Meet Lianne Di Rocco, a top wealth advisor and leader of an all-women team.

A Senior Wealth Advisor and Portfolio Manager at BMO Nesbitt Burns, Lianne Di Rocco has been advising high net worth families, foundations, and institutional clients since 1994. After a bold career transition — she originally owned a catering business — Lianne has since earned designations as Personal Financial Planner (PFP®), Certified International Wealth Manager (CIWM), and Chartered Investment Manager (CIM®). In 2015, she became a Fellow of the Canadian Securities Institute (FCSI), the most senior credential in the Canadian financial services industry. Starting out at a time when the industry was overwhelmingly male-dominated, Lianne’s trailblazing 30-year career has led her to be recognized as one of the top women advisors in the field of wealth management, and she proudly manages an all-women team. Building her business on meaningful connections, Lianne truly enjoys sharing her years of human and financial insight with her clients.

 

My first job ever was… in my family business, when I was about 12. On Saturday mornings, my sister and I would walk to our father’s office where his bookkeeper had left us tasks to complete. I remember in particular needing to organize the blank ledger books by measuring and penning the columns, filling out the titles, and numbering the pages. This was when everything was still handwritten.

My boldest move to date was… switching careers. I had a catering business in Belleville, the small community where I grew up, and realized that due to the long and unconventional work hours, it would not be conducive to having a family and raising kids. I decided I wanted to become a stockbroker and took the train to Toronto to interview in different departments at an investment firm. For the most part, it went absolutely nowhere; I was told “You’d be good in the back office,” and “Maybe you could be a sales assistant.”

By the end of the day, I was so frustrated that in my meeting with a retail manager I just said, “Listen, I’ve got to go get the train back to Belleville, I have to feed 250 people in a field tomorrow.” We got to talking about my catering business and how I had grown it, and afterwards, I was asked if I wanted to join the rookie training program. I signed the contract without reading a single ounce of anything. I just knew it started in September, and it was June.

My biggest challenge was… my very first day at the rookie training program. I had sold my business, moved to Toronto, and I didn’t know a soul. The instructor said, “Take out your pen and paper and start writing down where your clients are going to come from.” My stomach still drops when I think about this, because I had assumed they were going to give me clients, not that I had to go out and find them on my own.

I overcame it by… realizing I had to differentiate myself. It was 1994, and everybody was talking about stocks and trading equities, so I learned everything I could about the fixed income market. I called myself the “Bond Girl” and conducted seminars to educate about buying bonds versus GICs, and the advantages of buying bonds in a declining interest rate environment.

In hindsight, I was already differentiated because I was a woman — there were only two others in my rookie training program. That in and of itself could’ve been the steppingstone to use, but it wasn’t even on my radar at the time.

“When a new client comes in, I don’t request statements or bring account opening documents. Instead, we have a meaningful conversation about who they are and who the people most important to them are.” 

My approach with clients is… focused on connection. When a new client comes in, I don’t request statements or bring account opening documents. Instead, we have a meaningful conversation about who they are and who the people most important to them are. To be able to pass these assets on to the children and the grandchildren — that’s what we’re about.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about myself since getting started is… trusting myself intuitively. We know when something’s wrong, and we know when we’re on the right path. My ability to honour that and to follow through comes more naturally now then when I was younger, due to my years of experience in the business, building my confidence and trust in myself.

My advice for women interested in a career as a financial advisor is… you can’t overthink it. If you do, you’re going to talk yourself out of it. It’s going to be hard, but if you trust the process and you’re honest about the effort that you’re putting in, you will be successful. Set big goals and if you don’t achieve them, that’s okay. You had the courage to set it and try.

I’m passionate about having all women on my team because… when I started in the business 30 years ago, it was completely male-dominated with the opportunities being afforded primarily to men. The system has changed and things have improved, but I still feel that I have a responsibility to bring women onto my team and to continue to grow it, and I’m very passionate about calling out any unfair treatment, or when I see a woman being taken advantage of in the business. At some point, when I retire, I will absolutely have a woman carry on and grow what I’ve built. 

The thing I love most about what I do is… being able to connect with clients, and to empower them. I have a multi-generational book of business and have clients who may no longer be with us, but I have the opportunity to deal with their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. To be able to pass that legacy down, to be able to say, “Your grandmother was like this,” or “Your grandfather would be so proud of you that you’re buying your house” — it’s an honor that I get to be in their lives.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I am very passionate about growing organic food.

The future excites me because… we are finally embracing diversity. We’re moving at an exponential rate now after little change in the last 25 plus years. There’s opportunity for women and other historically marginalized communities. It’s amazing because we are going to get a better input and output that will translate into even stronger relationships.

My next step is… building out my team. I have always said, “We don’t have to be the biggest, but we do have to be the best.” I’ll need to change that as my goal is for us to be the biggest all-female advisory team in Canada, while still providing best-in-class service. That’s the next chapter and it’s going to be phenomenal.

Isabelle a hérité d’une partie de l’entreprise de sa famille à l’âge de 19 ans – voici comment elle s’y est prise pour se préparer en vue de l’avenir.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

Comptable de formation, Isabelle est une personne qui a compris la valeur de l’argent dès son plus jeune âge.

Enfant, elle a vu son père gérer une entreprise manufacturière prospère dans le secteur de de la machinerie industrielle et de l’outillage, et elle a souvent été témoin de conversations sur les ventes, les coûts et les risques liés au fait d’être un entrepreneur. L’exposition à certaines activités de l’entreprise a aidé Isabelle et son frère à la diriger après le décès inattendu de leur père, alors qu’elle n’avait que 19 ans.

Mais malgré sa connaissance des questions de budget et de bilan et l’immense soutien reçu de la part des membres de sa famille et de conseillers d’affaires, lorsqu’est venu le temps de vendre l’entreprise familiale après l’avoir dirigée pendant 10 ans, elle s’est rendu compte qu’elle avait besoin d’être aidée par des experts.

« Le travail d’un comptable et celui d’un conseiller financier sont des choses très différentes, explique Isabelle. Avec la vente de l’entreprise, je me suis progressivement désintéressée de la prise de décisions pour l’entreprise pour m’occuper davantage d’investir dans mon avenir financier personnel et dans celui de ma famille. »

C’est un membre de sa famille qui a présenté Isabelle à Catherine Laurin, CFA, gestionnaire de portefeuille principale et conseillère en placement à BMO. Ensemble, elles ont commencé à discuter de la situation et des objectifs d’Isabelle, et elles ont établi un partenariat de gestion financière axé sur la confiance, qui dure depuis plus de dix ans déjà.

La première chose que Catherine a faite pour aider Isabelle a été d’établir un plan financier qui répondrait à ses besoins et à ses objectifs globaux. « Nous avons mis en place des stratégies de planification dans le but de protéger et de maximiser son patrimoine après impôt », explique Catherine. Elle a également offert des conseils sur la meilleure façon de faire face aux turbulences sur le plan financier. « Maintenir le cap et suivre la stratégie mise en place a bien servi Isabelle », dit-elle.

« Catherine est très franche avec moi, dit Isabelle, et il est important qu’elle le soit. Si quelque chose ne fonctionne pas à court terme, je sais qu’elle me le dira. Il existe une chimie entre nous et je suis à l’aise de lui parler de mes rêves et de mes aspirations. Nous avons une relation de confiance, et au fil du temps, notre relation professionnelle est aussi devenue personnelle. Elle a eu l’occasion de faire connaissance avec mes enfants. »

Catherine affirme que la relation entre un conseiller et son client est une relation de partenariat. « Il est important que vous trouviez une personne qui a les compétences nécessaires pour répondre à vos besoins et pour vous soutenir. »

Elle souligne également qu’un client devrait se sentir à l’aise de poser des questions à son conseiller. « Celles-ci devraient être bien accueillies. Vous devez bien comprendre ce qui se passe. Une bonne compréhension favorisera la confiance, ce qui est essentiel à la réussite à long terme. »

Aujourd’hui, Isabelle dit qu’elle travaille avec Catherine pour atteindre ses objectifs à long terme et qu’elle peut compter sur diverses ressources de BMO – comme des services de gestion de placements – pour faciliter la croissance de son portefeuille.

Avec encore de nombreuses années de travail qui l’attendent, elle espère pouvoir concentrer ses efforts pour accomplir quelque chose qui peut faire une différence. À long terme, son objectif est de s’assurer que sa famille ne manque de rien. Pour cela, elle doit enseigner à ses enfants comment prendre leurs propres décisions financières en les initiant aux questions liées à la gestion de l’argent, et plus précisément à l’approche qu’elle a apprise en travaillant avec BMO.

« Mon expérience avec BMO m’a permis de découvrir une façon différente de gérer mon argent. Il s’agit d’une approche globale en matière de placement et de planification, qui diffère de la gestion de portefeuille traditionnelle, où vous recevez tous les quelques mois des rapports de la part d’un employé d’une société de placement, ajoute Isabelle. Ici, vous participez de façon plus active au processus et vous travaillez avec une équipe en vue d’élaborer la meilleure stratégie pour gérer vos finances. »

Catherine affirme que de nombreuses personnes peuvent se sentir réticentes à aller voir quelqu’un pour obtenir des conseils financiers après un changement important dans leur vie (qu’il s’agisse de la vente d’une entreprise, d’un divorce ou de la perte d’un emploi), mais que cela ne doit pas être perçu comme une montagne parce qu’elle-même et d’autres conseillers de BMO sont là pour aider.

« Le fait d’être soutenu et guidé dans une telle démarche peut vraiment réduire la pression pour une personne qui traverse une période difficile, souligne-t-elle. Savoir que vous n’êtes pas seul et que vous serez accompagné tout au long du processus aide habituellement à enlever une énorme quantité de pression. Nous voulons être en mesure de fournir des conseils impartiaux à nos clients afin de répondre à leurs besoins. »

Isabelle inherited part of the family business at 19 — here’s how she’s set herself up for the future.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

A trained accountant, Isabelle is someone who understood the value of money at a young age. 

As a child, she watched her father manage a successful tool manufacturing business for the woodworking industry and often witnessed conversations about sales, costs, and the risks of being an entrepreneur. The exposure to certain business operations helped Isabelle and her brother run the company after their father unexpectedly passed away when she was just 19. 

But even with her knowledge of budgets, balance sheets, and a wealth of support from family members and business advisors, when it came time to sell the family’s company after 10 years of running it, she realized she needed some expert-level help. 

“Accountant and financial advisor are two very different jobs,” Isabelle says. “With the sale of the company, my financial focus shifted away from making decisions for the business toward investing in my personal and familial future outcomes.” 

