Understanding emotional intelligence in the workplace: it’s not what you think

The value of emotional intelligence in the workplace is being promoted more than ever. Laura Rees, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, shares her key findings from her research on emotional intelligence and tips for navigating emotions at work. 


We’ve all heard about emotional intelligence, the ability to be aware of, manage, and express emotions — without sharing too much. Emotional intelligence is a hot topic around the water cooler these days. But there’s confusion. What does “emotional intelligence” actually mean? And how much emotion should you show at work?

When someone tells you to “manage your emotions,” what they’re really saying is suppress them. But is that always the right approach? Laura Rees, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, says no.

Laura studies emotions in the workplace. She believes feelings like anger, frustration and sadness are important and shouldn’t be overlooked. Emotions have enormous power to shape how people make decisions, she says. “It’s much better to understand them than to ignore them.” 

At BCG after university, Laura often worked with companies undergoing big changes – from disruptive strategy shifts to mergers and layoffs. Staff were naturally affected. Some got emotional, others hid their feelings. Laura began poring over psychology books to understand what was going on.

“I wanted to know more about the emotional side of humans,” she recalls. “I thought, why not understand it and leverage it?”   

Fast-forward to today, and Laura has a PhD in management and teaches negotiations, organizational behaviour, and leadership to Commerce and Masters students at Smith. Her research into emotional intelligence demonstrates the power of human expression. Among her findings:


Anger isn’t always negative — in fact, it can improve the outcome of a negotiation. 

While we may think anger is problematic and best left out of negotiations, Laura’s research shows that having the emotional intelligence to recognize anger in the person across the table can actually work to your advantage. 

“If someone acts angry during a negotiation, you’ll want to use this cue to ask questions and gain diagnostic information,” she says. “In some cases, anger can create value if you can use it to understand why a person is upset.”

On the other hand, countering anger with anger can often lead to more trouble. Instead, use the gathered information to ensure your side doesn’t lose out during negotiations. “Don’t let their anger result in you giving away what’s rightfully yours,” Laura says. 


We should all strive for ambivalence in making decisions. 

Ambivalence is defined as “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.” When people are ambivalent, we assume they’re wishy-washy or indecisive. Yet, ambivalence is a powerful tool. Fostering ambivalence offers us the opportunity to make a more thoughtful decision—and to change our mind.

 “Ambivalence fascinates me because it can have surprisingly beneficial effects, including making you a better decision-maker,” Laura says. In class, she teaches her students to understand the benefits of keeping an open mind.


Emotions not only have a place in the boardroom, they are a key ingredient to a healthy workplace. 

Suppressing emotions isn’t just bad for you psychologically, it’s bad for you physically. Some neuroscience research suggests that if the parts of the brain that process emotions get damaged, the brain’s cognitive abilities are weakened as well. “While some workplaces tend to encourage suppression, it’s much more dangerous to not recognize how your emotions are affecting you,” Laura says. 

Oh, and don’t believe it when someone tells you that emotions and business shouldn’t mix. Our greatest success can come when we learn to recognize, express, and use our emotions. “Don’t judge emotions as bad or good,” Laura advises, “just learn to leverage their benefits and mitigate their downsides most effectively.”

A LinkedIn consultant shares 8 suggestions for building thought leadership and staying top-of mind with your network

Optimizing your LinkedIn presence isn’t just about perfecting your profile. The social network offers the opportunity to develop an audience of connections who are actively interested in what you have to say. These 8 suggestions will help you use thought leadership to educate, empower, and add value to your connections — while providing you with more opportunities.

by Leslie Hughes

You are a brand. 

Back in 1997, Tom Peters wrote an article entitled “The Brand Called You” in Fast Company magazine. He stated that “You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop.” 

Today, you have unprecedented access to build your professional brand using channels like LinkedIn so that you can develop an audience of connections who are actively interested in what you have to say. 

You may be thinking, But Leslie, I don’t have anything to say! or, No one really wants to listen to me.

Here’s the thing: Nobody knows what you know from your perspective. You are an expert. 

You’ve learned things over your career that people can benefit from. The information you have access to could benefit someone else.

Building thought leadership not only helps to provide you with more opportunities but can help you to educate, empower and add value to your connections. By sharing quality content that helps your network solve their problems, you’ll automatically build trust and become the go-to resource in your niche. Here are seven suggestions you can use when you’re building thought leadership:


1) Solve common problems.

This is the easiest way to source content. If one person has a question or a challenge, chances are many other people are struggling with that same issue. Write a blog post, or record a video that describes how those in your network can solve that simple problem, and they might be interested in hiring you to solve the problem for them.

2) Don’t be overly promotional.

As Seth Godin says in his 2003 TED Talk, How To Get Your Ideas To Spread: “The world revolves around me. Me, me, me, me. My favorite person — me. I don’t want to get email from anybody; I want to get me-mail.” 

People don’t want to hear what you can sell them, they want to know about solutions to the problems they have.

It’s okay to toot your own horn, and share upcoming events or promotions; just don’t focus on self-promotion for each and every post. A good rule-of-thumb is to publish at least four status updates that solve problems for every sales promotion.

3) Mix up your own content with curated content.

Writing your own content allows you to provide your own perspective and helps you to shine as the foremost thought leader, but even if you publish content from trusted third-party sources, you’ll still continue to stay top-of-mind as someone who is in-the-know. 

To leverage curated content, reshare information provided by your marketing department, or turn to trusted news sources (such as Women of Influence), and include the link in your status update. With each post, ask yourself, “Is this information useful and helpful to people in my network?”

If finding insightful articles isn’t something that easily fits into your routine, you can turn to technology for help. A cool free app called Grapevine6 helps you to curate and re-share content based on keywords that you choose.

4) Get out of your own way.

Clicking “publish” can be nerve-wracking. I’ve been writing blog posts and creating videos for over 10 years, and I’m still nervous when I click publish. I’m afraid someone will judge me based on my thoughts or opinions. 

Often, after I write a blog post, I’ll revisit the draft copy just to ensure it flows properly. If I’m really nervous about clicking “publish,” I’ll have a trusted colleague review the copy just to get their input and perspective.  

Just remember that you bring a unique perspective to your network. Be brave, click “publish” and you’ll be surprised to learn how many people are looking for your insights.

“People don’t want to hear what you can sell them, they want to know about solutions to the problems they have. It’s okay to toot your own horn, and share upcoming events or promotions; just don’t focus on self-promotion for each and every post.”

5) Expect some trolls — but don’t engage with them.

The power of social media comes from two-way engagement and conversations. I even invite people to disagree with my views. I think it’s very healthy to have contrasting opinions, as long as no one is being a troll or is attacking anyone. 

Only once did I have a troll try to bait me into an online argument. He commented: You get paid for this crap? I didn’t bother to even respond because this ridiculous statement didn’t warrant a response. Nor did I delete his comment either. Other people messaged me privately to inquire about why someone would be so foolish. His comment was speaking volumes about his own brand — not mine.

6) Publish content regularly. 

You don’t have to publish every day, but to build a following of people who begin to know, like, and trust you, you have to stay top-of-mind. 

Did you know that it takes a minimum of eight to ten times for someone to see your name before they begin to build an emotional attachment or even remember who you are?

Start by publishing a status update on LinkedIn once a week and, once that’s manageable, try to publish twice a week. Focus on quality content, not just making noise.

7) Get organized.

One of the easiest ways you can save time and get organized is by assembling a content calendar. Whether you’re using a Google calendar or an Excel spreadsheet, reverse-engineer what you want to post and when you want to post it. This way, you can focus on your strategy and objectives instead of scrambling with what to post next. 

Use your marketing goals to shape the big picture. If you want to focus on an upcoming promotion or event, plot out how often you want to remind people what’s coming up next. Also, be conscious of roadblocks that might delay a post. If you’re in a compliance-based industry, you’ll need to ensure your compliance partner approves the content well in advance as well.

8) Engage in two-way conversation

What makes Social Media different than traditional media, is that it you can engage in a two-way dialogue instead of a one-way monologue. When you’re publishing content to your network, ask questions and see if you can elicit a response or some feedback. 

You could ask, “So, what do you think?” or “Do you agree or disagree with this post?

By responding to their feedback, you’ll not only begin to deepen relationships with your audience, but you’ll also get exponential reach from people outside of your network as well.

Remember that every brand relies on a combination of reach and frequency. Publishing the right content, to the right audience, using the right messaging helps to build up your brand so that you can obtain more opportunities. 

People need to know what you know from your perspective.

Leslie Hughes

Leslie Hughes

Leslie Hughes is a LinkedIn Optimization Specialist, Professor of Social Media, Corporate Trainer, Principal of PUNCH!media, and author of CREATE. CONNECT. CONVERT. She was called a "Social Media Guru" by CBC Radio and was featured on CTV’s The Social discussing how to manage your digital identity. Leslie has been working in digital marketing since 1997 and founded PUNCH!media in 2009. 

How Nazaneen Qauomi went from struggling immigrant to social entrepreneur

As founder of Red Gold of Afghanistan, Nazaneen Qauomi is empowering women in her home country to support themselves through saffron farming.


by Hailey Eisen


So far in her young life, Nazaneen Qauomi, 28, has lived through a terrible war and dealt with a terrible disease. Now, she’s determined to make life better for other women.

Nazaneen is the founder of Red Gold of Afghanistan. The company, which she started while studying at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, aims to help women in Afghanistan become self-sufficient by growing and selling saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.

Nazaneen grew up in Afghanistan. In 2001, she was 9 years old, living with her parents in Peshawar-Pakistan, when the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban began. (Nazaneen’s family fled to Pakistan during the Taliban regime and went back to Afghanistan after the establishment of the new Afghan government.)

As a child, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. By 2014, she was well along that path; she was in her fourth year of a seven-year medical degree. Then, her family got the chance to escape the war and come to Canada. They arrived in Toronto that same year. It was a fresh start for her family. But for Nazaneen, it also meant starting school all over. None of her Afghan medical-school credits applied in Canada.

Undeterred, Nazaneen entered university in Toronto for a science degree. Then tragedy struck. Her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. “It was one of the biggest challenges and shocks I’ve ever faced,” Nazaneen recalls. All at once she became a student in a new country and a full-time caregiver to her father as his disease quickly progressed.


Better living through agriculture

Nazaneen came up with the idea for Red Gold for Afghanistan during her fourth year in university, in 2017. By that time she’d decided that she wanted to pursue the type of career that would help ease poverty in developing countries like Afghanistan. More specifically, Nazaneen wanted to help women there prosper.

She put together a proposal and submitted it to the Clinton Global Initiative. CGI is a branch of the Clinton Foundation that encourages students to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. “My proposal was to economically empower women in developing countries through agriculture,” Nazaneen explains. “I knew the problems being faced by women in Afghanistan — that 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture. And while women are active in that sector, they’re not being paid for their work.”


“I knew the problems being faced by women in Afghanistan — that 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture. And while women are active in that sector, they’re not being paid for their work.”


Her proposal got accepted. Soon she was off to the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Boston, ready to bring her idea to life.
But a number of hurdles still stood in her way. One was working out the nuts and bolts of helping women go from farmworker to farm entrepreneur. Nazaneen knew that she did not want to run an aid organization that doled out charity. She wanted to create a real company that would train women and equip them with the resources to run their own businesses and earn their own money.
Eventually, she decided to focus on saffron. Not only is saffron lucrative (a gram can fetch $17), the spice is native to Afghanistan. Indeed, some of the world’s highest-quality saffron is grown in that country.

Another problem was that Nazaneen knew little about starting a company. She hadn’t even put together a business plan yet. So she decided to go to business school. During a pitch competition, someone told her about Smith School of Business and its entrepreneurial-focused Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship (MMIE) program. Upon investigation, she says, “I realized [the program] was a perfect fit for me.”


Striking red gold

Nazaneen completed the first part of her MMIE degree in Toronto, all while working part-time and taking care of her ailing father. Then, last year, she was accepted into the Queen’s Innovation Centre Summer Internship (QICSI) in Kingston, Ont. The four-month program provides funding and mentorship to would-be entrepreneurs.

“One of the requirements of the program was that I work with a team,” Nazaneen says. So she joined with two other Queen’s students, Herman Kaur and Mustafa Ansari. The trio dove into the world of saffron production, learning about the spice and its health benefits. “It’s like turmeric and ginger, only better,” Nazaneen says. “There’s great potential for it internationally, beyond being used in cooking.”

They spent the summer at markets in Kingston selling saffron iced tea and growing their reach on social media. In August, the team won one of the Dunin-Deshpande Summer Pitch Competition’s grand prizes at Queen’s, securing them $10,000 in seed funding, to be used for a trip to Afghanistan. “It was my first time going back to my home country in five years, and it was a hard trip to make,” Nazaneen recalls. “As a woman, to travel back there is not easy. But my family fully supported me, my school supported me, and my mom even went back with me.”


“Design thinking teaches us critical thinking and problem solving — something that’s needed in developing countries, where they’re surrounded by problems.”


In Afghanistan, Nazaneen spent two weeks selecting women involved in saffron harvesting as partners. She also provided them with training and support. “I learned a lot about their problems and challenges, things I hadn’t known about when I was just a student in the country. We also bought saffron from these women, which we’re going to find a market for here as a raw product, while also making it into tea.”

She also ran workshops on design thinking for MBA students at Kardan University and Engineering students of Kabul University. “Design thinking teaches us critical thinking and problem solving — something that’s needed in developing countries, where they’re surrounded by problems,” she says.

Back in Canada, Nazaneen graduated with her MMIE degree this past fall. Taking the program was a great decision that helped take Red Gold of Afghanistan from a dream to a fully incorporated business, she says. “The biggest thing I learned during my studies, which helps me to this day, was to never underestimate your ability to do something. Even when there’s a lot going on, we’re all still capable of bringing about change.”

