Divya Tulapurkar mastered analytics — and it accelerated her corporate career.

Divya Tulapurkar

By Hailey Eisen

 

Divya Tulapurkar was 25 years old when she came to Kingston, Ont. from Bangalore, India in the middle of a cold winter, and enrolled, nearly simultaneously, in two master’s degrees. Five years later, she’s one of the youngest directors at Scotiabank in Toronto. 

She attributes her success to her education and expertise in the field of data analytics. “So many people still find analytics to be intimidating,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be. The need for this skill set in the corporate world is great, and there are tools and courses available to help simplify things.” 

Besides, intimidating isn’t something that has ever phased Divya. 

Having studied engineering and worked in technology solutions as a performance engineer in India, Divya says she knew early on she wanted to complement her technical skills with a business education. Interested in studying abroad, she chose the Full-time MBA program at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University, because she liked the idea of a team-based learning model and felt it would offer a safe space to immerse herself in a new country and culture.  

Despite the bitter weather that greeted her in Kingston, and the experience of living alone for the first time, Divya says she quickly overcame the culture shock and found her groove in the MBA. She also realized early on that it was her technical expertise that really differentiated her from the other business students. She was eager to find a way to hold onto this skill set and expand upon it.

“That’s when I decided to enrol in Smith’s Master of Management Analytics program simultaneously,” she says, which made her the only woman at Smith to pursue two master’s degrees in different cities at the same time. “In order to complete both I had to travel back and forth between Kingston and Toronto every week. It was a challenge, but totally worth it.”  

“Analytics was required in every industry I explored, but I found that the financial services sector in Canada was doing really interesting work, and that stood out to me.”

In just over a year Divya completed both degrees, and upon graduating started her career with Scotiabank. “Analytics was required in every industry I explored, but I found that the financial services sector in Canada was doing really interesting work, and that stood out to me,” she recalls. “I met with a Smith alumnus from Scotiabank who introduced me to the right people, and I got my first job as a manager.” 

Within her first year, leading a small team of data scientists, she worked to build the analytics practice from the ground up for the small business banking vertical. The experience not only delivered value to the bank — it was also personally satisfying. 

“My first job in India was in coding — which meant sitting at a computer, day in and day out — but at some point, I realized I wasn’t able to see firsthand the value of what I was bringing to the table. In my first job with Scotiabank, I was able to make a difference by applying the technology to enable the discovery of key insights and strategies that would improve the customer experience.” 

Divya’s combination skill set has allowed her to rise quickly within the bank, moving into the area of global risk management. “There aren’t a lot of people who can translate the technical into business understanding, and what they’re looking for at the bank is how the tech will drive better decisions and value.” Every decision you see in banking comes from data analytics, she explains, because it can help highlight what’s working and what’s not, point out pain areas and act as an early warning indicator. 

And it doesn’t have to be complicated. “The easiest way to get started with analytics is through data visualization,” says Divya. “Just like the best presenters are storytellers, the best way to present data is also through stories. It helps you connect with your audience and explain a rather complicated analysis in a way people can understand. And the best part is you don’t need any coding experience to get started. Be it 10 rows of data or millions of them, you can easily visualize that data into charts and graphs to provide insights for decision making.”

Divya’s passion for the subject is contagious. And given all of her early successes, it’s hard to imagine her struggling with self-confidence. But as with many young professionals, she says it’s her inner voice that’s the hardest to contend with. “Back in India I had a lot of confidence, but that shattered when I arrived in Canada,” she recalls. “As a young, brown, immigrant woman working in the field of tech and analytics, it hasn’t always been easy. It has taken a village to get me to where I am today.” 

“I’ve learned that speaking up for yourself and bringing your diverse perspective to the table is a work in progress, and the more you do it the easier it gets.”

From mentors to family members, and especially her husband, Divya says she’s had a huge amount of support. She also credits the Smith MBA program with giving her an opportunity to build herself back up. “I spent that year learning to understand my value, and I can’t imagine being where I am today without that experience,” she explains. “I’ve learned that speaking up for yourself and bringing your diverse perspective to the table is a work in progress, and the more you do it the easier it gets.”

Divya is now passionate about mentoring young women in STEM, and encourages them to follow in her footsteps. Even today, there aren’t that many women in analytics — and for many, Divya explains, the journey starts with seeing someone like yourself in the field. “Every single time a woman gets to a leadership role within an organization, all women benefit.” 

She often shares the advice that she’s taken to heart over the years: “Don’t be afraid to take on something more, even if you think you’re only 30 or 40 per cent ready for it. Do it now, because if you’re 100 per cent ready, you should already be in that role. Take a chance, bet on yourself and go for it.” 

It’s this advice that helped her move into the director role at the bank after having only been a senior manager for a short time. “In my head I assumed I hadn’t been in the role long enough to apply for the director position, but my husband pushed me to go for it,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t opt yourself out before you even try, what’s the worst that can happen?’” 

To her surprise, after a fabulous interview, Divya was offered the role. “You want to work with people who can see not just what you’ve done, but what you’re capable of doing. My boss took a chance on me and it worked out really well.” 

Looking ahead, she’s excited for what’s to come. “I hope I get an opportunity to make an even broader impact,” she says. “We are just scratching the surface with what’s possible in data analytics, and it’s going to grow in so many ways.”

Canada’s first zero-waste grocery store founder offers simple tips to make your shopping more eco-friendly.

Brianne Miller

Brianne Miller’s zero-waste journey began several years ago when she was working in ocean conservation as a marine biologist. Faced with the dramatic impact plastic pollution was having on the animals she was studying, she felt helpless in her role and decided to shift her career path to counter all the “doom and gloom.” 

What began with a few pop-ups and farmers’ market stalls morphed into Nada, Canada’s first full-service, package-free, responsibly-sourced grocery store. Located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Nada is also a thriving community hub that promotes education and activism. 

Brianne is extremely well versed in conscious consumerism and how to take steps toward reducing waste and leaving a smaller footprint on the planet — from less packaging to more meal-planning. She sat down with us to share surprisingly simple and often overlooked tips to help you get started on your own zero-waste journey.  

Your career in marine biology inspired your transition to founding a zero-waste grocery store and community hub. Can you share a bit more on how you decided on the issues of plastic, packaging, and food waste as the ones you wanted to tackle?

In my decade working as a research scientist and marine mammal biologist, I was fortunate to do a lot of travel and work in remote field sites. It quickly became apparent just how global and widespread the plastic pollution problem was. For me, the start of this journey began when I saw the direct impact plastic pollution was having on the endangered species I was studying. Over time, I’ve learned a lot more. I dove into understanding our industrial food systems and their impact on oceans, from shipping noise, to agricultural runoff, to marine debris. 

How did you come up with the idea for Nada?

I had started personally trying to reduce my waste and carbon footprint and was finding that while it was possible to make strides in other areas of my life, doing it with food was next to impossible. There were so many items you couldn’t get package-free, and you definitely couldn’t do all of your shopping in one place. That was my impetus to create this type of store. 

Nada was started to address the plastic pollution issue and quickly morphed, along with our commitment, to focus on creating a more just, equitable, and regenerative food system — while keeping in mind climate action in the decisions we make. Soon we were having a much more holistic conversation about our food system and were making commitments around our sourcing criteria and the companies we chose to work with. And our goal was always to make this type of shopping easy and more accessible to our customers.

How does zero-waste shopping work exactly?  

First off, the myths people tend to believe about zero waste shopping is that it’s expensive, pretentious, and unavailable to the vast majority of people. Our mission is to dispel these myths. This starts with understanding that you don’t need to go out and buy a whole bunch of expensive containers. We encourage our customers to use upcycled containers when they’re shopping. Think hummus containers, yoghurt tubs, and tomato sauce jars that are cleaned out and ready to use again. 

For us, anything that can be used again and kept out of the landfill one or more times is a big win. That’s where cost-savings also begin. When you’re buying spaghetti sauce in the grocery store, you’re paying for that heavy glass jar, not just the product within it. In our store, people weigh their containers and pay only for the cost of the products themselves. While people can pay a deposit fee for a reusable container, we are finding that 95% of our products are going out the door in upcycled containers — both from in-store and online sales. 

What if you don’t have a store like Nada in your community? Where can people do their shopping to reduce waste?