She was introduced to Catherine Laurin, CFA, Senior Portfolio Manager and Investment Advisor with BMO, by a family member. The two started talking about Isabelle’s situation and goals and began a trusted money management partnership that has lasted over a decade. 

Catherine’s first step in helping Isabelle was to establish a financial plan that would meet her overall objectives and needs. “We put in place planning strategies that would protect and maximize her wealth on an after-tax basis,” explains Catherine. She also offered counsel on how to best weather turbulent financial storms. “Staying the course has served Isabelle well,” she says. 

“Catherine is very frank with me,” Isabelle says, “and she needs to be. If something isn’t working in the short-term then I know she’ll tell me. We have chemistry and I’m at ease when talking to her about my dreams and aspirations. There’s trust, and over time, our professional relationship has become a personal one, too. She’s gotten to know my kids.”

“You need to properly understand what’s happening. Understanding will lead to trust, which is key to long-term success.”

Catherine says that the relationship between an advisor and their client is a partnership. “It’s important you find a person that has the competence to address your needs and support you.”

She also notes that a client should feel comfortable asking their advisor questions. “These should be welcomed. You need to properly understand what’s happening. Understanding will lead to trust, which is key to long-term success.”

Today, Isabelle says she’s working with Catherine to achieve her long-term goals and relies on a variety of BMO resources — like investment management services — to facilitate the growth of her portfolio. 

With many more work years ahead of her, she is hoping to focus on accomplishing something that makes a difference. Longer-term, her aim is to ensure her family is taken care of. That includes educating her children on how to make their own financial decisions by introducing them to money management, and specifically the approach she’s learned by working with BMO. 

“Through my experience with BMO, I’ve been introduced to a different way of managing my money. It’s a holistic investment approach, and it differs from traditional portfolio management where you get reports every few months from someone at an investment firm,” Isabelle adds. “Here, you’re more integrated into the process and work with a team to develop the best strategy to approach your finances.” 

Catherine says many people may feel reluctant to reach out to someone for financial advice after a life-changing circumstance (be that a business sale, divorce, or the loss of a job), but says there’s no need to feel overwhelmed because she and other BMO advisors are there to help. 

“To be supported and guided through this process can really lift a lot of pressure on an individual going through a difficult time,” she notes. “To know you are not alone and will be walked through the process step-by-step usually helps lift a tremendous amount of pressure. We want to be in the position to provide unbiased advice to our clients to meet their needs.”

An emergency pushed this sole breadwinner to seek financial advice — here’s what she learned.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

Like many of us, Heather, an executive at an insurance and financial institution, was raised to keep financial discussions in the vault. Her mother and father are in their late-80s and -90s and kept financial matters private. 

Then her mother, the manager of the household finances, had a stroke. Heather was left scrambling to untangle a complex web of puzzle pieces — from powers of attorney impacts to bill payments and bank statements — that needed to come together quickly.

The situation was amplified given that Heather is a longstanding single parent to twins and was in the middle of contemplating a career change. 

“I realized if something were to happen to me, I wanted to make sure everyone was taken care of and the details were communicated to my children,” Heather says. “I had to work with someone to get everything organized.” 

Enter Jamie Keenan, a Wealth Advisor and Portfolio Manager at BMO. Heather was introduced to her through friends at the International Women’s Forum. 

“Heather is an incredibly successful professional who climbed the corporate ladder while raising twins on her own,” says Jamie. “I noticed from the get-go she was very disciplined in her savings and budgeting approach. Despite being diligent, Heather needed advice on how to put the pieces of her financial puzzle together.” Her estate plan was also out of date — something that Jamie says is very common — and it made sense given all of her financial obligations at the time. 

Together, Heather and Jamie worked to “peel back the onion layers” of Heather’s finances. They spoke candidly about what was needed for Heather to feel more organized with managing her money and Jamie asked her questions about what she wanted for her next chapters in life beyond working. From there, they laid the foundation and set a path that would allow Heather to accomplish all she wanted to do smartly and in a financially safe way. 

“We completed a comprehensive financial plan so she could maintain choice, oversight, and independence on a potential career change and her eventual retirement. Our action items were clear and achievable.” 

“My first goal with Heather was to get a sense of her financial situation. We completed a comprehensive financial plan so she could maintain choice, oversight, and independence on a potential career change and her eventual retirement,” says Jamie. “Our action items were clear and achievable.” 

One goal, for example, was for Heather to update her will and powers of attorney. Through seeking advice, listening to alternatives, and creating her financial framework, it showed Heather she could maintain autonomy and get things done. 

Slowly and surely, Heather says she started to feel more confident in her financial plans. She also started to have open discussions with her kids about money and what that meant for them. 

Today, she says she has an annual “meeting” with her twins where she walks them through everything from her assets to her will. She’s also introduced them to Jamie.

“Single women have the autonomy to make their own financial decisions. When you don’t have to worry about a partner who has different spending or savings goals, you can create your own financial destiny. It sounds dreamy, right?” says Jamie. 

The only problem is when her clients put the financial needs of others before their own — which is very common — they tend to shoulder too much. They need to ask for help and do as Heather has done: surround themselves with a solid “board of directors” to guide them through must-have legal and financial documents. Jamie was in full support to work with Heather’s accountant and helped her secure a strong estate lawyer.

“Gather the courage to ask for help and make a business decision like you would anything else. It will give you that peace of mind and alternatives. Why wouldn’t you have someone join your team?”

“Jamie recognized it was hard for me to let go because I was accustomed to making all the decisions as the single point of accountability in our family,” Heather says, adding that it took time, but they eventually built the trust required for her to embrace the financial planning process. “Gather the courage to ask for help and make a business decision like you would anything else. It will give you that peace of mind and alternatives. Why wouldn’t you have someone join your team?”

She adds: “You can’t go back, but I wish I had met Jamie sooner. I wish I had had guidance when I was making money decisions earlier in my career — the tax implications and what things are good investments. I also wish I had changed the status quo and talked more about money with my family.”

Heather says she’s still in chapter one of her financial plan. Her long-term goals include taking care of her elderly parents and being in a position to help her kids with housing. She’d also like to travel, a personal passion.

Looking back on her financial journey, she offers two final bits of advice. 

First, interview a couple different advisors before you settle on one. She knew Jamie was “it” when their convo left her feeling like she “walked into the perfect home while house hunting.” Jamie also asked questions that “provoked some thinking” Heather hadn’t thought of.

Second, it’s never too late to make sense of your finances. “You can do things the ‘right’ way. You need to ask for help — and to be open to support. And you need to start talking openly about your finances with the right people. You can chart your own course.”

Years of deceit left Dana in extreme financial trouble — here’s how she worked through it.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

What do you do when you realize the person managing your company’s finances has been lying to you? Worse yet, what do you do when that person is your spouse and they’ve also been unfaithful?

That’s what happened to Dana, VP of business development at a tech company, on Easter weekend four years ago. Overnight, she became the person responsible for cleaning up a very sticky financial situation — her husband hadn’t filed her business’ taxes for several years, and she owed upwards of six figures to Revenue Canada. She also became the sole provider for two kids.

“It was a long weekend, so I gave myself a few days and allowed myself to cry and drink wine, then I realized I had to get going,” Dana says. “For the first month, I focused on getting my affairs in order: new wills, insurance beneficiaries, etc. Then, I moved to the finances. I met with my accountant and he referred me to John.”

Dana connected with John Sacke, an Investment Advisor and Portfolio Manager with BMO. His focus is on helping women step into their own as money managers.

“Dana had a lot of concerns with respect to paying her bills and keeping current with her finances. She was living with a lot of uncertainty as a result,” John says. “I have numerous clients going through marital discord. The notion of taking baby steps is very important. I told her to expect emotional turbulence.” 

Dana says she and John worked together to figure out a step-by-step plan for her to not only repay the debts she inherited as a result of her marital situation, but also how to ensure she and her kids were taken care of long-term. 

“The way he went about asking me what I wanted to achieve short- and long-term was never patronizing. He helped me build a new strategy for a way forward based on my goals.” 

Today, through the analysis and the work they did as a team, Dana is months away from paying everything she owes in taxes and has been able to provide for both of her kids, helping her daughter achieve her dream of becoming a skateboarder with Team Canada and assisting her son in a big move to New Brunswick with his girlfriend for new jobs. She now has a holistic tax strategy that’s setting her and her family up for success. 

“The way he went about asking me what I wanted to achieve short- and long-term was never patronizing,” she says. “He helped me build a new strategy for a way forward based on my goals.” 

Naturally, that doesn’t mean the process was always easy.

Dana admits to being frustrated over putting too much trust in her ex-husband and for how long it took to reset her finances; John says he had to gently remind her to trust the BMO process — things take time, but they work out.

“First, I always suggest we do a financial plan, which is a core part of my services. Without cost or obligation, it sets out the vulnerabilities in one’s financial tapestry,” says John of the steps he uses when dealing with these kinds of situations and new clients. “Second, I’m a big believer in consolidation, meaning the less accounts one has, the better one can plan a strategy.” Lastly, he counsels clients to take a holistic look at their finances and to think about what that means long-term.

Dana now says she wouldn’t have been able to survive the past few years if she hadn’t been open to accepting help and finding some space to re-evaluate her life.

“Nobody anticipates that this will happen. Taking steps doesn’t make you disloyal — it makes you smart.”

“I don’t think anyone gets married thinking they’ll get divorced. You have a vision and goals and you picture yourselves in rocking chairs on the porch. When that’s taken out from under you, you need to take time to think about what you want,” she says. “When things exploded, I remember sitting there wondering what I wanted. I was so caught up in bills and working and I didn’t take enough time to take a breath and say, ‘this is your new reality. What do you want to do, where do you want to live, work, and do with your personal time?’”

To help, she began journaling, keeping a good journal for her wins and triumphs and a bad one that she now describes as an “outpouring of feelings and raging on paper.” “Both journals allowed me to get things out of my head and helped me remember and celebrate the wins,” Dana says.

Dana says her biggest learning and piece of advice is to get on top of your finances early, regardless of your marital situation. 

“You should know what you need to do in any situation. If you get an inheritance from your parents, keep it in your name because then it doesn’t become co-mingled with your partner’s finances,” she says. “Literacy and knowing your rights in comparison to your obligations is key.” 

She adds: “Nobody anticipates that this will happen. Taking steps doesn’t make you disloyal — it makes you smart. I wish I had taken a better beat and understood things from the outset. But hindsight is what it is. I’m so lucky I am where I am now. I’ve moved on and am looking forward to what’s next.”

Thembi Bheka founded a digital marketing agency without a business background — here’s how.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

Thembi Bheka is on a mission to empower one million women by 2025. 

