Natalie Dusome is the founder and designer of Poppy & Peonies, a sustainable, functional Canadian accessory brand named after her daughter Poppy. With dreams of becoming a fashion designer since she was a young girl, Natalie founded her brand in response to a direct personal need of hers: Functional accessories that could accommodate being a new mom. Confident she wasn’t alone in that need, Natalie created Poppy & Peonies to design practical pieces that would help other women navigate motherhood a little easier and much more stylishly. Since the brand’s formation, Natalie has appeared on Dragons’ Den and Poppy & Peonies continues to grow rapidly, collaborating with other brands and influencers in the process.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
COVID really affected our business — we had to examine our entire business model and pivot quickly to survive. We had to preserve cash flow and lean out on all aspects of the business, from our marketing spend to our inventory purchasing. We participated in and were very grateful for the government programs available, including wage subsidy, rent subsidy, Métis Business Recovery Financing loan, and the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan. We didn’t want to take on any more debt, but we couldn’t turn down the forgivable portion of these loans — especially when we really needed the cash flow to offset the slowdown in sales. These funds came in handy to optimize our website and get in front of our audience who was now spending more time online shopping.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
Social media platforms play a huge role in how we connect with our customers. As a brand, we had to get crystal clear on our brand values so we could connect with our customers on a deeper level. Our marketing strategy has definitely shifted since COVID. Video content has never been more important, especially since Instagram is competing with Tik Tok and is no longer a photo sharing platform, but an entertainment platform. We had to get more comfortable in front of the camera talking to our customers on Instagram stories and creating videos and reels. We also launched an affiliate program where we could partner with, empower, and reward brand ambassadors for creating and sharing user generated content.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
We made the decision a year ago to have our entire team work remotely permanently. Women need more flexibility in the workplace to juggle the new, ever evolving landscape of school, work, kids’ activities, and trying to balance it all. Our team is more productive and much happier working from home. Having a remote team requires technology to keep us connected; we use a number of software tools for that. We use Shopify and a ton of apps to optimize our website. We also switched our bookkeeping to cloud accounting, which means less paperwork, more efficiency, and better monthly finance reporting.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
As a company, we really try to focus on the silver linings of COVID. We believe in gratitude, and express it regularly to our community of customers and our team. When you come from a place of gratitude there is so much to be thankful for, so the energy is high and positive. We believe in a growth mindset, always learning new ways to work and optimize the business, and new ways to grow — this keeps us curious and sharp.
For personal care, I really value meditation. I try to squeeze in one or two five-minute sessions a day; it resets my mind. Time blocking has really helped with my productivity. Instead of bouncing around between five different tasks, I’ve learned to focus on one task at a time. This allows me to get into a flow and produce a higher quality result. I’m also learning that rest is productive — our brains do a lot of problem solving when they’re resting, so now, instead of burning the midnight oil, I go to bed.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
This year, I got a mentor and it’s changed everything. She’s someone who really inspires me; she’s in my industry and is where I want to be. She’s also a mom, a CEO, and is running a huge online Canadian brand, and the advice she gives me is like gold, because she’s been there and done it. My advice would be to find a mentor in your industry who inspires you and is where you want to be. You’ll probably talk yourself out of it by thinking, they’re too busy — why would they want to help me? But be bold, reach out, and just ask and see if they’re interested; 30 minutes once or twice a month isn’t a lot to ask, and it’s rewarding for them too.
My other advice is to get clear on your business goals. Write them down, hang them in front of you, look at them every day, and ensure every step you’re taking that day is getting you closer to that goal.
Lastly, get out of your comfort zone as a business. The opportunities that gave me the biggest rewards were the ones that scared the shit out of me the most — like going on Dragons’ Den or collaborating with Jillian Harris. Get comfortable being uncomfortable; that’s where the growth happens.
Shazia Zeb-Sobani learned at an early age she would have to rebel against the status quo to get where she wanted to go.
“I grew up in Pakistan and went to an all-girls boarding school. There were always separate rules and social norms for girls and boys,” says Shazia. “I became passionate about challenging those norms. I didn’t see my values or what I wanted to be doing reflected in many of the things I was being offered.”
Those values — respect, equity, and curiosity — are things Shazia has used to guide her career decisions ever since completing a marketing degree at the University of the Punjab. It was following her MBA from the University of Calgary (where she now lives) that she accepted a role at TELUS. Today, after 15 years with the organization, Shazia is Vice President of Customer Network Implementation, accelerating fast and high quality broadband connectivity to minimize the digital divide while motivating a team of almost 600 people. She encourages them all to do what she did: challenge the norm.
“Because of my tech-oriented position, I am very often the only woman at the boardroom table, whether that’s at an international conference or a stakeholder meeting,” she says. “But that also means I’m now in a position where I can advocate for change and the support of marginalized groups, and to create a level playing field.”
Shazia says her position at TELUS has also given her the opportunity to create solutions that will establish technological equity for two distinct population groups within Canada: those living in rural areas and the Indigenous. Her team is at the forefront of two projects that will see the company’s Purefibre technology brought to millions of previously underserved individuals.
“Everyone has to have access to high-speed internet, so we are rolling up our sleeves to close the digital divide,” she says. “It’s been infeasible in the past to bring connectivity to these areas, but if we don’t invest we are handcuffing these communities to forgo participation in the global economy, which is something that will have tangible impacts on their social and economic well-being.”
“If you let yourself be yourself you will showcase your energy and passion, which will open up opportunities that allow you to make your next career move.”
This is just one of the projects that allows Shazia to break down barriers for others — while also affording her the ability to challenge herself on a daily basis. She’s an advisor to the TELUS Diversity & Inclusion council, a coach and mentor at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association and the University of Calgary, and on the board of Women in Communication and Technology. In all her efforts, Shazia encourages younger generations to dream about going into roles they’ve only seen previously held by men. “They can aspire to be engineers and data scientists.”
Curiosity is key, too; Shazia believes having a growth mindset can help women evolve their careers and move into positions where they inspire and spark change. Women leaders also need to embrace who they are and to stand up for their values, regardless of what those may be.
“We need to learn to be ourselves. We have to stop trying too hard to fit in and eschew stereotypes that women are too emotional or can’t make decisions,” says Shazia. “If you let yourself be yourself you will showcase your energy and passion, which will open up opportunities that allow you to make your next career move.”
Shazia also advises that developing a support system will help women leaders persevere through challenging times, like COVID, “because whether anyone likes it or not, women are still expected to do too many things — from managing households to running teams and even taking care of friends and family.” Relying on similarly situated peers you respect and confiding in them when things get to be overwhelming will help you sit more comfortably with the idea that no one can do it all. How and where you need to direct your energy day-to-day will constantly change, she adds.
