Why authentic representation matters — and how this impacts our future generations.

I am privileged to be a mom of three and the CEO of Thunderbird Entertainment, a multifaceted entertainment company that employs over 1,000 animators, creators, directors, crew members, and more across Canada and the US. At Thunderbird, our focus is on creating meaningful, diverse, and world-changing content that helps shift the status quo and places the spotlight on stories that might otherwise remain untold. And, in an unprecedented time in history where people are consuming more content than ever, it has become even more important to create and tell stories that uplift and authentically represent visible minority groups and strong, fearless women.

I love stories, and the immense impact they can have. Stories have the power to influence and can be used as a force of good to share experiences, broaden perspectives, and inspire change.

At Thunderbird, we produce stories that have the potential to change and impact our world. I’m fortunate to work alongside people who collectively believe that authenticity is a critical element in storytelling. Authenticity matters on so many levels. Simu Liu of Kim’s Convenience, tells the story of how growing up he could be any superhero that wore a mask – and didn’t directly show his face. Why? Because before he was cast as Marvel’s superhero, Shang-Chi, there wasn’t any Asian superheroes. 

What’s more, the statistics don’t lie: in a world where the business of streaming is becoming increasingly competitive, diversity and inclusivity are becoming bedrocks of new content — especially so when it comes to content created for kids and families. In fact, children are likely to go elsewhere for entertainment when they do not see themselves, their cultures and lifestyles reflected on television, which is why the lives we have already been able to touch and change through positive and accurate representation of Indigenous culture on the animated children’s series, Molly of Denali, is just the tip of the iceberg. Creating content for children and youth, and all audiences for that matter, is a huge responsibility and we are 100% committed to getting it right.

Making diversity a non-negotiable aspect of our business makes complete and total sense.

Aside from prioritizing authenticity being the right approach, it is also good for business. According to The Ticket to Inclusion, an analysis of the top 1,200 films released from 2007-2018 found that films led or co-led by people of color generally net more revenue than those with white leads/co-leads. The bottom line? Diversity sells

As an advocate for women in the workplace, a champion for underrepresented voices, and someone with a deep-rooted passion for people, making diversity a non-negotiable aspect of our business makes complete and total sense. But, it’s easier said than done. Yes, we are committed to diversity, and not just in a token form. Instead, we are committed to making our content as authentically, and with as much intentionality as possible. This includes everything from the early stages of development and research (for Season One of Molly of Denali, over 60 Alaska Native actors, writers, advisors, producers and musicians were involved across the production!), to the final casting and acting process (in our commitment to authentic representation, we cast and recast the lead character’s role in Hello Ninja in order to find the right fit: a pre-teen Japanese-American voice actor to play Wesley), to the make-up of our 1,000+ employees (our kids and family division is 40% female, 50% male, and 10% gender fluid). 

The power and privilege that comes with creating and telling a good story simply cannot be understated. Stories can help us see a situation from a different perspective, and even shift our core beliefs. 

So how do we ensure we are creating and telling stories that are a force for good and that not only entertains, but also empowers and inspires? Here are four practical takeaways that serve as key principles in my own life, that help guide me in my own journey as a mother and a leader on a mission of doing what I can to make the world a better place, and that I hope will help you, too: 

Have an attitude of gratitude and good things will come your way.

I say this to my kids all the time. Who you surround yourself with is who you are, and you are personally accountable for everyone in your circle. For me, kindness and integrity are non-negotiable and I surround myself with people who align with these values. Telling stories of diversity and inclusivity are what matters at Thunderbird, which is why we have intentionally built a culture of people who align with this mission.

If you can see it, you can be it. 

I was fortunate to have strong role models in both my parents. They empowered me to not only seek out the career I have today, but also to keep pushing myself to grow and achieve new milestones throughout the years. My parents taught that “you get what you put in” and I put this into practice in whatever I am doing. More importantly, they led by doing. My father was a CEO and my mother was a Clinical Research Director. As a result, I witnessed leadership. I also witnessed firsthand that details matter, and they often make the difference. From this, I adopted the “if you can see it, you can be it” mentality — and this bodes well for where my career has taken me — and my leadership role at Thunderbird. I want my children to know that they can earn a seat at the table through hard work and resilience, and have worked hard to demonstrate to them that a woman doesn’t have to choose between having a career and family. I also intentionally surround myself with other strong female leaders who are intelligent, capable, and inspire me every day to keep growing and learning as my career continues to evolve. 

‘If you can see it, you can be it’ relates to what we see on the screen as well. Our industry is fortunate because it can make changes in real time through the stories we tell, and characters we cast. At Thunderbird, we strive to challenge stereotypes and to tell stories with diverse and authentic characters that serve as inspiring role models for the next generation of leaders, regardless of their background. This includes strong girls like Molly of Denali, a 10-year-old Athabascan girl that uplifts the diverse and traditional values of Alaska Native people in mainstream media by debunking stereotypes about their beautiful culture. This also includes characters like Japanese-American Wesley from Hello Ninja, the Asian-led cast of Kim’s Convenience, and Twin-Spirited Massey Whiteknife of Queen of the Oil Patch, an Aboriginal businessman in Northern Alberta’s oil sands by day and Iceis Rain, a free-spirited female recording artist by night. 

You can’t truly relate and connect to a story if the story is never about you, and never an accurate portrayal of who you are and where you come from. People need to see themselves reflected in the media they consume in order to believe their stories matter and to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.

Your voice and influence matters.

As the CEO of a content creation company, I have a desire to change the lens through which we tackle representation and diversity, but also a social obligation to shift the paradigm. At Thunderbird, this means honouring the untold stories of underrepresented groups and telling them authentically and with intentionality. It means ‘walking the talk’ and using our platform as content creators to amplify the voices of those that have been historically untold by mainstream media.

I hope to set an example of strong female leadership for not just my own children, but children everywhere: to show them that the voices and stories of every child, regardless of their race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, and/or other differences, deserve to be heard. Molly of Denali may be the first nationally distributed children’s series in the United States to feature an Indigenous lead character, but she certainly won’t be the last.

People are always more important than the bottom line.

My passion for people is what led me to where I am today. Putting people first is what cultivates a happy workplace, it’s what draws the best talent to our company, and it’s what ultimately builds the billion-dollar company. The power of genuinely caring for people coupled with a ‘yes’ attitude is what I firmly believe is a recipe for success. I feel a deep sense of obligation to everyone on my team and their families, and it’s what drives me to show up every day and to do my best, and I will always strive to create a culture where my people are above the bottom line. 

It’s up to us to change the narrative surrounding diversity and inclusivity. The more we all do our part to raise up new, diverse voices, the more amazing, inspiring, impactful stories will be told. People from all cultural backgrounds deserve to be seen and stories like Simu Liu’s and Massey Whiteknife’s not only deserve to be told, but enrich our communities when they are.

About Jennifer Twiner-McCarron

Jennifer Twiner-McCarron is the CEO of Vancouver-based Thunderbird Entertainment Group , a global multiplatform entertainment company creating award-winning programming for the world’s leading digital platforms and broadcasters. Jennifer is also an award-winning producer, and has led production on multiple popular titles including the Emmy-winning Beat Bugs for Netflix, Cupcake & Dino for eOne and 101 Dalmatian Street for Disney+.

Meet Rosemarie Wilson, Co-Founder of Neale’s Sweet N Nice Ice Cream.

After 26 years on Bay Street, Rosemarie Wilson (nee Neale) co-founded Neale’s Sweet N Nice ice cream with her nephews in 2013 — reviving her father’s brand that originated in 1940s Trinidad and Tobago. One of 12 children, Rosemarie took it upon herself to learn the trade and help her father Charles run his small business, selling ice cream through neighbourhoods of southern Trinidad by bicycle. Now VP of Production and Operations, Rosemarie continues to create recipes with tropical fruit to bring the Caribbean tastes to the Canadian market.

 

My first job ever was… a teacher at a private Christian High School in Trinidad for about seven years.

The best thing about what I do is… that I am my own boss, and I make ice cream for a living! I can explore my creativity and do something I am passionate about.

My favourite flavour that we sell is… Coconut Frozen dessert (ice cream). This is our signature flavour and what my father started his business in Trinidad with in the 1940s. It lets me reminisce about growing up back home.

My proudest accomplishment is… reviving our Trinidadian family legacy here in Canada.

My boldest move to date was… retiring from a job after 25 years and dedicating myself to working full-time to launch Neale’s Sweet N Nice in Canada and compete with well-known brands in the market. 

I surprise people when I tell them… this is not just a story, I live this. I am the 10th of 12 children. What I learned from my father is expressed in the flavours I create. 

My best advice from a mentor was… “Follow your dream to achieve your goal.This may be a very lonely path, but if you’re going to make it, the motivation and strength will come from within.

I would tell my 21-year old self… You will make some incredible strides and achieve great heights some day. 

My biggest setback was… in the mid-80’s— his is when our lives took a change in Trinidad. We were going through an economic downturn, and I had already stopped working to stay at home and look after my five children. Then my husband was laid off from work, and then my father passed away on Mother’s Day, 1988.

I overcame it by… moving my family to Canada to pursue a fresh start and create a new opportunity for us all. I stepped out of my comfort zone and moved into what was unfamiliar territory. To this day I take my experiences with me and continue to work on stepping out of my comfort zone and embracing change.

One piece of advice that I often give but find it difficult to follow is… to let people in so they can get to know the real me. I have a lot to offer!

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… how important family is to me and that I am very involved in our church— I play the organ and direct the choir. Music is a passion for me—in fact, everyone in our very large family is either connected to music or sports and we always sing when we get together. One of my nephews was Haydain Neale of Jacksoul, another Joseph Neale, lung cancer survivor & advocate, singer & songwriter. Other relatives involved in sports have played for the Hamilton TiCats, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Edmonton Oilers, the WNBA or Team Canada for Women’s Basketball.

I stay inspired by… my faith.

Meet Eno Eka, Founder and CEO of Eny Consulting and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Eno Eka is a recipient of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. She is the Founder and CEO of Eny Consulting — a boutique consulting company — where she provides coaching and professional development services to help immigrants kick-start their careers in Canada. 

My first job ever was… an accounting intern after high school.

I decided to be an entrepreneur… because I always had that entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to own my business. I was the president of the Junior Achievement Club in my high school and we had to start several businesses as projects, and I enjoyed it. I then went on to start my little bookstore business at the age of 15, reselling my old books to my classmates.

My proudest accomplishment is… winning the Women of Inspiration Award for Mentorship in 2019 after 18 months of relocation to Canada.

My boldest move to date was… moving to Canada all by myself!

I surprise people when I tell them that… I have no family in Canada, have lived here for just 2 years now and I am under 30.

I knew it was time to launch my business when I… was approached with an opportunity and had to render my services as a business and not an employee.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… to just start, take imperfect actions because done is better than perfect.