“Our studies have shown that if you empower one woman, they, in turn, empower those around them,” Thembi says. “And the best way to eliminate and reduce poverty is not just to educate, it’s to empower. With hard work, we will reach this goal.”

The “we” Thembi refers to is the team she’s built as the founder of Digital Marketing on Demand (DMOD), a unique organization that seeks to connect talent from developing countries with global work opportunities, specifically in the digital marketing space. 

A service provider can reach out to DMOD for assistance on any number of needs, including creating high-converting landing pages to managing website updates. An assessment of the company’s needs are performed at the outset by DMOD, and the specific task is then assigned to a team member with the right set of skills to deliver the project on time and on budget. All of this is done virtually by someone in the developing world, mostly Africa. 

To date, more than 4,200 services have been completed by the company’s team members. 

“These women didn’t have the confidence to search for or apply to jobs, even after extensive education, so I thought, ‘I’ll connect them with opportunities.’” 

The idea for DMOD came to Thembi after she immigrated to Canada as a refugee. Originally from Zimbabwe, she fled an emotionally and mentally abusive relationship, eventually settling in Montréal with her daughter. Though she studied and worked as a registered nurse, she continually felt the pull toward entrepreneurial opportunities. She dipped her toe into the entrepreneurial world as a real estate investor and even founded a course, Real Estate Real Riches, that taught women how to invest in housing. As her real estate business grew, she found herself in need of assistant-level help, and instead of hiring in-person, she turned to a virtual assistant (VA) in Kenya for help.

“At the time, no one knew what a VA was or what they did,” she says. “I found mine on Upwork and eventually returned to Zimbabwe, realizing there was an opportunity to train people to be VAs. I started to meet incredible women — lawyers, doctors — who were all unemployed and in abusive relationships, similar to my situation before I left for Canada.”

She adds: “These women didn’t have the confidence to search for or apply to jobs, even after extensive education, so I thought, ‘I’ll connect them with opportunities.’” 

That’s how DMOD was born. Today, Thembi and her team have been recognized for the work they’re doing by a number of high-profile organizations, including Stanford’s Seed Transformation Program. Thembi was also selected as a Coralus (formerly SheEO) Venture in 2021, giving her access to the financial support and coaching needed to expand her business. 

“I have a podcast where I interview women entrepreneurs, and one of my speakers asked me whether I had heard of SheEO and convinced me to apply,” Thembi says. “Until then I had been bootstrapping my business. I had even started to sell my real estate holdings to accelerate the growth of DMOD. Being selected as a SheEO venture not only gave me the funding I needed to build my business, but it also connected me with a community.”

That community, she says, is something she leans on regularly for support when facing challenges in her business, joking, “your friends don’t want to hear about that employee issue you have, but like-minded leaders do.” 

“When you do what inspires you, you can empower people. That can help them better themselves and rise above any situation they face.”

The funding was also valuable because, as an immigrant, Thembi says she found it hard to access funding through traditional means. 

“When you’ve been in Canada for a long time, you’ve learned the system, like what a credit score is or even how to register a company. Most people don’t live in cultures where business is done like it is in Canada or North America. Education is key.” 

She says that until she joined SheEO, she didn’t even know that she had to pay herself a salary. “There needs to be more and greater educational supports to help immigrants and refugees learn certain systems so they can succeed.” 

That’s also one of her lasting messages for women who want to dip their toes into entrepreneurial life: get educated. 

“I didn’t have a business background, nobody taught me how to be a businessperson. I’ve had to learn as I’ve grown. I’ve struggled with management and leadership. I’m not a born leader, but I’m now mentoring people,” she says. “Just do it. Don’t wait. There are so many things I waited on. I look back and think about having been able to do stuff. Whatever you want to do, just do it.”

And most importantly, do something that inspires you. 

“When you do what inspires you, you can empower people. That can help them better themselves and rise above any situation they face.”

Meet Karen Collins, Chief Talent Officer for BMO Financial Group.

Karen Collins

Karen Collins is the Chief Talent Officer for BMO Financial Group, the 8th largest bank (by assets) in North America — with 12 million customers, and over 43,000 employees. Joining the bank in 2005, she held progressively more senior leadership roles across the organization, and now has enterprise accountability for Talent Management; Diversity, Equity & Inclusion; Leadership & Succession Planning; Executive Development; and Organization Design & Effectiveness. Karen serves on the Perimeter Institute Board of Directors and as a member of the Boulevard Club’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. She is a proud wife and mother, has two beloved Labrador retrievers, and enjoys travelling with her family and staying active.

 

My first job ever was… babysitting for kids in my neighbourhood.

I decided on a career in human resources because… I’m passionate about helping leaders achieve their potential and I love to unlock tough issues related to human and team dynamics and change.

I’m passionate about my current role because… I have had a chance to impact BMO’s culture, talent, focus on inclusion and people ecosystem during one of the most interesting periods in history!

My proudest accomplishment is… most recently, how BMO supported our people during the pandemic — we kept people safe and working and feeling personally cared for. Over my career my proudest accomplishment has been helping other leaders grow, thrive and achieve their goals.

My biggest setback was… working for a company where I realized the values of the organization did not align with my personal values.

I overcame it by… seeking a change to move to a new company (BMO!) that did align with my values and learning a lot from the experience — it was one of the most formative learning experiences in my career. 

“As we come through the pandemic into the next chapter there is so much new and bold thinking about the new ways of working.”

My advice for aspiring HR professionals is… think of yourself as a business person first; while you may be focused on human capital most of the time, it’s really important to understand how the business works — focus on products, technology, systems, revenue as well as people.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… create work-life balance and take real breaks from work… I am getting better at this, I think!

The thing I love most about what I do is… working alongside my team, my colleagues and the bank’s leadership team.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… learning agility — being excited by new things, taking in feedback and learning from it, seeking out new perspectives and being resilient. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I am an introvert.

I stay inspired by… surrounding myself with mentors, leaders, colleagues and team members who inspire me on a regular basis.

The future excites me because… as we come through the pandemic into the next chapter there is so much new and bold thinking about the new ways of working.

My next step is… yet to be written!

Tatiana Estevez Carlucci’s cleantech startup is revolutionizing where we can get our water from.

Permalution Tatiana Estevez

By Sarah Kelsey

 

If you’re like most people, when you see a cloud of fog rolling in, you probably think about waterproofing your wardrobe for the day. But if you’re someone like Tatiana Estevez Carlucci, all you see is possibility. 

“It was right after graduation and it was my dream to go backpacking in California, so I landed in San Francisco,” she says, arriving at a time when the state was going through a historic drought, costing the economy billions and devastating the mental health of farmers. “I was looking out the window of my Airbnb, and as I watched the fog roll in, it hit me: fog is a huge source of water. What if that water could be harnessed to solve problems like drought?”

The result of that brainwave is Permalution: a revolutionary cleantech organization devoted to creating and leveraging technology to harvest water droplets from fog. Tatiana’s goal is to support local ecosystems and contribute to environmental conservation. 

“By definition, fog or clouds are made up of tiny particles of water that are suspended in the air, so we developed technology that allows us to predict where fog will occur, the amount of water one can yield from a specific fog patch, and collect water droplets from fog as it passes over one of our units,” Tatiana says. 

“We want to democratize fog as a new water source, and we need to introduce the technology in a way that allows everyone to access it.”

The fireproof, ready to assemble modules have an integrated IoT system and allow her team to collect 150 to 400 litres of water per day — or an amount that can support a family of four to six.

“We want to democratize fog as a new water source, and we need to introduce the technology in a way that allows everyone to access it while abiding by the water regulations in each state, province, and country,” she says. 

Based in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the first-of-its-kind fog organization has received several recognitions and grants since launching in 2015, including one of BMO‘s Celebrating Women Grants in 2021

Tatiana says she’s eternally grateful for the support and recognition, especially because she had no formal business or engineering education when starting her company. She took some electives in environmental engineering in university and went on to teach herself about all things sustainability; what she knew was that she ultimately wanted to work with water and in the cleantech space. 

“I started little by little,” Tatiana says, adding that every small step has led her to the road she’s currently on, from landing in Silicon Valley for a period of time to working with the Canadian Government on environmental matters. 

“The support of others, patience, and tenacity has been key to getting Permalution where it is today,” she says. Believing in the end result of what the technology can offer the world has also been key. “All entrepreneurs need to believe what they’re bringing to the table is very important and worth taking the risk and chance on.”

“What we’re doing really has the power to change the world.”

Tatiana keeps a book of accomplishments to flip through when she feels she or her organization have hit a wall; this empowers her to move forward when it feels like the universe is against her. 

“Women need to get rid of the fear of failing in order to get to where we need to go. We have to fail fast and hard, but keep going,” she says. 

Up next for Tatiana and Permalution is a new website so the organization can make more noise (a dream would be to attract attention from the likes of Greta Thunberg) and an advancement of plans to commercialize their products. Tatiana and her team want to increase output and recently started working with the University of Toronto to develop and launch a backpack-sized module that will, hopefully, bring water to displaced populations.

“We’re working on so many cool innovations that will help us bring this technology to where there is no fog or even few clouds so we can address the climate and water challenges of today,” she says. “What we’re doing really has the power to change the world.”

Andrea Casciato embraced change throughout her career — now she’s the Head of Digital Investing with BMO.

By Sarah Kelsey

 

“I always say I feel like I grew up at BMO,” Andrea Casciato, Head of Digital Investing, BMO InvestorLine, recounts. “I’ve been a customer since I can remember and used to get my mom to grab extra withdrawal slips whenever we did a withdrawal or deposit so I could play banker in our basement.”

Today, Andrea helms the team that helps clients reach their financial investment goals with online investing options. BMO InvestorLine is ranked in the top three in the Globe and Mail’s 2022 Digital Broker Ranking, and since March 2020, online investing has seen a significant growth.

“I joined the Customer Contact Centre as Head of Wealth, right as we were entering the pandemic — a time when we experienced a massive demand for digital investment services. This meant placing a huge focus on driving our Digital First agenda forward, to deliver speed and scale to drive progress for our customers and unlock the power of our people,” Andrea says. She worked with her managers to prioritize tasks and respond to business needs and pulled on many of the skills she learned over her career at BMO to connect with staff. 

“I doubled my empathy to understand how my team was really doing. I’d tell them to forget about work and ask how they were and how their family was. I was concerned about everyone’s mental health because at the very beginning, there was a lot of uncertainty.”

Looking back, she says the way she and her team navigated the increase in business and personal stress is a testament to the way BMO trains its leaders and cultivates a culture of support and growth. 

“It can seem super daunting when you make a major change or try something new. Be open and say, ‘I want to know more.’ It’s empowering and it’s how I’ve gotten to where I am today.”