While these stores are starting to pop up across the country, there are lots of things you can do even if you don’t have access to a zero-waste store. The first is shopping the bulk bins at your local grocery store and bringing your own containers or reusable bags. Also, many stores will support people bringing their own containers or bags for produce purchases as well. I also recommend shopping at farmers’ markets, which is a great way to support the local supply chain. Many farmers’ market vendors will take back things like egg containers and re-use them. 

Beyond changing how you shop, what would you say is the most important first step in making conscious choices around grocery consumption? 

I believe the most important thing people can do, which is very much the mission of our company, is to learn more about where your food comes from. Start by understanding how your food is grown and produced, who is growing it, how it’s getting to you, how it’s transported, and what happens to it if it’s not consumed. There are a few resources I like to recommend: the first is the podcast, How to Save a Planet, and the other is Project Drawdown. Education is a key part of this journey. 

Plastic pollution inspired your own journey. In terms of reducing an individual’s carbon footprint, is packaging and plastic the most important thing to begin with?

No. I would actually say the best thing people can do is ensure they are using all the food they buy. The food waste conversation is a much bigger and more important conversation in the grand scheme of things. It starts with meal planning, and only buying what you are going to use. Spend time thinking about how you store your produce so it lasts longer, how to cook with leftovers, how to make sure you’re saving and preserving anything that could go bad by freezing it or chopping it into soups. Repurpose ugly or bruised fruits and veggies into sauces or smoothies. The reality is, 25% of the food consumers bring home is lost to food waste or surplus food. We want to prevent, all the time, energy and resources that go into food growth and production from being wasted. 

As a retailer, we know there are many barriers when it comes to removing waste from the food supply chain, which is why we choose to support vendors who prioritize sustainability in their packaging choices, product design, and raw ingredient sourcing. And we as a store are committed to producing little to no food waste and have achieved a food diversion rate of less than 1%. The only things that go to compost in our store are things like banana peels and avocado skins. 

That’s really interesting and something that’s probably often overlooked. What other efforts can help? 

The next most important thing, I would say, is buying local. From a carbon footprint perspective choosing local growers that focus on organic, regenerative agriculture is way more important than what the food is sold in. If your food is traveling from a short distance, even if it’s in some sort of packaging, it’s going to be a much better option than buying something package-free that’s being flown halfway across the world to get to your grocery store. 

How has your life changed since starting this journey professionally? Do you always walk the talk at home? 

I’m definitely still learning as well and incorporating new ideas all the time. I do eat a vegan diet, mostly local. And my biggest thing is trying not to buy anything new, that’s one of the best things you can do for the planet. That’s a principle I live by and practice when running Nada as well. I buy second-hand clothing and my entire house is furnished with second hand furniture. Our store is also made of all repurposed materials as well — from the wood to the fixtures, we didn’t buy anything new.  

There’s a lot to think about here. Any final advice?

What I’d like people to start thinking about going forward is how they can translate their individual actions into collective actions. A lot of us are now taking individual steps, and that’s wonderful, but the reality is we are so tight on time to tackle this climate change issue that we really need more people engaged. It’s things like, if you’re trying to reduce food waste at home, can you convince your workplace to do the same? If you work in a hospital, can you get involved in conversations around waste and sustainability? Can you work with your apartment building to do more? To be honest, it doesn’t matter as much which actions you take, as long as they bring you joy. If it’s something you’re passionate about, then that’s the most important thing. Combine something that makes you happy with your skillset and begin there.

Meet Lauren Barker, CEO of Uresta — a company offering a simple solution to a very common problem for women.

During the pandemic, Lauren Barker became CFO of Uresta — and was subsequently promoted to CEO a few months later. The company offers a simple solution to a very common problem: Stress Urinary Incontinence (also known as SUI or bladder leakage), that affects one in three women due to pregnancy, childbirth, aging or other contributing factors like surgery. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, she recently moved back to her hometown with her partner after spending the last several years in Toronto working in finance. Lauren is currently running Uresta remotely from Winnipeg, with employees and support functions throughout Canada.

 

My first job ever was… working at a clothing store.  

My proudest accomplishment is… I am proud of myself for being in a position where I can help women – whether that is mentoring a young woman pursuing a career in finance or talking with a very happy customer who tells me “Uresta gave me my life back” by stopping her leaks. 

My boldest move to date was… leaving a lucrative career in finance to run a startup that I was passionate about. I am making the least amount of money I’ve ever made and loving every minute of it. 

I surprise people when I tell them… Upfront I can be quite shy, but once you get to know me, I can be quite goofy and silly. Maybe in another life I could have been a stand-up comedian … 

My best advice to young girls thinking about a career in finance or entrepreneurship is… never let the feeling of being inadequate or anxious prevent you from pursuing a job or trying something new. You don’t want to regret that you never pursued a specific career path or opportunity because you were scared. 

My best advice to people who want to pursue their passions outside of work is… set a to do list each week with items that are small and doable. Boiling things down to small achievable tasks each week will help you towards whatever audacious goal – whether it’s learning to play the guitar or starting a business on the side.

I would tell my 20-year old self… stop worrying about the future and focus on the present. Things that bother you today are going to be miniscule to you in a few years’ time.

My best advice from a mentor was… Not necessarily advice but I’ve had many mentors give me the confidence to apply to an intimidating job or better advocate for myself in a work setting. In finance being one of the few women in the company or the only woman in a meeting can be intimidating. I remember someone saying, “you’re smarter than that guy,” when considering a job a peer was applying to. Whether or not it was true it was the push I needed to apply and I got the job! 

I meet so many women interested in pursuing a career in finance that are doubting their capabilities or intimidated by the lack of women in the industry. I’ve had men colleagues ask me how they can help further women in finance, and I often tell them that they need to encourage women more, make them feel worthy of applying for the job or encourage them to share their opinion in a meeting. 

My biggest setback was… I’ve definitely been disappointed in the past when I didn’t get a job I wanted or an opportunity that didn’t materialize. Looking back I wish it bothered me less.

I overcame it by… everything happens for a reason. Many of the good things that have happened to me have been the result of another door opening when one closed. I truly believe luck is when preparation meets opportunity. 

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… I wish I had more time to call friends and stay in touch. My days are busy and sometimes calling up a friend vs. working out is a decision I have to make. 

I stay inspired by… speaking to our customers at Uresta. It doesn’t matter how hard of a day we’ve had and entrepreneurship has its ups and downs. When I have women literally crying tears of joy because their bladder leaks dictated their life and Uresta has been a game changer, it makes it a whole lot easier to get up and do it day in and day out. 

The future excites me because… change and the unpredictability of life – it may also be what scares me the most! But if I look back at where I was 5 years ago, my path has taken so many unexpected turns and I would never have imagined at 29 years of age I would be running an innovative women’s healthcare company focused on bladder leakage (I probably would have laughed at the idea!). 

Q&A: Chef Nuit Regular, Executive Chef and Co-Owner and Toronto’s top Thai restaurants, managed weeks with zero revenue — and then pivoted.

Nuit Regular _Photo credit Graydon & Herriott

Chef Nuit Regular is the Executive Chef and Co-Owner of PAI, Kiin, By Chef Nuit, Sabai Sabai, and Sukhothai. Creating authentic Thai dishes inspired by her roots in Northern Thailand, Chef Nuit has been instrumental in transforming the Thai food scene in Toronto, Canada. In addition to operating her many restaurants, Chef Nuit has also been a guest judge on MasterChef Canada and Top Chef Canada, is a resident judge on Food Network Canada’s Wall of Chefs, and is the author of Kiin: Recipes and Stories from Northern Thailand, which was shortlisted for the IACP Cookbook Awards and the Taste Canada Awards. 

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

Because we closed our restaurants for several weeks during the initial lockdown of the pandemic, we had zero revenue coming in. We had to adjust how we managed our finances, and we reached out to our bank to get lines of credit approved. We always had really positive relationships with our landlords and suppliers, so they were very understanding and willing to help us out in any way they could — whether it was allowing us to defer payments, or working with us to create payment plans that would make sense with our reduced cash flow. We also signed up for various government programs, including the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), and small business loan programs, which allowed us to continue to pay our staff wages, rent, and other overhead costs, even with greatly reduced revenue.