“There are still those stereotypes that women need to be perfect. That successful and highly accomplished women must do it all. At the end of the day, we’re all human. No one is perfect.”
“Don’t try too hard to fit in or be perfect,” Shazia says. “There are still those stereotypes that women need to be perfect. That successful and highly accomplished women must do it all. At the end of the day, we’re all human. No one is perfect. One day your family will have to be a priority; another you might have to devote more time to your career. We always need to weigh the tradeoffs and ensure what we’re doing aligns with our values.”
Most importantly, she encourages any woman — especially those seeking a career change post-COVID — to do a deep dive into what matters to them on a daily basis before taking a leap. This will ensure their next move lets them create the change they want to see, both personally and professionally.
“What are you passionate about? What do you value most in life? Does the work you would be doing keep you close to your values?” she asks. “If something doesn’t align with the things you value most, it might not be the ideal role. Be intentional with your choices. Don’t rush. Focus. This will help you do what you love while helping others around you.”
Nicole McLaren is an award winning Métis entrepreneur from British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Combining her passion for supporting Indigenous entrepreneurs and leveraging her extensive knowledge of industry supply chains and economic development, Nicole was able to turn a small book club into Raven Reads, the world’s first Indigenous subscription box. With thousands of subscribers across Canada, the U.S., and Europe, Raven Reads continues to grow at a rapid rate while giving back to local communities. Through the success of the business, Nicole has been able to invest over $400,000 back into the Indigenous economy and over $2,000 to literacy programs for Indigenous youth and children.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
The pandemic really impacted our supply chain and ability to ship and receive products. To adjust to this, we sought out additional cash (debt) to support purchasing our raw materials earlier, allowing us to assemble our packages and ship them to customers sooner to meet our deadlines. We accessed term loan options that were offered as a result of the pandemic through our local Aboriginal Financial Institution (AFI) and via Futurpreneur. While we have increased our debt burden, we had the advantage of going into the pandemic with a fairly low debt load.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
As an online business, we have not had to make any major changes to our approach to reaching our customers. Our current approach includes a blend of paid social media advertising, organic social media engagement, email marketing, and partnerships or collaborations. For example, this year we partnered with Pow Wow Pitch to host the execution of their annual mailer box featuring products curated from past and present pitch participants. This year, we have begun to focus more on our email marketing strategy and reducing our dependence on paid advertising. This is to reduce our marketing costs and reduce our dependency on specific social media platforms.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
While the pandemic did not necessarily impact our usage of technology, Raven Reads relies heavily on technology to handle our transactional activities with customers, such as taking their orders and handling order fulfillment. We are also a team that is 70% virtual and technology is what allows us to communicate and collaborate on tasks and company objectives. We are currently seeking capital to assist us in boosting our use of technology and enhance our website and e-commerce functionality. Heading into 2022, we will leverage technology better and develop digital products that not only complements our physical product, but provides an enhanced ongoing experience for our subscribers.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
I had a baby 18 months ago and continued to operate my business throughout the entire time of having a newborn and homeschooling my older daughter. To manage all of this, I have had to employ working in blocks of time and compartmentalizing my priorities each day. I work around nap times and do what I can later in the day. I make sure I take time for myself and always get plenty of sleep when I can. I engage regularly with my team as they are what keeps me going — and they make sure I keep moving forward and continue to innovate. I also have a strong network of like-minded entrepreneurs who I can rely on if I am stuck or struggling to overcome seemingly impassable barriers in business. I keep sane by keeping busy and focus on keeping my family running. And when everyone goes to sleep, I take time for myself and enjoy a good (fictional) book or TV show.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
Being an entrepreneur, or working for yourself, is very different from working a nine-to-five job for an employer. You are responsible for setting your schedule, and no one is there to tell you if you are doing a good or bad job. We often leave day jobs thinking we will have this newfound freedom and not have to work as much. This is somewhat of a falsehood — especially if you are entering an aggressive growth stage of your business. Be sure that you have a support network around you to help on your new journey. Because you don’t have someone else to set the expectation around your work, you can be prone to overworking. It is entirely up to you to set boundaries, set expectations, and ensure you employ a practice to take care of yourself while also keeping your business moving forward.
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.”
Priya Chopra est la fondatrice et directrice générale de 1Milk2Sugars, une agence de communication bilingue spécialisée dans le marketing numérique et les relations publiques pour les marques de style de vie. Lancée en 2012, cette agence primée dispose désormais de bureaux à Montréal et à Toronto, et au cours des deux dernières années à peine, a connu une croissance de plus de 200 %. Ardente défenseure de l’égalité, en novembre 2020, Priya a lancé son initiative la plus ambitieuse : Double shot, une division de gestion des talents visant à mieux faire entendre la voix des PANDC et des personnes sous-représentées dans le secteur de marketing de style de vie.
Comment avez-vous géré les finances de votre entreprise pendant la pandémie?
La pandémie a démontré la nécessité pour les entreprises de se préparer à diverses situations financières, et 1Milk2Sugars ne fait pas exception.
Avec l’aide de nos partenaires financiers, nous examinons régulièrement nos objectifs et établissons des prévisions financières pour nous aider à allouer nos ressources. Ce processus, couplé à notre budget annuel, fournit une vue d’ensemble de nos finances et nous indique comment nous évoluons par rapport à nos estimations.
De plus, nous avons également obtenu un financement abordable qui a considérablement augmenté notre fonds de roulement. La sécurité financière est essentielle pour nous permettre d’accepter davantage de clients, de réaliser des campagnes et de pouvoir faire face aux périodes d’inactivité. Ce financement a également été crucial pour nous aider à lancer notre nouvelle entreprise, Double shot, en sachant que notre situation financière était solide. Le maintien d’une source stable de capitaux restera une priorité pour 1Milk2Sugars tout au long de la pandémie et au-delà.
Votre approche des ventes et du marketing a-t-elle changé?
Nous avons la réputation d’offrir un service à la clientèle inégalé dans le secteur. L’attention que nous apportons à nos clients et les résultats que nous obtenons ont renforcé le marketing de bouche à oreille, au point que notre activité est désormais principalement basée sur les recommandations. Alors que nous effectuions autrefois des visites de représentant pour promouvoir notre entreprise, ce sont les clients qui viennent désormais à nous!
Toutefois, nous ne prenons pas notre succès pour acquis. Nous mettons en pratique ce que nous prêchons et utilisons un bon nombre des techniques de valorisation de la marque que nous appliquons à nos clients. Par exemple, nous avons un responsable des relations publiques spécialement chargé d’assurer la couverture de nos agences dans les médias spécialisés, du milieu des affaires et du style de vie. De plus, nous recherchons les occasions de faire preuve de leadership éclairé qui mettent en valeur notre expertise en matière de communication de marque.