Andrea’s time with BMO began in university when she took an internship at a branch as a stop-gap to “figuring out what she wanted to do.” She eventually took an interest in Human Resources, and did what she encourages every woman to do when they want to try something new: “I remained curious and asked questions like, ‘How do I get your job? What do I need to do?’ I literally asked for what I wanted. Then I had a roadmap of what I needed to demonstrate to get to where I wanted to go.”

The questions also showed leadership that she wanted to evolve her career within the organization. After having her son, she decided she wanted to move from HR into business leadership roles and realized that to do that, she needed an executive MBA — something BMO went on to sponsor. 

“You never think you’re going to end up at one company, and I’ve ended up with 10 careers in one place. Why would I go anywhere else?” she says. “It can seem super daunting when you make a major change or try something new. Be open and say, ‘I want to know more.’ It’s empowering and it’s how I’ve gotten to where I am today.”

In a society that still operates with biases and glass ceilings, many women doubt themselves or question their potential. Andrea adds that this leads to too many women counting themselves out for roles or opportunities before someone has said they’re not a fit — “but they can’t let doubt or fear hold them back.” Her advice rings true for those who are hesitant to dip their toes into the world of investing, too.

“Now is the time to learn about managing your investments and plan ahead.” 

“Taking charge of your finances can be an uncomfortable thing to do and discuss but, for women, at some point you will be managing your own money. If you’re not single now, you are likely going to be at some point in your life,” she says. “Fifty percent of you will get divorced or you will outlive your spouse. Now is the time to learn about managing your investments and plan ahead.” 

Her advice? Take the first step and open an online investment account with an amount of money you’re comfortable experimenting with. Once you overcome the initial fear, companies like BMO have programs that can help teach you the ins and outs of investing. Depending on where you’re at in your investment journey, Andrea mentions that there are a number of valuable services available through BMO to help you manage your funds, including a suite of commission-free ETFs (exchange-traded funds) available through the BMO InvestorLine platform.

InvestorLine Self-Directed is the perfect digital tool for those who want to invest in stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds on their own,” says Andrea. “If you’re not quite ready to jump right in, adviceDirect is a hybrid platform that provides digital advice for your trades, with the assistance of a human advisor, and SmartFolio is all about hands-off digital investing where BMO does all of the heavy lifting.” 

Andrea takes advantage of these programs herself, specifically adviceDirect, saying she now loves learning more about her investments, but has help from an advisor because despite playing banker as a kid, she didn’t intend to go into finance.

In the end, she says it’s all about taking the first step. “While it’s the hardest thing to do, whether it’s in your career or banking, the payoff is always worth the initial legwork.”

 

Self-Direct and adviceDirect are products of BMO InvestorLine. BMO InvestorLine Inc. is a member of BMO Financial Group. ®Registered trade-mark of Bank of Montreal, used under licence. BMO InvestorLine Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of Montreal. Member – Canadian Investor Protection Fund and Member of the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada. BMO InvestorLine Inc. is a member of BMO Financial Group. ®Registered trade-mark of Bank of Montreal, used under licence. BMO InvestorLine Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of Montreal. Member – Canadian Investor Protection Fund and Member of the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada.
An adviceDirect account is a non-discretionary, fee based account which offers investment recommendations. adviceDirect does not provide portfolio management by a portfolio manager. The client makes their own investment decisions and manages their own investment portfolio. adviceDirect does not offer discretionary, managed accounts.
BMO SmartFolio is a product of BMO Nesbitt Burns. A BMO SmartFolio account is a discretionary fee based account which offers Digital Portfolio Management service. BMO SmartFolio matches clients to a managed ETF portfolio that aligns to their investment objectives.
“BMO (M-design)”, “BMO” and “BMO (M-design) Wealth Management” are registered trademarks of Bank of Montreal, used under license. “Nesbitt Burns” and “SmartFolio” are trademarks of BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. and BMO InvestorLine are wholly owned subsidiaries of Bank of Montreal.

Tips on stepping over the pay gap.

A woman negotiating

It is an undisputed fact that women earn less than men. The gap varies by age, industry, location, and the method by which you measure it, but most estimates fall within a 10 to 25 per cent range — and that number grows for women who are Indigenous, living with a disability, racialized, or newcomers.

What is less clear is why this problem continues to persist. One common explanation is that the blame lies mainly with women themselves, for failing to ask for the compensation they deserve. In their 2003 book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever cite a study of recently graduated MBAs from Carnegie Mellon University. Only 7 per cent of the women had attempted to negotiate their starting salary, compared to 57 per cent of the men — resulting in compensation that was nearly $4,000 higher, on average. That amount, invested at a modest return of four per cent, would be worth over $60,000 in 25 years. And that doesn’t account for other increases of income that are negotiated over time.

As this statistic and others like it continue to be shared, what gets critically lost are the systemic explanations behind it: Women are socialized not to self-promote, and are punished when they do so, including when advocating for compensation in the workplace. Plus, more recent research finds that women are now in fact asking for increased compensation about as often as men — except they’re 25 per cent less likely to be successful.  

“These days it seems like there is zero negotiation allowed for new employment,” says Celeste, a network professional based in San Diego, California, who has been in the industry on and off for over 23 years. “Maybe it’s where I am in my career and career search, but it has yet to be presented as a dialogue. More of a take it or leave it.” 

What to ask for, and how to ask for it

Telling women to simply act more like men is not the solution to close the compensation gap. But while we work on the necessary systemic change, women need a better understanding of what to ask for, and how to ask for it. 

Fotini Iconomopoulos is a speaker, trainer, and author of Say Less, Get More: Unconventional Negotiation Techniques to Get What You Want. She has spent more than a decade teaching negotiation and communication skills, including advising clients on getting the compensation they deserve.  

“Both studies and anecdotal evidence show us that women are treated differently when it comes to negotiation, so we need to be more savvy.”

“Both studies and anecdotal evidence show us that women are treated differently when it comes to negotiation, so we need to be more savvy,” says Fotini. “We need to find ways to get creative on compensation as well, because salary is one piece of it — you can’t pay your mortgage except with the money in your bank account — but there are ways you can increase your wealth in addition to salary.” 

She recommends starting with considering your everyday or occasional expenditures that the company can be covering. Things like parking, transportation, and home office expenses, including your Internet and cell phone. When you take income tax into account, you have to earn more than $100 to pay that $100 mobility bill — while your company might be able to take advantage of bulk rates or tax incentives. 

You can also negotiate for education or training funds, from conference allowances to professional certifications to getting your MBA. “There are lots of things from a personal development perspective that will not only help you save money, but also help you to advance your career.” 

Career advancement

From the perspective of future career advancement, there are also non-monetary items to consider that are really important, like your job title. “If you do have to leave this company someday, or if you want to get promoted internally, which job title you are starting from determines your jumping off point,” advises Fotini. She also recommends asking what kind of access you’ll have to interesting projects, and what exposure you’ll have to potential mentors and sponsors. “All of those things are going to help qualitatively and quantitatively to advance your career, and hopefully make you a lot more money a lot faster.” 

Some employers may hesitate to give you the title or salary you’re asking for until they’ve seen you in action. It’s an issue Fotini sees happening more often with women than men — “men are often hired on their potential, women on their proof” — and she recommends countering with a starting bonus. “It’s a great way to bridge the gap, as they don’t have to commit to higher compensation fully.” 

Approach to negotiation

When it comes to your negotiation approach, Fotini says a lot of it is based on gut instinct. “You need to know the person that you’re dealing with, and what the right timing should feel like,” she says, adding that there are some general guidelines to follow if you’re unsure. Some elements, like job titles, might be easier to bring up sooner compared to a benefits package. “It’s very common to have salary be an early part of the conversation, so people shouldn’t be shy about doing that. If they’ve made an offer, or you know they really want you, that’s when it would be appropriate to be talking about all these extra details.”

Depending on your industry, there might be established norms with respect to perks, but consider them a starting point. “As much as I would recommend people do their homework to understand what’s standard in your industry so you’re at least getting the bare minimum — don’t let that limit you in terms of what you should be asking for,” says Fotini. “Just because it’s normal in consulting but not normal in manufacturing doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for it or that you won’t get it.” 

She has similar advice for seniority level. “Usually, the more senior you are, the more extra signing incentives you can get, because you’re going to be leaving behind some serious job security. You have to be thinking of what they can do to minimize some of that risk,” says Fotini. “It’s compensation, it’s starting benefits from the very beginning, versus a trial probation — all things that can add to your bottom line, and may very well be standard costs for the business. They’re more expected in senior roles, but not impossible in junior roles.”

“The greatest resource we have is people. The hiccup with that is, people are very uncomfortable talking about salary.”

Diane has spent two decades in the advertising industry, in Toronto and abroad. It’s common to switch agencies every few years, either to gain experience on new clients or to move up the ladder, so she’s been through the process more than a handful of times. She now approaches each offer as a negotiation, and recognizes that companies have the leeway to bend their own rules, especially when it comes to more senior positions. 

“I’ve asked several times to waive the three-month probationary period to get access to health benefits right away,” says Diane. “And when I started in my current role, it was a standard part of the package to have a car allowance and parking spot — except I don’t drive. So, I negotiated for a metro pass instead.” 

Tailoring the offer to her needs is a tactic she recommends to others. “I always look through to see if there are any benefits I won’t be able to use, and think of what else I can negotiate for in its place,” Diane says. Her savvy comes from experience, but she says she has learned the most about what to ask for and how to succeed at negotiations by talking openly with friends and mentors. It’s the approach that Fotini recommends everyone take. 

“The greatest resource we have is people,” she says. “The hiccup with that is, people are very uncomfortable talking about salary.” To overcome that hurdle, she suggests carefully crafting your questions in more general terms, such as ‘what would you expect someone of my experience level to get in this organisation, or in my industry?’ 

“Without those conversations, I fear that even with Google and Glassdoor and all of those resources, we’re missing a really important piece of the puzzle to get women where they deserve to be,” says Fotini. “There are wonderful people out there who want to see you be successful, so tap into those people, ask great questions, and you won’t be held back by some of those obstacles put in your way.”

These food entrepreneurs went from their kitchen to national grocers while focusing on nutrition and sustainability.

Remix Snacks began in a home kitchen with an idea for a recipe and a desire to make a change in the industry. And while co-founders Jamie Lee and Isabelle Lam were cooking up their idea for nutritious and sustainable treats, they were also students in McGill University’s Bachelor of Nutritional Sciences, Dietetics program. 