Today Nazaneen is determined to see Red Gold of Afghanistan succeed. She’s currently developing its marketing plan while working as a university teaching assistant and taking care of her father.

“As an entrepreneur, you’ll see and hear a lot of no’s on your way,” says Nazaneen. “But you have to listen to your gut and intuition, and follow opportunity.”


Three tips for growing your confidence and resilience

Confidence and resilience are two attributes that are commonly linked, and vital for personal and professional success. However, although they’re highly sought after, they are two qualities that we can often find difficult to master. Sun Life’s Chief Digital Technology Officer, Alice Thomas shares three tips for growing your confidence and resilience.


By Alice Thomas


I started working in technology in the late ’80s. There were very few women employed in the industry at the time, and not a lot of support for those of us trying to navigate our careers. The gender imbalance wouldn’t improve much over the years, but it would end up teaching me important lessons about confidence and resilience.

At the start of my career, I struggled with carving out a place for myself in the industry. Being in the minority, it was all too easy for self-doubt and insecurity to set in. I routinely held back in meetings and stopped myself from raising a hand to ask questions.

To stay afloat in the industry, I knew I would have to change the self-limiting thoughts and behaviours that were in my control. Despite having all of the skills and knowledge to succeed, if I wasn’t confident or resilient, my career would eventually stall. The following three tips have helped me nurture these two areas over the years.

Learn to embrace failure.

Since most of our insecurities stem from a fear of failure, our confidence levels are linked to how well we manage this fear. Mistakes and slip-ups are inevitable. The sooner we learn to accept them, the sooner we open ourselves up to trying new things. I’ve felt the most confidence at times when I’ve taken a leap of faith, only to realize the initial outcome I feared didn’t come true. 

Once you learn to embrace failure, the easier it becomes to pick yourself up again. You spend less time pining over the mistakes, and more time implementing the lessons.

Find your cheerleaders.

It’s your career, but you’re not in this alone. The relationships you build with others can help boost your levels of confidence and resilience at times when you can’t do it on your own. Building a network of support takes time and precision, but the sooner you assemble the right people in your corner, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits. 

Your supporters can be found in all types of diverse settings. My group of advisors consists of men, women, people younger than me, people in my field, and some who are not in the workforce at all. The common denominator between them is that they allow me to be myself in a judgement-free zone, and have my best interests at heart.

It was only after receiving encouragement from one of my mentors that I took a role in a new and uncertain area of technology. Ecommerce was uncharted territory at this time, and I was hesitant to take on the challenge. Pursuing this role ultimately led me to find my true passion for digital innovation, which shaped the remainder of my career.

Mentors are great, but you have to learn how to be your own cheerleader at times, too. When times get tough, take stock of your past successes rather than the missed opportunities, and use them as motivation to keep going. Believe in yourself and the accomplishments that are already under your belt. You’re far more resilient than you think.

Don’t take it personally. 

More often than not, the unfortunate thing that happened usually has very little to do with you. Sometimes, it really is just business. Other times, a co-worker might be having a bad day. It’s completely natural to be disappointed by a business decision, but try not to put yourself at the centre of it.

This was a difficult lesson for me to learn as it felt like I was automatically at a disadvantage because of my gender. I spent a lot of time indulging in setbacks and using the negative event as fuel for my insecurities.

What helped me overcome this mentality was to view the negative event through the lens of a third party. I thought about the advice I would give to a friend in a similar situation. It helped me take myself out of the equation, and view things in a more productive light.

I’ve seen many women leave the industry over the years because they lacked the confidence and resilience to see their careers through. I likely would have been one of them if I hadn’t identified the internal roadblocks preventing me from moving forward. 

I consider confidence and resilience to be like any other set of muscles in our body. They require training and exercise in order for us to exert our true potential. By practising these tips, your confidence and resilience will maintain their strength over time so that you can flex them in the moments when you need them most.

Alice Thomas

Alice Thomas

Alice Thomas is Chief Digital Technology Officer at Sun Life, where she oversees technology enablement of the company’s digital strategies globally. Alice is a passionate supporter of diversity and inclusion and champion for the advancement of women in technology. She was recently named Advocate of the Year by the Women in IT Awards Series for her efforts to increase the participation of women in IT.

Finding Leadership Success by Overcoming Industry Barriers

C. Esther De Wolde is the Chief Executive Officer at Phantom Screens, North America’s leading provider of retractable screens. Esther is an experienced strategic leader who prides herself on giving back and using personal values as a foundational element for leadership. Esther focuses on Phantom’s corporate commitment and objectives on truly enhancing the lives of homeowners across North America and the local community.



By C. Esther De Wolde



You must know yourself before you can lead others. As a company founder turned CEO, nothing rings truer than this statement. For me, holding personal values close in the workplace not only leads to professional success but also personal fulfilment. 

I work in an industry where women are the minority, making up only 28% of manufacturing jobs and I am frequently asked, “What is it like to work in a male-dominated industry?” The truth is that I aim to succeed because of who I am and I don’t spend time considering my gender. However, we, unfortunately, do live in a world where inequality still exists and many are faced with discrimination in the workplace. So how can those who face inequality barriers further their professional success?


Focus on your Strengths

I never allow my gender to dictate what I can or cannot do, both on a personal and a professional level. I focus on my core strengths in order to be the best that I can be as an employee, leader, and individual, regardless of my gender. 

At Phantom Screens, we value employees for what they bring to the table as individuals and I consistently emphasize to them the importance of working in a business with clear cultural values for inclusivity and diversity. 


Stay True to Your Values

My upbringing has driven me to not only become the person that I am, but has significantly shaped the leadership style I exude. Being raised by Christian parents, early in my career I decided that, regardless of what industry I was working in, I wanted to honour my faith by pursuing the dream of improving the lives of my customers, employees and partners.

This is how I established the foundation for my leadership style and I have since learned valuable lessons throughout my career. I confess there have been times I made value missteps. But, these helped me recalibrate and recommit to the saying, walk the talk. It is a sad truth that devoting to personal values may be criticized in the workplace, especially if they are based on religious beliefs. However, we all hold our own worldview that is shaped by religion, politics or the culture we grew up in. Staying true to your values is not about imposing beliefs on others, but rather reflecting on what you truly value in yourself and in those around you.


Apply What You Learn

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in maintaining my values while breaking through inequality barriers in the workplace:

  • Take time to reflect: First and foremost, reflect on where you’ve been, where you are and what you ultimately want to achieve. Honestly ask yourself if your present workplace and career correlates with how you define your life’s purpose and deeply held values.
  • Fulfil your potential: I often get asked in reference to the adversity I’ve faced in my career as a woman of faith: “Has it all been worth it?” The simple answer is yes. Seeing every employee pursue their potential and bloom where they have been planted has made it all worthwhile and nothing brings me more joy than that, whether it’s at Phantom Screens or another organization.
  • Hold yourself accountable: Three years ago, I created a formal advisory board in order to keep me and my team accountable. I never want to be in a position of complacency. I want to be pushed and challenged to continue to grow the company, the team and myself to keep striving to fulfil our full potential.

From my perspective, the best measure of success comes down to staying true to what you believe in and the impact you have on improving the lives of others. Operating from the foundation of your personal values in the workplace and pursuing your fullest potential, regardless of industry barriers, will ensure you are fulfilled by your career, and in who you are as a team member and as an individual.

5 minutes with communications expert Jennifer Stewart on building brand awareness

Photo by Michelle Valberg

Jennifer Stewart’s entrepreneurial drive and self-proclaimed “overconfidence” led to her opening her own PR and government relations firm at just 25 years old. Through vision, leadership, and a whole lot of hustle, she’s built Syntax Strategic into an internationally recognized communications and business strategy firm, working with clients in the public and private sectors on their communications strategies — and associated business impact. Regarded as one of Canada’s top communication leaders, Jennifer is CTV’s Communications Commentator, is often called upon as a media expert, and has received numerous awards and accolades. We spoke to Jennifer about building brand awareness — from what companies most often get wrong, to the best advice for getting it right.  


When you’re working on building brand awareness for a client, where do you start?

You need to start with who they are trying to communicate with, and why. Oftentimes, people aren’t telling the right narrative that will really reach in and grab their audience. Attention spans are short and are even shorter today than ever before.  

I like to begin with a process that is almost a forensic audit of what’s being done today, and whether it’s working, and how you can turn that on its head to grab more attention, have more impact and at the end of the day, build awareness and reputation for your brand.


What’s the biggest mistake you see companies making when it comes to their communications?

The biggest mistake is that companies assume what their audiences want to hear and develop an outreach campaign that isn’t targeted and is focused around the wrong messaging. Being nimble is important, but you also need to be highly thoughtful and strategic with who you’re engaging, and what is it about your brand or product that relates to them.

Just like with a relationship, building awareness is about filling a gap in someone’s life, and reaching them in a way that will help them, whether that’s as a professional, parent or individual looking for personal growth. 

“Entrepreneurs are notoriously bad at promoting their own brand because they’re busy hustling running their businesses.”


What’s the one thing every entrepreneur could be doing to get their brand known?

Entrepreneurs are notoriously bad at promoting their own brand because they’re busy hustling running their businesses. I would say take the time to promote yourself, treat yourself as a client and at the end of the day, always do this in a way that’s authentic to you. 

How Debbie Fung, co-founder of Yoga Tree Studios, found success following her passion


When Debbie Fung and her partner, Jason Lu, graduated from university, they both landed great jobs in their fields of study — but instead, they chose to follow their passion. Launching Yoga Tree Studios in 2007, they’ve grown the business to six locations, and have plans to open more. Debbie shares how the pair have found success — and balance — with their customer-centric plan.


by Shelley White




Debbie Fung says there are two things she and her partner Jason Lu aim to cultivate at their 13-year-old business, Yoga Tree Studios: community and value.

“We want to create community, in the sense that we offer authentic yoga classes, but also a space where you can connect and meet like-minded individuals,” says Debbie, co-founder of the Toronto-area chain of six yoga studios.

“And when we say value, we want to make sure that we’re definitely not the cheapest yoga studio, we’re not the most expensive, but we’re priced right,” she adds.

Debbie and Jason founded Yoga Tree in 2007 when they became disillusioned with their chosen careers. The couple had both graduated from the University of Waterloo and immediately landed high-potential jobs (Debbie as a buyer in retail, Jason in tech). But Debbie says that “mentally, it wasn’t very satisfying. There was a lot more in life that we wanted to strive towards, a passion that we always wanted to foster.”

The two travelled to India to complete their yoga teacher training and when they returned, they applied for a small business loan and opened a “tiny studio” in Thornhill, Debbie says.

“It was hard, but at the same time, in that situation, you get the most authentic live feedback because you’re there day in, day out — you live and breathe the business,” she says.

Debbie and Jason learned quickly that success was about listening to their clients. When yoga students asked about getting paraben-free soap to use after doing hot yoga (which is practiced in hot, humid conditions), Debbie and Jason made their own paraben-free soap to stock the bathrooms and showers. When clients said they couldn’t do hot yoga because of medications or health conditions, Debbie and Jason started offering reduced-heat classes.

“Conversations with our clients have led up to what we’ve evolved into today,” Debbie says.

It was a desire to deepen their relationships with clients that prompted Debbie to get involved with Cisco’s Women Entrepreneur Circle (WEC), which provides technology, education and expertise for women-owned and co-owned businesses across Canada. Debbie had learned about WEC a couple of years ago through her contacts at BDC. Known as Canada’s bank for entrepreneurs, BDC is a key supporter of WEC — specifically, the initiative’s Circle of Innovation program, that connects business owners with interns from Canadian universities for three months in the summer, to help them complete specific technological goals and projects.

At first, Debbie wondered whether they were the right type of company that would benefit from the program — were they too small? Not tech-savvy enough? But she decided to take the plunge and was paired with University of Toronto mechanical engineering student Chloe Macdonald this past summer.

Debbie says the goal was to explore whether they were leveraging third-party apps and software to their advantage on the Yoga Tree website.


“We want to create community, in the sense that we offer authentic yoga classes, but also a space where you can connect and meet like-minded individuals.”


“In the yoga landscape, we have all these different merchants approaching us, saying, ‘Why don’t you have this gadget or widget added on to your site?’ So what we hoped for from the Cisco program was that they would guide us to a new level of insight that we normally don’t have access to in the health and wellness space,” Debbie says.

One of Chloe’s primary tasks was to determine whether Yoga Tree should add a chatbot to their website.

“We have a lot of members and potential clients with questions and a lot of those might happen after working hours,” Debbie says. “They’re thinking, ‘I’m just putting my kids to bed at 9:00, and I now want to sign myself up and get motivated for yoga.’ So how do we make sure we don’t lose those leads?”

Chloe identified the different chatbot programs on the market and helped the company narrow down what programs could be a good fit. After Chloe’s research and analysis, Debbie says they determined that chatbot technology isn’t sophisticated enough at this point to properly answer the kinds of questions that clients would be asking.

“In the yoga world, it’s so customized,” Debbie says. “You might have a hip replacement, you might have a knee injury — the last thing we want is to upset the student, as opposed to making it more clear for them that yoga is a great choice.”

Debbie says having Chloe on board was valuable because she provided the kind of knowledge and understanding they likely couldn’t have gotten unless they had hired a consulting firm. “She provided a level of insight that was really fresh,” Debbie says.

It’s an experience that she thinks would be beneficial for businesses of all types and sizes. “Being a woman entrepreneur, you need to invest the time into tech,” she says. “You may not have resources for it, but I think Cisco, BDC, and WEC are great places to find that support.”

With six locations under their belt in Toronto, Debbie says she and Jason have big plans for the future. They are looking to open more locations in Ontario and then expand into Quebec.

