusion Council she leads — and through partnerships and campaigns aimed at developing unique products and spotlighting existing favourites. 

A self-proclaimed small-town girl, Meghan says her love of nature and connection to the Roots brand began as a child in Pembroke, Ont. Like many, she recalls getting new Roots clothing for back-to-school. She also developed an appreciation for outdoor sports while attending the 315-acre natural campus of Lakefield College School during her high-school years. These experiences shaped her into the ideal Roots customer and helped form connections she draws upon in her role as the brand’s CEO. 

“I am so grateful for the connection I have with the Roots founders, Michael Budman and Don Green, who met at Camp Tamakwa. Michael even recalls traveling through Pembroke on one occasion during his camp canoe trips,” Meghan says. “Michael and Don have lived the Roots lifestyle since its inception and their support has been invaluable as we move forward during these exciting times.” 

A strong connection to the past with forward momentum is what’s propelling Meghan these days. “Having gone through a pandemic and come out stronger, we know that muscle is in us and we have the capacity to deal with challenges, whatever they may be,” she says. “I have a lot of optimism for the future.”