My best advice from a mentor was… to focus on impact and the income will follow.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… nothing good comes easy and I do the work no matter how I feel.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… sleep in for another hour!!!

I stay inspired by… my mother, my mentors and the amazing students I get to coach in my programs.

The future excites me because… I know it is just the beginning— I am on a global mission to educate people all over the world.

My next step is… to expand my business into new countries and keep learning from the best business mentors globally

Meet Rogayeh Tabrizi, Co-founder and CEO of Theory+ Practice and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Rogayeh Tabrizi is a recipient of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. In 2018 she Co-Founded Theory+Practice, an advanced data science company, where as CEO she has led the strategic growth of the self-funded private company that now employs 20 highly skilled people. 

My first job ever was… translating science articles for a university magazine geared towards highschoolers. Making knowledge accessible to those who previously didn’t have access to it was very fulfilling.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… it seemed like the natural path for me versus a conscious decision. I didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur as much as my desire to question the status quo and contribute to a better future led me to be an entrepreneur. It has been an iterative process.

My proudest accomplishment is… being at the ground-level of starting the African School of Physics (ASP) 10 years ago. ASP is an NGO dedicated to capacity development in fundamental physics in Africa and socialize learning on the continent. To date we have hosted 700 students from 17 countries, with 70% completing their PhDs or post-docs in North America and Europe, and 35% returning to their country of origin.

My boldest move to date was… switching from MSc Physics to PhD Economics with no background. I had worked to be a physicist for my entire life and it took a lot of soul searching and hard work to change paths. I went from being at the top of my class to having to basically start over. The move has paid many dividends and I am happy I had the courage to be bold at that time.

I surprise people when I tell them… I would jump the fence when I was in grade 9, walk a few kilometres by the highway and then jump the fence to sit in physics classes at the local university. I did that for two years and my poor parents were called to school often. Another funny surprise is that the Dalai Lama fell on my lap after he came down the stage! I had helped to organize his last visit to Vancouver.

I knew it was time to launch my business when… I left physics to pursue a career in economics as a way of applying my technical skills to more real-world problems. I was talking about this — with who would eventually become my co-founder — and it became clear that there was an opportunity to bridge the high-level theoretical knowledge and leading edge thinking researchers do in academia to the practical issues facing businesses and society today. It was then that Theory+Practice was born.

To constantly try to improve and that the journey is about working to make things better, but at the same time, you need to know when something is good enough for now.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… don’t be idealistic about the monetary benefits of being an entrepreneur. Commit to working, particularly when you feel stuck. Ground your decisions on your values and principles. Being an entrepreneur will challenge you in ways you can’t imagine. Persevere and stick to it, but also ask for help. You won’t be able to succeed on your own. Get advice from everyone you can and find mentors to help you reflect on your progress. Dig deep and find the strength in our heart.

My best advice from a mentor… came in the form of a question. One mentor asked me “are you a perfectionist?” and I proudly responded with a yes. With a straight face, he said to me, “Quit now, you would never finish anything.” I realized then that it is more important to strive for excellence than perfection. To constantly try to improve and that the journey is about working to make things better, but at the same time, you need to know when something is good enough for now.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… “I am not playing two dimensional checkers, this is chess in Star Wars!” I focus on what is right here, right now in front of me and remember the goal. I remind myself of the positive moments and how grateful I am for all the resources around me and that I am not alone. I ask for help and remind myself that I am working for my team and together we can and do manage through tough times. It is actually very rewarding and fulfilling to deal with and manage adversity.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… paint more. I would just grab a canvas and let the creativity take control.

I stay inspired by… my team. Every day I am inspired by the power of teamwork with diverse thinking and perspectives that accompany it. There is truth in the cliche, “The sum is greater than the parts.” At Theory+Practice we are often trying to solve problems that have never been solved before. We deal with a lot of complexity, but focus on simplicity. There is a magical moment when clarity emerges and a team becomes radically aligned. I crave these moments for myself, and for my team. 

The future excites me because… even with the vast disruption and impacts of COVID-19, there are endless possibilities for a better future. Never before have we had such an opportunity — in so many ways — to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

My next step is… to continue the journey that Theory+Practice has put me on and find new and bigger opportunities to impact the world around me, while staying open to change. It is about showcasing — big or small — what is possible and questioning the status quo. I am excited to continue to learn and share my experiences with others, and mentor young people to help them on their own journeys as well.

Meet Nadine Chalati, owner of Chalati Lawyer and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Nadine Chalati is a recipient of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. She is a lawyer and the owner of the boutique law firm Chalati Lawyer, specializing in corporate and commercial law. As a firm advocate for accessibility in the legal system, Nadine regularly acts as an outside general counsel for small-to-medium sized businesses and assists not-for-profits and charities. Accentuating her practice on improving accessibility to justice and providing value to the community, Nadine also films daily legal segments on corporate and commercial law on Instagram. 

My first job ever was…  a lab technician at a pharmacy. It was my first experience in the service industry. It taught me how to communicate effectively with clients, provide outstanding service and resolve disputes. Additionally, as a lab technician, I learnt the importance of thoroughness, diligence, and revision of every action, even if they appear simple, such as counting pills. The skills I learnt then as a teenager are at the base of the skills I utilize today as a lawyer and entrepreneur.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I felt in me the desire to build something on my own. I was drawn to the idea of creating my own independence and relying on myself to make a living. Also, I craved the freedom to carve myself my own niche in law. I felt that I could only do that if I had total freedom to take the risks necessary to establish a practice that was totally customized to my interests.

My proudest accomplishment is… growing my business to the stage it is at now and consistently finding ways to leverage my skill set, my network and my drive to further its growth. I am endlessly grateful for it.

My boldest move to date was… starting from scratch. I was very young, fresh out of school, had no clients or a network. Looking back now, I am proud that I had the confidence to be so bold and take the risk!

I surprise people when I tell them… that I opened my firm at 23.

I knew it was time to launch my business when… I was at a crossroad. I was sworn into the Bar after an internship that was focused on litigation. Although I loved litigation, I discovered that it was a great source of stress in my life. I had to therefore decide if I wanted to continue pursuing the path of litigation, working in a firm, or if I wanted to shift towards building my own practice where I could tailor my business to suit my personality. 

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Practice. Practice. Practice, with the objective of performing with excellence. You show your worth by being excellent. The ability to provide quality work will help you build a solid foundation of clients. In turn, this will give you the inspiration to consistently evolve your business and most importantly, it will give you pleasure to work.

When I am struggling with an issue that is not straightforward, I pause, I study and I evaluate the elements at hand.

My best advice from a mentor was… Just post it! It does not matter if it’s not perfect. My website, my first video, first ad, first blog… they were far from perfect, but they were good enough. That first “good enough” gives you just enough momentum to start landing your first clients, building a network, attracting attention. Eventually, you look back and notice you have a bank of clients, skills and content that came from that first, “not perfect but good enough.”.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… that the business that I am trying to grow is not any kind of business. I am trying to grow a business as a lawyer within the boundaries of my professional order. When I am struggling with an issue that is not straightforward, I pause, I study and I evaluate the elements at hand. Often, I will go for a walk in nature or meditate to assess the issue at hand properly and in a sound mind.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… learn a new skill, kayak, paddle board, meditate, do yoga and enjoy the beauty and simplicity of life. I believe my creativity originates from the pause, from slowing down. Once I feel inspired and recharged, I can focus again on performance and development of my goals.

I stay inspired by… when I see a client leave my office with a smile and they are appeased by my work, it inspires me to keep doing good work and persevering. Seeing them happy brings joy to my day and is really the best part about the work I do.

The future excites me because… there is so much potential for change and transformation in the legal industry. Whether that be in the way that we service our clients, the products that we can create to better serve them or the platforms we can utilize to further disburse legal information to the public at no cost. The potential is limitless and I am truly excited to be able to play a part in this transformation. 

My next step is… to continue to grow Chalati Lawyer, to build an even stronger niche in corporate and commercial law and ultimately to be able to help more businesses with our services. Part of that process involves building new innovative products that both our clients and the community at large can use and to post more legal content on various social media platforms in order to make legal information widely accessible to the public at no cost. 

Meet Suzie Yorke, founder and CEO of Love Good Fats and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Suzie Yorke Love Good Fats

Suzie Yorke is a recipient of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. A mom and a yoga enthusiast, Suzie developed Love Good Fats, a company that produces high-fat, low-carb, and low-sugar products, after she identified a gap in the marketplace and an opportunity to help others through food. With a background in marketing and deep passion for health, Suzie is on a mission to spread the word that fat is back, and sugar is out!  

 

My first job ever was… at Harvey’s at the age of 15. Part of my job was cleaning toilets. The following summer, I got a job at a hospital where again I cleaned toilets! A theme indeed! 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… from a very young age I always wanted to have my own brand. I remember telling my mom at age eleven that one day I was going to run my own company. I really had no idea what that was going to be but the idea has always excited and inspired me. It just took 40+ years to get there!  

My proudest accomplishment is… I’d have to say my kids! In regard to my business I’ve been blessed to hit some pretty amazing milestones. One of the biggest ones for sure was being picked up by every Whole Food market across the US so quickly.  

My boldest move to date was… starting a company at age 50! I finally took the plunge and risked my life savings. Being a single mom with 2 kids soon to be in university, this was a bold move — but it all worked out! Now we have one of the fastest growing food start-ups in Canada!

I surprise people when I tell them… I am an eleven-time Ironman finisher! Racing triathlons and marathons has always been both a passion and a lifestyle. Each race would require months (usually about 10 months) of being focused on that eventual race day and being ready. So a lot of little daily steps that lead to — come race day — both arms raised up in the air at the finish line! 

I knew it was time to launch my business when… after 20+ years on a low fat diet, I read a book, Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, and immediately changed my diet to more fats and cutting out sugar. I couldn’t find on-the-go snacks to support my new lifestyle so I’m leading the charge of change with a high fat/low sugar brand, starting with bars. 

I get very motivated with personal sharing, wins and stories. Connecting with people and chatting about their stories is always a go-to for inspiration.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… first, be brave and start — take that first step to commercialize your idea. Until then, it’s just an idea. Start! Second, don’t give up. My very first production run failed and ate up most of my investment and I had to make a decision to quit or go forward. We’ve had so many challenges — some of which could have been fatal — but we pick up pieces, reassess, learn, and forge forward. 

My best advice from a mentor was… not to look twenty years out but to look at the steps you need to do right now. The rest of the pieces will fall into place as you move forward. Trust that you’re on a journey and take steps in the right enough direction.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… to look at my past successes and take heart from what I have achieved. Although the success of the company has been a rocket ship, it’s been tons and tons of very hard work and lots of “scary” moments and big decisions. Nothing comes easy but with hard work, the right team and mindset, it will. 

