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Five Questions With: Sevaun Palvetzian, President and CEO, UNICEF Canada

She encourages us all to invest in our curiosity

Sevaun Palvetzian is the President and CEO of UNICEF Canada, the world’s leading humanitarian organization committed to helping children around the world reach their full potential. As a widely respected leader, Sevaun has built and led high-performing teams in the corporate, public, and non-governmental sectors. Prior to UNICEF Canada effective, Sevaun was a Senior Fellow at the Munk Centre of Global Affairs and Public Policy and executive advisor to organizations in both Canada and the U.S. on ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) and its related impact on organizational strategy. Previously, Sevaun served as Chief Communications Officer at Rogers, a leading Canadian technology and media company. There, she led communications, ESG, and corporate responsibility across the company’s multiple business lines including wireless, cable, business services, TV, radio and sports.

Before joining Rogers, Sevaun was CEO of CivicAction, a prominent Canadian not-for-profit that boosts civic engagement and addresses critical urban issues by identifying and unlocking the collective impact of all people and sectors. Additionally, she held a series of leadership roles over the course of a decade with the Ontario Government including launching a strategy to attract future generations of leaders which included the award-winning Learn and Work Program to re-engage youth from priority communities. As an active member of the community, Sevaun has served as an advisory member to several orders of government and as a director on boards like Waterfront Toronto, NEXT Canada, NPower Canada, and the Ivey Business School Leadership Council.

What motivated you to pursue a leadership role at UNICEF Canada, and what contributions do you hope to make during your tenure as President and CEO?

Growing up, there was one organization that shaped how I thought about the world more than almost any other: UNICEF. 

UNICEF had a seat at our dinner table as my parents described how the work under the humanitarian tents helped the world’s children who faced the most unimaginable circumstances. It was with us on Halloween night with the orange donation boxes around our costumed necks. UNICEF was in our classrooms bringing stories and context around geopolitics, history, and children’s rights. As a professional, I read UNICEF Canada’s Report Card each year to understand the state of child and youth well-being here at home.

My entire life, UNICEF has been a lens through which I learned about and saw the world.  Today, as we watch the geopolitical table being reset, conflicts increasing in frequency, severity and duration, and climate change creating an unprecedented need for children, I can’t imagine a more important role at a more important time.

Throughout your career, you have taken on leadership roles that share common elements of community engagement, social impact, and strategic planning. What excites you about the synergies and connections between these aspects of the work you are engaged in?

I’m attracted to organizations that play an outsized role in positively shaping society; those working hard to tackle complex problems with a suite of partners. Being at the nexus of that kind of work is both fascinating and fulfilling to me. 

A couple of generations ago, “impact” was defined largely through the purview and actions of the community-serving sectors and public service. That’s not the case today. Here in Canada, impact is increasingly a team sport. That includes a growing, engaged corporate sector that is doing more and more to push the levers they have unique access to, to tackle intractable social, inequity or environmental problems. Seeing the growth of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) work in recent years is a key proof point of that.  

The collective, collaborative effort from government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), companies, and international organizations is not only the more interesting way to realize impact — it’s the only practical way to deliver it. None of us have the privilege of inaction as we face more complicated challenges than any generation before us.

As you progressed in your career, what leadership skills did you focus on developing, and how did these skills contribute to your success?

Early in my career, I pursued three things: what interested me, what challenged me, and what leader or manager inspired me. I can’t overstate the importance of that last point. Working for great managers is so important — it always is, but even moreso as we’re building out our first few career chapters. 

Whether we know it (or like it) or not, we’re shaped and somewhat moulded by the leadership styles around us.  The attributes we see become part of our own leadership DNA. You’ve maybe heard the adage, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Well, one-third of our life is spent at work. So, with — and for whom — we work matters. Choose well!  

Then, and now, I admire leaders who have vision, are values and purpose-driven, are curious, hold high standards of excellence, and have an authentic commitment to engagement and inclusion. A great sense of humour doesn’t hurt either!

What advice would you give to ambitious women and gender-diverse individuals about advancing in their careers?

Leadership has an echo. I’ve been on the receiving end of much great advice and sound counsel from many mentors I’ve been fortunate to learn from over the years. Here are some of the most indelible lessons they’ve shared:

Invest in your curiosity. It’s a constant fuel tank for creativity and problem-solving. The more we pursue question marks, the better our solutions. The more data, information, diverse insights, and experiences we ingest, the richer our analysis will be, and the more corners we’ll be able to see around.

Talent is a first thought, not an afterthought. Incredible teams aren’t formed by accident. Leaders who build formidable teams and relentlessly invest in strong cultures, not surprisingly, deliver the best results. Diverse, high-performing teams are what separate “good” from “wow” organizations.

Focus on the chapter, not the book. I’ve only met two people who wrote — and lived out — a multi-decade career plan for their life. Most careers unfold in a more organic manner. Rather than being too focused on the end state, focus on the journey. Through each chapter, move what’s important to you out of the margins of your life and onto the centre of the page. The book will write itself.

How does UNICEF’s work support the empowerment of girls and women and prepare them to be future leaders?   

Proudly, 49% of senior leaders of UNICEF globally identify as women. That’s reflected in our leadership but also in our work. Women and girls can be some of the most powerful agents of change in communities when they’re seen, invested in, and given equal opportunities to succeed.  

There are 600 million adolescent girls on the planet today. Two of them are my own daughters.  Yet, the inequality that exists amongst that age group across the world is staggering.  

For example, 1 in 4 girls aged 15–19 years is neither employed nor in education or training, compared to 1 in 10 boys of the same age; globally, 1 in 5 girls is married in childhood or adolescence; 1.4 billion people live in areas affected by high water vulnerability further exacerbated by droughts, floods and rising sea levels due to climate change — and women and girls still bear the brunt of collecting water for their households.  

Daily, I’m inspired by what UNICEF does to change these numbers — and the trajectory of millions of girls and women’s lives. 

For example, UNICEF’s Skills4Girls program bridges the gap between what girls need to succeed and what they could traditionally access. Nearly six million adolescent girls and young women have been reached across 30 countries with girl-focused learning opportunities; UNICEF Canada’s UNdaunted program removes barriers to girls’ education. Equipping schools with facilities for menstrual hygiene management, providing school uniforms, training teachers, and connecting girls with job-shadowing opportunities mean thousands of adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa get to realize their right to an education; UNICEF is working with UNFPA to End Child Marriage with life-skills training, comprehensive sexuality education, key community influencers (including men and boys), and school attendance support. Last year, we reached well over six million girls through this program!

Our work is also enabled by incredible women as supporters and donors. Over the past decade, UNICEF Canada’s women-led giving collectives — The 25th Team and Women UNlimited — have changed the lives of millions of children and families. Its impact with a multiplier effect — powered by women.