Debbie says that while Yoga Tree is a passion that both she and her partner share — “We believe that yoga is something that benefits people; we’ve seen it change people’s lives,” she says — they are also careful to maintain boundaries in order to avoid burnout. While Jason handles the yoga side of the business, teaching class and training their instructors, Debbie handles the operations side, including areas like marketing and finance. Being busy entrepreneurs with kids (the couple have two young boys, ages 6 and 8), Debbie says she has also learned how important it is to delegate.

“I can’t emphasize that enough,” she says with a laugh.

“I volunteer quite a bit at my boys’ school, and the only way I can do that safely and happily is to really let go at Yoga Tree. Not letting go in terms of quality, but letting go in terms of hiring quality people to help you manage.” It may not be easy to drop the reins when you’re the leader, she says, but it does pay off to loosen them a bit.

“I think as entrepreneurs, we always want to do everything. One of my biggest ‘a-ha’ moments was understanding that not everyone might have the way of working like you do as the owner. But if you can let go and allow the other personal aspects of your life to grow, that’s when you get the most reward.”


The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy and fill in your knowledge gaps. Are you considering becoming a business owner? Access BDC’s free How to Start a Business module to discover everything you need to be a successful entrepreneur.

The Pressure of Performing

As CEO of G(irls)20, Heather Barnabe’s career has been built around improving the livelihoods of women and girls, both at home in Canada and around the world. With over a decade of experience in the not-for-profit sector, Heather knows what it means to manage complex, multi-country interventions.


By Heather Barnabe, CEO, G(irls)20




“On rit pour ne pas pleurer” was the refrain commonly used by my high school French teacher. We laugh to not cry. He’d typically deploy it when his students flubbed the French language and being the terrible French student that I was, I was often on the receiving end of that phrase. He would take a deep breath, close his eyes and, whisper “Barnabe, on rit pour ne pas pleurer.” And then he’d laugh, correct me and move on. I watched him do this for years with his students and did not appreciate the importance of what his phrase meant until recently, when I needed to deploy it regularly. 

I have had the privilege to lead G(irls)20 since June of 2017. G(irls)20 is a non-profit organization that focuses on leadership development in young women to change the status quo and help cultivate the next generation of female leaders. Each year, ahead of the G20 leaders’ meetings, we host a global summit and invite young female delegates from around the world to participate in workshops and meaningful discussions surrounding women’s rights and global issues. The delegates work together to create a communiqué that incorporates a female youth perspective on the topics of the summit. The communiqué is then presented to the G20. The delegates also create a post-summit initiative that helps change their communities. It’s an incredible job and I feel lucky to do but, like any great opportunity, the pressure to execute is anxiety-inducing. 

In May, we hosted our 10th annual summit in Japan. For a number of reasons outside of our control, G(irls)20 had to prepare our Summit in a very short timeframe, operating in overdrive to pull everything together and implement an impactful event. 


Having a strategy to tackle workload-related anxiety is necessary to succeed in our high-performing professional environments. With a dash of humour added, you will be able to navigate just about anything.


At G(irls)20, we struggle over the decision about who we choose for our programs, because, simply put, the world is full of dedicated, talented young women, deserving of opportunities. In the lead up to Summit, there was a week where our keynote speaker had pulled out, one of our delegates was declined a visa, and another delegate called me up distressed as she was potentially unable to attend. Layered with numerous other issues that arose, the pressure of implementing a global summit with what felt like a lack of human capital, resources and time was already keeping me up at night. That day, anxiety kicked in and felt overwhelming. And I’m not alone — a recent Ipsos Reid poll found almost half of Canadians find the workplace the most stressful part of their life. Of those Canadians, half indicate workload is the biggest cause. 

So how do we navigate workplace anxiety caused by pressure and workload? I try to reframe the anxiety and follow these steps: 

  1. Take stock. Write down the details of the issue, list out the possible next steps, outcomes, and associated pros and cons.
  2. Reach out. Who in your network can help with this issue?
  3. Take action. You have to make a decision, so once you have run through steps 1 -3, be decisive and move forward.
  4. Prepare. What possible outcomes did you determine in step 1? Prepare for those outcomes with mitigating strategies.
  5. Step back. In looking at the bigger picture, is this issue truly significant or are there other factors influencing your anxiety?  
  6. Move on. I did not appreciate that for my French teacher, that refrain of ‘on rit pour ne pas pleurer’ was his gentle way of reminding himself of seeing the bigger picture and then moving on. Yes, his students were incorrectly conjugating a French verb, but they were still learning French, a language he adored. It’s good to be reminded that the best plans go awry in our professional lives —but we can stay the course. 

That particular day, I found comfort in his phrase and laughed at the absurdity of the multitude of issues coming at once. And then we did what we needed to — the G(irls)20 team kicked into action, going through the steps, and ultimately executing a notable global summit for young female leaders. Having a strategy to tackle workload-related anxiety is necessary to succeed in our high-performing professional environments. With a dash of humour added, you will be able to navigate just about anything.

One bad habit you can stop today to greatly reduce stress

Christine Laperriere is the Executive Director of the Women of Influence Advancement Centre and author of the bestseller, Too Busy To Be Happy. She’s also experienced burnout first hand — and credits her personal journey for teaching her the importance of growing self-aware of what impacts stress levels, and the importance of finding some useful practices (beyond meditation) that can really help cut down pressure and reconnect to the present moment.


By Christine Laperriere



Many years ago, I suffered a debilitating burnout.

I also finally took a stand for my mental health — and went on an extended leave of absence from my 70-hour-a-week management role in consulting. Feeling inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, I decided the best place for me to recover from burnout would be in Italy.

And to my delight, Italy truly was the perfect place to help me stop the “too busy” cycle. I loved observing Italian culture. I noticed how many people were productive, but for some reason, not rushed. They didn’t spend their days racing from task to task, and it was rare to see a person who looked visibility stressed. It seemed as if people just didn’t take life (or themselves) too seriously.

One night, early in my trip, two locals asked me and my friend if we wanted to meet them for dinner at their family restaurant. Their English was pretty good and their accents were lovely. We agreed to join them (how could we not?).


“I’d been using the word “stress” as a blanket statement to describe everything that was happening in my life, and everything that I had been feeling.”


It was perfect summer evening in downtown Rome. We were sitting on the patio of a beautiful little restaurant, watching people walk by on the cobblestone streets, wine flowing, with amazing food and entertaining discussion. As the night went on and the stars came out, one of the men asked me what brought me to Italy.

I told him, “I’ve been so stressed out. I have a very stressful job working extremely crazy hours. It turned into this health issue where I couldn’t breathe, and after numerous tests, my doctor says this health issue is due to stress.”

I could tell by the way he was looking at me that he was confused by my story. He leaned over to his buddy, and they chatted in Italian for a moment, and then he looked back at me. Finally, he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand this word… stress.”

His struggle to comprehend sparked an ah-ha moment for me: I’d been using the word “stress” as a blanket statement to describe everything that was happening in my life, and everything that I had been feeling. In a way, using the word like this prevented me from taking a closer look at my feelings, and taking ownership for what was going on.

I started to wonder: What if I took the word stress out of my vocabulary? What if I were no longer able to use stress as a verb or an adjective or a noun? I made a conscious decision that night to stop using the word stress to describe myself and my situation — from then on, I would articulate how I was feeling more specifically. Instead of “I’m stressed,” I would say “I’m struggling to make a decision” or “I’m afraid I’ll fail” or “I’m scared I’ll disappoint people.”

It sounds simple, but it can be a challenge to alter what has become a natural crutch in our language. Here are three steps to help you eliminate ‘stress’ from your own vocabulary:

1. Spot the phrase

Notice if there is a phrase you repeat often. It might be the phrase you use when a friend tries to make plans, or the phrase you use to explain why you missed another critical deadline. Look for phrases such as:

  • I’m so stressed
  • I’m too busy
  • I have no time
  • Work is so crazy these days
  • I can barely breathe, so much is going on
  • I’m too tired
  • I’m overwhelmed at work
  • I’m exhausted
  • There’s so much going on right now

2. Cut the habit

Make a pact to cut this word out of your vocabulary for the next month. Find an accountability buddy at home or work who might often hear this phrase from you. (For example, ask your spouse to call you out if you start each dinner conversation with “Work is so crazy!”).

3. Grow awareness

As you change your vocabulary, take note of how the practice forces you to rephrase how you are thinking or feeling. Notice how you have to be more mindful and really connect to what is causing the feeling you don’t like.


As I would later learn, there’s no real word for stress in the Italian language — they use the English word, stress, in their own discourse when they want to express it. In North America, we use stress as a convenient tag to describe so many things. We label it and move on. If you are like me, once you remove these phrases from your language, you’ll start to notice you are more focused on the real issues you need to solve — and feeling a little less stressed about it along the way.



The three skill sets you need to excel in a changing business environment

No matter what industry you work in, the challenges in today’s business environment are rapidly evolving — and success lies in our ability to keep up. Diana Drury, Director of Team and Executive Coaching for the MBA/Master programs at Smith School of Business, shares how the school is preparing future leaders to excel through teaching skills that cannot be found in a textbook, yet are vital to professional success, and how you can develop these skills to help you on your own career journey.


By Hailey Eisen




Today’s business environment is moving faster than ever. Every industry is constantly changing. So how do we prepare ourselves to excel in an ever-evolving world?

“What you know is important,” says Diana Drury, Director of Team and Executive Coaching for the MBA/Master programs at Smith School of Business. “But even more important is how you navigate the world, problem solve, and engage with others.” It’s these interpersonal, social, and emotional skills that employers want to see, especially when hiring for leadership positions. 

They can’t be found in a textbook, yet they are vital to professional success. At Smith, says Diana, these are the intangibles of the MBA program. “We help students build these skills through teamwork, real-life experiences, and extensive coaching.”

Diana shares three skill sets that can benefit anyone looking to advance their business career. 



1. Insights on human dynamics 

Managing, motivating, and engaging with others are essential leadership skills today. Rarely do people work in isolation. As such, being attuned to human dynamics or the needs, desires, and backgrounds of others is essential. “In the workplace, you don’t get to choose who you’re working with,” explains Diana. “Success comes when you can recognize your own patterns of behaviour and biases, which will influence how you work within a team and as a leader.” 

The first step towards an effective team is recognizing the differences that arise as a result of cultural backgrounds, age and life experiences. The goal should be to establish understanding and trust early on. This can be achieved with open channels of communication, access to cultural intelligence training, as well as guidance in conflict management, difficult conversations, and issue resolution, among other things, says Diana.  


“Success comes when you can recognize your own patterns of behaviour and biases, which will influence how you work within a team and as a leader.”


2. Self-awareness and resilience 

Recognizing your own patterns of behaviour requires a certain level of self-awareness — something that does not always come naturally. “To recognize your own patterns, it’s helpful to be open to receiving constructive feedback from others,” Diana explains. This requires active listening. It’s easy to form habits or behaviour patterns that you’re unaware of. But with open transparent communication, you can better understand how you are contributing to the team dynamic.  

Smith uses assessments and coaching to help students understand and anticipate response patterns. “We’ve been using the Big Five personality assessment to help individuals understand where their personality preferences are, what strengths and attributes they bring to the team, and where their vulnerabilities lie,” Diana says.  

From a place of self-awareness and vulnerability comes increased resilience. “What we’re hearing more and more from the corporate world is that MBA students may have the skills, teamwork abilities, and cultural intelligence needed to be successful in the workplace, but what they are often lacking is resilience,” Diana says. 

Resilience comes from experiential learning. It can’t be taught, but, like a muscle, it can be strengthened. 

“We put the MBA students through a rigorous resilience training program which is unpredictable and challenging,” Diana says. “Over the course of a weekend, they’re challenged to push themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally, and to work closely as a team.” This resilience training helps students understand the extent to which they can push themselves when faced with ambiguity or the unknown. 

In the business world, resilience training is beneficial for working collaboratively, managing time, facing challenges head on, and understanding your own productivity outside of your comfort zone.

3. Experience and exploration

There’s nothing more beneficial than life experience to build the toolkit to excel in the workplace. 

Smith’s team-based learning model broadens students’ experiences by placing them in a team they’re unfamiliar with — to put everyone, despite their age, background or experience, on an equal playing field — and then have them tackle projects and assignments together. “We work with students to get them comfortable giving and receiving feedback, encouraging them to push boundaries individually and within their groups.” Through this model students learn to try, fail, and try again, knowing that they are in a safe zone.

While a school environment makes it easier to set the stage for specific growth experiences, it’s still possible to employ the tactic in your own career — by pushing yourself, expanding your experiences, challenging your assumptions, and growing beyond what’s typically comfortable or known to you.

“We know that challenges in the business world are evolving at a fast pace,” says Diana. But with the right skill sets, you can evolve along with them.


Self-awareness, resilience and a growth mindset are all crucial in today’s business world. At Smith School of Business, you will work with expert coaches dedicated to helping you build your leadership capacities and realize your potential. Learn more about Smith’s suite of MBA programs here.


The power of finding — and following — your passion

After four years building and leading Deloitte Canada’s Diversity & Inclusion Consulting practice, Carolyn Lawrence is now Deloitte Global’s first ever Inclusion Leader. Passionate about creating inclusive cultures, Carolyn previously spent ten years at the helm of Women of Influence, growing the organization’s reach, offerings, and impact.



by Carolyn Lawrence






“I want to influence women’s advancement.” That’s what I wrote in a graduate school application essay some 20 years ago. It was a pivotal moment. You know the kind. When you’re working through your thoughts; exploring, testing, sounding out and seeing what sticks. And then I wrote that and everything became clear. 