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… definitely use it to work out. With COVID, I have been able to find a bit more time to run or bike or do yoga and that’s indeed a blessing. That being said, I’d still love more time every day to get the oxygen and adrenaline flowing — this is when I get the best ideas too! 

I stay inspired by… tapping into all the amazing people around me — I get very motivated with personal sharing, wins and stories. Connecting with people and chatting about their stories is always a go-to for inspiration. 

The future excites me because… there are so many opportunities for our Love Good Fats brand. Our bars and shakes have given us permission to introduce more low sugar/high fat products with clean ingredients.  

My next step is… growing Love Good Fats to achieve the mission of changing the way people eat. Until we’re well on our way there, this is my laser focus on the next step. 

Meet Jenn Harper, founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics Inc. and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Jenn Harper

Jenn Harper is a recipient of the 2020 Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. She is the founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics INC, a digitally native direct to consumer brand that is helping Indigenous youth see themselves in a beauty brand. Cheekbone Beauty uses the concept of a circular economy in the brands ethos and in developing their latest line of products, creating a new segment in the beauty industry—Sustainable Socially Conscious Beauty.  

My first job ever was… either the shampoo girl at the local salon or the dishwasher at a local restaurant, both the same year but I can’t remember what was first. The cleanest pots and scalps in Niagara! I have always been a hard worker no matter what role I filled.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I wanted to see Indigenous faces represented in beauty. I did not see anyone else trying to do this, so I went for it.

My proudest accomplishment is…overcoming alcoholism. To make a really long and painful story short, this still feels like I overcame a mountain — with lots of help of course! But I fully believe I can accomplish anything because I have overcome mountain-like obstacles with the right support team.

My boldest move to date was… not giving up.

Be consistent, keep showing up. You can’t lose if you keep trying!

I surprise people when I tell them… I have no experience in the beauty industry, or at least I don’t think I do.

I knew it was time to launch my business when… we had a website and a product, which was not perfect at all — but I decided to give it a go!

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… to be consistent, keep showing up. You can’t lose if you keep trying!

My best advice from a mentor was… to use a business advisory board — very practical and helpful.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… “Our youth need hope and help. These are actually my Brother BJ’s words; he said this to me before he took his own life just before the launch of Cheekbone in 2016. A very painful companion but truly the driving force behind Cheekbone.

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

I stay inspired by… getting out in nature, near water or lots of trees.

The future excites me because… of hope; believing the best is yet to come keeps me going!

My next step is… designing and developing new sustainable packaging that doesn’t exist yet! Exciting and very hard but it will be worth it!

 

Meet Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi, Founder of Divity Group Inc. and Accelerate Her Future

Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi (she/her) is a facilitator, educator, researcher, published author, social entrepreneur and an advocate for gender and racial equality. With a combined 15 years in corporate marketing with large multinationals and 14 years spent designing and delivering transformative learning experiences focused on youth, women and early career leaders, Golnaz is Founder of Divity Group Inc., through which she provides facilitation, learning and program design, as well as leadership development and equity and inclusion education. She launched her legacy project,  Accelerate Her Future in 2019, a career accelerator for early career racialized women pursuing careers in business and tech. She holds an MBA from the University of British Columbia and a Doctor of Business Administration from Athabasca University.  

 

My first job ever was … at my mom’s women’s clothing store, which she shortly opened after we immigrated to Canada out of necessity and to financially support me and my brother through school. With little English, zero business background and limited understanding of Canadian practices, witnessing her struggles and triumphs taught me the power of persistence, agency, and resistance in the face of circumstances which were less than ideal at times. Working in the family business, I received first-hand experience into operations, marketing and sales and the day-to-day challenges of running a small business. My mom role modeled what it means to be strong, resourceful, and resilient especially during a time when there were no communities and support for women in business like we have today. 

I founded ‘Accelerate Her Future’ because… I recognized the gaps in career and professional development programming tailored to the unique experiences of racialized women in college and university and in their early careers, especially at a pivotal time in their lives. As a leadership educator and feminist scholar, I have dedicated my research, teaching, and mentoring to better understand the experiences and needs of early career racialized women. I decided to take this work into the community because we need programs that are tailored and that apply an intersectional lens. I launched Accelerate Her Future in 2019 as a career accelerator that seeks to do just that through network building, skill and career advocacy development, and mentorship while fostering cultures of allyship and advocacy to affect transformative change.

Leaders should prioritize diversity at all levels of their organization because… diversity is our strength and representation matters. Early career talent can’t be what they can’t see. Although I will say that a focus on diversity is not enough. We also need organizations that prioritize inclusion, equity, and justice. Racialized women are highly educated yet are missing from decision making tables. What’s more they experience a labyrinth of barriers within workplaces from the very first promotion opportunity. They also don’t typically have the same access to influential networks, mentorship, and sponsorship in our workplaces. While white women have made advances into leadership roles, this is not the case for racialized women, especially Black and Indigenous women. We need to do more. We need to do better. Representation matters.

 

Be clear about your values, what you stand for and the impact of your decisions. Your values and your integrity are your compass. 

 

My proudest accomplishment is … completing my doctorate in my 40’s while working full time and raising a young child. During my first doctoral course, I was introduced to critical theoretical perspectives including intersectional and postcolonial feminist theory by my professor who later became my supervisor. As I delved deeper into understanding how our history informs our modern day, the impact and legacies of colonization, I felt compelled to take action.

I surprise people when I tell them… I am a certified meditation instructor. I began on my meditation and mindfulness journey during a particularly tough year when I felt stuck with my doctoral dissertation research and after a car accident left me in a lot of pain. I found grounding, focus and calm in this practice as well as greater self-compassion and connection to my whole self. We need to bring our whole selves into different facets of our lives, especially work —– head, heart/emotions, and body. Over time, I’ve begun integrating mind-body connection and energy leadership into my teaching, facilitation, and learning design.  

My best advice to people starting out in business is…  to be clear about your values, what you stand for and the impact of your decisions. Your values and your integrity are your compass. Lead with ethics and moral character. Beyond scandals like Enron and the 2008 financial crisis, we’re also seeing growing inequalities, climate change and other complex global challenges. While business plays an important role in the economy, leaders have a moral imperative to contribute more toward the betterment of society placing greater focus on people, planet and profit. 

 

Embrace who you are, especially the things that make you different. Only you get to define you.

 

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… trust in your own abilities, decisions, ideas, and voice. This is especially difficult when you find yourself in spaces where you’re one of few or the only racialized woman. I’ll never forget years ago being invited to present a new program I had led to design and launch at a departmental committee. Immediately after my presentation two male peers went on the attack in a demeaning and inappropriate way. My team and I had invested a year in research, consultations, iterative pilots, and had launched the program successfully. To have me and my work minimized and marginalized was hard and the imposter syndrome aftermath was real. I promised myself to never allow anyone to speak to me or other women, especially racialized women, that way again.

I would tell my 20-year old self… this powerful quote by Audre Lorde that embodies what I’d tell my 20-year old self who felt her differences acutely:  “If I didn’t define myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.” Embrace who you are, especially the things that make you different. Only you get to define you.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be…  my relationships. While life has taught me to be resilient and never give up in the face of challenge, my community and relationships have been essential to my success. These relationships started in my youth with a few notable teachers and professors who invested in my potential, provided mentorship, and connected me to their networks. Their impact on my life was significant and transformative, especially as a racialized immigrant youth. These early experiences are what inspire me to do everything I do focused on early career women.

I stay inspired by… the brilliant, talented young women that I have the privilege to get to know through Accelerate Her Future, get to teach and mentor, and get to work with every day. I was recently asked by a young leader what solutions I see in response to the systemic barriers racialized women face in our workplaces. My response, the very same young women that I see every day stepping into their leadership and potential who are responding to these complex issues with solutions, projects, volunteerism, activism, and entrepreneurial ideas.

The future excites me because… I see so many people, especially young people, stepping into their leadership potential and working in solidarity to challenge the status quo. A little while ago I was approached by a women’s facing student club at a large University that wanted to do more meaningful anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism work. After a mentorship conversation with the student executive, I have been excited by the bold and courageous work they have done in solidarity with other clubs on campus. These brilliant courageous young talented minds are our future and I feel we are in good hands.

My next step is… My next step is to continue to build Accelerate Her Future into a sustainable national online career accelerator. My team and I are gearing up to re-launch our website and new flagship program and looking to engage corporate/business sponsors and partners who believe in our mission of accelerating Black, Indigenous and racialized women in their careers and have a genuine commitment to equity and justice.

Announcing the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Finalists!

We are proud to announce the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards finalists. In what has been an unprecedented year, this program continues to shine the light on the Canadian women entrepreneurs whose accomplishments are worthy of recognition and celebration. 

At Women of Influence, we are familiar with the challenges and opportunities that accompany entrepreneurship and innovation, and are honoured to celebrate the accomplishments of a diverse group of women  in a wide range of industries including healthcare services, engineering, beauty, technology, hospitality, law and beyond.

With over 8,600 nominations from across the country, we had the incredible task of selecting 18 finalists across six legacy award categories. In addition to that, 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.

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. 

“The unwavering resilience, creativity and passion of Canadian entrepreneurs has, and continues to be the hallmark of our economic strength as a country and business community,” says Greg Grice, Executive Vice President, Business Financial Services, RBC. “Many of these businesses are led by inspiring women leaders who are important role models for the next generation of aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs. RBC is proud to work with Women of Influence to bring their stories to light, and celebrate their achievements and contributions to the Canadian business community through the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.”

We are honoured to celebrate the accomplishments of our 2020 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 28th Annual Awards Gala, on Wednesday, November 18, where all attendees will be digitally transported into the first ever Virtual Awards Gala. This immersive experience, which will be live streamed around the world, will shine a spotlight on all the amazing Canadian women entrepreneurs. Keynote remarks will be shared by Demetra Streda, Vice President, Commercial Financial Services Strategy, RBC.

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

The 2020 Recipients of the Ones to Watch Award are:

The 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award Finalists are:

Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award
Start-Up Award
RBC Momentum Award
Social Change Award
Innovation Award
Excellence Award

Meet Darby Lee Young, founder of Level Playing Field

Darby Lee Young founded Level Playing Field, an accessibility agency, in 2015. Born with mild cerebral palsy, Darby works to mitigate barriers that people like her face daily. Accolades for her strides creating a more inclusive, accessible built environment include a Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 Award, the Calgary Stampede’s Western Legacy Award for Innovation, and an Inspired Albertan feature.

My first job ever was…

At the Calgary Stampede, as a gate attendant, when I was 14. Back then, there were no apps—you had to buy a paper ticket and show it at the entrance. I loved meeting all the different people from all over the world, saying hi, and of course the mini doughnuts. 

