Career detours and glass ceilings didn’t stop this CEO from pursuing her dreams — and she’s helping others realize theirs too
Dr. Claudine Cousins, RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Social Change Award: Regional Impact recipient shares her story.
Dr. Claudine Cousins always knew she wanted to be a voice for change.
One of eight siblings, Claudine learned leadership as the oldest sister, taking on household responsibilities and setting expectations for her younger siblings. A childhood anecdote Claudine fondly recalls is when she and her older brother would pretend to drive a bus or train, or pilot an airplane. Claudine’s mother remembers that Claudine, who was only three-years-old at the time, would always tell her older brother that she was the driver or pilot, and he was the attendant. From a young age, Claudine was determined to take charge and lead.
Immigrating to Canada from Jamaica, school and books were a gateway for Claudine.
“I was always the kid with a book in the corner, in my purse, under the table, or I was hidden in a curtain reading,” she says.
Inspired by her parent’s perseverance and the sacrifices they made to establish a stable life for her and her siblings, pursuing higher education was always important to Claudine.
Although she was a straight-A student, not everyone believed in Claudine the way she believed in herself. In high school, Claudine wanted to take the academic courses that would help her get into university. When she met with her high school counsellor to ask for guidance, she was told, “you don’t need to worry about that. People like you leave school and get a job.”
“I decided I wasn’t going to take that as an answer for myself,” Claudine says.
Disregarding this discriminatory advice, Claudine credits the support of her parents and belief she had in herself for not listening to her counsellor and continuing to pursue her goals.
“My mother always said to me, ‘you have to work twice as hard to be half as good — you have to work harder than everyone else to get through the door.’”
Claudine went on to earn her Bachelor of Business Management with a focus in Human Relations from Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). After earning her Bachelor’s degree, she knew she wanted to pursue a Master’s degree but took a step back to work and provide for her family. As a single mother, Claudine acknowledges that her professional choices at the beginning of her career were motivated by her son and his needs.
“There are certain things we choose to do and certain things we must do,” she says. “Being a single parent slowed down my progression in education and career — I had to make some difficult decisions between elevating my career and caring for my son, as some decisions may be better for your children than for you and your career.”
Claudine worked for Canada Trust (before it was acquired by TD) as a Customer Service Manager, and then moved to Edward Jones, where she worked as an Academic Training Leader, training investment representatives. Putting her son first, she then moved to the Ontario Ministry, working for various Ministries within the Ontario Public Service.
While working for the Ministries of Community & Social Service and Children & Youth Service, Claudine found what she knew she always wanted to do: standing up for justice and helping marginalized people be seen and heard.
Through the Ministry, Claudine was able to earn a grant to earn her Master’s. She decided to obtain her Master’s in Leadership from Central Michigan University, which offered a part-time program, giving her the flexibility to continue working full-time. She valued her experiences at Central Michigan University, as it provided an insightful perspective on the juxtaposition between Canadian and American leadership styles.
After earning her postgraduate certificate in Public Relations at Humber College, Claudine was met with an opportunity that felt like her lifelong goal of providing direct support to those in her community came full circle. Claudine became the CEO of Empower Simcoe, a multi-service, charitable, not-for-profit organization that provides inclusive support and services to help enhance the lives of marginalized people, empowering individuals to pursue their goals and to live a self-fulfilling life.
“Community is at the core of who we are,” she says. “We are part of the community, and our community is part of us.”
Empower Simcoe works to provide support and services to people of all abilities, aiming to empower their community members to lead their best lives while offering inclusive programs to help people Be, Belong, and Thrive. The organization’s vision is simple yet powerful, with the belief that everyone deserves the equal opportunity to live a self-fulfilling life.
Empower Simcoe’s Core Values — Driven, Accountable, Respect, and Community — resonate personally with Claudine’s principles and life mission to enable, support, and shepherd others to pursue their goals and dreams, despite the barriers they may face.
“Being a woman of colour is a double-whammy — I experienced imposter syndrome as I would look around and think, ‘maybe I shouldn’t be here’ or ‘don’t say anything’,” Claudine says. “The glass ceiling was alive and well in my career — I would bump up against it. I knew I had the skills and capabilities, but I would be overlooked for opportunities and promotions. And I would sometimes just take it because I was afraid if I pushed back, I would lose my job.”
These barriers to success only made Claudine want to work harder and prove her doubters wrong. She encourages others to use the obstacles they may face as fuel to push themselves forward into a future of their own making.
“Be reliable, credible, and trustworthy — be true to the person you are, and don’t let anyone push you to a place where you don’t want to be.”
When the pandemic hit, Claudine was pursuing her PhD from Walden University while serving as CEO at Empower Simcoe. As her PhD was focused in Health Sciences, she found she was able to apply what she was learning to the issues that arose due to the pandemic — especially the effects of the pandemic on racialized and marginalized communities.
While leading her team through the pandemic, she focused on figuring out how to make sure they could do their jobs, while still attending to their personal lives. She also acknowledges the shift in leadership style she made to cope with the requirements of the pandemic and to offer support to her staff.
“As leaders, we can’t expect to stay on top of everything all the time,” she says. “I call it ‘seasonal leadership’ — there are ebbs and flows. We have to start where we start and work our way up. Sometimes there’s a detour, but the detour might lead us to unexpected things that make the journey better.”
To help her team, Claudine built more wellness opportunities into their workdays, implemented wellness and well-being training and employee assistance programs into Empower Simcoe’s employee offerings. Claudine also honoured the importance of continuously expressing gratitude and appreciation to her staff.
As the recipient of the Social Change Award: Regional Impact in 2022, Claudine is a herald for change, an advocate for marginalized communities, and a force for community impact. Motivated by her love of learning and her desire to continuously broaden her perspective, Claudine’s education and career journeys exemplify her perseverance and strength. Asking herself how she can fit into the broader scope of the world and make an impact in whatever community she could, Claudine has modelled what it means to be an exceptional leader that learns, grows, and appreciates her team for over 25 years.