Pour renforcer notre réputation et notre position auprès de notre clientèle cible, nous postulons régulièrement à des prix qui mettent en lumière notre activité et notre travail. Par exemple, notre agence a été désignée comme l’une des entreprises à la croissance la plus rapide du Canada selon la Growth List 2020, et nous sommes certifiés Great Place to Work®. Nous avons reçu des distinctions du secteur d’activité, notamment un prix d’excellence en communication de la SCRP qui reconnaît nos réalisations en matière de promotion de la diversité et de l’inclusion, ainsi qu’un prix PR Daily qui reconnaît l’excellence en matière de journalisme de marque et de création de contenu. Sur un plan personnel, j’ai récemment été nommée Leader inspirante de l’année par un grand magazine d’affaires canadien.
Dans le cadre de notre stratégie marketing, nous mettons activement à jour notre blogue, « No Filter », en y ajoutant des informations et des perspectives utiles sur le milieu de la communication de marque. Nous distribuons également deux bulletins d’information destinés aux abonnés, l’un pour 1Milk2Sugars et l’autre pour Double shot, et nous maintenons de solides profils de médias sociaux pour les deux agences.
Tous ces facteurs fonctionnent conjointement dans le but de faire de 1Milk2Sugars la meilleure agence de marketing numérique et de relations publiques pour répondre aux besoins de nos clients.
Quel rôle la technologie a-t-elle joué dans votre entreprise pendant cette période?
En tant qu’agence de marketing numérique, la technologie est au cœur de notre activité, qu’il s’agisse de la surveillance et de l’analyse des médias, de la gestion du contenu ou de la diffusion d’informations. Ces systèmes logiciels nous permettent d’optimiser nos services et de rationaliser nos flux de travail afin de garantir que nos clients tirent le meilleur parti de leur budget marketing.
Au cours de la seule année dernière, nous avons dévoilé une série de nouveaux services numériques, notamment le commerce électronique et le développement web, le marketing par courriel, la publicité par référencement payant et le conseil en référencement, afin d’aider nos clients à intensifier leur présence en ligne. Depuis le début de la pandémie, nous avons continué à créer du contenu en demandant à notre photographe de travailler seul en studio et de transmettre le contenu numériquement à l’équipe chargée des comptes pour les approbations pré-clients.
De plus, nous avons lancé une salle d’exposition numérique pour aider nos marques à maximiser leurs relations publiques en l’absence d’événements de lancement en personne ou d’entretiens au bureau pendant la pandémie. Cette nouvelle plateforme, la première du genre au Canada, permet aux médias de consulter en toute transparence des images haute résolution, des communiqués de presse et la tarification des produits, et de vérifier la disponibilité des produits ainsi que les détails d’emprunt pour nos clients, sur demande et 24 heures sur 24, 7 jours sur 7.
Enfin, notre équipe s’est rapidement tournée vers l’organisation d’événements virtuels dans le contexte de la pandémie. Des tutoriels de coiffure en ligne avec des coiffeurs célèbres aux séances de yoga virtuelles, nous avons misé sur la technologie et la créativité afin de réaliser des expériences de marque vraiment mémorables pour nos clients et leurs publics cibles.
Comment avez-vous préservé votre moral (et celui de votre équipe)?
Le côté positif de cette pandémie, c’est qu’elle a révélé l’importance de la santé et a obligé les dirigeants à réexaminer leurs engagements en matière de bien-être au travail.
Même si, chez 1Milk2Sugars, nous accordons depuis longtemps la priorité à l’équilibre entre vie professionnelle et vie privée, la pandémie de COVID-19 nous a fait redoubler d’efforts pour garantir cet équilibre comme jamais auparavant. Au cours des 18 derniers mois, nous avons mis en place plusieurs initiatives visant à rapprocher notre équipe, même si nous travaillons séparément. Certaines activités, comme les séances hebdomadaires de méditation guidée, étaient de nature plus légère, tandis que d’autres, comme les tables rondes vidéo, visaient à promouvoir la productivité et la collaboration entre pairs.
Nous avons également lancé un nouveau bulletin d’information sur les « victoires hebdomadaires » afin d’insuffler la positivité et de mettre tout le monde au courant des réalisations de l’agence, comme les nouvelles acquisitions d’entreprises, les renouvellements de contrats ou la couverture médiatique positive pour nos clients et l’agence. Pour nous-mêmes, entre collègues, nous avons créé « l’appréciation sur la sellette » : un membre de l’équipe s’assoit sur la « sellette » et tous les employés disent à tour de rôle ce qu’ils aiment et admirent chez cette personne. C’était notre façon d’insuffler la positivité pendant une période autrement stressante et inquiétante.
Quel conseil donneriez-vous aux entrepreneurs de votre secteur aujourd’hui?
Le seul conseil que je donnerais à mes pairs entrepreneurs est de consacrer du temps (et des ressources au besoin) à la définition de leur énoncé mission. Ne le traitez pas comme une réflexion après coup; c’est l’étoile polaire qui guidera votre prise de décisions dans tous les domaines, des nouvelles affaires au recrutement en passant par la responsabilité sociale des entreprises.
Non seulement votre énoncé de mission expliquera de façon transparente aux employés et aux clients la raison d’être de votre entreprise, mais il clarifiera vos priorités lorsque des événements imprévus, comme cette pandémie, se produiront soudainement. Je ne saurais trop insister sur l’importance d’un énoncé de mission bien pensé pour gérer une équipe et diriger une entreprise prospère.
Lara Murphy is one half of Ryan Murphy Construction, a woman-owned construction and contracting company based in Calgary, Alberta. Lara and her co-founder Karen Ryan met on a construction site in 2008. Acknowledging how rare it is to work with other women in the construction, renovation, and general contracting arenas, they teamed up to bring something new to the construction industry. Ryan Murphy Construction has been growing steadily and has been disrupting the industry with each of their corporate, commercial, and residential projects across Canada.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
Events like the global pandemic and fluctuations in the economy requires us to always maintain an in-depth working knowledge of our financial performance, and goodness knows there has been a lot of fluctuation in Alberta in the last 12 years! We launched our business during the 2008 global financial crisis, made it through the Calgary flood of 2013, and persevered during Alberta’s oil and gas market decline. Our team’s agility in accommodating these changes has been crucial to our momentum, and it continues to show throughout the pandemic.
Hard decisions had to be made about staffing; we decided that we had to put some team members on temporary leave to ease cash flow strain, and fortunately, we were able to bring people back in September of 2020.