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

I work in the hospitality industry, which is all about connecting and interacting with our guests in person. It’s been very hard these past 16 months to not be able to give our guests the full dining experience. I started hosting virtual cooking classes and events as an alternative way to connect and interact with my customers. It allowed me to have facetime with guests that I couldn’t have at the restaurants, and I could offer them something experiential and of value in return by continuing to bring my Thai cuisine and culture into their homes. I’ve also become more active on social media as a way of communicating and staying relevant and connected with my customers.

We’ve heard the word “pivot” a lot in the hospitality industry during the pandemic, and that is what we did — offering new products and services based on customer needs. When people were locked down in their homes and cooking more, we created meal kits so customers could easily cook their favourite Thai dishes themselves. Utilizing ingredients we already had available at our restaurants, we also opened an online marketplace selling Thai produce and products directly to customers, including items that are harder to find like holy basil and magrud limes.

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

With the various lockdowns, we were mostly only able to operate for take-out and delivery, so developing deeper relationships with our various delivery app partners was essential. Before the pandemic, take-out and delivery was only about 30% of our business. Suddenly, it became 100% of our business. To maximize ease and efficiency we upgraded our POS systems to ensure they were fully integrated to streamline all online orders, including incoming orders from our various delivery app partners.

The pandemic also helped move our business into doing more contactless transactions. Many of our guests inquired about purchasing gift cards as a way to support our business. Before the pandemic, we only sold physical gift certificates, but we finally transitioned to fully electronic gift cards.

From a business operations perspective, we transitioned to using electronic invoices versus paper invoices, and made payments via e-transfer over physical cheques. This not only ensured the health and safety of our team and our suppliers, but also increased efficiency and convenience for our business.

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

I think this pandemic showed me the importance of self-care and taking the time for myself and my family. During the early months of the pandemic, I was able to spend all this time at home with my kids and my husband — time I never had before — and I loved it! I loved being present with them. I was also able to take care of myself — exercise more, get some rest, cook with my family, and do some creative things outside of work. It helped reinvigorate me and allowed me to better focus on work. I was reminded that it’s important to take the time to reset your body and your mind, and to have quality time with your family and with yourself. Now that we’re back to somewhat normal business operations, I still ensure I take time for myself and my family every day. I have my mornings off for family time — whether it’s exercising together or just spending quality time together.

I also ensure that we bring that self-care mindset and positive energy to my team. Being a chef is hard on the body because we’re always on our feet and using our hands, using very repetitive motions. I’ve implemented regular exercise breaks for my team during work, where the team will stop what they’re doing and run through a program of stretches for the hands, the legs, the back, etc. This helps loosen up the muscles and joints and helps prevent chronic pain or long-term injuries. We’ve also created a healthier staff meal program to encourage a healthy and nutritious lifestyle, and we have regular team-building activities and meetings to promote a fun and positive work environment.

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

My piece of advice to entrepreneurs is to stay positive and to take care of yourself. Things may not always turn out the way you want them to, but if you approach your life and your work with a positive attitude, you can achieve anything.You also need to take care of yourself in order to take care of others — whether that’s your staff or your customers. I used to be go-go-go all the time, but the pandemic made me rethink my priorities and focus more on my physical and mental health. It hit me hard when I was forced to stop working, and I realized just how exhausted I was, physically and mentally. I discovered that I needed to have my “me” time. 

So don’t be afraid or feel guilty to take the time for yourself to enjoy the little moments in life. For me, I now start my mornings just enjoying the flowers and the birds in my backyard, and leisurely sip a cup of coffee. I make sure I set aside time to exercise. Adjusting your daily routine to ensure you’re taking time for yourself will help recharge your “internal battery,” and give you more motivation to work harder and achieve greater things at work.

5 personal branding secrets every business leader should know.

Monique Bryan

By Monique Bryan

Landing those dream clients, referral partners, speaking opportunities, publishing deals and media coverage doesn’t happen by happenstance. Some of us fail to understand that the success we see of some of our online business idols was the result of years of consistent effort, backed by strategic marketing and personal brand management. 

As PR expert Nicole Dunn says, “In establishing yourself as a brand that people trust, you’ll be able to price your goods and services at a premium, attract more media attention, be viewed as an authority in your industry and create a long-lasting platform.” 

Today, it is not enough to be an expert at what you do. It’s your job as the leader and visionary of your business to learn how to be heard and seen amongst the noisy oversaturated online arena so it’s easy for people to choose you.

Here are 5 key ways to start positioning yourself for the opportunities you want:

Secret #1: Own Your Lane And Stay In It

As the saying goes, “A confused customer never buys.” Being multifaceted and multi-passionate are great attributes to have, but we can’t expect to be top of mind for our audience in all areas at the exact same time. People don’t have the bandwidth to figure out what we do. It’s your job to tell them and then become known as the go-to in that space. The mistake some entrepreneurs make is that they diversify too soon, failing to establish credibility and trust.

Here’s a goal: Pick a lane you want to own, then be prepared to own that lane for at least five years before you start diversifying into other areas. Be good, and keep getting better. 

 

Secret #2: Clean Up Your Digital Houzz 

Think about the last time you hired someone for something really important, what drove your decision? Nine times out of ten it was a referral, their reputation or how they looked online. According to personal branding expert, Giuliana Tranquilini Hadade, there are over 1 billion names Googled every day, yet only one in four have any positive information on Google. It is your responsibility to ensure your online presence aligns with how you want to be perceived.

Here are some easy ways to get started:

  • Remove out-of-date and unprofessional photos, websites, and content from the internet. If you don’t own the content, reach out to those who do and make the request to have it removed or have yourself untagged.
  • Replace unprofessional and out-of-date profile headshots. (See Secret #3 for how to do this.)
  • Update your social media bios so they are clear and concise. They should tell people what you do, whom you help, and how to contact you with ease. 
  • Create a personal website where you control the message going out about you. This is online real estate that you own unlike your social media profiles, which could be shut down at any time without warning.
  • Create new content and post it online on a regular basis. This will push irrelevant and old content you may want to erase to the later pages of Google.

And remember, every piece of content you put online is either adding to your brand — or taking away from it.

 

Secret #3: Have A Good Headshot

Headshot with tipsWe all judge a book by it’s cover, no matter how brilliant the author; however, you don’t have to be the most attractive or photogenic person to seal the deal. You do need to look trustworthy and credible. Often people are deciding if your words can be trusted based on how credible you “look.”

They have a split second to choose you over someone else, and usually, all they have to base their decision on is a small one-inch profile photo they found on your social media, so it’s your job to put your best-polished foot forward. Hop over to your profile and ask yourself, “If I were seeing me for the first time, would I hire me, based on what I see?”

 

Secret #4:  Show Up On Video And Share Free Content 

According to industry experts, “…no amount of sophisticated technology can ever take the place of real, live, in-person events. That’s when you can look into a person’s eyes, read his or her body language, and sense their energy. But, the very next best thing is video, and especially live video.”

This is especially important if you sell one-to-one services, or you have aspirations for interviews by the media. If you are stepping out on your dream and you want people to decide to choose you over someone who does exactly what you do, you have to let people see the face behind the message. And the best way to do that is to create long and short-form video content and distribute it across your social media channels. 

Here are a few tips on how to get started:

  • Only speak on the topics you want to be known for (remember Secret #1: Own Your Lane.)
  • Plan what you want to say in advance. Fumbling around is not good for you or the listener
  • Focus on delivering value first. Always think about, what does my audience want to hear? 
  • Have a take-a-way for the listener, such as key action steps, a resource, or a call-to-action.
  • If you are nervous about showing up on video, ask a friend to interview you on camera versus going at it alone.
  • Wear something that makes you feel confident and like the expert that you are.
  • Be yourself and speak like you are talking to a friend.

Secret #5: Build Your Network Of Thought Partners 

“It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you” will become your mantra as you build your personal brand and your influence. Therefore it is essential that you grow and nurture a strategic network of people who can help get your name out there. And as LinkedIn has shown us, we are usually just 1-3 connections away from everyone we want.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Make a list of the “types” of people you think could propel your credibility, opportunities, or proximity to the things you want if you had them in your network.
  • Look at your LinkedIn connections or contacts list on your phone and see whom you are already connected to and add them to your list.
  • From these lists identify which of these people you think would be comfortable putting your name forward or introducing you to your dream contacts.
  • Reach out through a thought-out direct message, video message, or email and reconnect.
  • Acknowledge them for their great work and offer them your help, expertise, or a connection you think they could use. Always give before you ask.
  • If they are active on social media, go one step further and make them look good by highlighting their accomplishments and sharing their content.