“Through our education we recognized two gaps in the food and beverage industry. First was the lack of healthy snack options that contained protein and fiber, and the second was the amount of food waste being produced by this industry,” Jamie explains. “When Isabelle and I chatted about wanting to start a business, we agreed that anything we developed had to focus on nutrition and environmental sustainability.” 

At the time, their idea was more of a project than a business plan. “We thought it would be fun to start a business, but we never imagined that it would take off in the way it has,” Isabelle says. 

In 2018, Jamie and Isabelle, who were roommates at the time, started playing around with recipes for a trail mix product that would contain dehydrated beans, fruit, and chocolate. “Beans were new in snack foods at the time, but they had a great nutritional profile with protein, fiber, and iron,” Isabelle said. 

In class, they learned that 58 percent of food produced in Canada is wasted and 45 percent of that comes from imperfect produce. Eager to solve this issue, Jamie and Isabelle decided that their product would use upcycled fruit – the stuff with bumps and bruises that often finds its way to the landfill. “In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves,” Jamie recalls.

“In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves.”

Being students at McGill helped Isabelle and Jamie access a few invaluable opportunities that propelled their project forward. They entered McGill’s start-up competition, Dobson Cup, and their snack idea won two innovation prizes which helped fund their first year of business. 

They also followed a lead to audition for a student themed episode of CBC’s Dragons’ Den, and not only did they get onto the show, they even received an offer from two of the Dragons on air. They later decided not to go through with the offer because they were at such an early stage of their start-up, and had found other forms of funding that allowed them to keep full ownership of the company, rather than giving over 35 percent.  

The early days of Remix were very hands-on, with Jamie and Isabelle doing everything themselves. They ordered packaging from amazon, designed a logo on Canva, printed stickers at a local print shop, and assembled snack bags one by one. Their friends were their taste-testers. 

Since then, the product has had 10 to 12 iterations, taking it from a homemade bag of trail mix to where it is today – professionally prepared and packaged chocolate bark made with dark chocolate, a proprietary black bean recipe, and upcycled fruit. 

Remix Snacks went from a home kitchen project to being produced in a commercial kitchen with a small production team to using a co-packer to do their manufacturing. The product was first sold in a few Montreal stores that the duo reached out to and managed directly and is now available across Quebec and Ontario in Loblaws, Metro, and some Sobeys stores. Despite their growth and plans to keep growing, they’ve stayed committed to their original values when it comes to sustainability. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of new challenges came up for Isabelle and Jamie, but overall, it has not deterred them. When the first lockdown hit, they were en route to a food expo. “We literally had to turn around after spending a night in the hotel, and forfeit the fee for that event,” they recall. “Everything changed after that.” 

“Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking — encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating.”

From there, the way they marketed their product began to shift. “Much of our sales came from interacting with buyers and customers and offering samples,” Isabelle says. “We had to pivot from in-person marketing to e-commerce, focusing on ads and social media – but we adapted.” 

With more people working from home and snacking on the rise, having a healthier option for chocolate with nutritional benefits proved to be a very good thing. “Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking – encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating,” they explain. “This is something we really believe in, and it’s become our third mission after nutrition and the environment.”

They’ve used the same practice of mindfulness to grow their business, one step at a time, focusing on small actions to achieve results. And while it hasn’t always been easy, they’ve remained committed to making it work. 

“Within the food industry, many of the big players happen to be older, white men – and so coming in as young, Asian women was challenging in that we had to build a rapport and have the others believe that we were a business to be taken seriously, not just a student project,” Isabelle explains. “Thankfully, with COVID, there seems to be more support for women and BIPOC-led businesses like ours available. And we’ve been connected with some great grant programs willing to support us and give us that extra leverage.” 

Most recently, Remix Snacks was chosen as a recipient of a $10,000 grant through the BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program — an initiative that gave $120,000 in grant funding to 18 Canadian, women-owned businesses that are contributing to social, environmental, or economic sustainability outcomes. “We are so thankful for programs like this that have helped us fund and grow our business.” 

Another opportunity that came about during the pandemic was an accelerator led by York University’s YSpace to help Ontario business owners with products in the market to scale up rapidly during COVID. “Working with nine other companies all going through similar challenges as we were, helped us learn so much and answer so many questions as we continued to grow,” Jamie explains. 

“You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses — which can be hard in the age of social media — but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.”

Jamie also credits her dad’s entrepreneurial journey with providing inspiration for Remix Snacks. “My dad moved to Canada from Hong Kong and started a food company, and in a way, I feel like I’m walking in his footsteps. He’s always been a big mentor to me, and we’ve asked him a lot of questions along the way.” 

For other entrepreneurs looking to make a go of it, Jamie and Isabelle have lots of advice to share. “Don’t let fear get in the way, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Isabelle says. Jamie agrees, “Something we’ve come to learn and practice is that when an opportunity presents itself, there’s no harm in going for it, even if you’re not sure what will come about as a result.” 

And while they’re so thankful for all the advice they’ve been given along the way, they emphasize the importance of not getting too caught up with what others are doing. “You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses – which can be hard in the age of social media – but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.” 

Venture capitalist Brittany Davis is helping underestimated founders get funded.

Brittany Davis

If you ask Brittany Davis how she chose her career — she’s a General Partner at Backstage Capital, a venture fund investing exclusively in women, people of colour, and LGBTQ founders — she’ll point to the systemic barriers these entrepreneurs face in accessing capital. 

However, her origin story is a lot more personal.  

While doing her undergraduate business degree, Brittany completed an independent study project on Black Wall Streets: prosperous enclaves of Black Americans, served by and supporting Black-owned businesses. The one in Tulsa, Oklahoma was well known on account of its size (more than 35 square blocks, with hundreds of businesses) and its demise (The Black Wall Street Massacre, one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States, which had its 100th anniversary this year), but Brittany learned there were several Black Wall Streets operating in the early 20th century, including one in her home state of North Carolina.  

“The takeaway from the project was that we do need to have a concerted effort on funding,” says Brittany. “There were a lot of Black business owners that had really thriving businesses, and they were able to get them up and running with that first infusion of capital. I wanted to be that person that could catalyze other businesses.” 

At the time, she wasn’t thinking specifically of venture capital — she knew about it structurally, but didn’t know anyone that had a career in the field — but saw the need for a separately managed pool of equity or debt-based financing for Black-owned businesses. She brought her pitch to Bank of America, where she ended up working for five years in a traditional finance role. 

Then, after earning an MBA from Harvard, Brittany launched her own startup building AI software for fashion ecommerce. Runway Technologies ultimately failed, but it sparked an interest in supporting other people’s visions — she kept meeting fellow founders of color that were struggling to get funded and felt compelled to help.

“There were a lot of Black business owners that had really thriving businesses, and they were able to get them up and running with that first infusion of capital. I wanted to be that person that could catalyze other businesses.”

“That’s when I was actually looking for roles in venture based on this diversity thesis. I was interviewing with a lot of mainstream funds. Just coming out of Harvard Business School, I had a company, I worked in finance, I also spent some time in tech. These are all of the things that I’m explaining that I can do. I have that background, but what’s going to make me unique is that I’m bringing a lens of let’s invest in more women and people of color,” explains Brittany. “I interviewed quite a bit without finding a real landing. Most VCs I did not hear back from after I explained, ‘This is what I’m trying to focus on at your fund.’”

It was a long road. Brittany interviewed for about five months, eventually finding her way in by focusing less on big, traditional funds and moving to more early stage investments. Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital, had a similar story. “The reason she started the fund was that she could not find a job in venture, even as an apprentice” says Brittany. In fact, she sent over 100 emails applying to apprenticeship roles, and got no’s from all of them. “Her road was actually trying to find a job.”

Brittany first met Arlan in 2016, when they were both on the judging panel for a Black founder’s pitch competition. At the time, Brittany was working at a fund called Village Capital. Though her role didn’t have an explicit diversity lens, their model allowed for a personal focus on finding and investing in more women and people of color. 

Arlan, on the other hand, was just getting started with Backstage Capital, which she had launched in September of 2015. “I’d heard about this woman putting together funds for underrepresented founders,” says Brittany, “but this was Arlan before she started doing public speaking. She was very reserved and quiet.” 

At the end of the competition, Arlan ended up investing in the top five founders. It was a lightbulb moment for Brittany.  

“I thought I had to do it within funds, and then to see how her approach was, ‘Let me actually get some funds and do it myself,’ I was like, ‘Okay, that fast forwards my plan of having to work for years and years and see if I can change the industry from the inside,’” explains Brittany. “I remember thinking, one way or another I’m going to find a way to work with this woman, because this is exactly what I’m doing.”

That opportunity came in early 2018. Arlan was looking to build out the investment team, and she brought Brittany on as Head of Deal Flow. In a typical venture firm, a lot of that role would be finding new companies to invest in. At Backstage, the deals were coming to them. In addition to having built a strong brand and presence in the ecosystem, Backstage had launched open applications for investment through a form on their site. It was a groundbreaking idea within venture, explains Brittany, because the model had always been that you had to network your way in. 

Over a thousand founders applied. Brittany oversaw that inbound deal flow — not only managing the investing that Arlan wasn’t doing herself, but also figuring out how to build a framework that captured the way Arlan thinks about investing, so that Backstage could scale beyond its original founder. 

“I was really passionate about figuring out how to take those unique things that I loved — a lot of the investing that Arlan was doing was a lot of the same companies that I would have invested in — and create a basic framework that other people could learn and adopt, but with the freedom to bring in their own perspective.” 

“She explained some of her first investments, and how she thought about deals,” says Brittany. “I was really passionate about figuring out how to take those unique things that I loved — a lot of the investing that Arlan was doing was a lot of the same companies that I would have invested in — and create a basic framework that other people could learn and adopt, but with the freedom to bring in their own perspective.” 

Using the criteria she identified, Brittany and her team went from seeing about 450 companies to investing in five. Her next big project, the Backstage Accelerator, added another 24 companies to the portfolio. Launched in the spring of 2019, the 12-week development program worked with founders in four cities — Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, and London — to help build their community and network and prepare them for future investment. 

“The core of our thesis is investing early with underrepresented founders, so that we can catalyze their progress in getting additional capital,” explains Brittany, adding that they’ve been the first investor for over half their portfolio. “A lot of times we’re catching them before they have something to really evaluate in a quantitative sense; a lot of it is thinking about future potential.”

That means their investing framework must be less metrics-driven (x number of users, or x dollars of revenue, for example). The evaluation used by early-stage funds often includes criteria like who is on the team, what’s the potential market size, and what makes the product unique. Many investors also use pattern matching, which means looking for similarities with founders that have already been successful, such as the schools they went to or the companies they worked at. 