I created Level Playing Field because… 

I was born with mild cerebral palsy and as a person with a disability, I was tired of trying to go out for lunch or dinner with my friends and not being able to find a great place where we could all meet for a simple social gathering. Where to grab a bite for lunch, drinks after work, a coffee: these should be a simple, quick decisions, not a two-hour logistical headache. It was frustrating and isolating—until I realized that lack of accessibility was a problem for many others but it was rarely seen, yet I had a first-row seat. And I knew we could solve it if we could get more people to understand the issue and work together.

Leaders should prioritize accessibility because… 

If we have leaders who understand and think about accessibility and inclusion in their professional life, in their daily life, they will use that perspective when we think about where we want to meet. We think about what our office would be like for someone to visit as a client or to join our staff. Lack of accessibility is an issue that once seen and understood cannot be “unseen”. 

Once you see the issue, it becomes unthinkable to overlook accessibility as a priority. Leaders with this insight literally pave the way and open doors. Leaders break barriers so that people with disabilities who had been isolated to get involved in their communities, to become active in the workforce, to enjoy parks and public spaces together. Accessibility is part of inclusion; it enriches our society because we all have something to offer and when we all have this chance to be included, everyone is better off.

My proudest accomplishment is… 

Not giving up and standing up for others. Growing up, I heard that because of my disability, sports were going to be a difficult option for me. It was heartbreaking because sports looked like so much fun and I longed to jump in the fray. It’s hard to keep hearing “you can’t do that” over and over. The words stung but I didn’t let them get to me. So I not only participated in sports, I volunteered with Hockey Canada the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and competed in Para-Alpine downhill skiing. It was great fun! 

In sports I found not just some of my truest lifelong friends, cheerleaders and mentors, but also my self-confidence. Those lessons I carried forward into starting a business. It was hard to be taken seriously in the beginning. Over and over, I got the condescending looks, the judgemental top-to-bottom looks. The same looks that Julia Roberts got in the movie “Pretty Woman” when she went into a boutique in Beverly Hills.

Five years in, I feel proud and grateful to run a business that has survived two world crises. To have a strong, inclusive team. To be building not just more accessible spaces, but also a network of forward-thinking architects, designers, space owners, builders and policy makers who “get” why accessibility is important. Together, we are breaking down barriers and building pathways of hope and inclusion for people with disabilities.

My proudest achievement has yet to happen because there is really so much more that needs to be done. 

 

Being an entrepreneur is hard. It is exhausting because you’re always on – there are no days off. But it’s worth it if you and your team are building something that’s greater than yourselves.

 

I surprise people when I tell them… 

That I have a shoe obsession. I was having trouble finding cool, fashionable shoes that were practical and accommodated my disability. Last year, Canadian shoe designer John Fluevog decided to build a shoe and even named it after me! Now it comes in multiple colors due to the popularity

I’m heavily involved in volunteering in sports—Hockey Canada, the Vancouver Olympics, and most recently, until COVID, tennis—on the team services side. We take care of coordinating the details, the user experience, so that athletes can walk right up to the court and are able to concentrate on the game. It’s coordinating little things like making sure that the have clean laundry, clean equipment, dressing room setup, logistics. These are low-profile tasks that nobody wants to do, but I’m happy to pitch in to help us win. 

My best advice to people starting out in business is…

Rally a good core team around you, and support others in whatever big or small ways you can. A clean towel might be what helps the team win a gold medal—you never know!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nobody can go it alone.

Being an entrepreneur is hard. It is exhausting because you’re always on – there are no days off. But it’s worth it if you and your team are building something that’s greater than yourselves.

People might question your ability and they might judge sometimes, but don’t respond in kind. Just bring your A-game consistently. Prove them wrong. Listen to their point of view and have a conversation. I have found that 99% of the time, people of integrity will always be ready to support what’s right. The other times, they might be really tired because they’re also on all the time…

Last but not least: please think about accessibility! It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business. Your next big client or top-performing staff might have a disability. Be open for that and plan for it. 

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

Have a work-life balance. I was up at 4:30 today, but I guess passion never sleeps.

I would tell my 20-year old self… 

To work out more. Find the time to exercise and not just work, work, work. I still haven’t been able to figure that out. It was hard at 20 and frankly it’s still a struggle for me.  Maybe I just need some clean towels…!

My biggest setback was… 

Financing. It’s hard to get started and to get ahead in a small business. There is some funding eligibility but it’s far from being enough. It’s hard to be small, build credibility and prove ourselves in a field like accessibility that is not well understood.

I overcame it by… 

Creativity, perseverance, and talking to people. One thing that helped me overcome the financing catch-22 was growing my voice through Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2018. ATB is a local sponsor. They believe in accessibility, they believed in me, and I got a small loan. 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… 

My friends and family. In my inner circle of supporters and mentors, we have each other’s backs, and in tough times we remind each other that giving up is never an option.

The best thing I’ve done for my business so far is…  

Looked after my team and clients to build a superior brand. At the end of the day, we are a business but businesses are made up of people, and people are at the heart of what we do. Problems can happen but when they do, we have a conversation and listen to each other.

 

In accessibility and inclusion, what we are building is so much greater than just dollars and cents. We are all working towards a more accessible world.

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

(Until today!) that my legs sometimes give me lots of trouble, so I slip and fall. 99% of the time I fall backwards and therefore I turtle. But you know what’s bigger than a fall, though? The laugh. I’ve learned to laugh at myself when I fall. It makes getting up again so much easier.

I stay inspired by… 

Trying to make a difference for others, so that they don’t have to face the same challenges that I have faced. 

My parents. One of the strongest women I know is my Mom, Joanne. She is a tough businesswoman with an amazing sense of humour. I take after her in those things. My love of sports I got from my Dad; one of our favourite things to do together is to watch a good game. Go Raptors! Go Flames! Go friends and family in sports! 

The future excites me because… 

Accessibility is coming more and more to forefront and people with disabilities deserve to be considered and included in their community.

My next step is… 

To make my company one of the top new accessibility firms in Canada.

In business, yes there is competition and there is a place for that. But beyond competition, there’s a bigger picture, too. In accessibility and inclusion, what we are building is so much greater than just dollars and cents. We are all working towards a more accessible world.

When we truly do accessibility right, we compete, but we also cheer for each other. It can’t just be about whose company took what particular step. We have a very long way to go, and every well-grounded step towards universal design and inclusion moves the needle for everyone. So that’s a win for team Canada.

5 minutes with Tessa Virtue on reinvention and resilience

Tessa Virtue is a household name not only in Canada, but around the world. Tessa and her ice dance partner, Scott Moir, first captured the hearts of Canadians at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, where they became both the first North Americans and the youngest ice dancers to be crowned Olympic Champions. They would go on to become the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history, earning five career medals — three gold and two silver — along with several other wins on the world stage. After 22 years as partners, they chose to step away from the sport. Now retired from ice dance, Tessa continues to be a strong advocate for women’s empowerment and works closely with FitSpirit, an organization whose mission is to raise public awareness around the problem of declining participation in sport among pre-teen and teenage girls. As an ambitious academic, Tessa now plans to pursue her MBA and channel her energy into her next challenge: becoming an entrepreneur.

We recently spoke with Tessa about her career journey and the transition she is making into entrepreneurship — and gathered some insights on balance, resilience, and the lessons she’s learned as a professional athlete.

You’ve grown up in the spotlight and are a household name as an Olympic champion. Following your retirement and through your career transition, what inspired you to pursue your MBA at Queen’s University?

I always admired my mom for getting her MBA later in life.  She talks about that time in her life with affection and gratitude – it offered her a chance to nurture her own identity outside of the prescribed roles of employee, mother, and wife.  I’ve always known education would play a major part in my life, and I’m eager for a new challenge.  I have been incredibly fortunate to dive into the corporate realm in a unique way for the last decade, but I want to develop a greater understanding from a macro level and earn some credibility as I venture forth in the next phase of my career.  I am keen to better understand how to use my platform by earning my stripes!

I want every single young girl and woman to feel limitless, and that begins by believing she is worthy of her dreams. 

 
Resilience is a very important skill for professional athletes. How has your resilience helped you navigate through some of the most challenging times during COVID? Can you offer any tips on staying resilient through obstacles and challenging times?

Interestingly, in preparing for every single possible scenario as an athlete, I also learned that it was important to be responsive, not reactive.  Being adaptable is key, and finding freedom within a regimented structure is a delicate balance.  I’d say my approach to COVID was mostly affected by the perspective it offered, and the gratitude that came with the realization that it’s the simple things in life (the things we so often take for granted) that make me happy.  I tried to find purpose each day, however small or seemingly insignificant, and do my best to contribute to meaningful causes.  

Following the completion of your MBA, what is your number one leadership trait you want to bring into your next role of CEO? 

Empathy and confidence (sorry, that’s two!). 

We recently spoke with fellow Olympian and gold-medal winner, Cassie Cambell-Pascall about the importance of sport, in the midst of the pandemic. As a strong advocate for women’s empowerment and through your work with FitSpirit, what is your take on continuing to use sport as a catalyst to develop positive change in the lives of children, youth and in communities during this time? 

There are so many important lessons to be learned through sport – including, but not limited to; embracing failure, making vulnerability a strength, delayed gratification, goal setting, and teamwork. It is incredibly easy, especially in today’s climate, to feel overwhelmed and insignificant.  What physical activity offers is a sense of purpose, a release of energy, and a surge of self-worth.  Moving our bodies through space – TAKING UP SPACE! – is valuable, particularly for young girls.  I want every single young girl and woman to feel limitless, and that begins by believing she is worthy of her dreams. 

To learn more about Tessa Virtue’s next chapter, join us for an immersive, digital experience at the Women of Influence Spotlight Series, in partnership with Scotiabank. Tessa will sit down for a candid conversation with CTV News Anchor Marcia MacMillan and reveal exactly what it takes to rise to the top of your industry – and how to transition into your next act when the time comes. Tickets on sale now.
Scotiabank is proud to partner with Women of Influence as the presenting sponsor of this Spotlight Series event with Tessa Virtue. Learn more about The Scotiabank Women Initiative™, supporting Canada’s women-owned, women-led businesses.

Good Question: How can I negotiate continuing working from home? Fotini Iconomopoulos shares her advice.

woman working from home

By Fotini Iconomopoulos

Q:

“My company announced that we’re going to start going back to the office soon — and I’m not looking forward to it. While some of my colleagues are excited about the prospect, I’ve gotten really used to having zero commute, more flexibility, and fewer distractions. How do I convince my boss to let me continue working from home?”

 

 

OUR EXPERT: 

Fotini Iconomopoulos
Negotiation Coach, Keynote Speaker, and MBA Instructor

Fotini Iconomopoulos is an award-winning negotiation consultant, keynote speaker and MBA instructor based in Toronto. She works with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to small business entrepreneurs to help them achieve their goals. She is regularly featured in the media and Harper Collins will be releasing her book in March 2021. Her father unknowingly influenced her career path at the age of 6 when he nicknamed her “the negotiator.” You can learn more about her work and find more of her tips at www.fotiniicon.com.