Before the pandemic began, we were working with strategic consultants to evaluate the business and collaborate with our team on scalability. When the pandemic hit, we actually had the time to sit with our core team and personally evaluate our company goals and strategic direction, which wouldn’t have been possible without the “down time” during the pandemic. At the time, it seemed counterintuitive because we didn’t know how the pandemic would impact the company, but the insights we gained and the changes we made refocused our business and resulted in geographical and fiscal growth.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
During the pandemic people were shocked, sad, frustrated, and unsure of anything. Some of our clients and friends lost their businesses, and many people had lost loved ones. We knew this was not the time for traditional marketing and decided that we’d share uplifting, optimistic, comforting, and supportive messaging. Our social media posts were inspirational, humourous, informative, and provided people with a much-needed smile and the reassurance that we were in this together and were going to pull through together.
Check-ins with clients, partners, and tradespeople were frequent and more focused on their well-being. Video calls with them became the norm and included a combination of laughter, vented frustrations, tears, and, occasionally, wine. This dedication to our clients resulted in strengthened relationships and new projects once the province began to reopen.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
Technology certainly helped prove to clients that remote work is effective, and it created an alternative, efficient work life balance for our team — a new hybrid model for people to move more freely while accomplishing their goals. We were able to encourage our team to continue feeling purposeful and supported during a difficult time, while placing emphasis on their ability to be successful — both individually and collectively. Video conferencing platforms replaced our in-person meetings for project and client management, and it was also used to check in with the team when we were all working from home.
At our sites, we wanted to prioritize the safety of our clients and people in trades, so we implemented and invested in a touchless QR code system as a new approach to an onsite safety measurement for required sign-in’s, health checks, meetings, and more. This allowed us to continue to work during the pandemic and was easy for our tradespeople to manage on their cell phones.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
Because of COVID-19, I’ve learned to adapt to having a day-to-day mindset, and to appreciate small joys and achievements more fully. Pre-pandemic, I was constantly going from meeting to meeting, gone all day from the office and from home. Once lockdowns began, there were no more events or travel (and no hair colouring!), which was somewhat of a welcomed relief — I was able to spend time with my partner Liv and our dog, Ruby, during her final days. A few months after Ruby left us, we were lucky enough to adopt two new pugs, a mother and son — sweet Rosie and hilarious Bubba. Spending so much more quality time with Liv and the “kids” has been fabulous, and we even carved up the mountains on a ski trip together. This slower pace made me able to be more productive and focused, and allowed me the space to not only imagine new personal and professional goals, but to achieve them.
Our team felt the same way, at times choosing to work from home or adjust their schedules to better suit their work and their mental health during such turbulent times. We had many more check-ins, supporting each other and sharing our experiences. This work environment has lasted, as we saw that our staff were happier and just as productive — if not more so — when they are able to have flexible schedules.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
Make time to strategize as a team — no interruptions, no rainchecks. Get everyone in a room — safely in person or virtually — and have them do exercises to define the company and ways to envision growth and enrichment opportunities. During a brainstorm session, everyone can call out words that define the company, or write down ideas for change. This dedicated time is priceless. It creates a real investment in the business, allows everyone to have a chance to share their diverse voice, and strengthens team bonds.
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.
Sherry Shannon-Vanstone is a serial entrepreneur, mathematician, innovator, philanthropist, and mentor. Passionate about STEM, business, and philanthropy, Sherry is the Founder and CEO of Profound Impact Corporation, a social engagement and interaction platform that helps universities, colleges, research institutions, and social impact organizations increase connectivity, collaboration, and measure their impact. Additionally, Sherry is the co-founder and co-chair of the Waterloo Region chapter of Women in Communications and Technology (WCT-WR), and co-chair of Perimeter Institute’s Emmy Noether Council.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
As the pandemic progressed, factors related to our socioeconomic systems shifted, forcing businesses to change their traditional models and adapt. Many small businesses and startups were disproportionately impacted due to a lack of cash reserves and borrowing power to sustain operations. Like many others, Profound Impact focused on reevaluating our current position and trajectory so we could further understand exactly what we needed to do as a business to continue to scale.
When managing our own finances throughout the pandemic, it was crucial to remain informed and ask important questions. Some of these included: How can we ensure sustainable financing and stable cash reserves? How can we adapt our business model to reduce costs, both in the short and medium term? How can we best invest in our team to keep our momentum?
Our team operated under the terms that we can always run leaner. When focused on scaling, you’re not always focused on efficiency. The pandemic forced us to reevaluate every area of spend and every contract to achieve better terms, find savings, or determine where to cut altogether.
We did take on an operating line of credit to ensure that we have the cash flow required to add functionalities and features to the digital community platform, and also expanded our product offering, including our recently launched career trajectory solution and a soon-to-be announced research/researcher matching solution.
Prior to COVID, we decided to maintain a virtual office with rented meeting space at locations across North America. Because we did not have the overhead of an office space and because the majority of our staff are contractors, we did not participate in any of the COVID wage subsidy or rent relief programs.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
Profound Impact officially launched its next-generation social network and interaction platform during the pandemic — a time where the capacity for in-person interactions was very limited. We leveraged this in our sales and marketing approach to position our platform as a solution during and post-pandemic. To connect with customers, we refined our messaging and positioned our platform as an inclusive digital community used to connect people and empower collaboration — two of the primary challenges that our customer base were facing as a result of the pandemic.
We focused our sales and marketing on providing solutions to our customers within the changing technological landscape. This involved adapting our marketing strategy to expand our approaches and develop new channels for connecting with our clients. We placed an increased emphasis on social media and content marketing, exploring new ways to connect with our audiences. Profound Impact hosted a variety of webinars over the last year and conducted research to understand what pain points our customers are talking about, what challenges they are facing, and how we can provide a solution.
As in-person events and networking shifted in 2020, emphasizing the importance and value of online digital communities became a key message in much of our marketing. As the world shifted to virtual workplaces and classrooms, people have been spending more time online than ever. The focus of online engagement, through tools such as webinars, surveys, and engaging social media content, have been essential to our marketing strategy and growth.