“When you hear the term pattern matching, it’s always usually looking for that Mark Zuckerberg type,” says Brittany. “That’s just going to get you more of the same. Arlan used to say she pattern matched for grit.”

So, Brittany added grit into their scorecard, which enabled recognition for what the founders had accomplished with the limited resources they’d had. She even added that gut feeling — the spark or connection with a founder — because it was something Arlan often described when talking about her investments. 

“We’re really talking about some of this stuff because for a lot of our founders, the journey can be a long one, especially not getting adequate resources,” says Brittany. “We look for where they can push past those things, and the founders that have done the best in our portfolio essentially have demonstrated a lot of that grit. I was trying to build that into how we think about investing so that we’re not just using the same standard metrics. We’re using something very specific to Backstage, and so it’s authentic to us.”

“Yes, we really are just getting started. There’s a lot of work we can do to help diversify who’s investing and who gets investment.”

Creating a scalable version of Arlan’s investing process was foundational for Backstage — but it was just the beginning. Brittany wants to build a firm, not just a single fund, and ultimately enable more people to get involved in venture.

“I think that’s core to the end outcome of getting more resources to the founders,” she says. “That’s something that I’m always thinking about and was passionate about to begin with in my career. I have seen that journey through Backstage, and yes, we really are just getting started. There’s a lot of work we can do to help diversify who’s investing and who gets investment.”

The work they’ve already done to provide access, resources, and education for people who are interested in investing has been varied, from sharing lessons through Arlan’s book, It’s About Damn Time, to offering an introductory course on Investing as a Catalyst, to helping with a Harvard Business School case study that, in Brittany’s own words, sends a message to the world about who business leaders are and who they can be. In October they launched a pilot Apprenticeship Program, bringing on 20 would-be investors for a three-month stint working with the investment team on deal flow review, as well as being taught the Backstage philosophy on investing, how to build a fund from scratch, and more. 

Their biggest effort, however, came earlier this year, in the form of a crowdfund. Recognizing the need for operational capital — Backstage now supports 180 companies — as well as the potential of an engaged community that understood the importance of their work, they saw an opportunity to not only bring in resources, but also to further their mission of exposing a broader group to venture capital investing.  

Typically, a fund raises capital from accredited investors, which limits the pool to about 2% of the wealthiest individuals. In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought in a rule called Reg CF, or Regulation Crowdfunding, that opened the door to non-accredited investors. In their first crowdfunding round, Backstage reached the max of $1 million in about eight hours — the fastest equity raise ever on Republic, the investing platform they worked with. In March, the SEC changed the rules of Reg CF to allow for up to $5 million annually, so they opened it up again. A total of 6,755 investors — Brittany included — purchased the equity available, the majority of whom had never invested in venture or private companies before. 

“That was the best way to share a piece of what we’re doing with the people who really want to help build the organization that we have,” says Brittany. “Then they in turn get a lot of exposure to venture. Long-term, hopefully, they’re getting a return on this too, and I believe that they will, but I do think the huge benefit is the exposure to venture.” 

And that is the long game — a more inclusive population investing will result in more inclusive investment, whatever the source. On that front, things are looking up: Since Backstage launched a little over six years ago, several other funds with a diversity-focused mission have entered the space (over 70 in the US, by Harlem Capital’s count), and they often come with a collaborative attitude — which all serves to reduce the time of getting resources to founders.

In the broader venture capital ecosystem, Brittany says the biggest change over the last few years has been a growing awareness of and conversation around the issues that underrepresented founders face. “One thing that’s helping is data points. I’m seeing a lot more of the numbers being shared,” she says. “I couldn’t actually point to the lack of venture capital in dollars for different demographic groups when I was starting.”

I still think we have a ways to go with creating that real fear that you’re missing out if you’re doing what you did 5, 10 years ago — which is just looking around you, most likely at people in similar networks, similar schools, similar demographics as you.” 

There’s also more data on the opportunity cost, whether that’s studies highlighting the benefits of diverse leadership teams, or estimations of the amount of money being left on the table (according to Morgan Stanley, the inequity in funding for multicultural and women business owners is costing the US about $4.4 trillion in GDP annually). 

“It hasn’t fully moved the needle on the outcomes. Black founders still get less than 2% of venture capital; women founders are the same,” Brittany points out. I still think we have a ways to go with creating that real fear that you’re missing out if you’re doing what you did 5, 10 years ago — which is just looking around you, most likely at people in similar networks, similar schools, similar demographics as you.” 

Brittany believes the missing piece for more traditional VCs is representation at the success level, which would essentially create the opportunity for a new pattern match. “But I want people to understand what it takes to get to the Mark Zuckerberg point. If you’re not getting resources early on, it’s really hard to get there.” 

Simply put, these underrepresented, underestimated, and underfunded founders have a longer road to returns compared to those who haven’t faced the same barriers. 

“The timeline might not be the same, but I think the outcomes could actually exceed some of the businesses that are getting more funding,” says Brittany. “It’s just that there is a bit of time for them to get the capital and get to work. There’s a starting runway that you need that these companies didn’t have.”  

That leaves a chicken and egg situation; the founders need proven success to get mainstream funding, and they need funding to achieve big success. So, what happens in the meantime? 

“You have people like Arlan who are saying, ‘I can do this, and whether you believe it or not, I’m going to take the steps and prove a thesis.’ She’s doing the things that a lot of people told her she couldn’t do,” says Brittany. “Being successful with what we have, I think we’ve proven a lot.”

 

The Co-CEO of femmebought is helping solopreneurs access the resources they need — and a community.

Kirsten Ramos

By Hailey Eisen

Being a solopreneur can be a lonely endeavor. Without a leadership team or co-workers to bounce ideas off of, many women founders end up doing most of the heavy lifting on their own. 

“Essentially, you become your own tech support, accountant, marketer, and HR,” explains Kirsten Ramos. Prior to starting her own training and development consultancy, Kirsten worked for a large digital media company — so she knew what was missing when she entered the solopreneur space. For the past five years, she’s owned and operated Chicago-based Elevate Performance Solutions. In May, she also became Co-CEO of femmebought, a role that came to her thanks to her own search for community and support. 

At an event in February 2020, Kirsten met Sophia Ruffolo, the founder of femmebought, a strategic hub and virtual space for experienced women business owners. femmebought allows founders to connect with like-minded women for skill-building, mentorship, education funding, strategic planning, expert advice, and networking for business growth. 

“Sophia’s passion for helping women business owners attracted me to the organization,” Kirsten explains. “When I joined femmebought as a member, it gave me an avenue to connect with other entrepreneurial women, share advice and skillsets, and create the sense of community I had been lacking.” 

What Kirsten didn’t anticipate when she joined femmebought was that 16 months later, she’d be stepping into the role of Co-CEO of the organization — and President of femmebought’s Impact Accelerator program. 

“I was a very active member when I first joined and quickly realized that I could help Sophia with the backend of Zoom events — since I’d been working virtually long before COVID — and could step in as a facilitator of mastermind sessions when she was unavailable,” Kirsten explains. 

One thing led to another, and the opportunity for a leadership position was soon presented to Kirsten. “Sophia had built this amazing organization very quickly, and she was looking for some fresh eyes to move it forward,” Kirsten recalls. 

“As we saw reported in the fall of 2020, more than 800,000 women have left the traditional business world because they were faced with challenges resulting from the pandemic, be it childcare or eldercare, or both.”

Along with her now co-CEO, Kristine Givens, Kirsten realized that it would take two women to do the work that Sophia had been doing on her own. “We were excited to team up to take femmebought into the future,” she says. “Both of us had our own businesses that we planned to continue running, so it was great to know we’d be able to work together in this role.” 

Along with femmebought’s board of directors, which includes Sophia, the co-CEO’s plan to embark on many new opportunities and programs going forward. They’ve been polling their current members and evaluating the existing programs to determine the future of the organization. With members across Canada and the US — mostly in Toronto and Chicago — the opportunities for collaboration and expansion seem to be endless. 

And in the current climate, an organization like this is needed more than ever. “As we saw reported in the fall of 2020, more than 800,000 women have left the traditional business world because they were faced with challenges resulting from the pandemic, be it childcare or eldercare, or both. Many women are still making less than their male counterparts, so they were the ones who stepped away from jobs and opted to stay home,” Kirsten says.  

What’s come from all these women exiting the workforce, however, has been a surge of women-owned startups. “When women go out on their own, they need support. And we know they’re typically less likely than men to ask for help and to gain access to mentorship and funding.” 

That’s where femmebought comes in. What sets it apart is its multifaceted approach to supporting women entrepreneurs. Membership within femmebought includes workshops, meetups, and a listing in the femmebought directory. 

Members include product and service-based companies, primarily solopreneurs, who are looking to access education, share expertise, and collaborate. There’s a social media strategist, a photographer, a purveyor of delicious toffee, and a practitioner who’s set to launch a line of products. There are financial experts, coaches, and jewelry makers. There are women who have been in business for years and some who are newer to the entrepreneurship journey. 

“People are certainly more conscious now in their buying and hiring habits, and many are looking to support local businesses and shop women-owned when possible.”

Through femmebought’s global directory, business owners and consumers can access an extensive list of these women-owned companies and service providers. “People are certainly more conscious now in their buying and hiring habits, and many are looking to support local businesses and shop women-owned when possible,” Kirsten says. “For me personally, I’ve used the femmebought directory a number of times, most recently to connect with a Canadian website developer who helped me redesign my website.”  

Taking the support of women entrepreneurs one step further, earlier in 2021 femmebought launched and successfully ran its first Impact Accelerator, a 6-month program that allowed 15 self-identifying women entrepreneurs to grow and scale their businesses with the help of expert advisors, peer group accountability, and strategic resources. 

As part of this program, seven members of typically underrepresented and minority communities were able to access scholarships provided by BMO. “Thanks to this extremely generous scholarship program, these women, who were both Canadian and American, were able to participate in the Accelerator program and gain invaluable support as they worked to scale up their businesses,” explains Kirsten. 

“As we know, women are typically underrepresented in the entrepreneur space, and the intersectionality of women of colour, LGBTQ+ women, and those with disabilities further delineates that inequality,” Kirsten says. “That’s why the program had such a tangible impact on the participants.” 

In fact, many of the women who participated in the Accelerator have already come back to femmebought looking to be mentors going forward. “The participants have this great attitude of paying it forward, and many have stayed on as part of our community since their experience was so valuable,” Kirsten says. 

In a time when community and connection have never been more important, femmebought is poised to continue giving many solopreneurs what they wouldn’t have access to otherwise — a network focused on learning, growth, problem solving, and support. 

“We are excited to continue elevating women-owned businesses in new ways while helping to ensure it’s not so lonely for those on the solopreneur journey.”