 

 

A:

Your situation is very common! Many are excited about getting the heck away from the home office and back into civilization, but others are… not so eager. 

Maybe you’re not ready just yet or maybe you want this arrangement to become permanent. Whatever the situation, there are things that you can do that will help you in your negotiation with your employer. In fact, I’ve been helping folks with employer negotiations like these for years, and COVID-19 just made working from home requests a lot easier — you’ve been trialing this (hopefully successfully) for months!

I always advise to keep track of the successes and wins you’ve had while working from home, and to lay the groundwork by dropping them into your conversations regularly. But even if you haven’t been doing that, you can make up for it with the steps below:

1. Position yourself for success

Before you even propose continuing working from home, make sure you make your employer aware of how well it’s been going. How did you make the transition seamless with your team? Did you increase productivity? Any big wins to bring up (despite the chaos)? Have you been more accessible without fighting traffic? If you have some quantitative results, even better. The more positive things you have to share about this remote work experience, the harder it will be for them to deny your request.

2. Consider it from their perspective

‘They’ are both your peers and your employer. Consider how your remote work will affect others. If you think they might have some objections, consider those now so you can address them and handle them before your employer has a chance to raise them. You’ll be acknowledging their concerns and building trust. Especially if you have solutions or learnings for their concerns.

3. Share testimonials and best practices

You already brought up some benefits earlier and now you can use the social smell of what others are doing and how they’re doing it successfully. Share testimonials from colleagues, clients, and other departments if you’ve got them. Other industry leaders and organizations who have already declared that remote work will be around for a while are a great way to use peer pressure to your advantage. A company with similarities to yours will be most compelling — so don’t pick some culture that seems like apples to oranges to them.

4. Be specific

Proposing a trial is usually an easy way to success (as it usually brings enough momentum to continue down that path) and you just had a lengthy trial run to work to your advantage. If you’ve figured out a formula for success, this is the time to lay out the plan. If it’s x number of days per week/month in the office, a rhythm of regular meetings or communication, specific working hours, or any other process that has made this a successful trial, be sure to spell it out.

5. Ask questions

Questions always come up because carefully crafted ones will get the others to convince themselves and make things less adversarial. Asking questions is something you also need to be prepared with in case you get resistance. Dig deeper than what they’re saying at face value. ‘How’ or ‘what’ questions are always my favorites: “How can we adjust this plan to make you more comfortable? What specifically about this is important to you?” Be ready to get them into problem solving mode before you just give up.

As I’ve said before, negotiations don’t have to be combative. Implementing a few of the tips above will make it a discussion instead of a boxing match.

 

Meet Sydney Piggott, Director of Programs and Projects at YWCA Canada

Sydney Piggott (she/her) is a civil society leader, researcher, and advocate for gender equity and inclusion on a global scale. She is the Director of Programs & Projects at YWCA Canada where she leads impact-driven initiatives with a vision to see women and girls empowered in a safe and equitable society. She’s also a contributor at Btchcoin News, a British Council Future Leaders Connect fellow, and vice-chair at Springtide Resources. She brings an intersectional feminist lens to all of her work informed by her proud Afro-Caribbean heritage.

 

My first job ever was… a summer job as a records management associate at an insurance company. I was only 15 years old when I started and I remember not having any “professional” clothes to wear. I always joke that I looked like I was dressed as a flower girl at a wedding every day!

I work in the women’s sector/non-profit sector because… I care about creating just futures and I genuinely believe that women and gender-diverse people are the ones to make that happen. I also think that the women’s sector, and non-profit sector more broadly, needs to move away from its roots in white feminism and colonialism to adopt a truly intersectional and inclusive approach to this work. The only way to accomplish that is to have disruptors in this space. I see myself as one of many in this sector who is challenging our norms, innovating for change, and pushing for accountability so that we can collectively move the dial on gender equity, not just equality.

 

I personally reject the idea that being a good leader requires decades of formal experience in leadership roles. Leadership is a journey and it can start at any age.

 

We should entrust young women with positions of leadership because… they’re already doing it. My peers and those younger than me continue to demonstrate their ability to lead change across sectors from climate justice to education to entrepreneurship. I personally reject the idea that being a good leader requires decades of formal experience in leadership roles. Leadership is a journey and it can start at any age.

We should invest in the potential of young women, girls, and gender-diverse youth because … we can’t afford not to. On top of a pandemic, we’re also in a global climate crisis, recession, fight for racial justice, and gender-based violence crisis, among so many other inequities that have only been exacerbated by our current circumstances. Historically, young women, girls, and gender-diverse people – especially those from underrepresented groups – have been excluded from decision-making processes and look where we ended up! Investing in the potential of young people who are furthest from opportunity is where we need to look for the solutions that will set us on the right path forward.

I surprise people when I tell them… that I still struggle with imposter syndrome every day. People often admire my confidence or are impressed by my job title, my degree, and my accolades. Despite all of that, I’m constantly doubting myself and it’s something that I’m trying hard to overcome. Luckily, I’ve surrounded myself with a great community of sponsors and mentors who give me more validation than any award ever could.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… to take time for self care. And I don’t mean bubble baths and ice cream; I mean true, radical self care that is part of a greater process of healing. I often talk about how important it is, especially with other young folks that I work with, but often don’t practice it myself. 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… fostering relationships with sponsors who have not only opened doors for me, but set me up for success as I walked through them. I’m lucky to have more than one sponsor, people who take a step beyond mentorship and really invest in my success in such a selfless way. I try to pay it forward as much as possible and sponsor younger youth and even my peers. Sometimes that means passing up on a great opportunity in order to give it to someone else who is much more qualified, but doesn’t have the same connections or public profile. 

I stay inspired by… the people who surround me. My friends, family, and community inspire me every day and keep me grounded in what really matters while doing this work. I learn from them, they support me, they help me grow. I’m so grateful to be around people who sustain me in that way. I would not have made it to where I am without them!

A remote work expert shares 3 ways to prevent burnout.

By Shauna Moran

I can promise you that this isn’t another article on how to work remotely. We’ve been bombarded with these ‘tips’ and ‘how-to guides’ for many months. While technologies and proven processes are useful, it doesn’t get to the core of what’s important right now — and that’s how we sustain ourselves and our teams when we continue to work remotely throughout a pandemic.

One of the major concerns now for organisations and their leaders is the fact that workers all over the world are becoming increasingly burnt-out.

7 out of 10 professionals have experienced burnout since COV-19 started, so it’s not something we can just shy away from. We need to create a sense of shared responsibility and accountability in coming together and promoting a different culture of working.

Let’s take a step back and explore the root causes of the rise in burnout amongst remote workers this year.

Traditional working where we travel to and from a specific location every day naturally provides a sense of structure, routines and habits. Although that structure can involve tedious activities such as commuting (we won’t go there in this article), it forms a pattern of set structure that enables people to switch ‘on’ and ‘off’ from their work.

When we work remotely, however, the structure that we’ve been used to is gone. Yes, we have more time, more freedom and more opportunity to create a better work-life balance, but not everyone knows how to create a new structure and form new habits. It can be a challenge to adapt without the new knowledge required for effective remote working.

On top of all of that, this year has brought less than normal remote working circumstances. For some, it’s working on the kitchen table while homeschooling their family, for others, it’s a challenge to live and work alone all day, every day while being in quarantine.

Overnight, we’ve asked everyone to find new structures, coping mechanisms, time management practises and habits in this new way of working and living. All while dealing with and trying to process a pandemic.

Organisations can put proactive measures in place to prevent workforce burnout, and they can equip their leaders to identify the red flags that alert them ahead of their teams feeling stressed.

And let’s face it— our work, especially if we’re passionate about it, can be a welcomed distraction from all that’s going on in our worlds. We welcome the hours spent strategizing and meeting with clients as it allows us to turn a blind eye to all the craziness in the world.

Aside from what’s happened this year, all research shows that those that work remotely tend to be more productive than their office counterparts. A 2019 study by Airtasker found that remote workers worked an average of 1.4 more days every month, or 16.8 more days every year.

But when is too much work, just too much?

What’s the tipping point for us as remote workers?

I often find that we only learn the lesson once we’ve reached the tipping point. We can have everyone around us telling us to ‘take time off’ but until we experience the impact that overworking has on us as individuals, we tend to take this advice with a pinch of salt.

However, organisations can put proactive measures in place to prevent workforce burnout, and they can equip their leaders to identify the red flags that alert them ahead of their teams feeling stressed.

Here are three ways you can prevent burnout, whether you’re a solo entrepreneur, manage a team or work on a remote team.

1. Focus on working smart instead of hard.

When we work remotely, the focus should be on output as opposed to input. Oftentimes we don’t realise how much more productive we are at home compared to working in an office. It’s important for remote workers at all levels to get clear on the main priorities, understanding that this may change more often due to the current climate. Once we’re clear on our work priorities, we can better structure our days and our time. We must be measuring ourselves and our teams on the output and decide on a metric that makes sense. Data will help us make better decisions when we ‘just want to answer that one extra email at 9.30 pm.’

2. Take time away from work in micro and macro settings.

Take some time to build the skill of self-awareness. At what times do you work best? What home environment helps you feel at your most productive? And finally, what activities and practices make you feel at your very best? Starting small is advisable. Maybe it’s that you begin a 20-minute walk before taking client calls, or you eat your lunch on your patio without screens every day. 

Time away from work should be practised each day based on what works for you. These should become your non-negotiables. Remember, when you say YES to that meeting, what are you saying NO to? The likelihood is you’re saying NO to you feeling calm and grounded. 

We need to have boundaries around work, even something as simple as reading emails first thing in the morning can set us up feeling frazzled for the rest of the day. 

Macro time away is longer chunks of time away from work. Organisations should promote that everyone takes longer time away from work, even though our travel is limited.

3. Get an accountability partner and lead by example.

When I coach leaders that are concerned with employee wellbeing and engagement, I first ask them how they are managing themselves. It’s essential to change the culture of our organisation to be about balance and sustainability — and frequently we need to change our mindsets to be effective at that. Finding an accountability partner can be a great way to ensure you switch off at a particular time or take that extra-long weekend that you promised yourself you would. 

If you have a team, start having these conversations with them in an open forum, asking them what their ideas and suggestions are around preventing burnout. Only then can we truly begin to normalise work/life balance and promote healthy and truly engaged work.

Shauna Moran

Shauna Moran

Shauna Moran is an accredited and award-winning executive coach who empowers leaders of remote teams to create and build more effective distributed workforces — so they can scale and grow with confidence. You can contact her directly on shauna@operateremote.com or operateremote.com.