I mapped out my action plan to pivot from my marketing and communications in financial services background and follow my passion. This led me to join and subsequently run Women of Influence. It was a dream creating events, magazines, and courses, all to advance women! Things couldn’t get better. 

But throughout those highs came a number of strength-building “opportunities” — and some real lows. I faced not only the stresses of entrepreneurship amidst a recession, but also the sudden loss of my father.

What helped me most was that I knew I had found my purpose. I’ve said it many times before, and I will say it many times more: find your passion. This has been my compass and a burning fire lit from within. Still, I knew I needed change. I was tired, stretched, and feeling a need to learn, grow, and, quite honestly, have a little less entrepreneurial stress. 

I also saw that the representation of women in leadership wasn’t increasing fast enough. It was time to shift my focus away from helping women advance, to advancing corporate culture instead — guiding them to hire and promote women.

That led me to Deloitte, where I joined the Human Capital consulting team to build a Diversity & Inclusion practice. It took significant effort to learn how to be a consultant and navigate the hundreds of bosses in the partnership, plus a good amount of resourcefulness to create a new service offering (thankfully with helpful and bright minds, global thought leaders, and strong allies on my side). 

To be rated a high performer, I had to supplement the practice with substantive revenue and hit billable hourly targets. It was a challenge to keep up with the pace and volume. I was working from 4 am to 6 pm, spending time with my son, and then often crashing right after I got him to bed if there wasn’t an urgent proposal on the docket. I had some great wins, and learned some invaluable lessons about my work — but I wasn’t connected to my purpose, and therefore wasn’t getting fuel. It felt more like running on empty.   


“What helped me most was that I knew I had found my purpose. I’ve said it many times before, and I will say it many times more: find your passion.”


Then a funny thing happened: I got some negative feedback on a presentation. It was hard to hear, but it was also the push I needed. It was time to look in the mirror.  

Was I being true to my purpose? Nope. Did I want to be a badass again? Yes! Here’s how I moved back towards passion and authenticity: 

Pivot when it’s not working. There was a meeting planned in front of a panel of partners where I had to share my business case for advancement. I knew I couldn’t keep on the course I was on. I prepared, sought counsel, and designed my case. Would they give me some runway to figure out how to declare my focus? I shared my passion and expertise, and my ideas for how I could make it work. I thought through their perspective and all of the questions they might ask. The meeting went well. They were appreciative of my honesty and that I had framed it with the business in mind.

Be Brave. I risked my career in that moment. I’d spent many years keeping my mouth shut when things weren’t going accordingly (at home and at work). No longer. I do wait for the right moment and thoughtfully and strategically script myself, but I do it. 

Stay true to yourself. As a result of my bold move, I was realigned to the work that I loved: designing gender pay gap methodologies and groundbreaking research, all with inspiring people. Our report, The design of everyday men, shares a new perspective on how culture is getting in the way of gender equity, including the “always-on, always available” barrier I encountered.

Fast forward, and that recent work — the work where I was aligned to my passion — has led me to being rewarded with my current role, Deloitte Global’s first-ever Inclusion Leader and our report was just honoured by Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Award!


How a Nonlinear Career Path Can Be An Entrepreneurial Boon


Marcela Geer made the leap from an ascending career in finance to start up her passion project in hospitality — a Latin catering and food truck company, El Bosco Catering. Marcela shares her story on how a mashup of experience is fertile ground for a self-made career, and the lessons she’s learned so far as a founder, owner, and director of operations.



By Marcela Geer



After a decade climbing through the ranks in finance, I made one of the scariest decisions of my life: to leave my corporate role as Manager of International Banking at RBC, and pursue my passion for culinary event planning and management. But this wasn’t my first brush with the hospitality industry.

My love for hosting and the business of food dates back to my arrival from Colombia to Canada at 13, when my family opened up a restaurant called Coco Loco in London, Ontario. They wanted to bring authentic Latin cuisine to the community, and teenage me was more than keen to jump in and help in any way I could. I busied myself serving, handling cash, and bussing tables every day after school and on weekends — and sneaking empanadas and, my favourite, Salvadoran pupusas, whenever I could.

The restaurant was a success, and at just 14, I was entrenched in all sides of the family business. At 18, I relocated to Toronto to earn a Bachelor of Commerce in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Ryerson University, and I went on to spend 15 years in the restaurant and bar industry in Toronto, bartending, serving, and finally managing at some of the most prolific spots Toronto has to offer.

Fifteen years into my food career, I was offered a role at RBC that promised change and job security. I was drawn to their clients-first culture, diversity and community involvement. I worked hard — and smart — and was promoted several times before securing my role as Manager of International Banking.

Later, when I made the decision to move on from my decade-long tenure, it came with mixed emotions, but the experience I took with me into my new catering venture — the ability to network, forge strong relationships and, of course, shrewd money management and negotiation skills — compounded with my previous experience in food all came together like kismet, like puzzle pieces that had been waiting to click. Who knew a zigzag path from hospitality to finance, and back again, would one day form the quintessential foundation to head up events and management for my very own company, El Bosco Catering.


“Now, I firmly believe that if you partner with like-minded, valued individuals, the possibilities are endless.”


So, there I was, with my life-shifting decision to leap — and with this unplanned, yet serendipitous mosaic of perfectly-appointed skills, that on paper was going to make El Bosco a huge success. I thought I would write my business plan and work my way through it, mostly on my own. I had a vision, but when it came time to execute, I expected to delegate my vision to the people for the job and move on to the next. I was in for a shock.

I found myself deeply involved with every single task, analyzing every detail of the job, allocating more time and energy to every single need than I could have ever imagined. Suddenly learning about various industries, not just the one I was in. I was getting a crash course in advertising, marketing, web development, graphic design, PR, social media and more. My expectations-vs-reality-wake-up call left me in a flurry of anxiety, sleep deprivation and over-perfectionism. I realized I had to find a healthier approach. I began doing regular “brain dumps” of emptying my busy thoughts into notebooks, jotting my ideas down and sketching — just to get the information out, to get some mental relief.

I hired one professional after the other, dipping deeper into my budget than anticipated. When I finally understood the power of investing in key people, and how it changed the trajectory and potential of my business, it was a watershed moment. Onboarding the professionals I needed — an esteemed publicist, culinary director, marketing pros, advertising and many more was worth every dollar spent. In contrast to my former life in finance, I planned ahead for future results — with catering, clients demand and deserve instant gratification. It’s incredibly important to get it right on the first try — there are no second chances. Now, I firmly believe that if you partner with like-minded, valued individuals, the possibilities are endless.

Having laid the foundation for a strong and solid launch, my focus is on business development for El Bosco. We’re scheduled at various festivals and events all over Toronto to expand brand recognition, and ultimately grow.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last year leading up to this pivotal moment. And I’m honoured and privileged to share my journey with the leaders of our future, in the hope that they, too, will glean a few key lessons to bravely and boldly leap.


Here Are My Top 3 Lessons Learned:

A nonlinear trajectory can be an asset

Don’t worry if you change careers several times over the course of your professional life. (I’m talking to you, millennials!) When you consider that any business owner is straddling several industries and possesses many skills, zigzagging through multiple jobs and industries can actually be an asset. Had I not spent 15 years in hospitality and 10 in finance, that happy-accident mashup of skills would have never occurred. I look back now with immense gratitude that I did all of that, even though at times it was confusing and I worried I may have wasted time.

Invest in people to succeed

Without question, the greatest lesson gleaned while launching my catering business was that despite thinking I could do most things on my own, I was dead wrong. The minute I made the choice to invest in talent that are rock stars in their respective fields, the opportunities and possibilities blew wide open. You only get one chance to do it right, especially in my field.

The lessons will never stop — embrace them and chase them

I’ve learned a tremendous amount in my career transition thus far but I know it’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I refuse to ever fall into the trap of thinking I’ve learned or know it all, that will only make me comfortable and comfort is a recipe for disaster. There is always something to learn and I made the choice long ago that I will always seek challenges out. I guess that’s why I am where I am today. This is advice I’d give to any aspiring leader.


Founder, Owner & Director of Operations of Toronto’s newest Latin catering and food truck company, El Bosco Catering, Marcela Geer is a force to watch. After making the leap from an ascending career in finance, to start up her passion project in hospitality, Marcela shares her story on how a mashup of experience is fertile ground for a self-made career.





A Plan for Disruption

Elaine Kunda is the founder and managing partner of Disruption Ventures, Canada’s first private venture fund focused solely on women entrepreneurs. It has been a long — and strategically planned — journey for Elaine; here’s how (and why) she did it.



By Sarah Kelsey



If you were to ask most entrepreneurs about how they got to where they are, you’d likely be greeted with a list of similar answers: hard work, perseverance, luck, some helping hands. But ask the same question while catching a few moments with the incredibly empowering Elaine Kunda, and you’ll be greeted with a different response: planning.

“Everything I’ve done has always been highly strategic. I’ve mapped this out very purposefully and specifically,” Elaine says of her role founding and managing Disruption Ventures, a first-of-its-kind in Canada, made-for-women, private venture fund. “Every connection I’ve made has always been done with a plan in mind.”

Take, for example, the babysitting job she took in university; it was for a woman who was the president of a company. “I thought, I want that to be me one day,” says Elaine. So she babysat the woman’s son and eventually asked her for a summer job so she could learn more about management.

Then there was a stint working as a salesperson at a furniture supply company. The role didn’t inspire passion, but she knew she’d learn the skills she needed to attain a top job. “It was a stepping stone. It was a very conscious and clear decision.”

Every job she’s held has prepared her, in some way, for doing her own thing: business development manager at Grey Interactive, managing director at Toronto.com, president and CEO at ZipLocal, president and CEO of b5media.

Elaine first conceived of her current business, Disruption Ventures, in 2012 after speaking with several women entrepreneurs about the challenges they faced financing their businesses. The idea was initially ill-received.

“If you presented to investors and said, ‘I have an undervalued, underutilized, high-performing asset class,’ would you want to invest in it? The answer would be unequivocally ‘yes,’” she says. “But as soon as you add gender into the mix, the audience is lost. Why wouldn’t you create a fund to invest in women? It’s a missed opportunity.”

“People are comfortable acknowledging that supporting women entrepreneurs is an issue, but it’s still very hard for people to put their money where their mouths are.”

Part of the problem, she notes, is that the audience is largely made up of men. According to the 2019 “Women in Venture” Report from Highline Beta and Female Funders, just over 15% of partners at Canadian VC firms are women. “There was a disconnect between the men who did the investing,” explains Elaine, “and the women who were coming up with ideas for businesses.”

The result can be measured in real dollars: a little over two per cent of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses, and research shows they not only typically receive less than men, but also less than they ask for.

With a focus on early-stage capital, Disruption Ventures aims to be the starting point for women founders. Anchored by a milestone investment from Scotiabank, the organizations have a broader partnership — including marketing assistance and educational content for entrepreneurs — tied to the Scotiabank Women Initiative. It lines up well with Elaine’s broader goal of advocating for women in business.

“People are comfortable acknowledging that supporting women entrepreneurs is an issue, but it’s still very hard for people to put their money where their mouths are,” she says, noting that the slow pace of change has always worried her. “Every story has a life cycle; if change doesn’t happen soon, then people will say, ‘well, women had their chance.’”

So what advice does Elaine have for women entrepreneurs? It’s the same for any woman trying to reach the top.

Passion is key. “You have to want to get up in the morning and do what you’re doing. I don’t think people close to me have any clue how much I work. They see the fun part of the travel I do on social media — and not the stuff like conference calls or early wake-ups to secure funds. The only way to keep that pace is passion.”

Women also need to develop the confidence to own their successes and manage negative feedback.

“The negative fuels me. The people who are assholes are actually fuelling my passion. When somebody inaccurately puts me in a place I dig deeper,” she says. “Once someone called for a reference on me and my referer said ‘you’d rather have her on your team than have to play against her.’ That’s because success is the only option.”

Lastly, each woman has to do what’s right by them.

“There are some things I know I need in my life to be happy. It’s a marathon not a sprint. I’m creative and adaptable. I don’t need order or structure or quiet or peace. I need things to be opposite; put me in an office every day, I won’t perform. I’m overly productive so why should I follow someone else’s structure that makes me less productive?” she notes, adding: “Every step of the way you have to believe in yourself and trust yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will.”


Stephania Varalli: The three things I learned about leadership

Leadership is a complex ideology, with so many different forms and approaches. It’s common to worry about whether or not you are an effective leader —  however, with an array of tools and resources at our fingertips, we can lay those anxieties to rest, and be the leaders we were born to be. Stephania Varalli is Co-CEO of Women of Influence, and oversees the organization’s media offerings, including the website, social media channels, newsletters, partnered content programs, and Women of Influence magazine. She recently completed the Queen’s Leadership Program at Smith School of Business and shares three very important lessons that she learned. 



By Stephania Varalli



Until recently, when people would ask me what I did for a living, my standard response was always: “I work for an organization called Women of Influence.” The statement wasn’t incorrect, but it took my husband being in earshot to point out that something was wrong. 

“Why don’t you ever mention that you are Co-CEO?” he asked me one day. 

I didn’t have an answer. Yes, I did the work of a Co-CEO. I had a team. I made key decisions. I considered the big picture and the company’s future. I was a leader. But was I a good leader? Or maybe a terrible one? Was I transformational? Authentic? Inclusive? Any other buzzword? And that was the problem: I referred to myself as just one of the gang, because I didn’t really know who I was as a leader.

 Which is why I chose to sign up for the Queen’s Leadership Program at Smith School of Business. It appealed to me because it wasn’t just designed to teach you about great leadership, or provide tools for leading effectively (though it did do both). The intensive, five-day course offers insights on you — your strengths, your weaknesses, and how you, specifically, can become a better leader. 