Why it’s important to approach philanthropy holistically — regardless of your income.

Lydia Potocnik

For Lydia Potocnik, philanthropic planning is a career as well as a passion. Trained as an Estate Planning lawyer, she began her career working in philanthropy planning for a hospital foundation in Toronto. “That role really allowed me to appreciate the work being done by charitable organizations and the impact donors can have with their wealth,” she says. 

Now, as Head of Estate Planning & Philanthropic Advisory Services with BMO, Lydia says more Canadian women are making plans for philanthropic giving than ever before. Statistically, women tend to be more strategic in their approach to giving, looking for ways to contribute time and money, maintaining meaningful relationships with charities they’re supporting, and using their philanthropy as an opportunity to be a role model for their families. 

In order to account for personal financial needs and wants — both current and in the future — Lydia suggests that women take a more holistic approach to their wealth in order to ensure that their philanthropic goals are met. A good wealth plan, she says, will look at tax planning, wealth protection, estate planning, business succession planning, and philanthropy planning, and every aspect should consider a woman’s values, goals, and concerns. 

To help simplify the process and make sense of philanthropic planning, we sat down with Lydia to discuss. 

Where should a person begin when it comes to philanthropy?  

The best place to start would be to get clear on your values and determine which causes and organizations best align with those. If you decide you want to have an impact with your giving, it’s a good idea to think about what that looks like to you. 

Do you need to have a large amount of wealth in order to be a philanthropist?

No, you don’t need to have a significant amount of wealth to be a philanthropist. This is something you can build toward throughout your lifetime. However, it is important to note the difference between charitable giving and philanthropy. Charitable giving is often a one-time donation made in response to an immediate need, such as shelter or food or medical assistance. These contributions are often emotional or empathetic and provide short term relief — like donating to an emergency response fund. Charitable donors usually don’t enter into a long-term relationship with the organization. 

Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a much more strategic — and personal — undertaking. Instead of focusing on short-term fixes, philanthropy aims to have a long-term, sustainable impact by identifying and addressing the root cause of systemic societal issues — everything from addiction and poverty, to racism and environmental causes. 

What can someone do if they don’t have a significant amount of wealth but still want to begin their philanthropic journey?

There are several things they can do. Even without a significant amount of wealth, you can still make a difference with a charitable organization. I often tell individuals to reach out to the charity and find out what is important to them and what they’re trying to raise funds for. If you direct your giving toward a specific project, then you’ll be able to see the impact of your donation and that’s going to make it a lot more meaningful to you. 

If someone is looking to become more philanthropic and has a larger amount of funds to allocate, what advice would you give them?

I would suggest they meet with a wealth advisor to determine how much they can afford to donate during their lifetime and combine this with their estate planning. By giving some money away while you are alive, you can experience the impact that you are having while also creating a legacy. An advisor can assist you with establishing goals and aligning them to your vision and values by taking a more strategic and long-term approach. They will often include the charitable organizations you want to support in these discussions. 

Why is an advisor recommended? 

An advisor will have experience helping individuals identify their goals and values and will also make educated recommendations as to how you can meet those goals. They’ll also consider your financial ability to make donations while alive and provide advice on the most tax efficient way to do so. 

How important is planning and goal setting for younger women looking to begin their philanthropic journey?

For younger women, we typically recommend they divide their income into three pools: pay yourself (your savings), pay your expenses, and then give money to charity if you can afford to do so. We recommend a similar approach to children as they learn to navigate finances with their first allowance. 

With women, it’s especially important to make sure that your own needs are met. We have found that with Millennials, there’s often a desire to get more involved when it comes to philanthropy. They often like to do things more publicly, get involved in broad-based fundraising initiatives, get their hands dirty, and get involved with the charity rather than just giving money. Boomers tend to be a bit more private and don’t always want to reveal who they are when they give money. Philanthropy looks very different to different demographics. 

Regardless, the one thing that should remain the same is the plan. Having clear financial and giving goals will help you meet them without any added stress. 

Are there any tools that can help women establish philanthropic practices earlier in their careers?

The Donor Advised Fund (DAF) tends to be ‘step one’ for a lot of women before they establish a foundation. The goal of this type of fund is to put in a minimum of $10,000 up front, which is earmarked for charity. 

The whole amount is invested and every year, you decide how much you want to give to a chosen charity. You’ll get a tax receipt for the $10,000 when it’s invested. You can also choose to skip a year of donating if your focus is aggressive investment. When you’re no longer here, you can appoint someone else to take on the fund and continue to support the charities of your choice.

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

Brianne Miller

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

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

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

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

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

How did you come up with the idea for Nada?

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

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

How does zero-waste shopping work exactly?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to get started with Socially Responsible Investing.

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

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

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

1. Get clear on what matters most to you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Know the investment approaches available to you.  

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

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

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

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

Laura Reinholz

By Hailey Eisen

 

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

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

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

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

Where did your journey into conscious consumerism begin?

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

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

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

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

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

What was the first thing you changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christal Earle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandi Treliving

By Shelley White

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A personal connection that sparked a passion 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards gender balance in mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to build a lasting legacy through trusts.

Lydia Potocnik

 

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

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

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

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

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

When would someone typically establish a trust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How Vicki Saunders of SheEO built a new financial model for a better world.

Vicki Saunders

When it comes to financing, women business owners face significant barriers when securing capital compared to men — but how bad is it?

“51% of the population are women, yet we receive 2% of the capital,” explains Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO. “That’s statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”

A serial entrepreneur who has made a career of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, Vicki Saunders’ latest venture was designed to directly tackle the issue of gender inequity. Launched in 2015 in Canada and now also in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, SheEO is a not-for-profit company that has made an entirely new model of financing for women-identifying and non-binary entrepreneurs.

Built on a foundation of ‘radical generosity,’ the five-year loans SheEO provides have zero interest. There are no requirements for collateral, and a simplified process for applying. And when the money is paid back, everything gets reinvested back into a perpetual fund to support the next round of business owners. 

“When I was getting started with SheEO, people would say to me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with making money on an investment,’ because that’s how it’s always been done,” says Vicki. “But you don’t have to make money on everything. This is a radically different way of thinking about investing — it’s more about a collective ensuring capital is flowing to innovators who have been consistently put to the margins by our systems and structures. We need to rethink what we are investing in, for what kind of future.”

The capital is provided by a diverse community of women-identifying and non-binary individuals. Known as Activators, they come from all walks of life, varying in experience and ranging in age from 11 to 95. In addition to a monthly contribution of $92, they commit to sharing their expertise, networks, and buying power. “We have weekly community calls which are designed for us to get the support we need from one another,” says Vicki. “Everyone in this community has something to give, and we offer it up in a radically generous environment full of trust and love.” 

“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically. When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.” 

Each year, Activators democratically vote in their country on the Ventures that will be supported. The businesses who apply to SheEO come from a broad range of sectors, but they all have a few things in common: they are majority women- or non-binary-owned and led; they’re revenue-generating (from $50k to $2M); and they’re “tackling the World’s To-Do List” in their own unique way.

“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically,” explains Vicki. “When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.” 

The ‘World’s To-Do List’ is based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. SheEO selected Ventures not only identify which of the 17 SDGs they are working on, but also measure their impact related to those goals.

Removing the requirement for a financial return has made it simpler to focus on supporting the businesses on their own terms, leaving space for new models and new approaches to emerge. “Many of our Ventures would not have received funding at this early stage unless they are privileged to have friends and family with capital. We are focused on creating more equitable systems and getting capital into the hands of those with brilliant innovations that help us get to a better world. And, in a community that comes from a place of radical generosity, we’ve experienced that businesses that look ‘uninvestable’ through a traditional lens can literally transform almost immediately when hundreds of women get behind them and support them as customers, advisors and connectors.” 

Even by traditional metrics, the results are impressive: About 95% of the loans are repaid, and in the last year alone, the 63 Ventures in the program created 772 environmentally and socially sustainable jobs, and experienced 65% growth in revenue. Those successes, Vicki explains, wouldn’t have come about if not for the power of the deep relationships between Activators and Ventures.  

“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers,” says Vicki. “The entrepreneurs who have been funded through SheEO would never run a business alone again.”

“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers.”

The connections are fostered with the help of several events, from fireside chats to the annual SheEO Summit. Their Learning Circles feature topics ranging from the power of email marketing to the creation of sacred space through Indigenous teachings. Since the pandemic started, everything has been pushed online, but Vicki says that’s actually been beneficial. “The virtual transition really worked well for us. We were able to connect more with our community from across the globe.”  

In 2020, SheEO hosted 263 Zoom calls, and reached over 8,000 guests through virtual events. They also welcomed nearly 1,500 new Activators, growing the community by over 30%. This year, largely enabled by $1.2 million in funding provided by BMO, they’ve gone from 20 to 44 Ventures supported globally, including all 23 Canadian applicants. 

“BMO’s investment in SheEO is helping a growing number of women-owned businesses affected by the pandemic to have the opportunity to grow and prosper,” says Vicki. “We are excited to have the opportunity to double the number of ventures for the first time since we launched in 2015 — and we’re particularly excited that BMO has matched our lending terms at 0% interest, recognizing the power of our unique ecosystem.”

Of course, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. SheEO’s relationship-based, impact-focused ecosystem is doing far more than providing loans, generating jobs, and increasing revenue. “It’s showing the world that another way forward is possible,” says Vicki.      

“Our current economic system isn’t working; it’s built on inequality and it’s unsustainable. We’ve lost our sense of community, and we don’t know how to say, ‘maybe we have enough,’” she says. “That’s why SheEO is redefining how things are done.” 

Vicki believes the old system is dying, but that we’ll continue to be held back if we don’t foster an entirely new mindset. 

“We have this inertia. Even though we’re not happy, we just keep doing what we’re doing because it’s easier, because we know how. And overcoming that inertia takes an incredible amount of force,” says Vicki. “It takes a stretch of the imagination to think in a non-transactional way. Everything in this world is transactional. What if instead we asked, ‘How can I make things better?’ We all have excess capacity. We all have a talent we can share. Maybe you’re a storyteller or a super-connector — whatever it is, there’s a way you can contribute.”

Meet Jen Lee Koss, retail entrepreneur and investor with a social purpose.

Jenn Lee Koss

Jen Lee Koss is an entrepreneur and investor, passionate about supporting, uplifting, and making a change in the lives of entrepreneurs and working families. A graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and Harvard Business School, Jen has worked in the consumer and retail sectors for most of her career. Before launching BRIKA, a business focused on helping businesses with innovative, curated retail experiences in 2012, Jen worked in the management, consulting, investment banking, and private equity spaces. Alongside her work with BRIKA, Jen is a Founding Partner of Springbank Collective, an organization that invests in early-stage companies that are re-imagining work, building the care infrastructure, and creating solutions for working families — with a goal of a more inclusive future.