Through trial and error, we’ve gained an understanding of the interests of our target audience and use that in our marketing and communications on social media and other owned channels. Ensuring the content is relatable and engaging has been crucial while doing this, emphasizing the human and relationship building aspect of our platform. For example, instead of looking at our platform as a way to grow your network, we emphasize it is a place where like minded people can foster long-term and meaningful connections. Ensuring that our messaging aligns with the needs of our customers and the current socio-economic landscape has been crucial to helping us reach our audience and grow organically while pushing towards profitability.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
Technology has played an integral role in our ability to reach our target audiences and build relationships with stakeholders. At the height of the pandemic, in-person events and meetings were not an option for us to connect — whether that be internally or with our customers. Like many other organizations, we had to adapt to a completely remote environment. We not only utilized video conferencing platforms for internal and external meetings, but also seamlessly integrated it into our Profound Impact platform so that our customers can engage in more robust virtual experiences. In addition to integrating several other third-party applications, we continued our own development of features such as discussion boards, LinkedIn sign-on, and automatic uploading of profile data using PDF and other formats.
With a virtual, tech-enabled workforce, the Profound Impact team was set up for success using multiple platforms to keep close on the information that mattered. All team meetings are done virtually and synchronously at this time.
The acceleration of digital during the COVID-19 pandemic influenced additional product offerings. We invested heavily in tech, data, processes, and people, allowing us to deploy digital strategies such as leveraging data analytics and AI, investing in privacy and security, and integrating the scalability of our product offerings at rapid speed.
When it came to connecting externally with customers and stakeholders, our marketing approach and business model transformed to account for remote sales and marketing. To do so, we utilized our Profound Impact platform to host webinars and other virtual events. Understanding that digital communities are one of the most important tools that businesses can leverage to continue innovating, scaling, and strengthening as we come out of the pandemic, our team capitalized on building our Profound Impact digital community while leveraging our online channels and placing a heavier focus on digital marketing.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
It is incredibly important to remain positive when scaling a business, especially during times of uncertainty. Looking back at the past 18 months, the pandemic not only made us stronger, but I can confidently say it also made us better. Remaining agile, resilient, and purposeful during times of change will help shape a positive mindset.
Managing a team during times of crisis has proven to be a rewarding challenge. It sounds simple, but those who believe in your mission, bring an internal sense of gratitude to your company, and are willing to see the hurdles through with you make all the difference. With that said, putting employee well-being above all else is of utmost importance. Your people are your greatest asset. Putting the health and safety of employees first, emphasizing support, and managing team morale in your organization is crucial. Some ways we’ve been able to achieve this at Profound Impactare: Our monthly all hands meeting; highlighting and matching team members’ volunteer and philanthropic donations; providing professional development programs; and timely communications.
Some of my best tricks for staying positive would be to try to find a silver lining in every situation and ensure you set boundaries. Many of us are working from home or hybrid — and do not have a distinct boundary between work and home life. It is important to set boundaries (this can include anything from turning off email notifications, putting your phone on do not disturb, etc.) at specific times to ensure that you have dedicated time to unwind and decompress.
On that note, prioritizing time for yourself and for your family and friends is important. Life is all about balance — and boundary setting is key to achieving that balance. This is something we encourage every team member to embody.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
The one piece of advice I’d give to all entrepreneurs is to think about the true impact your business can make on society. Businesses can be profitable and purposeful at the same time. I grew up in a time when not many girls studied Mathematics and it has always been important to me to open everyone’s eyes to what’s possible in STEM. I am able to align this societal impact with my business as an important element of how we make decisions, how we build team engagement, and how we support the next generation of tech-skilled workers. All entrepreneurs (big and small) can start early in identifying their purpose and how it will positively impact society.
Divya Tulapurkar was 25 years old when she came to Kingston, Ont. from Bangalore, India in the middle of a cold winter, and enrolled, nearly simultaneously, in two master’s degrees. Five years later, she’s one of the youngest directors at Scotiabank in Toronto.
She attributes her success to her education and expertise in the field of data analytics. “So many people still find analytics to be intimidating,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be. The need for this skill set in the corporate world is great, and there are tools and courses available to help simplify things.”
Besides, intimidating isn’t something that has ever phased Divya.
Having studied engineering and worked in technology solutions as a performance engineer in India, Divya says she knew early on she wanted to complement her technical skills with a business education. Interested in studying abroad, she chose the Full-time MBA program at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University, because she liked the idea of a team-based learning model and felt it would offer a safe space to immerse herself in a new country and culture.
Despite the bitter weather that greeted her in Kingston, and the experience of living alone for the first time, Divya says she quickly overcame the culture shock and found her groove in the MBA. She also realized early on that it was her technical expertise that really differentiated her from the other business students. She was eager to find a way to hold onto this skill set and expand upon it.
“That’s when I decided to enrol in Smith’s Master of Management Analytics program simultaneously,” she says, which made her the only woman at Smith to pursue two master’s degrees in different cities at the same time. “In order to complete both I had to travel back and forth between Kingston and Toronto every week. It was a challenge, but totally worth it.”
“Analytics was required in every industry I explored, but I found that the financial services sector in Canada was doing really interesting work, and that stood out to me.”
In just over a year Divya completed both degrees, and upon graduating started her career with Scotiabank. “Analytics was required in every industry I explored, but I found that the financial services sector in Canada was doing really interesting work, and that stood out to me,” she recalls. “I met with a Smith alumnus from Scotiabank who introduced me to the right people, and I got my first job as a manager.”
Within her first year, leading a small team of data scientists, she worked to build the analytics practice from the ground up for the small business banking vertical. The experience not only delivered value to the bank — it was also personally satisfying.
“My first job in India was in coding — which meant sitting at a computer, day in and day out — but at some point, I realized I wasn’t able to see firsthand the value of what I was bringing to the table. In my first job with Scotiabank, I was able to make a difference by applying the technology to enable the discovery of key insights and strategies that would improve the customer experience.”
Divya’s combination skill set has allowed her to rise quickly within the bank, moving into the area of global risk management. “There aren’t a lot of people who can translate the technical into business understanding, and what they’re looking for at the bank is how the tech will drive better decisions and value.” Every decision you see in banking comes from data analytics, she explains, because it can help highlight what’s working and what’s not, point out pain areas and act as an early warning indicator.
And it doesn’t have to be complicated. “The easiest way to get started with analytics is through data visualization,” says Divya. “Just like the best presenters are storytellers, the best way to present data is also through stories. It helps you connect with your audience and explain a rather complicated analysis in a way people can understand. And the best part is you don’t need any coding experience to get started. Be it 10 rows of data or millions of them, you can easily visualize that data into charts and graphs to provide insights for decision making.”
Divya’s passion for the subject is contagious. And given all of her early successes, it’s hard to imagine her struggling with self-confidence. But as with many young professionals, she says it’s her inner voice that’s the hardest to contend with. “Back in India I had a lot of confidence, but that shattered when I arrived in Canada,” she recalls. “As a young, brown, immigrant woman working in the field of tech and analytics, it hasn’t always been easy. It has taken a village to get me to where I am today.”