These are just a few of the essential components to brand yourself and start building a reputable personal brand.Your ability to build an authentic online reputation and social media presence that people, companies, organizations and even your future book publisher can get behind is critical. When you learn that your personal brand is essential to your ability to build your thought leadership, your platform, your audience, your bank account, and your dreams, you will plan, market and show up in a whole new way.

Monique Bryan

Monique Bryan

Meet Monique Bryan, a speaker, personal branding expert, online course creator, podcast host and triple positive breast cancer survivor. Monique helps women-identified coaches, consultants and seasoned professionals package and sell their genius, build a noteworthy online presence and build their confidence as they step into the spotlight. Book a Brand Discovery Call with her team to learn more or visit moniquebryan.com.

How to get started with Socially Responsible Investing.

As social justice and climate issues become more of a concern for many, decisions around how we shop, eat, and live are often being made with our community responsibility in mind. 

For those thinking about how to align their values with their spending, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) can be an important piece of the puzzle. It considers both financial return and social and environmental impact, giving investors the opportunity to make more conscious investment decisions.

There are a variety of approaches for socially responsible and sustainable investing — and often the best place to begin is to understand your values and priorities. Where do you go from there? Follow these four steps to help kick off your SRI journey. 

1. Get clear on what matters most to you. 

You don’t have to choose between your long-term financial goals and investing in responsibly managed companies — with the options available today, you can make investment decisions that will lead to good financial outcomes as well as have a positive impact. And you can take it one step further, by defining when and how you might prioritize one over the other. Whether you’re driven more by performance or purpose, and build your portfolio accordingly. 

Taking time to reflect on your values can also help you invest in a more meaningful way. Where do you stand when it comes to environmental responsibility, social impact, and corporate governance? What matters most to you? Are there things that you absolutely will not tolerate when it comes to investments? If you take a look at your lifestyle and the areas you tend to focus on most, this can provide a roadmap for your investment decisions. For example, if you’re committed to reducing waste and are living a “green” lifestyle, you may not want to invest in companies that are causing harm to the planet. If you’re committed to shopping locally, supporting small, women-owned, BIPOC-owned businesses, you may want to look for funds that have a similar mandate. 

Not totally sure where you stand? There is a wealth of resources online that can help. For example,  BMO’s MyESG™ is an easy, interactive tool that helps you recognize your approach to investing, get clear on what you value, and determine what kind of investor you are. 

2. Determine how your current portfolio aligns with those values. 

If you’re investing by purchasing individual stocks, you probably know exactly what’s in your portfolio. Many of us use investment vehicles that group a broad basket of stocks from a variety of companies together — like with a mutual fund, exchange traded fund (ETF), or index fund. This means you could be inadvertently investing in companies that manufacture weapons or tobacco, have environmentally detrimental impacts, or don’t pay their manufacturers a living wage. 

You can find information online about the stocks held in funds, but a financial professional can help you look more closely at your existing portfolio, determine where you’d like to make a change, and direct you toward more socially responsible choices. If you’re serious about only investing in companies that align with your values, there are a number of investment products that are specifically designed to help you do this, which can take a lot of the research and guesswork out of the equation. 

3. Understand the various ways you can make investment decisions.

It is often assumed that socially responsible investing means excluding stocks or companies based on their practices or ethics — and virtually all SRI avoids investment in sectors that are detrimental to the environment and are deemed to have an adverse effect on society — but not investing in certain industries is just one part of the equation. 

Investors may also consider positive inclusion, which means investing in stocks that promote a social benefit such as green energy, healthcare technology, and sustainable manufacturing. Thematic investing is another form of SRI where a portfolio is made up of companies that all focus on a similar theme, such as BIPOC-owned businesses or sustainable food production, for example. 

4. Know the investment approaches available to you.  

Depending on your goals and needs, the approach you take to sustainable investing can differ slightly — so it’s a good idea to know the difference between the investing strategies available to you. ESG funds, for example, use a framework that considers three factors when selecting which companies to support: environmental (the effects on the earth), social (the impact on society), and governance (how the company is run). The priority here however remains financial return. Impact Funds require every investment to have a positive social or environmental impact, giving increased priority to advancing social goals, even before financial gain. 

You can also decide between working with an investment professional or taking a DIY approach through a self-directed account. Depending on the route you take, the products that are available can change. For example, with an investment professional you can gain access to ESG solutions such as the newly launched BMO Sustainable Portfolios, a professionally managed suite of portfolios that invest in companies committed to ESG outcomes. If you are looking to add ESG ETFs to your self-directed portfolio, BMO has expanded the range of ESG ETFs including the BMO Balanced ESG ETF (ZESG)

As Socially Responsible Investing continues to gain momentum in the US and Canada, the number of products available is growing — but before you get to making those detailed decisions, don’t skip the self-reflection needed to know if taking a values-based approach to investing is right for you, and the ideal way to approach it to meet your goals. If you’re in doubt, it’s always best to ask a professional for guidance. 

Q&A: Priya Chopra, founder and CEO 1Milk2Sugars, built a PR firm that’s one of Canada’s fastest growing companies.

Priya Chopra

Priya Chopra is the founder and CEO of 1Milk2Sugars, a bilingual communications agency  specializing in digital marketing and public relations for lifestyle brands. Launched in 2012, the award winning agency now has hubs in Montreal and Toronto, and has grown by over 200% in the last two years alone. An outspoken advocate for equality, in November 2020, Priya launched her most purpose-driven initiative yet: double shot, a talent management division aimed at amplifying BIPOC and underrepresented voices in lifestyle marketing.

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic? 

The pandemic has demonstrated the need for businesses to prepare for various financial scenarios — and 1Milk2Sugars is no exception. 

With guidance from our financial partners, we routinely examine our goals and undertake financial forecasting to help us allocate our resources. This process, together with our annual budget, provides a holistic view of our finances and tells us how we’re trending versus our estimates. 

Notably, we also secured affordable financing which has greatly increased our working capital. Being secure financially is key to us taking on more clients, executing on campaigns and bridging the periods between remuneration. It was also critical in helping us launch our newest venture, double shot, knowing we were on solid financial ground. Maintaining a stable source of capital will remain a priority for 1Milk2Sugars throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

We have a reputation for unmatched client service in the industry. The level of care we provide to our clients and the results we deliver has fueled word-of-mouth marketing to the point that our business is now primarily based on referral. Whereas we were once making sales calls to promote our business, clients are now coming to us! 

Still, we don’t take our success for granted. We practice what we preach and employ a lot of the same brand-building techniques that we employ for our clients. For example, we have a dedicated PR lead to generate coverage about our agencies in lifestyle, business, and trade media. Moreover, we pursue thought leadership opportunities that highlight our expertise in brand communications. 

To further reinforce our reputation and standing among our target clientele, we regularly apply for awards that shine a spotlight on our business and showcase our work. Notably, our agency was named one of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies by the 2020 Growth List and we are Great Place to Work-certified. We’ve been recognized with industry accolades, including a CPRS ACE Award acknowledging our achievements in promoting diversity and inclusion, and a PR Daily award recognizing excellence in brand journalism and content creation. On a personal note, I was recently named Inspirational Leader of the Year by a leading Canadian business magazine. 

Further to our marketing strategy, we actively update our blog, “No Filter”, with useful insights and perspectives about the world of brand communications. We also distribute two subscriber-based newsletters, one for 1Milk2Sugars and one for double shot, and maintain robust social media profiles for both agencies. 

All these factors work in tandem to help make the case for 1Milk2Sugars as the premier digital marketing and public relations agency to serve our clients’ needs. 

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

As a digital marketing agency, technology is core to our business in everything from media monitoring and analytics to content management and news distribution. These software systems enable us to optimize our services and streamline our workflows to ensure our clients are getting the most for their marketing budget. 

In the last year alone, we unveiled a suite of new digital services including e-commerce and web development, email marketing, paid search advertising and SEO consulting to help our clients bring their online presences up to speed. Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve kept our content creation active by having our photographer work alone in the studio and transmit content digitally to the account team for pre-client approvals.