Meet Janét Aizenstros, the Chairwoman & CEO of A 9-Figure Company, Ahava Group Global (AGG)

Dr. Janét Aizenstros is the Chairwoman and CEO of Ahava Group Global (AGG) — a women-led modern media parent company that serves Fortune and multinational media companies in fifteen locations globally. This year, she reached a new height in her career when she scaled Ahava Group Global to nine-figures. She is an internationally recognized leader and is the creator of the first impact fund in Canada led by an Afro-Canadian woman that focuses on women entrepreneurs creating social impact through technology. 

 

My first job ever was… helping my mom clean houses and offices when I was a kid for secondary income. Then eventually when I was old enough to get a real job, I worked for Zellers as a cashier.

My proudest accomplishment is… being a mom of two little people who are two of the brightest people I’ve met.  My proudest professional accomplishment is having the fastest-growing, women-led digital consultancy globally founded by a black woman.  

Being the Chairwoman & CEO of Ahava Group Global is… exciting. It is such a tremendous honour to serve people who just love helping others. The women and men who are employed by AGG globally have been some of the most amazing people I have ever met. They want to help, learn and support the vision of our clients who I’m proud to serve. Many of my employees have worked for Ahava Group Global since it’s launch in 2011, and we just keep growing!

My boldest move to date was… becoming a lead investor in a data center in the United States which led to me working with other Sovereigns, Monarchs and world governments including billionaire investors and Fortune companies. 

I surprise people when I tell them… I wanted to be a singer. Actually, in my high school yearbook, I was voted most likely to be famous. Everyone thought it would be for singing, however, entrepreneurship is the blessing that gave me a life with purpose and a life worth living. I am happier to have travelled this path than the path of fame. I don’t know if I would have created the same impact or changed the lives I have in a tangible way. 

I would tell my 21-year old self… slow down. There is no rush. Just be intentional. Intentionality is an art that is fueled by feeling and being present for the experience. 

 

The future of entrepreneurship is intentional, soul-driven leadership that focuses on business that is resourceful to create sustainability.

 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… be honest about why you want to be an entrepreneur. The future of entrepreneurship is intentional, soul-driven leadership that focuses on business that is resourceful to create sustainability. Don’t become an entrepreneur just because it is a trending fad. You won’t make it. Like Steve Jobs said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Entrepreneurship is the survival of the fittest. It’s hard as hell but those that can endure will reap the rewards of it.

My biggest professional influences have been… I have many amazing people around me, there are too many people in my network to choose from. I would say, Michelle Obama. It’s amazing seeing and meeting a black woman that reminds me of me. I love everything about her. Her mindset is what I strongly resonate with in terms of never letting anyone define who you are or allowing society to make you believe that you are less than. I grew up in a community that strongly supported my growth and vision for the person I became today.

My biggest setback was… I have had a few. I would say divorce and everything divorce entailed. Even ending a marriage on amicable terms is still heart-wrenching combined with financial setbacks around a divorce. It can be derailing to most people to the point they can’t get back up again.

I overcame it by… I put in the work to become a better person mentally and emotionally. Through podcasting, I connected with many world-renowned leaders who became mentors and friends who aided and supported me on my journey. I transformed because it was my choice to become better. I desired change for me and my children. I was relentless in my pursuit of joy and peace for my family. I already had a core foundation of discipline, consistency and focus.

The most challenging thing about what I do is… in business you can’t please everyone. I focus on ensuring I can look at myself everyday in the mirror — knowing I gave it my best and did the best I could possibly do. 

Work/life balance is… I don’t believe in balance, but harmony. I stay harmonious by ensuring all my personal wells of capacity are filled daily. I have a great team of people around me personally and professionally to ensure my success. I prioritize my life by putting me first, family second, and business third. I relax when on vacation. I take self-care time when I am travelling for business, too.

I stay inspired by… doing everything that is fueled by my soul. I believe in soul leadership. I am inspired by my community, the women I mentor, my friends, my family, my children and my life partner. I believe God gives us the ability to see the Source’s presence in everything. 

The future excites me because… there is complete uncertainty. The possibilities are endless for me professionally and personally. 

My next step is… I am currently completing another book, film and album. COVID-19 may have dampened the world but I see it as a wonderful opportunity to get reconnected to our passions, redefining our missions, and clarifying our visions. 

 

How Olympic captain Martha McCabe transitioned from a swimming career to entrepreneurial success.

By Hailey Eisen

Finding purpose after retirement can be one of the greatest challenges an Olympic athlete will face — but for Canadian swimmer Martha McCabe, the lessons learned through a career in sport proved to be just what she needed to embark on an entrepreneurial journey. 

By age 27, Martha had earned a bronze medal at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai and a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto. She had been named Top Canadian Female Swimmer after placing fifth at the London Olympics in 2012 and was captain of the Canadian swim team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But she was ready for something new.

After years of focusing all of her energy and attention on swimming, Martha founded Head to Head Canada, an organization that provides Olympic athletes with a platform to mentor youth, promoting resilience and mental well-being. She attributes her success to her family’s support, unique education opportunities, and a healthy dose of resilience built from the failures and obstacles she encountered throughout her sporting career.   

Born and raised in Toronto, Martha moved to Vancouver for university with the sole focus of training with a breaststroke specialist who’d recently joined the school. Her first year of university coincided with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  

“It was my first year in Vancouver, my first year truly focusing on my swimming, and my whole life revolved around the sport,” she recalls. “I had set a personal goal of qualifying for those Olympic games.” When she fell short, Martha says she was devastated. 

“At 18, I had a lot to learn, and that first heartbreak was an important part of my journey,” the 31-year-old recalls. In fact, that first failure is something she still draws upon today when mentoring youth. “From that moment I realized that nothing is certain, and the only way to be successful is to focus on the day to day.”

 

I had never had a real job before, I’d never used a calendar to set up a meeting — and while it may sound wild, most Olympic athletes don’t have the opportunity to experience that kind of work.

 

In the four years between 2008 and 2012, Martha says she grew as a person and an athlete. “I think being an athlete provides you with many accelerated life lessons. By the time I graduated UBC and qualified for the 2012 London Games, I was extremely focused and not afraid to fail.” 

Although she didn’t make it to the podium, Martha did finish fifth and beat her own personal best time. “I wasn’t nearly as devastated as I had been in 2008, and I focused my energy on meeting other athletes and enjoying that Olympic experience.”  

She then moved back to Ontario to reflect on what would come next. “I knew then that I needed a balance; I was done university and I wanted to do something outside of swimming while also continuing to train.” 

Though she’d studied kinesiology at UBC, Martha says she was more interested in business and considered doing her MBA upon graduation. “I felt that the business environment was more similar to the sporting world.” Synchronistically, Martha came across the RBC Olympians program and was hired to work as a marketing co-ordinator for the bank in a flexible role that gave her the opportunity to continue swimming.  

“I had never had a real job before, I’d never used a calendar to set up a meeting — and while it may sound wild, most Olympic athletes don’t have the opportunity to experience that kind of work.”

In 2015, Martha won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto and as the 2016 Rio Olympics approached, she knew she was nearing the end of her career. As co-captain of the Canadian swim team, Martha went to Rio but her personal performance was not as good as she’d hoped. “Watching the young athletes perform at those games was by far the most memorable experience,” she says. “It was incredible leading that team.” 

For Martha, the next logical step was to support other athletes and young people in their own journeys — but the key to success would be finding a way to build a business around her aspirations.    

“It started with a 60-day drive across Canada,” Martha recalls. “There’s a small window after you’ve been to the Olympics when you’re relevant, and I knew I had to maximize that demand and do something with it.”

Having secured sponsorship, Martha travelled from Victoria, B.C. to St John’s, Nfld., sharing her experiences and expertise with young athletes both in and out of the water. “I did 55 presentations and clinics, and it was the perfect way to test the market and see if my idea for a business was viable.” 

From that journey, Head to Head was born. What started as presentations delivered by Martha and a few teammates has grown to include a roster of more than 30 Canadian Olympians, including hockey medalist Jayna Hefford, four-time canoe-kayak-sprint medalist Adam van Koeverden, and bobsleigh competitor Neville Wright. 

To launch Head to Head, Martha turned to her dad’s experience as an entrepreneur and relied on his support as she navigated new waters. “As with my swimming career, I had assumed starting a business would be easier than it was — and from every rejection I learned and evolved.” 

Martha wanted to give other Olympians the experience she’d had. “Retirement can be challenging, and I wanted to extend the opportunity to other athletes to share their stories and influence the lives of kids.” She began to develop a training program to streamline the content Head to Head would deliver. “Just because you’re fast doesn’t mean you can speak or work with kids, so from the beginning I was very selective in who I chose to join the program.” 

After running the business for nearly two years, Martha says she was suffering, like many entrepreneurs, from imposter syndrome. “I had a lot of self-doubt, like who was I to be running this business? I didn’t have any formal training or education and I felt it would be useful to get some.” 

Another synchronistic opportunity presented itself to Martha, this time in the form of a Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Thanks to a partnership between the Canadian Olympic Committee and Smith School of Business, Martha was one of many national team athletes given the chance to go back to school after a career in competitive sport. Martha continued to work on her business while in the program, grateful for the opportunity to garner advice and support from Smith’s coaches and professors. “I received a formal education, really valuable business strategies, and above all I got a huge boost in confidence.” 

Shortly after starting the master’s program, Martha worked up the confidence to hire someone to help run Head to Head. She sought support from the faculty and coaches at Smith to go through this process and choose the right candidate — something she feels she wouldn’t have been able to do on her own. 

With education and experience under her belt, Martha continues to inspire youth with a focus on managing anxiety and nerves while achieving one’s goals and full potential. This summer, Martha decided it was time to come out publicly — realizing there was more of her story that could help others. “I had been so focused on swimming when I was younger and there were no female athletes in swimming who were gay, so I dated guys without realizing something was always missing.” 

While Martha hopes that soon stories like hers won’t be a big deal, until then she wants to provide the type of strong and proud LGBTQ+ role model she never had growing up. 

“Kids tend to look up at Olympians as superheroes, which is why I share my story,” Martha says. Her ultimate goal is to let kids know that they too can achieve their dreams. That the key to a better life is to remain open to possibilities and perspectives. And that taking care of yourself, staying active, and writing down your feelings and tracking your well-being can all contribute to improved mental and physical health. 

Meet Arezoo Najibzadeh, Social Media and Content Manager at Women of Influence & Founder of Platform

Arezoo is a rising voice for women’s civic and political leadership in Canada. As the founder of Platform (previously Young Women’s Leadership Network), she builds civic leadership capacity among Black, Indigenous, and racialized young women and gender-diverse people and boldly challenges the systemic barriers that impede on their ability to lead. As a resounding voice for issues impacting young women and girls, Arezoo is regularly consulted to lend her expertise and perspective and was most recently recognized as the 2020 Young Woman of Distinction by YWCA Toronto. With years of experience in studying and supporting the role of women in leadership, Arezoo brings an intersectional and anti-oppressive lens to her role as the Social Media and Content Manager at Women of Influence.