In June of this year, I packed my bags, said goodbye to my three-year-old daughter, my 18-month-old son, and my very supportive husband, and boarded a train to Kingston. Over the course of the week, I would completely change the way I think about leadership, and gain clarity on how I was perceived as a leader. Here are the three key lessons I learned.


  1. It’s about you

Prior to leaving for Kingston, I completed the Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS) questionnaire online. The assessment is a deep dive into who you are and how you perform, especially under stressful conditions. It provides insights about the way you work, how you view yourself, and how you interact with others. We received the results one morning, and were given time for some quiet reflection as we read through the report. 

I liken the experience to looking in a mirror for the first time. There wasn’t anything surprising — I could recognize this was me, with all my strengths and faults — but seeing my personality mapped on 20 different scales brought me to a level of self-awareness I had never before reached. All my unique traits, and how these elements worked together, were suddenly clear. Most importantly, it helped me to see how my behaviour was impacting other people. 

The point was hammered home all week, by our professors and in one-on-one sessions: to be a great coach and a successful leader, you have to know who you are. 

  1. But it’s not about you

Knowing who you are, however, is only the first step. We were challenged to ask ourselves if we were observing the impact we were having on others — and taking responsibility for it. For me, the most difficult part of this exercise was coming to the realization that other people were seeing things that I didn’t think they’d see. I have a tendency to start solving a problem before someone’s finished explaining it to me, which means my listening brain exits stage left halfway through a conversation. And I had to admit to myself, my team sees this. Not to mention, solving other people’s problems by providing them with the answer isn’t what I should be doing. As a leader, my role is to develop learned optimism, not learned helplessness.

“People are remarkably sensitive to the way in which they are treated — and will respond accordingly,” said Dr. Julian Barling, one of our session leaders, and a renowned expert on leadership. 

“Great leadership can seem a little out of reach — a pedestal for the likes of Nelson Mandela — and realizing success could come from developing a few traits and focusing on key moments made it feel much more attainable.”


Fortunately, I also received direct insights on how my team felt they were being treated. Another part of my pre-work for the program was the 360 Degree Feedback process, which involved gathering input from my peers and direct reports through confidential questionnaires. In one of my coaching sessions, we compared my own perception of my leadership skills with how others saw my effectiveness in my role. 

The good news? I was doing pretty well. As the kind of person who isn’t content with doing pretty well (yes, that was in my TAIS report, too), I wanted to fix everything. But that would go against the biggest lesson I’d learned all week. 


  1. It’s about the little things

The first Julian Barling quote I wrote down (of many) came on our first day: “It’s a course on leadership, not sainthood,” he said. 

The point? You don’t need to be perfect to be a great leader. In fact, after the class had listed off all of the hallmarks of effective leadership, Dr. Barling advised us to pick a few that we were good at, and focus our energy there. 

He went on to explain that demonstrating these traits doesn’t have to be about grand gestures. The best of leadership, he said, is about moments. The small and routine interactions that you have with your team. And so he asked us, repeatedly, “What are the smallest things that you can do?” 

I was thankful to have this perspective early on in the program. Great leadership can seem a little out of reach — a pedestal for the likes of Nelson Mandela, whose quotes we heard often — and realizing success could come from developing a few traits and focusing on key moments made it feel much more attainable. 

The sentiment was echoed throughout the week. Dr. Peter Jensen — another impressive session leader, and founder of Performance Coaching (now called Third Factor) — continued to remind us that coaching is all about the little things. We heard the same words from our guest speaker on crisis leadership, Darby Allen — fire chief for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, who led the largest evacuation in Canadian history when he safely guided 88,000 residents out of Fort McMurray during the 2016 Alberta wildfires. An undertaking of that scale, he said, requires the efforts of many people to come together like a jigsaw puzzle, and “all the little things that they do will make the difference.”

Theory is much more powerful when you are able to put it into practice, and our daily small group sessions offered that opportunity. Our team quickly bonded as we rotated through roles: sharing a personal problem, helping that individual to explore the issue, and observing the process. Each role provided a unique perspective and learning; not only did I work on my active listening and coaching skills, I was able to hone in on what I needed to do as a leader to address stumbling blocks at work. 

Thanks to these group meetings — plus the class sessions, one-on-one coaching, and more self-reflection than I ever thought possible — I came out of the course with specific goals to focus on (but, as advised, not too many). 

I also received my Queen’s Executive Program Certificate, having now completed enough Executive Education courses (I did it through a personalized combo of two week-long programs at Queen’s, and some two-day, new-mom-friendly courses at their Toronto facility). I’d been working toward this goal since 2016, when I took my first course as a very pregnant new business owner. 

But if you ask me about my biggest accomplishment that came out of the program? This fall marks my fifth year as Co-CEO of Women of Influence, and it’s a title I now confidently share with others.


The three traits of successful entrepreneurs

As a professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, Jana Raver looks at how people overcome the challenges of starting a business. Jana has identified three factors that predict the likelihood a business owner will excel or fail. She explains why these matter, and what entrepreneurs can do to succeed.


By Hailey Eisen




Launching a business is extremely difficult. Half of all new businesses fail. What fascinates Jana Raver is the notion of psychological resilience — or the capacity of entrepreneurs to try, fail, bounce back, and try again.

“One of the most challenging and stressful occupations you can have is to be an entrepreneur,” Jana explains. “And often you have to do it alone.” As a professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, Jana has long been interested in entrepreneurship, not only because of its challenges, but also its unique opportunities. 

“As faculty members, we basically live and work as entrepreneurs,” Jana says. “We have to launch research projects from the ground up, and, like a business, we have to secure funding, hire teams, and ensure results are met in a timely fashion. We’re familiar with failure.” 

Having held organizational administration positions and worked in HR between her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Jana brings real-world experience to her research. When the opportunity arose to launch a research project on psychological resilience among entrepreneurs with Ingrid Chadwick, associate professor at Concordia University, Jana leapt at the opportunity. 

“We wanted to understand how individuals can overcome the challenges of entrepreneurship and be successful despite all the hardships they face,” she says. “We were also looking for ways to identify individuals who would be better equipped to succeed at the helm of startups.”

 Jana’s research studied first-time entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they developed, launched, and operated new businesses. The research specifically looked at individuals enrolled in a government-backed program to train new entrepreneurs and it measured their resilience levels before the participants even began creating their business plan. 


“You want to keep one step ahead of your competitors, go out and talk with your customers and potential customers, understand what their needs are, and be creative in the ways you solve for their needs.”


“Then we studied them and the way they thought about entrepreneurship and behaved as entrepreneurs over the next two years. We were able to predict whether they would ultimately be successful and still have viable businesses two years later.” 

Jana’s findings are of value to both individuals starting their own businesses and investors looking to identify entrepreneurs likely to excel. Most successful entrepreneurs share three tendencies, she says: psychological resilience, a challenge mindset, and proactive behaviour. 

An individual who is psychologically resilient will be able to fail fast, take an experimental approach to a new business, and not let setbacks be indicative of failure. Resilient entrepreneurs bounce back with a new idea or approach, Jana explains. 

Even more important than resilience is a challenge mindset that allows a person to see obstacles as opportunities to learn. “The way you mentally approach the game is so important,” Jana says. “The mindset of success is one that says, ‘Hey, this is hard, but I can get through it.’ It’s about catching yourself before you go down the path of doom and gloom.” 

A challenge mindset can be learned, and people can train their minds to be more growth-focused. How? By treating problems  — be they financial or logistical — as obstacles to overcome, as problems to solve, and as opportunities to learn, Jana explains. 

Finally, proactive behaviour is an indicator of startup success. “You want to keep one step ahead of your competitors, go out and talk with your customers and potential customers, understand what their needs are, and be creative in the ways you solve for their needs,” Jana explains. “The key is to never rest on your laurels.” 

Based on her research, Jana has developed helpful advice for entrepreneurs (that she’s applying to her own work, too). Her suggestions include: 

  1. Focus on self-care. Some people think it’s selfish, but taking care of oneself is the opposite of that. To be a successful entrepreneur, eat well, sleep well, and pursue activities that calm your mind — so it’s ready to handle whatever comes up. 
  2. Surround yourself with supportive, positive people. Quite simply, it’s hard to get into a challenge (or growth) mindset when surrounded by people with fixed mindsets. Instead, spend time with people who will build your confidence, challenge you to think outside the box, support your ideas, and stand by you — even when you fail. 
  3. Fail Fast. Accept that failure is part of the entrepreneurial process. See failures as opportunities to grow. If something doesn’t work, it’s the idea, not you, that failed. Then move on quickly and try again.


Over the long term, success hinges not just on your skills and knowledge, but also on your ability to recover, remain focused, stay energized and show up motivated every day; in other words, your ability to be resilient. Queen’s Executive Education offers in-person and online programs for managers and entrepreneurs looking to build their resilience. Learn more here.


Good Question: What is the most effective approach to resolving conflict between two employees on a team


“In my department, I have a manager and her direct report who are really at odds with each other on a project. People have dropped by my office to tell me that their frustration with each other is really causing challenges during larger project review meetings. What is the best way to approach and resolve this issue?



Christine Laperriere
Executive Director, Women of Influence Advancement Centre

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. Her background includes an undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, certifications in psychotherapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and executive coaching, along with years in design engineering and management consulting.



There are many ways that leaders address this issue—unfortunately, they often don’t lead to the best result. Here are a few common approaches that leaders take, and their pitfalls:

Speak to the manager and delegate getting the issue resolved. The challenge with this approach is that it does not address what leadership issues the manager may have. Sometimes, the manager may lack the skills to effectively engage the employee. Delegating the issue to a manager without the ability to properly address the issue can lead to high turnover and the loss of some great talent before the gap in the manager’s skills surfaces as the cause.

Decide that the manager needs training. Many times, when a conflict arises, leaders quickly resort to communications or leadership training. Training creates many great benefits, but it often uses generalizations, which may not help that manager become more effective at resolving a very specific type of employee issue.

Speak with numerous team members to gather information about the current issues, and then create a plan to resolve them. This approach can require hours of a leader’s time, taking them away from numerous other important and more strategic activities. It also creates a culture in which a disagreement gets put under a microscopic lens and can be overanalyzed if not careful.

Defer the issue to human resources. Bringing in your counterparts in human resources can definitely help to resolve employee issues. The caveat: if leaders regularly delegate issue resolution to another department without feeling fully engaged or accountable to improve the situation, the efforts made may only result in a short-term improvement.

What’s an effective approach that generates a positive outcome?

Teaching leaders to facilitate a single yet powerful conversation between two individuals in conflict. It is a priceless skill, and when leaders are involved in the conversation they grow further insight into the people, management, and business issues that exist within their team. In addition, this approach saves hours of time in individual conversations and encourages a culture in which people address and resolve challenges head-on.


Follow these four simple steps to lead a conversation that resolves conflict between two individuals:


STEP 1: State the reason for the conversation.

It’s important to highlight that the end goal of the meeting is to create a more harmonious working relationship between the two individuals. Many times, individuals feel the purpose of the meeting is to find out who is at fault for the conflict. Finding fault is far less productive and brings out the more defensive feelings in each individual.


STEP 2: Ask each individual to take ten minutes and explain their thoughts around the conflict.

It’s very important that there are no interruptions, and that the other party listens with curiosity and not reaction. This step is critical!


STEP 3: Ask each party how they feel they could work together more harmoniously in the future.

Instead of having them focus on past conversations that were tense and unproductive, encourage both parties to talk through how future situations could be more effective. Encourage discussion around how things could be different than they are today as opposed to focusing on finding faults.


STEP 4: Create agreements.

Ask each party to agree to a future behaviour change. Many times, once two people have talked through a conflict, they assume that the other person will change in the future. This simply sets the stage for more conflict. If each party can highlight and take ownership of what they can contribute to improving the situation, many times both individuals will feel more collaborative in their future work together.


As leaders, how we resolve conflict between individuals is one of the most important things we do to influence the culture of our teams.



To learn more about how you or your organization can advance talented women professionals and leaders more effectively, contact Christine directly at claperriere@womenofinlfuence.ca.


How Julie Mitchell built two businesses — and is tapping into technology to run them better

As the founder and head of both Parcel Design (a brand strategy and communications firm) and Torq Ride (indoor cycling studios), Julie Mitchell isn’t just a serial entrepreneur — she’s a concurrent one. As both businesses expand, she’s looking for ways technology can be used to boost productivity and communication. Here’s how she’s getting it done.


by Shelley White



Julie Mitchell is a woman with a lot going on. 

As the owner of two successful Toronto businesses, Julie always has a very full calendar, and that’s just the way she likes it. From running her businesses and managing renovations to doing fitness challenges and planning social events, Julie says she wants every day to have purpose and value.

“I just know that I feel better about myself and my life if I am really purposeful and very productive,” she says. “I’m a very driven person and I like having multiple projects. I drive my husband crazy with that, but I’ve been like that my whole life. The more I have to do, the more productive I am.”

Julie founded her first business, Parcel Design, 15 years ago. As the award-winning brand strategy and communications firm grew, so did Julie’s ambitions. In 2016, she launched another business, borne out of her love of Spinning (indoor cycling). The aim was to create a “next level” studio experience that didn’t exist in Toronto at the time. Now, Torq Ride has two locations located in Toronto’s east end and an ever-expanding client base of spin fans. 

“Torq was an opportunity for me to apply everything that I’d learned over a decade of running another business, to have the chance to start again and build it from scratch,” Julie says. 

There have been challenges along the way. A recent issue involving renovations and a landlord resulted in the company taking a large financial hit.

“That was a real test of my own personal resilience,” she says. “Anyone can organically build a brand, but for something that requires a lot of initial capital, it can be quite risky.”