Additionally, we launched a digital showroom to help our brands maximize their PR in the absence of in-person launch events or deskside interviews during the pandemic. This new platform, which was the first of its kind in Canada, enables the media to seamlessly access hi-res images, press releases, product pricing, product availability, and credit details for our clients on-demand and 24/7.

Lastly, our team quickly pivoted to the world of virtual event planning amid the pandemic. From online hair tutorials with celebrity hairstylists to virtual yoga sessions, we leveraged technology and creativity to execute some truly memorable brand experiences for our clients and their target audiences

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

If there was a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s that it put health in the spotlight and forced executives to reexamine their commitments to workplace wellness.

Even though we’ve long prioritized work-life balance at 1Milk2Sugars, the COVID-19 crisis had us doubling-down on these assurances like never before. Within the last 18 months, we’ve instituted several initiatives aimed at bringing our team together even as we worked apart. Some activities, like weekly guided meditation sessions, were more lighthearted in nature while others, like video roundtables, were aimed at promoting productivity and peer-to-peer collaboration.

We’ve also instituted a new “weekly wins” newsletter to spread positivity and update everyone on the agency’s achievements like new business acquisitions, renewed contracts or positive media coverage for our clients and the agency. On a more peer-to-peer level, we created the “appreciation hot seat” where one member of the team would sit in the ‘hot seat’ and every employee would take a turn saying what they love and admire about that person. It was our way of spreading positivity during an otherwise stressful and worrying time. 

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

The one piece of advice I’d offer my fellow entrepreneurs is to spend time (and resources, if necessary) defining your agency’s mission statement. Don’t treat it as an afterthought; it’s the North Star that will guide your decision making on everything from new business to recruitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Not only will your mission statement provide transparency to employees and customers about what your company is about, but it will clarify your priorities when unforeseen events, like the pandemic, strike out of the blue. I can’t stress enough the importance of a well thought out mission statement in managing a team and running a successful business. 

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

Nusa Fain

By Hailey Eisen 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connie Stevens

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This tech entrepreneur is changing how businesses serve their customers.

Kathy Cheng

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Nexxt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vivian Kaye

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenn Denouden

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

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic? 

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

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

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Reinholz

By Hailey Eisen

 

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

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

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

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

Where did your journey into conscious consumerism begin?

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

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

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

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

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

What was the first thing you changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there crying in business?

A woman crying at work.

By Christine Laperriere

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

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

Yes, sometimes, there’s crying in business.

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

Understand why this happens. 

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

Appreciate what your emotions are telling you.

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

Assess your overall stress level. 

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

Notice trends. 

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

Do damage control. 

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

Christine Laperreriere

Christine Laperreriere

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

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

Christal Earle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzanne Trusdale

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanja Perry

By Shelley White

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandi Treliving

By Shelley White

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A personal connection that sparked a passion 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards gender balance in mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meghan Roach

By Hailey Eisen 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandy Rennehan, CEO of construction company Freshco, is on a mission to make the trades more relatable.

Mandy Rennehan

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

Mandy Rennehan — the fast-talking, down-to-earth CEO of Freshco, a retail maintenance and construction company that counts organizations like the Gap and Tesla as clients — is on a mission.

“We devalue the trades,” she says, of the way society looks down on blue collar workers — a group that includes everyone from estheticians to electricians. “We don’t think about the people who design and build all of the things we rely on. It’s now about making the trades relatable.”

Mandy, who’s called Bear by just about everyone who knows her, is hoping to fuel this revolution by bringing a little of her blue collar perspective to the white collar world. Her efforts have included everything from inspirational speaking (with viral TEDxTalks), providing scholarships and mentorship for women in trades, partnering with Barbie’s You Can Be Anything Mentorship Program, and an HGTV series called Trading Up that will air in 2022. (The show will follow her as she trains apprentices while renovating three unique properties in her hometown of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.)

“It will give me a bigger platform to share my message,” she says. 

Growing up with financial struggles, Mandy hightailed it out of Yarmouth with “only a hockey bag and personality” after high school, taking odd jobs that played to her physical strength on dairy and horse farms. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t be academic or go to school, I just didn’t want to,” she says. 

Instead, Mandy spent her spare time cold-calling construction companies asking if she could pitch in on projects. “I laid stones, concrete, electrical, and pulled wire for weeks so I could understand the foundation of everything,” she says. 

“If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”

Luck struck when she landed a gig with a flooring company and was tasked with developing a customized cherrywood for a wealthy client in Halifax. The son appreciated her craftsmanship and work ethic — and was vocal about it.  

“From that time, my name spread through the Maritimes like a bad fart,” she jokes. “There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know about the young woman from Yarmouth who was making waves in construction.” The then 19-year-old Mandy founded Freshco, which has since grown to service Fortune 500 clients across Canada and the Eastern United States. 

“I am a pilot project that went really well,” she says, adding how important it is to share her own story. “If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”

Mandy points to the issue of how trade work is viewed versus earning a university degree. In her experience in the industry, blue collar parents push their kids to go to university thinking it will insulate them from the discrimination they faced, while white collar parents do the same because they think non-corporate jobs aren’t prestigious enough for their kids.

The reality, though, is that the world of construction and trades is not only rewarding — it is beginning to lead the way with innovative and future-proof technologies. 

“You need more math and physics to do most of the things you need to do in trades than you need for a desk job. But the industry isn’t being sold that way,” explains Mandy.

Case in point: “You know those cabinets you dream about — the cabinets you see in magazines? Years ago we had to physically train someone about the art of spraying cabinets. Today, we put them in a spraying simulator. That simulator is all AI that’s teaching people how to do things using tech. We’re no longer wasting wood or resources,” she says. “And then we have exoskeleton suits that allow contractors to demo without putting wear and tear on their bodies.”

“We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”

Software has also changed the game. A general contractor can now work from home and watch what’s happening on site through cameras. Programs even allow teams to do scans of an area so crews can see what’s behind a home’s walls. 

“What this is doing is attracting people with a tech background to trades,” says Mandy. “We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”

The challenge then is getting people’s viewpoints to catch up to the way the industry is evolving. “We’re still missing the people with the knowledge of modalities for building techniques. We don’t have enough people that have enough wisdom to do certain things. And if we don’t start training more people in building modalities or making them aware of the career possibilities, we’re all going to be sitting here struggling to find people to build things.”

Which is why she’s extolling the virtues of working in the trades for everyone. 

“This industry was made for both genders,” she says — an assertion she’s supported not only through hiring and training women in her own company, but also by providing inspiration, mentorship, and financial aid to girls and women interested in trades. “But I’m not just after your daughter and those in junior high school. I’m after people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who say ‘I want to work with my hands. I want to build stuff. I want to build and maintain a new Canada.’”

All people have to do is take a cue from Mandy’s career to see how wildly successful and fulfilling life outside the white-collar world can be.

“I’m bringing the sexy back to the trade industry,” she jokes, “and I’m making and inspiring new leaders and general contractors who see the absolute gratifying fun and kick-ass part of the trade industry. The opportunities are endless.”

Q&A: Sade and Rachel Baron, founders of Sade Baron, built a personal care brand that taps into the power of natural ingredients.

Sade and Rachel Baron

Meet Sade and Rachel, the mother-daughter duo behind the personal care brand Sade Baron. Sade’s personal experience with eczema and the natural body care her grand aunt used to help treat it shaped Sade’s understanding of the power of natural ingredients — and it stuck with her throughout her life, even while she spent 35 years working as a midwife and nurse. Growing up with a mother who had a natural remedy for many skin and health ailments, Rachel had a deep understanding of the power of natural ingredients as well, and struggled to find skincare products that were natural and effective in her adulthood. Aware of the need for vegan, high-performance, gentle products, Sade and Rachel started their business in 2016, and used their understanding of botanical ingredients to craft products that contribute to our skin’s long term health.

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic? 

We definitely focused our cash flow on more activities that can get us in touch with our customers online. We focused our efforts on social media and email marketing which had been the best tools in staying in touch with our customers. The government programs have been a massive relief in keeping our business open and being able to adapt to the changing environment and purchasing habits of our customers. 

 

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

We had a very different approach pre-COVID with our marketing strategy mix, and as it was changing, we adapted to making more efforts in social media, online marketing, and email tools, which were once secondary and became primary. We spent more time updating our website and improved the flow, usability, and overall product experience (descriptions, images, video). 