“I’ve learned that speaking up for yourself and bringing your diverse perspective to the table is a work in progress, and the more you do it the easier it gets.”
From mentors to family members, and especially her husband, Divya says she’s had a huge amount of support. She also credits the Smith MBA program with giving her an opportunity to build herself back up. “I spent that year learning to understand my value, and I can’t imagine being where I am today without that experience,” she explains. “I’ve learned that speaking up for yourself and bringing your diverse perspective to the table is a work in progress, and the more you do it the easier it gets.”
Divya is now passionate about mentoring young women in STEM, and encourages them to follow in her footsteps. Even today, there aren’t that many women in analytics — and for many, Divya explains, the journey starts with seeing someone like yourself in the field. “Every single time a woman gets to a leadership role within an organization, all women benefit.”
She often shares the advice that she’s taken to heart over the years: “Don’t be afraid to take on something more, even if you think you’re only 30 or 40 per cent ready for it. Do it now, because if you’re 100 per cent ready, you should already be in that role. Take a chance, bet on yourself and go for it.”
It’s this advice that helped her move into the director role at the bank after having only been a senior manager for a short time. “In my head I assumed I hadn’t been in the role long enough to apply for the director position, but my husband pushed me to go for it,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t opt yourself out before you even try, what’s the worst that can happen?’”
To her surprise, after a fabulous interview, Divya was offered the role. “You want to work with people who can see not just what you’ve done, but what you’re capable of doing. My boss took a chance on me and it worked out really well.”
Looking ahead, she’s excited for what’s to come. “I hope I get an opportunity to make an even broader impact,” she says. “We are just scratching the surface with what’s possible in data analytics, and it’s going to grow in so many ways.”
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.
Chef Nuit Regular is the Executive Chef and Co-Owner of PAI, Kiin, By Chef Nuit, Sabai Sabai, and Sukhothai. Creating authentic Thai dishes inspired by her roots in Northern Thailand, Chef Nuit has been instrumental in transforming the Thai food scene in Toronto, Canada. In addition to operating her many restaurants, Chef Nuit has also been a guest judge on MasterChef Canada and Top Chef Canada, is a resident judge on Food Network Canada’s Wall of Chefs, and is the author of Kiin: Recipes and Stories from Northern Thailand, which was shortlisted for the IACP Cookbook Awards and the Taste Canada Awards.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
Because we closed our restaurants for several weeks during the initial lockdown of the pandemic, we had zero revenue coming in. We had to adjust how we managed our finances, and we reached out to our bank to get lines of credit approved. We always had really positive relationships with our landlords and suppliers, so they were very understanding and willing to help us out in any way they could — whether it was allowing us to defer payments, or working with us to create payment plans that would make sense with our reduced cash flow. We also signed up for various government programs, including the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), and small business loan programs, which allowed us to continue to pay our staff wages, rent, and other overhead costs, even with greatly reduced revenue.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
I work in the hospitality industry, which is all about connecting and interacting with our guests in person. It’s been very hard these past 16 months to not be able to give our guests the full dining experience. I started hosting virtual cooking classes and events as an alternative way to connect and interact with my customers. It allowed me to have facetime with guests that I couldn’t have at the restaurants, and I could offer them something experiential and of value in return by continuing to bring my Thai cuisine and culture into their homes. I’ve also become more active on social media as a way of communicating and staying relevant and connected with my customers.
We’ve heard the word “pivot” a lot in the hospitality industry during the pandemic, and that is what we did — offering new products and services based on customer needs. When people were locked down in their homes and cooking more, we created meal kits so customers could easily cook their favourite Thai dishes themselves. Utilizing ingredients we already had available at our restaurants, we also opened an online marketplace selling Thai produce and products directly to customers, including items that are harder to find like holy basil and magrud limes.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
With the various lockdowns, we were mostly only able to operate for take-out and delivery, so developing deeper relationships with our various delivery app partners was essential. Before the pandemic, take-out and delivery was only about 30% of our business. Suddenly, it became 100% of our business. To maximize ease and efficiency we upgraded our POS systems to ensure they were fully integrated to streamline all online orders, including incoming orders from our various delivery app partners.
The pandemic also helped move our business into doing more contactless transactions. Many of our guests inquired about purchasing gift cards as a way to support our business. Before the pandemic, we only sold physical gift certificates, but we finally transitioned to fully electronic gift cards.
From a business operations perspective, we transitioned to using electronic invoices versus paper invoices, and made payments via e-transfer over physical cheques. This not only ensured the health and safety of our team and our suppliers, but also increased efficiency and convenience for our business.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
I think this pandemic showed me the importance of self-care and taking the time for myself and my family. During the early months of the pandemic, I was able to spend all this time at home with my kids and my husband — time I never had before — and I loved it! I loved being present with them. I was also able to take care of myself — exercise more, get some rest, cook with my family, and do some creative things outside of work. It helped reinvigorate me and allowed me to better focus on work. I was reminded that it’s important to take the time to reset your body and your mind, and to have quality time with your family and with yourself. Now that we’re back to somewhat normal business operations, I still ensure I take time for myself and my family every day. I have my mornings off for family time — whether it’s exercising together or just spending quality time together.
I also ensure that we bring that self-care mindset and positive energy to my team. Being a chef is hard on the body because we’re always on our feet and using our hands, using very repetitive motions. I’ve implemented regular exercise breaks for my team during work, where the team will stop what they’re doing and run through a program of stretches for the hands, the legs, the back, etc. This helps loosen up the muscles and joints and helps prevent chronic pain or long-term injuries. We’ve also created a healthier staff meal program to encourage a healthy and nutritious lifestyle, and we have regular team-building activities and meetings to promote a fun and positive work environment.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
My piece of advice to entrepreneurs is to stay positive and to take care of yourself. Things may not always turn out the way you want them to, but if you approach your life and your work with a positive attitude, you can achieve anything.You also need to take care of yourself in order to take care of others — whether that’s your staff or your customers. I used to be go-go-go all the time, but the pandemic made me rethink my priorities and focus more on my physical and mental health. It hit me hard when I was forced to stop working, and I realized just how exhausted I was, physically and mentally. I discovered that I needed to have my “me” time.
So don’t be afraid or feel guilty to take the time for yourself to enjoy the little moments in life. For me, I now start my mornings just enjoying the flowers and the birds in my backyard, and leisurely sip a cup of coffee. I make sure I set aside time to exercise. Adjusting your daily routine to ensure you’re taking time for yourself will help recharge your “internal battery,” and give you more motivation to work harder and achieve greater things at work.