Julie says another goal for Torq has been to create a self-managed business where trainers and other staff could flourish in an environment focused on professionalism, career development and leadership — something uncommon in the fitness industry.  

It was this desire to improve her businesses’ internal processes and systems that spurred Julie to get involved in Cisco’s Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle (WEC). She first found out about WEC through her Account Manager at BDC, Canada’s bank for entrepreneurs. While discussing opportunities for her business, the banker suggested she might get a lot out of Cisco’s Circle of Innovation program — a program supported by BDC. 


“I just know that I feel better about myself and my life if I am really purposeful and very productive.” 


The Circle of Innovation pairs up women-led businesses with university students enrolled in technology-based programs. With support from Cisco, the students intern with the businesses for 16 weeks over the summer, helping them tackle tech challenges and projects. 

“It seemed like something that was worth exploring, particularly because you’re able to work with someone who has a very specific skill set,” Julie says of the program. 

While both Torq and Parcel were quite dependent on technology, Julie says she didn’t feel they were using it to their advantage. She was interested in developing a “living” version of what normally would be called an employee handbook. The idea was to improve the team’s productivity and communications by giving them instant access to an intranet, or “wiki,” that would house all of the company’s policies, processes, templates and brand standards. 

“This tool gives everyone access to everything in one place, whether they’re working remotely or not. And nothing ever becomes dated,” she says. 

Through Cisco’s Circle of Innovation, Julie and her team were paired with Sahaj Singh, a student of electrical engineering and management at McMaster University. All summer, he’s been helping them make the “wiki” a reality. 

“Because he’s an engineer, he understands technology, and he’s been both researching it and working with us to develop it,” Julie says. 

The Circle of Innovation program has been a positive experience, she says, and one she would recommend to other business owners.  

“It’s very flexible. You have the option of bringing the person into work in your studio or they can work remotely, and there’s been really great support from Cisco as well,” she says. “We’ve really enjoyed having an intern, but also developing the relationship with the team at Cisco.”

Beyond developing their new wiki, Julie says she hopes to expand her empire further with a third Torq studio. She just needs to find the right location. 

“I think I have a very clear view of what has made Torq successful and a big part of it is clarity around what the neighbourhood needs,” she says. “I think you have to be very cautious as you’re expanding to make sure that you’re not just guessing.”

And while serving the Torq customer is crucial, creating a positive experience for staff is just as important, she says. 

“I just want to be very focused on building the brand and continuing to create lots of unique opportunities for the people on the team.” 


The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy and fill in your knowledge gaps, or try the BDC digital maturity assessment tool to find out in less than 5 minutes where your business stands compared to your peers, and how you can improve.

Three tips for getting clarity in your career when life gets murky after children

Becoming a working mom can sometimes feel overwhelming. Jennifer Hargreaves, an entrepreneurial mom who is the Founder and CEO of tellent — an online community and resource for professional women to pursue flexible work opportunities — offers three tips to get clarity in the chaos.



By Jennifer Hargreaves



No one can prepare you for becoming a working mother, or a mother for that matter. Even if you have done the research, made a plan and feel certain that you will know exactly how work, life, and motherhood will play out. 

Adjusting to new priories, shifting values and personal identity can be exhausting and confusing. Some of us can pivot easily and adapt quickly; seeing clearly and stepping boldly into the next step, the next role, the next challenge in our lives. For the rest of us, we can lose the me somewhere along the way, becoming so intertwined with our children, our work, and our partners that there is no me left. This impacts our energy levels, our career choices and growth, and our personal happiness. 

How many of us have craved time alone, to feel like ourselves again, to think our own thoughts, feel our own feelings, and make decisions because it is what we want to do and not because it is what we should be doing? 

Here are three tips to help you sort through the noise and get clear on what this next stage of your career and life can look like. 


1. Start. Right now. Seriously. Get a new journal and commit to getting clear.

What excuse just popped up in your head? It is so easy to come up with a rationale — not only to avoid starting a task, but also to justify why we can’t have what it is that we really want and deserve. Our excuses are born out of fear and our own self-limiting beliefs and lead to procrastination and inertia. 

I want you to challenge your excuses to get different results. Here are two simple exercises to combat procrastination and get you moving towards setting clear goals: 

Take responsibility. If you think you don’t have the time, make the time. We are brilliant human beings with infinite problem-solving potential! If your day is packed and you need five minutes, you have the ability to find it.


“Take perfection out of the equation and start showing up however you can.”


If you can’t find the time, you are choosing to prioritize other things over a task you don’t actually want to do — not because you don’t want clarity but more likely because your subconscious mind is sabotaging your actions.  

Owning and recognizing your role in this process will give you a feeling of more control. Tell yourself, I can do this if I want to do this. 

Make it easy. Break tasks down into simple actions. Take perfection out of the equation and start showing up however you can. For example, get out your journal and a pen and sit down. You have to establish this habit before you can improve it. Sit down enough times with your pen and journal and you’ll start writing. 


2. Identify what you want, not what you believe you can have.

This is way easier said than done for all of the reasons listed above. What we want can feel like it comes with conditions. We can have whatever we want in the world — keeping in mind that we also have to pay the bills, look after the kids, are approaching 40, don’t have any experience, have the wrong experience… But what if we ditched the circumstance and conditions? 

In order to do this exercise, you will need to relax and get quiet. Picture a baby and start by asking the question: what is this baby’s potential? What can she be, do or have? Put yourself in her shoes and ask yourself the same question. What can you do, be or have? 

Watch out for the onslaught of ideas and reasons that will flood your mind on why that can’t be done or how you are going to do it. There is no growth beyond the beliefs that you hold, so for this exercise, we have to think beyond our beliefs. 

Keep your journal handy and start to develop a vision of your future self — one with infinite potential. Think about: 

  • where she lives – describe her house, the décor, who lives there.  
  • what she looks like – visualize how she looks and her demeanour now that she has succeeded in meeting all of her goals.  
  • what she does – describe the kind of work she does, who she spends her free time with, what gives her the most satisfaction and joy. 

Find some time every day for the next seven days to connect with and visualize your future self. Close your eyes and imagine what it is like to live that life like it is happening right now. Create a list of all of your wants. Include your personal and professional wants. Remember that time, cost, education or responsibilities have no role to play in this exercise. 


3. Ask an expert. (You). 

Find a mentor. Not just any mentor — your internal mentor. Success looks different for all of us. External mentors play an important role in our professional development, but they cannot tell you how to get to your customized future state. The one that holds your individual hopes, dreams and values. 

The best person to be able to guide you to that future is you. In amongst the pressures to work, not work, breastfeed, home school, do it all, do nothing… ask your future self for clarity on what needs to happen now to become her in 20 years? 

Throughout the process, it’s also important to remind yourself that you are not alone. A lack of clarity on career and life direction after having children is the number one challenge that the over 3,000 professional women in our tellent community face. 


“The best person to be able to guide you to that future is you. In amongst the pressures to work, not work, breastfeed, home school, do it all, do nothing… ask your future self for clarity on what needs to happen now to become her in 20 years?” 


We field so many mixed messages about what we should be, do, or have as women, and especially as mothers, that it is easy to forget who we are and what we really want. These messages start when we are young and are often compounded by institutionalized workplace bias at mid-career levels. There is no doubt that work needs to work better for women, but we cannot wait for organizations to change for us as individuals. Start today in clarifying your goals with this exercise and start building the future career and life that you really want. 


Jennifer Hargreaves is the Founder of tellent, and a champion and advocate for women in the workplace. In 2015, she set out to change the way that work works for women. The tellent community has grown to over 3,000 women in the greater Toronto Hamilton area. What started as an idea to provide access to flexible job listings has grown into a movement, creating more opportunities for full and equal participation of women in the economy. 


Five Minutes with Arlene Dickinson, CEO of District Ventures & TELUS Pitch Judge

Arlene Dickinson is one of Canada’s most successful — and recognizable — entrepreneurs. Best known for her role as a Dragon on the multi-award-winning television series Dragons’ Den, she built her fortune with Venture Communications, and just a few years ago, launched District Ventures — an accelerator, venture fund, and communications firm focused on turning successful Canadian companies in the food and health space into globally respected brands. She is a two-time bestselling author, an accomplished public speaker, a television and podcast host, and the winner of multiple awards for her leadership and entrepreneurial success. Arlene sits on several public and private boards and is actively involved in supporting the community. We caught up with her after the TELUS Pitch contest — she serves as a judge — to get her top tips for entrepreneurs.



When it comes to business advice, there is so much out there that it can be difficult to know what to trust. What is the best business advice you have ever been given?

I get that question a lot. And so I can tell you that, when I think about it, I think it really comes back down to my dad’s advice, which really wasn’t business advice — it was life advice. And I think, at the end of the day, they’re the same thing. His advice to me was to always trust yourself. Always believe in yourself. Make sure that you listen to your instincts and make sure that you believe that what you’re doing is the best possible you can do. 


It’s safe to say that you have perfected the art of the pitch — after years of pitching for your own businesses, in your capacity as a Dragon on Dragons’ Den, and with your own fund and accelerator, District Ventures. What makes the perfect pitch for you?  

For someone to be successful when they’ve pitched me an idea, there are three things they’d have to demonstrate: they have to be honest, they have to be genuine and authentic, and they have to understand what a win-win means. In other words, tell me how I’m going to make money, tell me how you’re going to succeed as well.


If you had to pick two characteristics that have helped you to excel in your career, and are important for all entrepreneurs to possess, what would they be?

The two qualities I think are incredibly important are tenacity and persistence. You have to stay at it and you can’t let something stop you or get in your way.

Why your small business needs a cybersecurity strategy — and how to get one

Over the past 14 years at Cisco, Lisa Richardson has held roles in commercial sales, global account management, and as leader of Cisco Canada’s enterprise networking business. As leader of Cisco’s solutions sales in Canada, she’s also an expert in the simple, comprehensive technology solutions Cisco offers for small business owners — keeping them connected, secure, and collaborating. Here, Lisa offers her best advice for entrepreneurs looking to save time and effort in their security strategy.


By Lisa Richardson

We’re seeing it more and more often — headlines of big corporations becoming the victim of a cyberattack. While these news stories make it clear that cybersecurity threats are growing, they’re often missing an important fact: small businesses are even more susceptible.

“In today’s threat landscape, everyone is a target,” my colleague Jack Pagano, Director of Cyber Security at Cisco Canada, recently told me. “Cybercriminals don’t discriminate between organization size, and small businesses require the same level of cybersecurity protection as large enterprises.”

According to a recent study, last year 67% of small businesses experienced a cyberattack, and another 58% experienced a data breach — leading to lost revenue, customers, and opportunities. 

What makes smaller businesses more vulnerable? The variety and complexity of threats are growing, but these organizations still have limited resources available to monitor, identify, and remediate risks. 

“While the problem and risk are the same,” explains Jack, “large organizations have security teams dedicated to defending their assets while small businesses often struggle with resources and skills.” 

This makes small businesses an ideal target for hackers. In the face of ransomware and malware to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and crypto mining threats, 1/3 of small businesses stated they have no safeguards in place to stop a cybersecurity breach.

Plus, the way we all do business is changing — with digital transformation initiatives and new technologies being deployed, and the rise of mobile, cloud services, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, and the Internet of Things (IoT) creating ever-growing security challenges. Firewalls and up-to-date anti-virus software are no longer enough. 


“Last year 67% of small businesses experienced a cyberattack, and another 58% experienced a data breach — leading to lost revenue, customers, and opportunities.” 


It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the problem. At Cisco, we recommend that small businesses focus their efforts on four key areas: 

Blocking threats earlier

Stop malware before it reaches your network or endpoints. Reduce the time spent remediating infections. This is especially important since 60% of small businesses go out of business in the six months following a cyber attack.

Extending protection

Remove blind spots and protect your employees anywhere they access the Internet.

Securing users and data

Protect employees, data, and apps in the cloud against compromised accounts, malware, and data breaches, while enabling compliance.

Enabling secure cloud use

Improve security with no impact on your employees’ productivity.

Cloud-based security solutions have the capability of delivering on all of these security goals, with techniques that ensure every employee, application and piece of data in the cloud is safe. When evaluating a solution, look for one that delivers:

Visibility: See everything with complete visibility of employees, devices, networks, applications, workloads, and processes. When your security strategy is holistic and integrated from the start, rather than pieced together, it’s easier to stay ahead of threats.

Threat Protection: Identify breaches faster with multi-layered threat sensors to quickly detect, block, and respond to prevent data theft and disruptions of operations. An automated response can help overcome the issue of limited resources with a small (or nonexistent) IT team. 

Segmentation: Prevent attackers from moving laterally east/west across your network with micro-segmentation and application whitelisting.

This will enable you to establish a security “perimeter” around your IT environment, so you can safely transmit data throughout the network, proactively identify and defend against attacks before they hit, and dynamically increase and extend protection as needed.

The problems of cyberattacks may be growing, but with today’s solutions, your small business doesn’t need to become a headline.


The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Register for a free 14-day trial of Cisco Umbrella to protect your business, employees and customer data against cyber threats. With a Cisco Security solution, small businesses go from being overwhelmed to empowered.

Two experts share how to successfully build your online profile

At a time when the next best option is just a few simple clicks away, building a
successful online profile is critical for companies and the entrepreneurs behind them. Jess Hunichen and Emily Ward, co-founders of Shine PR and Shine Influencers, share their proven advice for creating a brand image.




By Jess Hunichen and Emily Ward




When we started the Shine PR brand, we were told we were “too girly” to succeed. We launched the business loudly and yet lightly, with a decidedly less corporate- feeling vibe than what people were used to from public relations agencies at the time. Our tone and branding were fun and vibrant, with an Instagram account filled with quotes and colourful imagery — it had a bit of Kate Spade-esque aesthetic to it. The page gained traction, the business began to take off and our refreshing embrace of femininity actually helped us rather than hindered us.