 

“Staying positive was something we had to focus on more — it’s hard to watch businesses you have known for years just shut down. We received a lot of support from our past customers, and some also sent notes to us to encourage us, which was super helpful.”

 

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

We upgraded some of our tools, such as inventory management to be able to forecast better. In e-commerce, we added a few more apps to monitor and understand the data, and to translate that into what’s next. We spent on creating more unique ad content, stayed away from outdated ways of looking at ads, and reached new and old audiences. 

 

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

Staying positive was something we had to focus on more — it’s hard to watch businesses you have known for years just shut down. We received a lot of support from our past customers, and some also sent notes to us to encourage us, which was super helpful. We spent some time regrouping and figuring out what we needed to work on better, and to improve our workflows. 

Sade and I did a lot of walking and optimizing our business over the last year. From email sequences, to personalized notes, calling our customers to engage on social media posts and Instagram Lives. We also identified things that we are not strong in — we outsourced or hired a contractor on a project basis so we didn’t turn our wheels out. 

 

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

A big motivator is a quote by Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up,” which is something we really took to heart as businesswomen. The second was to pivot, which made it easier to move quickly and listen to the customer and market. That made it easier for us to stay in business and make necessary changes within days versus months. We also created better workflows. For example, our shipping usually took two to five business days. We reduced it to one business day, so customers knew if they ordered things, it got there faster. 

Q&A: Catherine Dahl, founder of Beanworks, is disrupting the accounting industry with her venture-backed software company.

Catherine Dahl

Catherine Dahl is the co-founder and CEO of Beanworks, an automated accounting software company that is disrupting modern methods of accounting. Leveraging her 25 years of operational accounting and management experience, Catherine built Beanworks into an industry-leading software company that is widely respected in the Fintech industry. Catherine and Beanworks have also been awarded by highly respected organizations, most notably by CIX as one of Canada’s Most Innovative Tech Companies in 2020, moving on to represent Canada at the Startup World Cup finals in 2021.  

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

We are a venture-backed company and when COVID-19 hit, we decided to take more funds through internal investors only and shored up our cash position, just in case. We qualified for a couple of government programs, payroll assistance, and one program through the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP). With all of that, we managed very well. We did revise down our financial forecast and played out various scenarios to ensure we were ready to alter our spending course if need be.

 

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

We altered our marketing message to reflect the benefits that our software provided in a pandemic. We automate payables workflow, so when our customers suddenly went remote, it made the demand for the software even higher. We already sold and implemented our system remotely; we are a fully cloud-based company and always have been, so we did not have to change much in our day-to-day functions.

 

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

We moved our staff to home-based working, and so we did have to adjust who we interacted with. To ensure our strong culture was maintained with everyone, we organized online events and tried to ensure people interacted regularly.

 

“Culture has always been at the forefront. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That means without a strong cultural base, as a business we will not survive.”

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

As CEO, my mindset has always been one where company culture is at the heart of everything we do. I obsess over it. Culture has always been at the forefront. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That means without a strong cultural base, as a business we will not survive. And during a pandemic, this was more important than ever. We added more mental health support. We worked through the management teams, both formally and informally, to ensure burnout was not occurring anywhere. We did regular employee surveys and focused on their work-life balance. 

Personally, I ensured I kept up my workouts with my trainer, and just moved them online. I continued with my mental health support, also online, and eventually got back to my weekly massages — it’s the best thing I do for myself! Taking care of yourself is key. I was worried in the early months, perhaps for the first 60 days, then as people do, we found a way through this strange time. Never just accept, always question is there a better way?

 

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

My industry is tech, and in tech, things are never easy, and always interesting. What I have learned is that our industry is resilient and very creative. My advice to most people is never give up. Keep searching and you will find a way. The old saying, “where there is a will, there is a way,” is very true. Someone out there is better off than you while someone else is in a worse situation. Don’t take your life for granted, but know that you can find a solution to whatever problem is in front of you. Ask for help, build or leverage your network, and help others where you can. I have found that this approach to life was even more productive during the pandemic.

Q&A: Colleen Imrie, founder of The Nooks, is reimagining retail for Canadian artisans.

Colleen Imrie

Colleen Imrie is founder of The Nooks, a retail business incubator for Canadian artisans and entrepreneurs. Colleen created her business to help others build their own successful creative businesses and follow their dreams. With eight retail locations and an online marketplace, The Nooks is one of Canada’s go-to shops for handmade Canadian goods for customers, and with continued, community-based business support, it is also one of Canada’s go-to retail spaces for vendors.

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

COVID-19 provided me with the opportunity to re-evaluate our budgets and where the leaks were in the business — leaks we possibly might have not known existed. We dug deeper into the data of the marketing, social, digital, and operational costs it takes (and does not take!) to not just sustain, but to substantially scale The Nooks business and our vendors during a global lockdown. 

I decided early on that The Nooks was not going to take on any government funding, line of credits, or debt to sustain itself during the pandemic and beyond. Instead, I looked at our cash reserves, our growth strategy, and where money could be cleaned up and budgeted for two years without compromising what we stand for, or taking on money we did not raise ourselves. I released a formal COVID-19 response immediately to our customers and vendors, outlining how we are protecting our vendors and their participation with us no matter what — and the steps we were taking to do so. We protected our vendors and their investment in their business with us. No one would be burdened with paying membership fees during lockdown, and no one was going to be left behind. 

I took our 18-month growth plan and condensed it into eight months, and this was the best thing for my business. Collapsing time tested and strengthened my vision, trust, and leadership. COVID-19 challenged the business to either step up, or step aside — and we’ve successfully positioned The Nooks to be in a league of our own, dominating and leading our retail industry. 

Part of collapsing the growth plan timeline was building systems and technology, and focusing heavily on the relationships within the business. We increased membership prices by 10 to 15% before 2021, implementing both paid and free programs for my internal vendors to help continue to grow their business with us while our stores were closed, and we also hosted a virtual music festival. I continued my commitment to showing up daily for my vendors via email, phone and through our private Facebook group. The business strategy changed during the pandemic —  our integrity did not. 

 

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

Our stores have always been a social hub for customers and vendors to connect as well as a retail experience, introducing our communities to the local, handmade businesses we represent. When COVID hit and our eight retail locations were closed for months, we quickly turned to our newsletters, our mobile app, website, and of course, our vendors, to keep the connection alive with our customers. We didn’t add any new channels, just enhanced our efforts towards existing digital and social outlets! We saw COVID as an opportunity to also share elements of our business that weren’t as known, and share our expertise in other areas beyond retail — like our nookSTART business program. 

 

“The biggest shift in my business has been the practice of alignment. Doing the work of understanding my Human Design, the blueprint of who I am, and how I “work!” I encourage anyone who feels the only way to success is with hustle, sacrifice, and “working harder” (and maybe not getting anywhere doing all those things!) to connect with their design.”

 

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

Since December 2019, the development of our custom software to automate our business had been in the works. When COVID hit early March 2020, we had some components of the development ready to “test” internally with our vendors, while our retail stores were closed. While the development of our software continued, we launched The Nooks mobile app in December 2020. This allowed us to further connect with our customers and share our makers’ products, stories, and promotions in an entirely new way! Over 300 of our vendors now live on our customers’ phones countrywide! 

We had plans for an app, but the timelines didn’t make sense anymore, and we saw the opportunity to launch it during holiday, while “shipping” was the norm for getting anything — especially during the biggest gift giving month of the year. COVID helped us cut to the chase with Beta testing for our software — we did not wait for it to be perfect and pretty until we moved on to the next phase and strategy of development. The Beta testing and building co-existed at the same time. Using the “down time” some of our vendors had supported the testing, and getting quick feedback helped make adjustments and carry on without some of life’s pre-COVID distractions. 

 

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

I have been studying Human Design, my energy type, and other self-development methods for over a year and experimenting with how I work best, lead, and how I am to be “seen” by others — and how I see myself. This practice and alignment has helped me put my needs first so I can show up best for my relationships, my community, team, and business. 