 

My first job ever was… as a House Manager at The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. I was responsible for making sure the shows started on time and that the audience was taken care of! 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… if I look back at the trajectory of my education and career, I have always had big ideas and executed them. For example, I founded my University’s first conductorless orchestra (which still exists today!). When I left my finance career to start BRIKA, I was craving a more creative path in life.

I co-founded BRIKA because… I met the right person to start the business with. When I met my co-founder Kena, I knew she had the right experience and skillset that was complementary to my own, and that we would make a great team. 

I co-founded Springbank Collective because… in my role with BRIKA, I have been privy to working and partnering with thousands of small businesses, of which the majority are women-founded, run, and owned. I have understood firsthand how difficult it is to work and raise a family at the same time (I have four young children under the age of 10), so, in many ways, I have always felt passionate about gender equality issues, but didn’t know how or what I could do to make a change. With my founding partners, Courtney and Elana, I knew that the thesis we came up with was a large enough platform to make a difference. We believe the gender gap can’t be siloed as a “women’s issue” — it is an infrastructure gap and a massive, overlooked opportunity. We invest in the tools and services to support working women and working families across the categories of care, career, and household consumer, irrespective of the founders’ gender.

“There’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.”   

My biggest setback was… not being able to accept what I considered my “dream job,” due to a Visa issue that I had overlooked. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world, but in hindsight, I may not have ever started my entrepreneurial journey.

I overcame it by… accepting it was completely my fault and focusing on the next thing ahead. 

One misconception about social enterprises is… that it’s not big business. You can make an impact and a return at the same time. 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs with a social mission is… there’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.   

The thing I love most about what I do is… meeting and connecting with new people.

One tangible way you can make your everyday spending more impactful is… putting your money where your mouth is. Go out of your way to support your local businesses and small makers because when you do, you’re supporting a dream.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… the people with whom I have had the privilege of working with. I have worked with some of the best, hardest working, most inspiring individuals out there who believe in supporting talented founders and businesses. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I played Division I lacrosse in college for four years. 

I stay inspired by… my kids. They are 10, nine, six, and four, and have completely different personalities and interests. I love the lens from which they look at the world, and how their brains work as they learn.   

The future excites me because… there is still so much to do, but also so much that can be done to make lives better for the generations ahead. The onus is on us to change the gender equality equation for our kids!

Three steps for building your legacy in line with your values.

Woman lying outside and thinking

How do you leave a legacy? 

Most of us can’t afford to have our name on a building, but the advice on the opposite end of the spectrum — building a legacy in non-financial terms — tends towards vague platitudes about a life well lived. If you want to do more than dance like nobody’s watching, but you aren’t sure how to get started, here are three steps you can take: 

1. Start with a definition. 

If you take it literally, you’ll find that the basic definition of legacy is “a gift by will, especially of money or other personal property” — but its meaning and use are a lot broader. To get clarity on how to leave your legacy, begin by ignoring ‘how’ and focusing on ‘why.’ Do you want your name and story to be remembered? Do you want to make an anonymous impact that lasts beyond your lifetime? Do you want to focus on your family, friends, and close community? Do you have a broader cause that you wish to support? 

All these choices aren’t mutually exclusive — you can contribute to solving the climate crisis and leave behind a book of family recipes — but defining what your legacy means to you is the first step to taking action. Depending on your goals and what you consider most important, the way you allocate your resources to build your legacy will likely differ.    

2. Figure out your resources.

It’s important to spend time on defining your goals because reaching them requires personal resources. That’s not just referring to money — your skills and talents, your time, and even your connections are resources, too. We all have a different mix, with one thing in common: these resources are limited, so how you choose to allocate them matters. 

Start by asking yourself the question: “What can I offer?” You might find you’re able to set aside a portion of your income, or you can commit to a certain number of hours. Whether that money and time goes to charitable causes and writing your memoir, or helping pay for your child’s education and volunteering, is entirely up to you and how you define your legacy.  

3. Find your avenues, with help. 

Seeking out and selecting the method for leaving your legacy becomes a lot more manageable once you’re clear on the impact you hope to have and on what you have to offer— but you may still find countless options even after defining this criteria. Simplify the selection process by considering two more questions: Is it more important to see the impact in your lifetime, or leave a mark after you’re gone? Are your goals better served by continual habits, or singular actions?   

There’s no wrong answer, and for you it might be a mix of all of the above. If you’re unsure, you can look to role models for inspiration — how are leading activists in the cause you’re passionate about making an impact, or how are people you admire leaving their legacy. You can also find experts to help guide you. For example, you can work with a wealth planner on your philanthropic efforts, whether you want to give directly to a cause or set up a private foundation.

Remember, your legacy is not a one-time financial transfer after your death, it’s an accumulation of all you’ve done in your life that leaves an impact. With that broader timeframe in mind, it’s easy to see that your goals and values, the resources you have, and even the avenues available to you will likely evolve. If you live with intention — guided by these three steps and revisiting them as you enter new life stages — your legacy will evolve and you’ll do a lot of good along the way.  

The difference between ESG, SRI, and Impact Investing.

Women considering different investments

If you’ve ever purposefully purchased an eco-friendly product, supported a local small business, or donated to a charitable cause, you already know that the dollars you spend can help build a better future, for your community and beyond. 

Your investments can do the same thing — aligning with your values and having a positive impact — while still generating a return. There are a wide variety of approaches for sustainable investing, and deciding how to incorporate them depends on your goals and needs. We’re covering the basics of three similar but subtly different strategies — environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, socially responsible investing (SRI), and impact investing — to help you understand your options. 

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Investing

As the name suggests, ESG investing uses a framework that takes into account three factors when selecting which companies to support: environmental (the effects on the earth), social (the impact on society), and governance (how the company is run). You can focus on one area or all three, and there are even themes within each — from alternative energy to women in leadership. 

There are several companies that calculate and publish ESG scores for corporations, which makes it possible to consider a company’s ESG metrics as part of an investing decision, similar to how their performance would be evaluated. There’s no rule to say how much weight you should give to a company’s ESG score versus traditional financial analysis, but many investors consider both elements as part of their ESG investing strategy.   

Socially Responsible Investing

While ESG provides an extra layer of evaluation alongside traditional financial analysis, socially responsible investing tends to be more rigid in applying ethical guidelines to your investment decisions. It can involve excluding stocks that don’t align with your beliefs, or you can also use positive inclusion — giving your investment dollars to companies that perform better than industry peers on ESG attributes.

So, if a tobacco company has a stellar performance, an ESG investor might still consider that as part of their investment decision. In contrast, a socially responsible investor who draws the line at tobacco will refuse to invest in any stocks that benefit a tobacco company, regardless of how well they do. 

Impact Investing

As the name implies, the goal of impact investing is to generate a measurable impact in an area of need — and that can range from environmental to societal concerns, depending on your personal values. It goes the furthest to tie your personal values to your personal capital, as typically you’ll be prioritizing the positive effects of your investments over your financial returns. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t generate gains with impact investing, they’ll just be weighted with less importance compared to the specific positive impact that comes from your investment — so you might only get back the capital you put in, or see returns below market rates. Areas like conservation, microfinance, and providing access to basic services like housing, healthcare, and education often fall into this category. 

Which investing strategy is right for you?

If all these options sound very similar, that’s because they are. With ESG, SRI, and impact investing, you’re making a choice to consider environmental, social, and governance factors in your investing decision. From there, you can tailor your strategy based on how much weight you give to financial returns versus ESG factors, but you don’t need to think of these as mutually exclusive — making investments aligned with your values doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing returns.   

If you’re not sure where to get started, BMO’s MyESG™ is an easy, interactive tool that helps you to recognize your approach to investing and what you value. When you’re ready to get started, the options span everything from ETFs, to mutual funds, to sustainable portfolios, and can be self-directed or guided by a financial advisor.

According to a recent report, the value of global assets applying ESG data to drive investment decisions was $40.5 trillion in 2020, more than tripling since 2012. That means the options available are growing, too — so all you need to think about is what is right for you.  

Meet Jennifer So, responsible investing expert.

Jennifer So

Jennifer So is a Portfolio Manager with BMO and has been a member of the BMO Asset Management Inc. team since September of 2015. In addition to her work as a Portfolio Manager, Jennifer is a specialist in Responsible Investing with an emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. Jennifer also has knowledge of Investment Banking, Research, Institutional Sales, and seven years of experience as a Chartered Accountant, contributing to her robust knowledge of and experience with finance and banking.

 

My first job ever was… delivering newspapers. 

The thing I enjoy most about being a Portfolio Manager is… no day is the same, I’m constantly learning, working with a smart team, and finding companies that can create long term shareholder value. 

The best advice I received from a mentor was… develop your ability to communicate — written and verbal. Be succinct, combine numbers with a compelling narrative, and be confident. What is the point you want to convey? What is the action item for people to take away?

Investing with the intent to make a positive impact is important because… finding companies that are making a positive impact translates into opportunities for growth, which will translate into better financial performance and address the many sustainability challenges around us.

I would tell my 20-year old self… the key to success is to find a “sponsor.” This is different from a mentor. A sponsor, or, even better, sponsors is someone within your organization that is senior to you and will basically say nice things about you behind your back. They will put your name forward at promotion time, for new projects, and help support your initiatives. The really hard part is finding a sponsor, and often, each time why a sponsor takes a shine to you is different.

“Finally, governments, society, and capital allocators are working together to address the transition to a lower carbon economy and important social justice issues. We can all make a difference.”

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… good habits — they are the compound interest of self-improvement. Many people know that compounding interest (if not, Google it ASAP) builds long term wealth.  

Small choices like a salad over burger, calling the client instead of leaving early, or volunteering for extra assignments doesn’t seem to matter much at the moment. But, as days turn to weeks, those tiny repeatable choices compound. These habits build your skill set and open doors in the future you never imagined.

The one piece of advice I would give someone who is starting to invest is… do your homework, read or listen (e.g., podcasts) to lots of different investors to see what style suits you. You need to have a passion for this business or you won’t last.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I am reliving my childhood through the lens of my two sons (8 and 10 years old). I’ve learned to skateboard (kinda), and play Dungeons and Dragons. I am a level 5 elf magic user.

The future excites me because… finally, governments, society, and capital allocators (the Paris agreement, carbon taxes, Greta Thunberg, ESG funds) are working together to address the transition to a lower carbon economy and important social justice issues. We can all make a difference.