In 2015, we expanded our business with the creation Shine Influencers, and now help our roster define their own brands. Competition has never been fiercer; at a time when the next best option is just a few simple clicks away, building a successful online profile is critical for companies and the entrepreneurs behind them. Whether you have sights of becoming the latest and greatest influencer or are starting a small business and are the face of the company, your personal brand image is a first impression you convey to the world.

Here’s how to get it right:

Conduct an Audit.

If you already have a social media presence, building a successful brand requires a good hard look at your current accounts; they’re probably in need of cleaning up in some capacity. Odds are, at least a handful of photos — perhaps from your younger and clearly more naïve years — will get deleted or relegated to your Instagram “archive” folder. Ask yourself if a photo or status update truly correlates with the image you’re trying to portray. The videos of your sorority sisters chanting their anthems may be cute to you (and your sisters), but perhaps best left as a throwback on a group chat. For an objective eye, ask someone for an honest opinion of your existing social media content.

Do Your Research.

Like any successful endeavour, a strong online presence requires a little initial research. Look into the workings of the ever-changing Internet: ways to gain traction and exposure, how to build databases and followers, and strategic posting times. Define who you want your ideal audience to be (and why) and familiarize yourself with people or brands that engage a similar demographic. What type of content are they creating and what is resonating the most with their audience? Although the last thing you want to be is a copycat — being your unique and authentic self is part of the strategy — studying successful brands and people who have come before you offers valuable insight.

Know the Feel.

Some of the most successful brands are intentional in their “feel,” which keeps followers coming back time and time again for that daily hit of that emotion. When building and maintaining your online brand, consider how you want your audience to feel when consuming your content. Do you want them to feel inspired? Motivated? Curious? Identifying this will help you develop and curate content that is congruent with the core purpose of your personal brand. Once you identify this, consider how everything from your imagery to your tone will reflect this.

Establish Your Voice.

It’s important to have a distinctive voice — and use it. Your voice could be intellectual, inspirational, motivational, sassy, funny, sarcastic, lighthearted or spiritual. Whatever your voice is, it’s important to try to be consistent online across all of your platforms — having multiple personalities won’t do you any favours. In addition to a uniform voice, your social media name or handle should be as consistent as possible across all of your social media accounts both for brand cohesiveness and so others can find you easily.

Consider Content Structure.

Having consistent content pillars is the final component. While it’s great to try new things and grow with your community of followers, it’s also beneficial to articulate what topics you’re covering and make them your staples. For example, if you’re a nutritionist, perhaps every Monday you post about a different fruit or vegetable, explain the health benefits and give a recipe on how to incorporate it into your week. Followers will find the content helpful and start to come back consistently to see what the next week’s recipe will be.

Build Your Personal Brand.

Have a clear focus as to what your brand represents; the easiest way to do so is to focus on what you’re knowledgeable and passionate about, whether that means travel, sports, entertainment or mindfulness. It seems self-explanatory, but it couldn’t be more important. Don’t become an “overnight expert” in something you clearly aren’t well versed in; the online world can sniff out that type from a mile away. Your community will appreciate the relatability of you discovering a new passion more than you trying to know more than you do. People follow personal brands because they want the real experience, so remember to be honest and recognize your faults if you make a misstep. In general, remember that your social channels are an extension of you; not the other way around.


Melbourne native Jess Hunichen launched her entrepreneurial career in 2008 with
Honey PR, an influential boutique agency. After a successful stint in TV, she arrived
in Canada in 2014 and became an independent communications consultant before
launching the Shine brand in partnership with Emily Ward that same year. Emily is
a public relations consultant with fifteen years of agency experience, working with
brands like Pilsner Urquell, Sol Cuisine, Vegas Tourism, Ontario’s Finest Hotels, Inns
& Spas, and Kraft Foodservice.

One of BMO’s most senior women leaders shares her advice for success

By Sarah Kelsey

As Group Head at BMO Wealth Management, BMO Financial Group, Joanna Rotenberg is one of the bank’s most senior women leaders. She’s on BMO’s Executive Committee, sits on several boards, is active in the community, and is also a mother of three. How did she do it? We asked Joanna to share the key lessons she’s learned on her path to success.

There are two parts to success, Joanna Rotenberg, Group Head at BMO Wealth Management, BMO Financial Group, explains to me as she waits to catch a plane to Europe for business. The first is embracing risk. “I could not have predicted any of the twists and turns my career was going to take,” including a shift in focus from law to business. But in 2010, at the end of her first maternity leave, she got a call that changed everything. 

“I was contacted by a board member at BMO about a position within the organization that was different than what I was doing,” she says. At the time, she was a partner at McKinsey & Company’s Toronto office and led the organization’s Wealth Management and Retirement practice. BMO was one of her clients. Though she knew changing careers and juggling a young child was a huge risk, she realized the opportunity was something she “couldn’t pass up.” 

Today, Joanna is one of the most senior women leaders at BMO, the program executive sponsor for BMO for Women, and is widely recognized as a champion of women in finance. She sits on several boards, was named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network, and in 2018 was named ‘Women in Capital Markets Champion of Change’ for her focus on diversity and inclusion. And she’s a mom to three. 

How she’s been able to accomplish so much at such a young age is in large part due to the second part of her success equation: surround yourself with great people. “Some of the best work I’ve done has been because of the people I’ve worked with,” Joanna notes. “Find people who complement your skills.” 

She encourages everyone to live by the “airplane test.” Before taking a risk on a new job or project, ask yourself if the people you’d be working with are folks you’d want to spend five hours stuck on the runway beside. If they’re not, the opportunity may not be the right fit. 

“For BMO, our best-kept secret is our people. It’s something I saw a little of when BMO was my client,” she says. “People are generally very smart and collaborative, and we attract those who think about the community.” 


“Never underestimate the impact your voice and actions can have, I think it’s the little things that matter just as much as the big things.”


The “airplane test” also applies to sponsorship — something Joanna is a huge advocate for. She actively works to create the conditions for success for those who are keen, ambitious to deliver impact and growth, and will pay it forward to sponsor others to win. “I make it my business to sponsor men and women inside and outside of the wealth team,” she says.

Case in point: she recently coached a woman she’d been sponsoring to take a risk on a career opportunity that would be a stretch for both her knowledge and experience. But Joanna knew she’d excel in the position (which she did). “It’s about giving people that ‘at-bat’ — a seat at the table, to challenge our views, and opportunities to shine or fail in a safe environment.”

It’s here that Joanna pauses to very helpfully explain the important distinction between sponsorship and mentorship; they involve different levels of risk and one is more impactful than the other. 

“A mentor will give you the advice, but a sponsor is someone who will knock down the doors for you,” she notes. “Sponsorship shows you have some promise — someone will be taking a chance on you — so do the best in every situation.”

She says everyone should know the difference before asking a person they admire for career guidance or support. But it’s also important for leaders to recognize each for what it is, and to remember the power they have to grow and build the next generation of high-performing employees. “Never underestimate the impact your voice and actions can have,” she says. “I think it’s the little things that matter just as much as the big things.” 

Joanna also encourages leaders to check their biases at the door when choosing who to work with, especially when it comes to women. “When my daughter comes of age, I want her to have the same opportunities as her twin brother. No more, no less. I want her to not think about gender equality as an issue,” she notes. 

Her last piece of advice applies to everyone — whether they’re in finance or the arts — and is tied to her first requirement for success: don’t let fear of failure prevent you from taking risks. 

“Everyone fails in their personal and professional lives at some point… if you’re not failing enough, you’re not pushing it enough,” she says. “Failures are setbacks in the moment. We’re not surgeons, they’re not irreparable — they’re usually things that can be corrected, fixed and learned from.”

Good Question: My mentor told me that I need to put more effort on critical mandates. Was it a criticism of my work? What am I missing?


“My mentor told me that if I want to move up, I need to start putting more effort on critical mandates. I feel like everything I do is stuff that has to get done — so I’m not sure what to do with this advice. Was it a criticism of my work? What am I missing?



Christine Laperriere
Executive Director, Women of Influence Advancement Centre

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. Her background includes an undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, certifications in psychotherapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and executive coaching, along with years in design engineering and management consulting.



I often coach my clients on how to productively handle negative feedback — but I actually don’t think this is what your mentor is offering. Focusing on critical mandates is key for advancement, and the first step is understanding what this means. It’s not about getting through your task list — everything might have to be done, but not everything is critical — it’s about putting more energy towards what will have a big impact. Here are three easy steps to do it: 


  1. Figure out what are your critical mandates. 

    Can you quickly list the three most important things your company needs you to deliver on? Just because a task is urgent (someone in shipping needs a signature for a package) doesn’t make it important (delivering a presentation to align peers on a critical business objective).

  2. Colour code your calendar. 

    If you have three critical mandates, begin to colour code what mandate you are working on at each point in the day. A lot of people feel this sounds too tactical, but ironically, the moment you see where your daytime hours are being spent, it gets very easy to see what is keeping you away from your most important work. I challenge you to try this out for four weeks and then review your history to see what stands out to you. 

  3. Ask for support. 

    As you start to re-prioritize your time to focus on the most important mandates, some other things are going to naturally get less attention. As this is a growth opportunity for you, you may need to reach out to your boss to explain how you’re prioritizing critical mandates, and ask for support. She might need to delegate time intensive, low priority work to someone else, or even advise that certain tasks be set to the back burner until more critical initiatives are complete.


To learn more about how you or your organization can advance talented female professionals and leaders more effectively, contact Christine directly at claperriere@womenofinlfuence.ca.


How Latha Sukumar turned a small non-profit translation service into a national success — giving people in need a voice

Latha Sukumar was working as a lawyer when a personal experience led her down a new career path. She’s now the Executive Director of MCIS Language Services, a non-profit social enterprise offering translation, interpretation, and consulting to over 800 organizations across Canada — but it wasn’t always such a success. Latha shares how she came into her role and grew the business, with a mission of giving more people a voice.




By Karen van Kampen


As a summer law student working at the Crown’s office, Latha Sukumar witnessed a trial that would have a deep, lasting impact on her life. A man was charged with sexually assaulting an Iraqi woman at a church picnic. It was a difficult and emotional case, says Latha, with the Arabic speaking woman unable to tell her story.

“I felt totally helpless because I didn’t speak her language,” says Latha. “It became evident that these kinds of cases cannot be properly prosecuted if women don’t have a voice. That became a crusade for me.”

As Executive Director of MCIS Language Solutions — a non-profit social enterprise that specializes in translation, interpretation, and consulting — Latha works tirelessly to give people a voice by removing language barriers. In recognition of this unwavering vision, in 2018 she was presented with the RBC Social Change Award. It’s given to the leader of an organization dedicated to social change, that’s championing philanthropy and volunteerism in Canada.

Latha’s fight for social change began when she was a young girl growing up in India, listening to stories of oppression from her mother’s village. Stories of marital rape and widows working as menials in their own homes. Despite being very smart, her mother had to quit school when she reached puberty, forbidden to attend a mixed school with boys.

Along with her two sisters, she “grew up with the idea that women are subject to all these injustices and we have to stand up for the rights of women,” says Latha, adding that her mother “raised us to be women who were fearless.”

In 1987, at the age of 25, Latha immigrated to Canada with her husband and one-year-old daughter. “I had to go through a whole process of transforming myself,” she says. Latha cut her long hair, removed her nose ring, and began wearing Western skirts and pants.

A year later, Latha began a Master’s in Women’s Studies. “When I came here, I had to find my voice,” she says. “I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”

Latha continued her studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she learned a more evidence-based way of thinking. “If I did not go to law school, I would have a much more rosy-eyed view,” she says. “Now I’m more practical.”

In 1996, Latha was appointed Executive Director at the non-profit Multilingual Community Interpreter Services (MCIS). “It was serendipitous,” she says. “It felt like my cause had found me.” At the time, MCIS had a staff of two-and-a-half, including Latha, operating out of a small warehouse in Scarborough. They relied solely on year-to-year government funding, which was unsustainable.


“When I came here, I had to find my voice. I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”


In 2004, Latha set out to grow the organization, a feat she says she completely underestimated. “I thought as a lawyer, I had all the competence to do things,” she says. “I was so wrong.” Latha discovered that being an entrepreneur entailed reading financial statements, building streamlined operations, collecting and reading data, predicting and planning.

That year, MCIS partnered with Rotman School of Management, offering students experience at a not-for-profit. In exchange, Latha says the MBA interns shared knowledge of operations, upgrading technology, standard operating procedures, and marketing. MCIS continued the summer program for the next six years. “It was incredible learning,” she says.

As your business grows, it’s important to constantly educate yourself, to stay on top of changes within your industry, and “to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you in many different ways,” says Latha. “That’s hard sometimes because you feel challenged.”

It’s also important to delegate responsibility and not “get bogged down with busy work,” she adds. “The more you grow, the more strategic you have to become. It’s important to look beyond the present and keep calibrating your company’s weaknesses, strengths and opportunities to grow to the next level.”

To stand out in the crowded space of language services, MCIS increased its training programs to ramp up capacity quickly, hired bilingual staff and ensured people had the proper security clearance. This enabled MCIS to compete for federal government contracts, and in 2015, MCIS won the contract to provide interpreter services for Syrian refugees immigrating to Canada. When the first plane landed, Latha says they were ready, deploying hundreds of Arabic speaking interpreters who also spoke English and French to work with government authorities in both Montreal and Toronto.

Today, MCIS has more than 6,000 interpreters and translators who speak more than 300 languages collectively and serve more than 800 organizations across Canada. While it hasn’t always been easy, Latha tells herself, “every day incrementally,” focusing on how she is able to make a difference in people’s lives.