To recharge and reconnect I have early morning quiet time by myself in my home office with a coffee. This quiet time involves a mix of reading a chapter in a book, listening to a podcast, spiritual reflection, catching live lectures from some coaches I work with, researching new ideas, and playing in Canva! I take time to reflect and journal out my thoughts and feelings so I can read the wave of my emotions and get clarity on my next step. I do not need hours at the spa or “days off” to rest — I have daily, mini practices that work best for my life and business, and allow me to carry on doing what I love, no matter what comes up! 

 

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

The biggest shift in my business has been the practice of alignment. Doing the work of understanding my Human Design, the blueprint of who I am, and how I “work!” I encourage anyone who feels the only way to success is with hustle, sacrifice, and “working harder” (and maybe not getting anywhere doing all those things!) to connect with their design. Not only does this practice and learning of Human Design continually blow my mind, it’s had a huge impact on my energy and clarity, and showed me the best way to lead myself and others. I’ve grown and continue to grow a wildly successful business for myself and for others to succeed. 

Sylvia Parris Drummond is making change and building community for Black Nova Scotians — through education, opportunities, and celebration.

Sylvia Parris Drummond

By Karen van Kampen

 

At the age of 16, Sylvia Parris Drummond discovered the importance of learning in order to teach others. She got a job overseeing a summer camp program in her community of Meadowbrook Hill, Nova Scotia, which provided her firsthand experience and insight into the education process. “If you give something of yourself, then you can help others benefit,” she says. “I recognized my passion to work in education and with the community.” 

Sylvia’s lifelong dedication to learning, community building, and social change has made a profound impact. She is CEO of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute, that is committed to creating academic change and opportunities for learners of African descent while celebrating the accurate history, heritage, and contributions of Black/African Nova Scotians. In 2020 she was recognized for her accomplishments with the Social Change Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an exceptional leader of a registered charity, social enterprise, or not-for-profit that is dedicated to their unique brand of social change. 

Community has always been an integral part of Sylvia’s life. She remembers families in her neighbourhood being generous in sharing their praise and expertise, which included baking soft molasses cookies. Childcare was provided for neighbourhood children as a part of community support. 

As the second youngest in a combined family with 15 children, Sylvia understood the importance of taking care of family and kinship. “There was always that accountability that the older one took care of the next younger sibling,” she says. “That learning is rooted in you, and you don’t even realize how much it might show up in different things until you have the opportunity to think it through.” 

Sylvia was in grade nine when her father passed away. Two years later, her mother died. “No matter your age, you are an orphan when your parents are gone,” she says. “For me, it was so important to continue taking care of my younger sister.” Sylvia’s parents had taught her the importance of faith in her life, and during this time she found strength in her faith. 

“The intertwining of our humanity is so important, and the recognition that if you are successful, I am successful. Our hearts, our souls, our resilience, and our existence are still within our locus of control.” 

She moved with her sister to Antigonish where Sylvia attended St. Francis Xavier University, earning a science degree and teaching degree while her sister attended high school. Sylvia had a couple of part-time jobs during university and says, “It was a gift to be able to take care of my sister.” She had the benefit of caring people in her life, including professors at the university who kept an eye out for Sylvia and her sister. 

Sylvia continued her studies, earning a Masters in Curriculum at Saint Mary’s University. In 1995, she got a job at the Department of Education in Halifax where she worked in policy and diversity. She gained experience in the provincial and municipal government, which gave Sylvia a strong sense of how policy was developed, applied, and implemented. In 2010, she completed a Masters in Africentricity Policy Leadership at Mount Saint Vincent University. “It’s such an opportunity to be able to have studied and lived experience for your work,” she says. 

In 2015, Sylvia was appointed CEO of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute. Today, she continues to work with the Department of Education as well as Regional Centres for Education, Labour and Advanced Education, and community organizations serving Black/African Nova Scotian communities to ensure there is genuine access to accurate information on the contributions of Black/African Nova Scotians. 

“We draw upon the diversity within our diversity and our uniqueness, but also the common thread within us,” says Sylvia, explaining that the essence of Africentricity is “the centring of our voices and our needs in terms of community, with a recognition that getting this right will benefit everyone.” 

The institute’s research, education, and policy activate the African philosophy Ubuntu and its belief in “I am because we are” and the universal bond of humanity. “The intertwining of our humanity is so important,” says Sylvia, “and the recognition that if you are successful, I am successful. Our hearts, our souls, our resilience, and our existence are still within our locus of control.” 

The organization’s reach and impact on individual and community pride continue to grow along with its Africentric publishing program, dedicated to sharing stories of the 50-plus Black/African Nova Scotian communities. Books include The ABC’s of Viola Desmond in both English and French and Black History: Africa, The Caribbean, and the Amercias that is used in African Canadian Studies courses.  

Reflecting on her experiences and lifelong journey of learning, Sylvia offers some sage advice: “Continue to value and respect those who went before you and all that they have done, because none of us get where we are by ourselves,” she says, adding that we also need to recognize our own strengths and accomplishments, and take time for self-reflection. 

“Your body and mind will tell you when to think about where you are at and what you are doing. Are you still going where you wanted to go?” asks Sylvia. “Have a vision, hold to that vision, and work for that vision.”

How to build a lasting legacy through trusts.

Lydia Potocnik

 

Many of us consider wealth and estate planning as a way to ensure that our family is well taken care of — but with the right plan in place, your money can also go towards causes that are important to you. Having the ability to leave the world just a little bit better is a powerful and very attainable goal, no matter how much money you’re leaving behind. 

Lydia Potocnik, Head of Estate Planning & Philanthropic Advisory Services with BMO, has spent decades working in the field, and uses her expertise to help guide families through the opportunities and strategies that exist to create a legacy that’s meaningful and lasting, with an impact that carries on through generations. She believes that aligning your estate with your personal values and beliefs is an important wealth planning priority. 

If you’d like to support your charitable values beyond your lifetime — passing the torch to the next generation, so to speak — establishing a trust or private foundation allows you to do just that. We asked Lydia to share her advice on getting started. 

Let’s start with a high-level understanding of estate planning. What is the difference between a will and a trust and how do you know when each is needed?

Both wills and trusts are useful estate planning tools that serve different purposes. One main difference is that a will is a legal document that directs who will receive your property at death and appoints a legal representative to carry out your wishes. By contrast, a trust can be used to begin distributing property — which can include cash, investments, artwork, real estate, and more — before death, at death, or afterwards. It is a legal arrangement through which one person who’s called a trustee, which can be a family member, a friend, or a trust company, holds legal title to property for another person who’s called a beneficiary. Depending on who your beneficiaries are and what their financial needs are, most of the time people will create a will that has a trust within it. 

When would someone typically establish a trust?

One reason a person would want to establish a trust is to provide for children under the age of majority — which is 18 or 19 in Canada, depending on the province you live in — by providing  a monthly or annual income. Trusts are also often created to protect the assets a person wishes to leave to someone with special needs to cover medication, medical expenses, or a monthly allowance for example. They can also provide for flexible distribution of assets to beneficiaries who are unable to effectively manage money or can’t be relied on to make sound financial decisions. It’s worth noting that trusts also offer greater privacy than wills because they don’t go through probate and therefore there would not be any public disclosure. In order to determine the best type of trust for your estate goals, consider the age of your beneficiaries, their financial needs, and their ability to manage their inheritance. 

Beyond providing for their families, many people establish trusts to ensure their philanthropic goals are carried out after they’re gone. How does someone go about setting that into action?

Typically, a trust will be in the form of a written, legal document. To set the process in motion it’s best to meet with an estate planning lawyer who will help draft the terms of the trust. While a trust can be used to benefit individual family members, it can also be used to benefit a charity or several charities. To do this, many clients create a private foundation, set up as a trust structure with a trustee managing the money for various charitable organizations. In this format, the charities will get a set amount of money paid out to them each year from the trust. 

Is there a benefit to setting things up this way, rather than just making a large one-time donation to a charity or charities of your choice? 

Most of the time people create a charitable trust or a private foundation as a trust structure because they want to create a legacy and ensure that some of the causes that are important to them when they’re alive will continue on when they’re no longer here. Think of it as a formal structure to give meaning to their wealth. 

A private foundation is established and operated exclusively for charitable giving purposes and can be structured as a trust or a non-share capital corporation. The individual will often be the trustee themselves while they’re still alive and will determine which charities will receive a grant each year and how it will be used. Before the individual passes away, they can appoint another trustee to step in and carry out the terms of the trust and ensure that the trust deed appoints an alternate trustee. In doing so, the charities will continue to receive a financial benefit year after year.