De nombreux entrepreneurs acquièrent les connaissances dont ils ont besoin pour lancer leur entreprise en travaillant d’abord sur le terrain pour quelqu’un d’autre. Indira Moudi, une cliente de longue date de BDC, a pris un chemin très différent. Elle a mené des carrières couronnées de succès en entreprise et en tant qu’entrepreneure, dans deux secteurs très différents.
Diplômée en génie industriel de Polytechnique Montréal, Indira a commencé sa carrière comme ingénieure sur le terrain dans le secteur de l’énergie. Elle a ensuite gravi les échelons jusqu’à des postes de direction, pour finalement devenir présidente régionale de Baker Hughes, l’une des plus grandes entreprises de services pétroliers au monde. Au cours de ses 20 ans de carrière dans le secteur de l’énergie, elle a vécu et travaillé dans le monde entier, notamment en Afrique occidentale et centrale, en Europe, aux États-Unis, au Canada et en Inde.
La suite de sa carrière l’a conduite à Shawinigan, au Québec – à deux heures de route au nord de Montréal, ou au sud de la ville de Québec – où elle s’est installée pour diriger Viandes Lafrance, une entreprise de transformation alimentaire qu’elle a acquise en 2012 avec son mari, le Dr Guillaume Pham. Indira est présidente et directrice générale de l’entreprise, dans un secteur d’activité qui présente une similitude notable avec le secteur de l’énergie : ces deux industries sont majoritairement dirigées par des hommes.
Indira a travaillé dur pour changer cela, à la fois comme modèle et comme leader. Elle a contribué au recrutement et à la promotion de jeunes ingénieures et techniciennes dans le domaine de l’énergie et, dans sa propre entreprise, elle a délibérément fait en sorte que son personnel compte 20 % de femmes.
Elle m’a récemment rencontrée pour me parler de son histoire hors du commun et des modèles qui ont contribué à façonner son propre parcours professionnel, l’inspirant à relever de nouveaux défis, à apprendre de nouvelles choses et à apporter son appui aux autres en cours de route.
Il est fascinant de constater que vous êtes passée du statut de cadre international dans le secteur de l’énergie à celui de propriétaire d’une PME de transformation alimentaire en pleine campagne québécoise. Comment cette transition s’est-elle faite?
À 18 ans, j’ai dit à ma mère que je posséderai ma propre entreprise, et c’est la principale raison pour laquelle j’ai étudié le génie industriel à Polytechnique de Montréal. Il n’est pas surprenant qu’après avoir travaillé pendant cinq à six ans pour une société, j’ai envisagé de diriger ma propre entreprise. Au début, je me voyais bien à la tête d’une entreprise en démarrage. En 2004, tout en travaillant à plein temps, j’ai lancé African Suppliers, qui fournissait aux entreprises africaines une expertise en matière de contrôle de la qualité, de ressources humaines et de gestion de projet. J’ai constaté que les choses n’allaient pas assez vite pour moi, et j’ai réalisé qu’en acquérant une entreprise existante, je pouvais m’y mettre directement et avancer plus rapidement.
En 2008, j’ai commencé à rechercher activement des occasions d’affaires. Je suis venue au Canada avec mon mari, et nous avons visité une quinzaine d’entreprises de la Mauricie, au Québec, par le biais de la SADC (Société d’aide au développement des collectivités). J’avais décidé de fonder une famille dans la quarantaine, et mon mari et moi voulions avoir nos enfants au Canada. Je n’avais pas d’exigences particulières sur le secteur; je ne voulais rien de trop petit, et je voulais quelque chose qui me mette au défi.
Après des années de recherche, l’occasion s’est présentée en 2012 avec cette entreprise familiale qui était en bonne santé financière et qui avait des propriétaires compétents. Le marché de la production de viande était en pleine croissance et, bien que nous ne connaissions rien à l’industrie agroalimentaire, nous étions convaincus que c’était une occasion à saisir. Nous nous sommes vraiment bien entendus avec le propriétaire de l’entreprise, dont nous sommes d’ailleurs encore très proches aujourd’hui, et nous lui avons fait une offre.
« En réalité, cela a été l’une des années les plus chargées de ma vie. Au cours de cette année, j’ai donné naissance à mon premier enfant, j’ai acquis la société et j’ai commencé à occuper un poste de direction en tant que présidente régionale de Baker Hughes en Afrique centrale. »
Alors, c’était tout? Vous avez quitté le secteur de l’énergie pour vous consacrer à plein temps à Viandes Lafrance?
En réalité, cela a été l’une des années les plus chargées de ma vie. Au cours de cette année, j’ai donné naissance à mon premier enfant, j’ai acquis la société et j’ai commencé à occuper un poste de direction en tant que présidente régionale de Baker Hughes en Afrique centrale. Dans le secteur de l’énergie, ce poste chez Baker Hughes représentait l’un des sommets de ma carrière, et il m’était impossible de le refuser. Mon mari m’a dit : « Ma chère, tu es une femme de carrière, accepte ce travail et je m’occuperai de l’entreprise ». Nous avons donc mené ces deux activités en parallèle pendant quelques années.
Pendant cette année, nous avons eu beaucoup de choses à faire, et honnêtement, je n’aurais pas pu le faire sans l’aide de ma famille. Mes parents, tous deux médecins récemment à la retraite, m’ont aidée en prenant soin du bébé pendant que j’allais travailler. J’ai vu ma mère travailler et élever une famille, et je savais que je pouvais faire les deux, grâce au merveilleux modèle que j’avais en elle. En fait, mes deux parents ont toujours été des modèles pour moi.
C’est merveilleux de pouvoir grandir avec des modèles forts dans son propre foyer. En dehors de cet équilibre entre carrière et éducation, y a-t-il d’autres choses que vous avez apprises d’eux et qui ont influencé votre propre parcours?
Tout à fait. Je suis née en Algérie, je suis deuxième de trois filles et j’ai été élevée dans huit pays différents. Ce n’est que lorsque j’ai eu 16 ans que mes sœurs et moi nous sommes installées à Montréal, mais mes parents ont continué à voyager pour leur travail. J’avais des racines dans tellement de pays différents que je n’ai jamais eu peur de me déplacer, de relever de nouveaux défis, d’apprendre de nouvelles choses partout où j’allais, ou d’embrasser la diversité.
Mes parents ont tous deux joué un rôle de premier plan dans leur carrière. Ils ont compris mon dynamisme et mon ambition et m’ont soutenu tout au long de mon parcours. Cela a eu un impact certain. Le premier emploi que j’ai occupé était un poste d’ingénieure de terrain au Nigéria pour Schlumberger, une entreprise multinationale de technologie travaillant dans le secteur du pétrole et du gaz, et trois ans plus tard, j’ai obtenu un poste de direction au Gabon.