Latha reflects on a woman who refused to speak for three months. Every day, an MCIS interpreter would visit the woman in a shelter, yet the woman remained silent. Then one day the woman found the courage and trust to tell her story of abuse. The case went to superior court and her husband was convicted.  

“We know that we made a difference in that woman’s life,” says Latha. “Those are the stories that keep you going every day.”



Lessons Learned: How a senior executive is redefining “having it all” by making peace with compromise

The topic of “having it all” can quickly spark debate — not only about whether or not it’s possible but also about the unrealistic expectations just discussing this goal can impose on women. But, whether we talk about it or not, many of us are still experiencing the struggle of balancing work and life. Shemina Jiwani, a tech executive and mother of two, has found her own approach to having it all, centred around compromise. These are the lessons she’s learned.




By Shemina Jiwani


Can a woman have it all? I grapple with this question all the time, as I attempt to find balance in my own life between being a mother to two young children and a Chief Operating Officer for a FinTech company. I believe the answer first lies in how you define “having it all” and being realistic about it. I believe that I can have it all, with one caveat: having it all comes only when we are able to make peace with the trade-offs and compromises necessary to do so.


We Need Female Executives

There are countless studies which find direct correlations between a company’s profitability and the presence of women in executive and senior leadership positions, most notably McKinsey & Company’s “Women in the Workplace 2018” report. Clearly, we as women are doing our part.

Women are earning more bachelor’s degrees than men, we are asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rate as men, and we are staying in the overall workforce at the same rate as men.  So why do women represent only 15% of executive or senior management positions?

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done. We need to stand on equal ground.   


Eliminating Unconscious Bias

I recently took a business trip to London, England for four days, leaving my husband to care for our four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son solo. I was flying with a male colleague whose kids are the same age. I jokingly asked him if he was in trouble for leaving, as I had multiple friends, colleagues, and even my own mother tell me I shouldn’t be leaving my children. He was surprised. He replied the only opinion he was given on his trip was a pub recommendation.

Both men and women can harbour unconscious biases when hiring and evaluating for the promotion of women. Often these biases focus on women’s motherhood or even potential motherhood.  For instance, it may be assumed that a woman between the ages of 20 and 40 will inevitably take maternity leave, or if she is a mother that she will prioritize family before career. Yet, even hard-working women who try to prioritize their careers will still be subject to judgements about being a bad mom or working too hard.  It’s a frustrating catch-22, and it is a bias because these assumptions are not commonly made for men of the same age group.

The antidote to unconscious bias may very well be empathy. Start a dialogue by sharing your experiences with your colleagues; you may help them see things from a different perspective.


Find a Work-Life Balance

It was very difficult for me to find balance; I couldn’t unshackle myself from my own guilt and the opinions of others, even if it meant sacrificing my own happiness. This is not sustainable. Flexibility, boundaries, and self-care are essential to “having it all.”


Here are some good places to start:

  • Ask for what you want: I was lucky enough to adopt my son from Morocco, which meant living there for six months. Before, I would have assumed taking maternity leave was my only option. Instead, I worked remotely and didn’t lose any momentum in my career progression. You won’t get what you don’t ask for.


  • Establish rules of engagement: Set boundaries for yourself and others that help you be more present. For example, I leave the office at 4 PM every day, and I don’t check my phone again until the kids are asleep at 7:30 PM. For you, it might mean working from home more often, establishing flex-time, or setting a monthly travel-limit.


  • Find a support system: Maybe we can have it all, but we can’t always do it all. It’s also important to remember that raising kids is not only a mom’s job. I have an amazing husband who shares the load with me. Single moms may need to consider amending co-parenting plans, enlisting the help of family, or even hiring childcare. Every family is different but remember you don’t need to do it alone.


  • Ditch the guilt: Inevitably, you’ll miss something: a recital, a game, a meeting, a deadline… accept it and move on. Own your choices and mistakes: you’re a human being. Guilt is not productive, nor is placing too much stock in the opinions or judgements of others.  


  • Find a Tribe: With so few women in upper management, it can get lonely. I was lucky enough to find a group of like-minded women from an accelerator program called Rise Up. I now have a network of 35 women that can truly relate to me, empower me, and help me stay on track.


You probably can’t be an effective CEO and a PTA president, but you can have it all as long as you are at peace with the compromises you need to make to do so.   


Shemina Jiwani is the Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at AscendantFX, a technology-based payment provider. Shemina is an experienced strategic leader with a focus on aligning people with technology. Shemina is an inaugural member of Money 20/20’s Rise Up Program, a global accelerator program for women in finance and technology. Follow her on Twitter @sheminajiwani


5 ways to know if your website is good enough

You’ve accomplished the first step: you have a website for your business. But is it good enough? Answering these five simple questions can help you determine if your online presence is building your business — or holding it back. 





How important is your website?

It’s a key part of the relationship between you and your customers. Research by CIRA found that 63 per cent of consumers believe a website makes a business seem more credible, and 26 per cent simply don’t trust businesses without one. Even if you have a bricks-and-mortar presence, 76 per cent of Canadians will research their purchases online before going to a store to buy it — but that doesn’t mean any web presence will do.

Anna Walkowiak, Business Model Innovation Lead at BDC’s Advisory Services, explains that in today’s market having a bad website can do more damage to your brand than having no website at all. “There are companies that actually function successfully without a website and they do everything manually, the channels are very much direct. It’s not ideal in 2019, but having a bad website can actually jeopardize the scalability of the whole business.”

With your website potentially playing such a critical role in success, the next question is obvious: is yours good enough? Fortunately, you don’t have to be a web expert to find out. There are online tools that can help, or simply ask yourself the following questions to get a good sense of where you might need improvement.


1) Are you presenting your brand effectively?

Any individual, whether or not they have interacted with your brand before, should be able to go to your site and understand why your business exists, what sets you apart from the competition, and how you meet their needs as a customer. Your voice and visual branding should also be clear and consistent.

If you don’t feel these elements come across strongly on your site, look for places to make adjustments. And if you are struggling to explain why customers should do business with you, first focus on building a strategic marketing plan to help develop your brand and position your company. Anna suggests asking yourself these five questions before developing your website “Who is your specific target customer? What are the clear benefits of your business to the customer? How can you make your messaging customer-centred and inclusive? What is your unique selling point? What is your strong call-to-action to the customer going to be?”

2) Can your customers find you?

You’ve heard the saying, if you build it, they will come. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in the digital age. Anna recommends making “your website part of your wider business strategy,” in order to make it as easy as possible to find your business.  

Google is responsible for over 92 per cent of searches, so your first check should be how you rank when you look up keywords relevant to your business. If you are appearing a few pages in, there are some organic (unpaid) techniques you can use to improve your standing — and most are related to having a good website. Unique and quality content, faster page loads, backlinks (websites linking to yours), and secure pages can all help. You can also consider paid search advertising to get your result to the top of the first page. A Google Ads campaign is easy to set up, but can be a challenge to execute effectively — so you may also want to get expert guidance.

Lastly, don’t forget the other channels that can feed into your site, from social media to local review sites (like Yelp and Foursquare). If you aren’t using these tools, you are making it harder for potential customers to find you. However, like a bad website, poor social media messaging can be harmful to your brand.

“Your messaging needs to be carefully crafted,” says Anna. Also, you need to give some thought as to what social media channels are appropriate for your business. “For example, if you are a business-to-business service, you don’t necessarily have to be on Instagram but you need to be present on LinkedIn.”


“With your website potentially playing such a critical role in success, the next question is obvious: is yours good enough?”


3) Can your customers find what they are looking for?

Think about your customer’s experience when they visit your site. The more scrolling and clicking that’s required to find important information or purchase a product, the more opportunity there is for a customer to drop off before reaching that goal.

“Your website should be clearly addressed to your target customer with a value proposition that gives clear benefits for your customer,” says Anna. “How is it useful? What is the specific end result customer can get?”  

You should also think about the questions your customers ask you most often. Are the answers easy to find on your site? Can they easily contact you if needed? Can they find your business location? Can they make a purchase or sign up for your newsletter without having to dig around? If you answered no to any of these, it’s time to make some changes.

Consider how easy it is to navigate your site, how clearly information is presented, and how visually appealing it is. Competitive sites can be useful for comparison, but keep in mind that consumer expectations are set by their entire online experience, not just sites in your industry.

4) Are you learning about your customers?

You already know that understanding your customer is key to success. If you aren’t using the data from your site and social media channels, you’re missing out on an important opportunity to get to know them better.

Google Analytics is a great tool for digging into your site stats. Look at where visitors are coming from, how they navigate your site, what content they read, and at what point they exit. There’s also demographic information, like age, and you can compare subgroups, like new versus returning visitors. All social media platforms include their own analytics tools as well, where you can see what content gets the most engagement, and learn more about your audience.

You can use all this information (and much more) to fine-tune your efforts, not only to serve your current customers better but also to target new ones.

5) Are you mobile-friendly?

If you’re feeling good about how your website looks on your laptop, have you tried navigating through it on your mobile phone? Anna says “clarity and simplicity are key,” and be sure to go deeper than the homepage. Follow the common path of a customer, whether that’s reading content, making a purchase, filling out a form, or watching a video.

Having a site that works optimally on any device is key — considering 72 per cent of Canadians access the internet through a mobile device. And since search engines will rank a site higher if it has a mobile version, this will also impact your ability to attract potential customers.


If you’re checking all the boxes, congratulations! If you have work to do, don’t worry — the great thing about your online presence is that it can always be improved.



For a clear look at how your website is performing — and tips on how to improve it — check out BDC’s Website Assessment Tool. Simply enter your URL, and in 90 seconds you’ll have access to a free report looking at how your site stacks up on several indicators.


Giving time to a charitable partner can be great for your business — here’s how to do it well

Do you see the value of charitable giving as a tax receipt? Businesses that give back through community involvement rather than just signing a cheque greatly benefit their charitable partners — and themselves. Here’s how to pick the right one, and make a positive impact.


By Monica Gomez



Charitable contributions aren’t a new thing for businesses, but more and more, the practice is moving beyond just signing a cheque. Consumers are putting pressure on businesses to take an active role in doing good — 70 per cent of Millennials report they’ll spend more on brands that support causes — and research shows that engaging with charities in the community creates employees that are loyal, teamplayers, and brand ambassadors.

At my own business, The Concierge Club, I’ve seen the bottom-line benefit: with a rapidly growing company, our charitable initiatives have been a great way to stand out and attract new clients and talent with like-minded goals. But that hasn’t been the driving factor. To me, giving back is the most rewarding part of being a business owner. I’m humbled to be in a position where I have the means to directly impact those who need support.

And I’ve consciously built my company with a philanthropic spirit, so that everyone on the team is passionate about doing their part to give back — no matter how big or small that might be. During our interview process, one of the questions I always ask potential candidates is what their favourite give back moments are.

We love getting involved in our local community, and the work we have done with Yellow Brick House has been really inspirational for myself, my team, and the women and children we’re supporting. I knew I wanted to partner with a women’s shelter and after some research online, Yellow Brick House really stood out, as they empower mothers to rebuild their lives and give them a voice after suffering years of abuse. Every day they are operating at capacity and I knew straight away that The Concierge Club could have a huge impact — after two major initiatives and a fundraising effort, I believe that we have.

So the question is, how can you build a charitable partnership that has been as rewarding as ours, for everyone involved? 

  1. Start with your passion points.

I like to engage with everyone on my team and find out what they are passionate about. When you know what would inspire them to give back, you can work towards a goal together. As a mother of two, organizations that give back to women and children have always tugged at my heartstrings, and these types of organizations also resonate with my female-run team.

Plus, as a Toronto resident and owner of a business that does a ton of work in the Toronto market, supporting local is important for us. Yellow Brick House is an Ontario-based shelter, which makes it easier for us to use our available resources to make the lives of their residents better in any way that we can.


“To me, giving back is the most rewarding part of being a business owner. I’m humbled to be in a position where I have the means to directly impact those who need support.”


  1. Focus on how your strengths can help their needs

It’s important to figure out what the organization is looking for and then determine how your business can best support them. It needs to make sense in terms of expertise and, of course, be a natural fit. Some questions we like to ask are: What are the charities objectives? What do they need most? When do they need it and how could they benefit from our services? We always want to ensure the partnership is authentic, so selecting an organization that allows us to bring an event or experience to life is very important.

In March 2018, we partnered with Women of Influence to host a day of pampering and career coaching at a luxury spa in Toronto for the women of Yellow Brick House. Included in the day was a career and resume workshop, where we sat down with each woman and outlined her goals and tangible next steps to help get her there. As part of our partnership, we launched a fundraiser with the goal of raising $5,000 to support the women and children of the shelter. I’m so proud of my team, as they were generous with not only their time to support this initiative but also with their money. After less than one week of fundraising, we surpassed our goal and ultimately raised $7,500.


  1. Think long-term, and be creative.

We like to approach partnerships on a long term basis. Rather than a one-and-done or flash-in-the-pan approach, we pride ourselves on working with organizations to make a longstanding and consistent impact. Everyone at The Concierge Club was honoured to be working with Yellow Brick House for our second major initiative this year.

We did something a little different that could be enjoyed by all the residents and volunteers at Yellow Brick House. We completely renovated and freshened up parts of the shelter, making it a comfortable place for the women and children to gather together and enjoy some R&R. We refurbished the floors and some of the existing furniture, as well as purchased some new furniture and blinds for the windows and a fresh coat of paint, to brighten up the room.

Sometimes it can be hard to make time in a busy day for charity work, but the drive and passion the team has shown for Yellow Brick House is so heartwarming. We were all so thrilled at the end of our projects, that we can’t wait to get started on another.