 

My first job ever was… a fund development assistant position at the Women’s Centre of York Region where I provided stakeholder engagement and social media support to an amazing organization that supports women from across York Region. It gave me the opportunity to not only raise funds to support women and children in need but also to understand the daily operations of a not-for-profit organization. 

I founded Platform because… I felt like existing programs did not represent the needs of racialized young women interested in leadership, specifically in politics and governance. Most programs take a gender-first approach to identifying and addressing the needs of women in leadership positions, but we know that women with intersecting marginalized identities, especially Black and Indigenous women face multiple barriers in leadership roles. So I wanted to create something that centred the lived experiences of marginalized women instead of trying to go around them; that’s why we focus on addressing the root causes of marginalization such as racism and sexism on top of building skills and capacity among our participants. 

My vision for Women of Influence is… to develop meaningful relationships with our audience and women who are redefining leadership everyday. Over the past 25 years, Women of Influence has developed an engaged audience and it is my hope to diversify the content and our audience to broaden our reach and tell stories that are often overlooked in the greater scheme of things. 

Leaders should prioritize intersectionality in their work because… ignoring the realities faced by Black, Indigenous, and racialized women and those with multiple intersecting marginalized identities will only broaden inequity and lack of access to resources and support mechanisms. It is only through applying an intersectional lens to situations and our approach that we can develop holistic mechanisms and supports that can reduce inequities.  

 

It’s important to recognize where and how you can have the greatest impact, instead of reacting to situations that arise as a result of deep-rooted inequities and injustice.

 

My best advice to people starting out in the nonprofit sector is… to take time to get to know the people you’re trying to reach and develop meaningful relationships with organizations doing similar work to yours. Make sure that you’re not reinventing the wheel and offer a new approach or programming that builds upon the work that is already happening in communities to strengthen your cause. 

The once piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… to choose your battles. In the face of ongoing injustice facing racialized communities, it becomes difficult, especially for those of us who are marginalized through systems of oppression, to pick and choose what we focus on— but it’s also important to recognize where and how you can have the greatest impact, instead of reacting to situations that arise as a result of deep-rooted inequities and injustice. As a racialized woman, I often feel like I have to carry the torch and serve my communities all the time, so I often forget that I need to take care of myself before I serve those around me. One of my favorite mentors, Karlyn Percil, always tells me that you can’t feed from an empty bowl, and I try to remember that as much as I can. 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… to always be self-reflective and open to criticism from those who know me best. It is easy to feel defensive and even hurt when you’re called-in or criticized by the people closest to you, but I think that it’s important to recognize that those closest to you often give the most honest advice based on their understanding of who you are, so they’re often not judging you but pointing out areas for improvement. 

I stay inspired by… my friends! In a world where Black, Indigenous, and racialized women face double-standards and erasure in leadership roles, I often find myself doubting the value of my work and whether it’s truly making a difference; my friends continue to support me, and hold me accountable, when I need them. So I’m often inspired by the degree of sisterhood that they continue to display on a daily basis. 

The future excites me because… I see young women stepping up to challenge the status quo and lead in different ways every day. 

On Kamala Harris and the treatment of non-white women in Canadian politics

This post was originally published on the Hill Times.

Last month, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris broke glass ceilings when she was announced as Joe Biden’s Democratic running mate in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. There is no doubt that becoming not only the first woman vice-president, but also the first Black and the first Asian vice-president would be a historic achievement in a political system and a country built upon and maintained by gender and racial hierarchies; which is exactly why her candidacy is coupled with long-standing frustrations—and even hesitance—among many with representation politics and how they operate to restrict women’s voices in politics.

Representation politics is when the voices, opinions, and perspectives of citizens, especially those with intersecting marginalized identities is expected or assumed to be “present” when a member of that marginalized group gains access to power and influence within a dominant system, which explains our collective excitement over a biracial woman like Harris being the first Black woman vice-presidential candidate and the first Asian woman on a major-party national ticket.

But, coupled with the reality that marginalized groups are not a monolith, meaning that they consist of people with varying experiences, backgrounds, and political views, and that it takes a critical mass of at least 30 per cent for any group to be successful in advocating for a certain agenda, it becomes clear why many Black and racialized women are skeptical about whether Harris’ candidacy, considering her voting record, truly represents a shift in the Democratic Party or the broader political spectrum. Her candidacy is also shadowed by the fact that she will not only have to persevere in the face of the sexist and racist media coverage and harassment that has become a part of the job for many women in politics, but that she is one the same ticket as a man who has been accused of sexual violence numerous times.

But that is exactly how representation politics fails us, the voters, when candidates and elected officials subsequently maintain the status quo. It creates the expectation that as long as someone who looks like us or has the closest proximity to our experiences holds a position of power, our collective needs and agendas will be represented. Concurrently, it creates the expectation that marginalized candidates, especially Black, Indigenous, and racialized women, should simultaneously represent the entirety of their communities, while being the first, and sometimes only, member of their communities in institutions of power that were not made to accommodate them. Representation politics is exactly that, representation. A game of optics that merely creates an illusion of inclusiveness while reducing marginalized women into pieces of rope in a tug of war where they have to mitigate the tensions between their own experiences and agendas, and the impossible expectations bestowed to them by a political system that continues to disenfranchise and harm their communities.

It has been especially frustrating to watch Canadians’ reaction to Harris’ candidacy when the last Black woman to be elected to Parliament, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, decided not to run for a second term after four years of dealing with white-supremacist harassment not only in cyberspace, but in the heart of our democracy, the House of Commons, where her experiences as a Black woman were shamelessly undermined by one of her own colleagues. For a political landscape that boasts about representation politics and our 50-50 gender-balanced cabinet, which still leaves out gender-diverse Canadians, we sure do have a tendency to conveniently forget how we treat Black, Indigenous, and racialized women when they not only access positions of power, but when they do indeed become actively involved in decision-making processes or represent their communities. In fact, Canada’s treatment of Black, Indigenous, and racialized women in politics has evolved a step farther than representation politics and turned into full-on tokenism.

Tokenism, within the context of politics, is when institutions make symbolic efforts to include members of underrepresented groups when they have no interest in challenging the systems of oppression that contribute to their marginalization or meaningfully engaging them in decision-making. We saw this when Caesar-Chavannes questioned whether people who so easily dismiss racism and bias in decision-making are fit for creating policies and making decisions that benefit the most marginalized communities. And again, when the public and political actors vilified Jody Wilson-Raybould as an irrational Indigenous woman once she began to act with “integrity” and “in accordance with the laws and traditions” of her “Big House” amidst the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

The ongoing racism and sexism experienced by Black, Indigenous, and racialized women in politics combined with the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Harris’ candidacy attest to the fact that an intersectional conversation on women’s political leadership is long overdue. This is not about filling seats in the White House or the House of Commons, but the aspirations of thousands of Black, Indigenous, and racialized women to meaningfully engage with decision-making and political power in ways that uphold their integrity and honour their communities. And I, for one, can’t wait for the day when Canadian politics is ready for that.

How Geetha Moorthy began working with children on the autism spectrum — and built SAAAC Autism Centre to serve their needs

By Karen van Kampen

 

In 1983, two days after her wedding, 23-year-old Geetha Moorthy and her family fled Sri Lanka in the midst of a civil war, landing in Canada as refugees. Trained as an accountant, Geetha worked as a bookkeeper, but one job wasn’t enough to cover living expenses. So Geetha started teaching Indian Classical dance. “That’s my passion,” she says. 

As Geetha’s dance school grew, she says, “I wanted to give back to the community that accepted us. I was so thankful to Canada.” 

Geetha choreographed dance shows for different charities and non-profits and had an opportunity to work with children on the autism spectrum. Geetha learned that many individuals had never had treatment, and she also discovered a stigma associated with autism spectrum disorder. Some parents wouldn’t even say the word autism. 

“I thought, I have to do something about it,” she says. “I can teach them a little bit of math and English in my dining room, and I can teach dance in my basement.” In 2009, Geetha taught four students in her home. Today, with the help of 30 staff and more than 200 volunteers, Geetha provides programs for more than 400 families at SAAAC Autism Centre, an 11,000-square-foot facility in Toronto.  

As founder and executive director of SAAAC, Geetha was the 2019 winner of the Social Change Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that recognizes an exceptional leader of a registered charity, not-for-profit or social enterprise that is dedicated to their unique brand of social change. The SAAAC provides the autism community resources, workshops and caregiver support while celebrating the strengths of those on the autism spectrum. “We want to see their positives and take them to the next level,” says Geetha. 

In the beginning, SAAAC helped mostly South Asian families with their own unique challenges. “The caregivers were facing a lot of barriers — from financial to language to the stigma in communities,” says Geetha. It was difficult to navigate services and information on autism for caregivers whose first language was not English. 

“They were suffering in silence,” says Geetha. People would blame the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, she says, adding that families felt “ashamed to include their children in community life.” When the SAAAC expanded to serve families outside the South Asian community, they found that common issues brought families together.  

In 2009, Geetha ran programs out of her home and in local parks. Within a year, she had 25 students with another 25 on a waiting list. Geetha realized that she needed more space as well as evidence-based therapies including occupational, language and speech therapies in addition to her arts programs. She held a fundraising gala and used the proceeds to hire a few part-time therapists. 

In the beginning, Geetha found it difficult to ask for donations. “I was very shy. I was afraid to ask for help,” she says. Looking back, Geetha encourages others not to be stopped by the same roadblock — even if you might get no for an answer.

 

“If you have faith in yourself, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” 

 

A friend offered his consulting office to run SAAAC’s free programs after hours and on weekends. Geetha created a volunteer program in which volunteers were trained by SAAAC’s therapists. But Geetha knew that she couldn’t continue to run the SAAAC while also working full-time. “If one person doesn’t 100 per cent focus on something,” she says, “it’s not going to happen.”  

In 2011, Geetha quit her accounting job at a printing company and followed her passion to help others. For the next four years, Geetha volunteered full-time and didn’t get paid until 2015. “I’m a risk taker. I believe in myself most of the time. I think, I can do this,” says Geetha, adding that her passion was her driving force. While the SAAAC faced financial challenges, Geetha never stopped believing in her vision. 

The lessons she learned? Stay focused, invest in yourself, and gain knowledge in order to reach your goal. “You never know the limit to how much you can achieve until you take the next step and try,” she says.  

In 2012, the SAAAC received charity status. The organization’s funding includes reasonably priced fee-for-service, fundraising events and federal, provincial and city contributions. In 2017, the SAAAC moved to an 11,000-square-foot facility in Toronto where Geetha and her team run a dozen free and fee-for-service programs including ABA therapy, speech and language, and school readiness. 