For many, the desire to pass along charitable beliefs and values to their children and grandchildren is important. How can a trust be used to accomplish this?

Establishing a charitable trust or private foundation is a wonderful way to pass on philanthropic values to the next generation. Most of the time, if a trust is created today by parents or grandparents, they will appoint their children or grandchildren to be successor trustees. That way, the family values and the vision to support certain causes — whether it be the environment, mental health, or supporting marginalized groups, for example — will be carried on through future generations with the trust. 

How does the trust work so that there’s always money available to give?

Typically, the money in the trust will be invested by a professional. Someone like a family member can invest the assets, but if you have a professional investment advisor one of the goals may be to grow the capital by investing it prudently and then disperse the annual income. If it’s a private foundation set up as a trust you do have to disperse 3.5% every year to charities in Canada. So, the goal is to make sure you’re generating at least that much income to meet the minimum annual disbursement requirement 

How do families decide on which causes to support and do they have to give to the same charities every year?

To help families through the process, we encourage them to meet as a group and establish a mission statement for their trust or foundation. We guide them through this process by finding out what is important to them as a family and what has impacted their lives. For example, if someone in the family has been impacted by mental health, they may choose to support mental health projects in their community. Families often accept proposals from various charities and then decide as a group which proposals they want to fund with the revenue generated by the trust or foundation. This can change. Often a family will support a specific charity for five years or so, and after that time they’ll reassess whether they want to continue to make grants to that sector or revise and update their mission statement and support another sector. 

How important is planning and goal setting when it comes to estate planning and establishing philanthropic aspirations?

For women who want to make a meaningful impact in their community, the first step is setting goals around what kind of impact you want to make and factor in your own values and what’s important to you. The second step is to meet with a wealth advisor and put a wealth plan in place. 

The wealth plan looks at everything from retirement needs, to tax planning, estate planning, business succession planning, and philanthropic planning. It allows a woman to assess how much money she has today and ask herself: can I afford to start taking a more strategic approach to my philanthropy today or do I need to hold off until I retire, or does it have to happen through my estate plan when I pass away? 

A wealth plan also allows a woman to make a thoughtful decision around philanthropy and what tools she’ll use to meet her goals. You can’t make any decisions until you understand how much wealth you have, who are the other beneficiaries you want to leave money to, and what are your own personal financial needs. It’s important to note that most trusts are irrevocable, so once you transfer assets to a trust, you can’t get that property back out. Therefore, consulting with a tax and legal professional is critical to ensuring that a trust is appropriate based on your own unique personal circumstances.

 

How the pandemic inspired this entrepreneur to shift from her 9-5 and build her business.

Maria Poonawala

By Hailey Eisen 

 

In the midst of Ontario’s COVID-19 stay at home order in early 2021, Maria Poonawala was conflicted between a job she loved and becoming an entrepreneur. Making this sort of high-risk decision in the middle of a global pandemic was challenging, but Maria says working a 9 to 5 job, and running her start-up from 5pm to 1am was taking its toll.

“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this,” she recalls. 

In officially launching Connexa, Maria was poised to offer small and medium sized businesses a customer service platform that would help them maintain a human connection with their customers through a centralized inbox that saves them time while leveraging machine learning to provide customer feedback insights in an analytics dashboard. 

She’d built the idea into a functioning high-fidelity prototype in the months prior with a team of women in STEM apprentices. The premise for Connexa came from observations and experiences Maria accumulated during the five years she’d worked in the technology sector prior to venturing out on her own. But, as she explains, her interest in technology came about almost by accident, leading to a career journey she probably wouldn’t have imagined for herself. 

“I went to Ryerson to study international business,” Maria recalls. “And while I was looking into strategy consulting for my third-year internship, I kept hearing that digitization was the way companies were going and that technology was where I should be focusing my attention.” 

Maria credits Ryerson with being an entrepreneurial minded school with great incubators and an atmosphere in which students were encouraged to pursue ideas as student group leaders and start their own businesses. “That’s where the entrepreneurship seed was planted,” she says. “And while I’d never before considered technology, I decided to apply for internships in that space.” 

While she faced many rejections, as a result of her inexperience, Maria says Cisco took a chance on her, offering her an internship and an opportunity to build her skillset. “I fell in love with tech that year,” she recalls. 

Upon graduation, Maria took a consulting job with Ernst & Young (EY) in their Technology Advisory practice, where she had the opportunity to work on a number of projects and dive into Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Robotic Process Automation, and Virtual Agents (Chatbots). “Things were moving fast, I was learning on the job, and I just knew that it would be technology that would change everything – I wanted to brand myself as someone who was an expert in AI application, and I sought out opportunities to do that.”  

“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this.”

Maria came across her next career move while doing a vendor assessment for a project she was working on with EY. “I was evaluating this small company against some big vendors, and when they pitched to me, I fell in love with what they were doing.” The company was Wysdom.AI, a conversational AI optimization platform and service that delivers chatbots. 

“I went from a 4000-person company to a 40-person company,” she says. “Being part of an AI start-up was a really interesting, fascinating opportunity, and I was eager to learn as much as I could.” 

Maria dove into her work at Wysdom, and within a few years, was promoted twice and became a people manager to a team. “I learned a lot about leadership and developed the confidence to know that if I ever started my own business, I’d be able to manage a team,” she says. “I’ve never loved a job more than I did working with them. Being part of a growing start-up is magical.”

This made Maria’s decision to start Connexa all the more difficult. But in late 2020, her entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with a calling and a strong desire to give back, propelled her forward. 

“I’m an empath by nature, and during the pandemic, I really felt devastated for small businesses and also for the students who I noticed had a sense of hopelessness, facing limited career prospects,” she says. Feeling fortunate in her job and her ability to work from home, Maria says she wanted to employ a mentorship model with her start-up where she could help women in STEM and provide access to experience. 

The idea for Connexa had been planted years prior when Maria worked in customer service automation and saw the need for a system that was easy for agents to interact with — and that handled the data analytics they often struggled with. “The goal was to reimagine customer service while letting the platform do the hard work,” she says. The platform would help those small and medium sized businesses that were already struggling because of the pandemic. Finally, she saw a way to build her platform while also providing opportunities to women in STEM who were looking for experience to build their resumes. “I wanted to give them the opportunity I’d been given in tech early on,” she says. 

“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur. As such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.”

Thanks to an encounter with another woman founder and Tech Undivided alumnae, Maria was pointed in the direction of the Female Laboratory of Innovative Knowledge (FLIK), a program that connects female founders with student talent from around the world in an apprenticeship model. “I put out what I was looking for with Connexa, looking for help to build this company, and overnight my inbox was filled,” Maria says. “Over the December holidays in 2020, I booked 30 interviews in a week and ended up having the most incredible conversations with women from around the world who I was so impressed with and inspired by.” 

Maria put together a team of 6 people in functional roles to begin with virtually, and maintained the goal of creating an inclusive, supportive environment where an all-woman team would thrive. She then began to build out her business in the hours she wasn’t working at Wysdom. 

A few months later, with the support of her mentors at Wysdom and her family, Maria says she was ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship full-time. Since then, Connexa has continued to grow, building relationships with investors, and getting the platform in the hands of initial users. “We are delivering a simple platform that’s intuitive and affordable.”

Recently Connexa was selected as one of the women-led start-ups to be part of the third cohort of ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program. “Female founders are typically over-resourced and underfunded in North America. I was looking for an accelerator program that would centralize these resources, provide mentors to reach out to with targeted help, and a cohort or community of peers to lean on,” she says. Tech Undivided is designed for founders building breakthrough technology solutions. It draws on the expertise of strategic mentors and partners to help founders refine their product-market-fit, amplify sales, and hone their pitch for customer and investor meetings. “Being a woman founder can be lonely at times, and having others who are going through the same things at the same time can be really helpful.” 

As Maria looks at Connexa’s growth ahead, she says she would love her company to be the next great Canadian success story, like Shopify. She’s committed to creating a culture that’s supportive, inclusive, and that values all of its employees. She’s also eager to advise other young women entrepreneurs, sharing advice she’s been given along the way. 

“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur,” she says. “And, as such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.” Her advice for anyone with an entrepreneurial inclination: “Take action as soon as possible.”