In 2019, the SAAAC launched The Goodness Gift, a social enterprise that supports the employment of adults on the autism spectrum, training individuals on inventory, order processing, and making and delivering gift baskets. Geetha aims to have 12 employees by year three and plans to roll out the program nationally. “We want every single person on the spectrum to be employed,” says Geetha. “They have to lead a meaningful life.” 

Looking to the future, Geetha hopes to expand some SAAAC programs globally, training teachers to work with students and creating a model that could be used in rural areas that lack materials and facilities. 

And she hasn’t given up on roots as a dance teacher. Geetha dreams of doing a Broadway show with children and adults on the spectrum, highlighting stories that connect families. “We want to focus on the challenges that the families are facing,” says Geetha, “and then focus on the strengths and abilities of the children and adults on the spectrum.”  

 

3 Tips for Defining Your Values-Based Personal Brand

 

By Maggie Eyre

 

If I was a bracelet, I know exactly what I would be like. Apparently, so did two French sisters who in their seventies designed a spectacular chunky resin bracelet that became my favourite piece of jewellery. I found the piece on a sun-soaked summer’s day at the Brera market in central Milan, sold by a lovely elderly man with gentle eyes and wavy grey hair. Even if I hadn’t fallen in love with this bracelet, I think I would have bought anything from Alberto, this gracious artisan who spoke about his products and their origin with grace and pride.

Back at home, after months of constant outings, the bracelet broke when the elastic threading all the pieces together snapped. I felt lost without ‘her’ on my arm, so I was on a mission, when I returned the next year to Milan, to track down Alberto. Sure enough, he was right where he’d been last year. Same stall. Same smile. 

Alberto looked concerned and understanding as I told him my story, and seemed genuinely happy that he could put this piece back together. I asked him how much he would need to fix it. He almost looked offended. “No! No!” he insisted. He would not take any money. This was his life’s work and I as his customer deserved his full service. Never in my life have I experienced such loyalty. Alberto was honourable and went out of his way to return my treasure, which not only made me happy but it generated many conversations about his integrity, so much so that here I am writing about him and his sincerity and inspired work ethic and practice. 

When it comes to creating a powerful personal brand, we spend too long thinking about tricks and techniques — and too little thinking about values. Authenticity and integrity are the key to a personal brand that spreads around the world and sends customers and clients to you like magic. But how often do we make promises and not carry them through? How often do we taint our personal brand by not going out of our way to keep our word and make an effort to delight our clients? What do we need to do to in our actions to build more trust and loyalty? 

In a busy world, we don’t often pause to ask, “Who am I?” and “What do I care about?” However, in answering these very big and existential questions, a template for defining your personal brand will emerge. And it emerges from honest and brave inquiry into what you believe and why because, as Gandhi suggested, beliefs rapidly manifest into becoming your thoughts, actions, habits, expressed values and ultimately your destiny.

Here is my brand definition checklist to help you connect with your values and create a personal brand as strong and authentic as Alberto’s:

  1. Identify your values

Placing importance on living your values is a way to build your personal brand. There are many ways you can pinpoint what your values are. Making a list of your five most important values is a start. To do this, ask yourself, “What do I stand for in life?” and take note of the words that roll off your tongue.

  1. Prioritize your values

It’s not always easy to identify the values that mean the most to you, but it warrants serious reflection so that you can pay more focused attention to what really matters in life. Look at your weekly schedule on your computer, phone or diary. If you value health and put it at the top of your list but you work 70 hours a week, then you need to make some serious changes to align yourself with this value. 

  1. Align your values with your strengths

How do you match your values with your area of expertise? What are you good at? Are you doing what makes you happy?

When you can answer the apparently simple, but actually complex question, “Who am I?” you will have found the most authentic starting place, or first block, to construct your brand. The next step is to follow through — and live according to these values in each and every stage of your business, just like Alberto.
Maggie Eyre is the author of Being You – How to Build Your Personal Brand and Confidence

Maggie Eyre

Maggie Eyre

Maggie Eyre is an international communications consultant whose work in personal presence and leadership motivation has been recognized worldwide. She is the founder of Fresh Eyre Limited, with 30 years’ experience in corporate training, PR, and business. In her latest book, Being You: How to Build Your Personal Brand and Confidence, she outlines the necessities of personal branding in the 21st century, whether it be for creatives, executives, or entrepreneurs.

The TELUS VP of Consumer Health has had a busy pandemic — but it’s not the first time in her career she’s had to be resilient.

When Juggy Sihota enrolled in the Executive MBA program at Smith School of Business back in 2004, she had just been promoted to director. It was a significant challenge in her career, but certainly not the only one she’s had to overcome. The Vice President of Consumer Health at TELUS shares her story.

 

By Hailey Eisen


As a child, Juggy Sihota wanted to be “everything” when she grew up — from a doctor, to a foreign service officer, to a world leader, and a business person. She was raised to believe the sky’s the limit. But growing up in a suburb of Vancouver in the early 80’s, Juggy’s childhood wasn’t without challenges. 

“Being one of the only minorities in our community was not easy,” she says. Still, she credits childhood disappointments for much of the grit, resiliency, and personality she has now. 

For example, she remembers a childhood audition for a district production of the musical Annie. “What I wanted more than anything in the early years was to be an actress and a singer,” she recalls. “And my music teacher, Donna Otto, was one of the most incredible allies I’ve ever had.” While Juggy aced the audition for the lead role, it was instead given to another girl who ‘looked the part.’ 

“I’ll never forget how furious my teacher was when she said to me, ‘The only reason you didn’t get that part is because you’re brown,’” Juggy recalls. “I was just happy to have been in the final two, but my music teacher was helping me see something more important.”

That wasn’t the last time Juggy experienced racism. But it certainly strengthened her resolve. “With everything going on in the world today, I look back on that moment and the impact it had on my life.” While she talked herself out of a career in acting, she went on to study political science with the goal of making the world a better place.  

She got her first job with TELUS (BC Telecom at the time) as a way to pay off her university tuition. It marked the beginning of what would be a decades-long career with the Canadian telco, during which she’s led several emerging technology businesses and operations spanning service development, operations, strategy and marketing. In late 2016, she took on her current role of vice-president, consumer health. 

“My love of technology comes from my father who, as an immigrant working in a lumber mill, never got to realize his dreams in terms of his career, but whose hobbies always revolved around tech,” Juggy says. Today, she looks back on her career with a fond view but knows there is much more to do yet. 

That’s not to say she hasn’t experienced her own professional challenges. The first big one came when she decided to go back to school. “I’d always wanted to do my MBA, and while I didn’t want to stop working and move to Kingston, Queen’s was my number one choice.”

Juggy chose a pivotal time in her career to begin the Executive MBA program, having just taken on a new role as director, technology and operations, managing a team of 200 field managers, leaders and technicians and launching the new TV service for TELUS. “There were many who told me not to do an MBA with a new role starting and a lot on my plate professionally, but I remember thinking, if you believe in me, let me make this decision for myself. ”  

With her family’s support, Juggy set out to tackle the new position and the MBA simultaneously. “The last five months of the MBA were the hardest in my career,” Juggy recalls. At the time, TELUS experienced the largest labour disruption in its history. “It was culturally challenging and hugely emotional and I was writing exams, flying back and forth to Kingston, working 14- to-16-hour days and trying to support hundreds of team members who were out of work and on the picket lines.” 

While Juggy says she felt like she’d reached her “breaking point” many times during those five months, she discovered new reservoirs of grit she had, and the experience taught her a lot about perseverance.

 

There have been times, on occasion, where my age, gender or my ethnicity have been called out in some way. Those moments can teach you what you may be up against, and so I’ve taken the responsibility of being a strong role model for other young women, minorities even more seriously.

 

Upon completing her MBA, she stayed in that director role for a few years, and despite the challenges it presented, she says it has been her favourite job at Telus to date, primarily because it taught her so much about people. The teams she led taught her a lot and helped shape her leadership view well into the future. 

“One of the most important things I learned during the MBA was in Dr. Julian Barling’s leadership class, where we talked about employee engagement and studied Gallup’s elements of a great workplace,” Juggy recalls. “This is something I’ve applied to every leadership role I’ve had since.”

Juggy has also had to tap into the lessons she learned as a child. As a young, female director, Juggy said she was prepared for challenges she’d face but still had much to encounter. 

“There have been times, on occasion, where my age, gender or my ethnicity have been called out in some way.”  Juggy says that while she only saw herself as a leader, some of those experiences helped her see how others may see her, rightly or wrongly. “Those moments can teach you what you may be up against,” she says, “and so I’ve taken the responsibility of being a strong role model for other young women, minorities even more seriously.”

Juggy’s move into healthcare was inspired by a personal experience and motivated by her original career objective to make the world a better place. “My mom, who had otherwise always been healthy, had a heart attack and required surgery. She’s fine now but it was quite an ordeal to get timely access to care,” Juggy recalls. “After that whole experience, I decided I wanted to spend my time doing something more meaningful — something that would help others facing similar challenges my mom had gone through in the health-care system.” 

Wanting to make access to health care better for Canadians, Juggy says she had a number of choices. “I could go back to school to become a doctor, find a job that would influence healthcare policy, or look to TELUS Health, a new division of the organization at the time.” 

In 2013, Juggy joined the TELUS Health team as vice president, shortly after expressing her interest to people within the organization. “I’ll give this advice to anyone who asks,” she says. “You’ve got to tell people what you want to do and why you want to do it — because that puts people in a position to be able to help and I think people generally want to help if they can.”  

In 2016, she became the vice president of consumer health. The digital health practice became even more interesting when the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year. “The demand for digital health, particularly virtual care, has skyrocketed in 2020, and it stunned us in March when we didn’t have enough supply to support the demand,” she says. Very quickly her team expanded across Canada and took digital healthcare to a whole new level. They worked tirelessly to onboard more doctors and clinical staff to meet the demand spike. “There were several weeks this year when the pandemic hit that my team and I were working 24/7 non stop,” she recalls. 

This all proved to be just another challenge and another learning opportunity for Juggy, whose commitment to civic good extends well beyond her career. Despite the busy work schedule, she still finds time to volunteer as Vice Chair of Vancouver General Hospital and is a member of a number of boards including the Vancouver International Airport, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation. She also advises the City of Vancouver on race and social justice issues. She’s also a mentor and role model, committed to showing other young women in particular what’s possible. 

“I am a glutton for having a lot on my plate,” she says with a laugh, “but I feel I am spending my time on what is most meaningful to me so it doesn’t feel like too much. It’s purposeful for me.”

Seven years into her career in health and months into the pandemic, Juggy feels as though she’s living what she set out to do as a child — but she’s nowhere near done. 

“My advice for young leaders, especially women and people of colour, is that the time is now,” Juggy says. “Be ambitious, bring the power of both your intellect and compassion to bear — this is an important time for diverse leaders to emerge and to step into meaningful leadership roles in communities, in government and certainly in business. The time is now.”