Ma fille aînée étudie l’ingénierie et je trouve surprenant de voir aussi peu de femmes inscrites dans ce programme, encore aujourd’hui. J’imagine que lorsque vous avez commencé, à la fin des années 1990 et au début des années 2000, le secteur était encore plus dominé par les hommes?
Oui, mais le secteur mondial de l’énergie était très conscient de la nécessité d’attirer davantage de diversité. Le secteur en particulier était en plein essor, et Schlumberger était très avant-gardiste en matière de recrutement et de formation des femmes. En fait, en 2002, on m’a demandé de travailler au service des RH de Schlumberger, dans le domaine du recrutement, avec pour mission de rechercher davantage de personnes comme moi. Ce poste m’a conduit à Paris, où j’ai rencontré mon compagnon de vie, et pendant ces années, j’ai pu engager, avec mon équipe de 12 recruteurs, plus de 3 000 nouvelles recrues par an pour l’entreprise.
C’est impressionnant! J’imagine qu’avec votre propre succès, vous étiez un modèle très inspirant pour les femmes qu’ils espéraient attirer.
Oui, et j’ai senti qu’il était de mon devoir d’être ce modèle. Au cours de ma carrière dans le secteur de l’énergie, de nombreuses personnes ont participé à l’avancement des femmes leaders, puis c’était à notre tour de faire de plus grandes choses, d’aider d’autres femmes à progresser et d’être des modèles pour la prochaine génération de femmes dans le secteur.
« Chez Lafrance, nous avons non seulement augmenté la représentation des femmes dans nos effectifs à 20 %, mais nous sommes également passés d’une seule nationalité dans l’entreprise au début, à 12 aujourd’hui. »
Qu’en est-il dans votre rôle actuel, dans un autre secteur dominé par les hommes?
C’est le même dévouement qui m’anime. En tant que femme et membre d’une minorité à Shawinigan, je crois qu’il est de ma responsabilité d’ouvrir la voie aux autres. Je ne suis pas arrivée là où j’en suis aujourd’hui sans aide ni soutien, et plus j’aide et encadre les autres, plus je me sens épanouie. Qu’il s’agisse d’aider les filles de mes amis qui poursuivent des études d’ingénieur, d’encadrer mon équipe à Lafrance ou de participer à des groupes d’experts ou à des événements, je consacre toujours du temps aux autres.
Et cela va au-delà du genre. Chez Lafrance, nous avons non seulement augmenté la représentation des femmes dans nos effectifs à 20 %, mais nous sommes également passés d’une seule nationalité dans l’entreprise au début, à 12 aujourd’hui. Pourtant, notre effectif compte seulement 40 personnes. Je peux vous dire que la création d’une entreprise diversifiée n’est pas une mince affaire. Trouver les bonnes personnes et faire en sorte que tout le monde se comprenne et travaille ensemble demande du courage et de la patience, mais c’est la bonne voie vers la prospérité et l’inclusion.
Compte tenu de votre expérience, quels conseils donnez-vous aux autres femmes qui souhaitent emprunter une voie similaire à la vôtre?
Le conseil que je donne aux autres femmes est le même que celui que je donne à mes propres enfants : lorsque vous tombez, relevez-vous et allez de l’avant, avec courage et résilience. Rêvez en grand et poursuivez votre rêve.
Je crois aussi qu’il est important que les femmes sachent que le temps de l’épuisement est révolu. J’ai pu mener toute cette carrière sans m’épuiser, et c’est parce que j’ai pris le temps de prendre soin de moi, à la fois physiquement et mentalement. Je demande de l’aide et j’accepte de l’aide, car aucun de nous ne peut y arriver seul. En particulier, si vous souhaitez vous concentrer sur votre carrière, fonder une famille et élever un enfant, il est essentiel de disposer de l’aide et du soutien adéquats.
En tant que femme de carrière et mère, je tiens à exprimer une autre réflexion sur la maternité : nous ne sommes pas mères uniquement pour avoir donné naissance, mais aussi lorsque nous nous occupons d’enfants. Beaucoup d’enfants dans ce monde ont des parents qui sont absents de leur vie quotidienne, pour quelque raison que ce soit; pour moi, c’est une grâce d’avoir des neveux, des filleuls, des enfants de la famille ou d’amis dont nous pouvons nous occuper et qui nous considèrent comme leurs mères ou leurs tantes. Dans certaines cultures africaines ou indiennes, par exemple, il est très naturel d’élever un enfant qui ne vous appartient pas. Si au cours de notre carrière de femme, nous ne pouvons pas donner naissance à un enfant pour une raison quelconque, la possibilité de s’occuper d’autres enfants est vraiment une source d’épanouissement. Mon père a toujours dit que nous ne sommes pas uniquement le fruit de l’éducation de nos parents, mais aussi de la contribution de nos professeurs, de nos voisins et de la communauté qui nous entoure. Il faut un village pour élever un enfant.
J’ai consciemment choisi d’avoir des enfants à la quarantaine parce que je voulais me concentrer sur le développement de ma carrière, et aussi parce que je voulais être en mesure de consacrer du temps de qualité à nos enfants. Mon père disait toujours : « Voyage loin, mais fais-le tant que tu es jeune. » Et il avait raison. Plus récemment, j’ai été heureuse de pouvoir ralentir un peu le rythme, de diriger Lafrance ici au Québec et d’élever nos deux enfants. Le prochain chapitre de ma vie consistera à redonner, à partager mon expertise en tant que leader mondiale et à inspirer la prochaine génération. Nous devons laisser un monde meilleur à nos enfants, et cela se fera en montrant l’exemple tout en étant responsable.
Many entrepreneurs gain the knowledge they need to launch their business by first working in the field for someone else. Indira Moudi, a long-time client of BDC, took a very different path. She has had very successful corporate and entrepreneurial careers —in two wildly different industries.
Graduating with an Industrial Engineering degree from Polytechnique Montréal, Indira started as a field engineer in oil and gas and worked her way up into executive roles, ultimately becoming a regional president with Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest oil field services companies. During her 20-year career in the energy sector, she lived and worked all over the world, including cities in West and Central Africa, Europe, the United States, Canada, and India.
Her next chapter brought her to Shawinigan, Quebec — a 2-hour drive north of Montreal, or south of Quebec city — where she settled in to run Viandes Lafrance, a food processing business she acquired in 2012 with her husband, Dr. Guillaume Pham. Indira is CEO and chair of the business, which does share one notable similarity with the energy sector: both industries are dominated by men.
Indira has worked hard to change that — as a role model and a leader. She helped to recruit and advance young women engineers and technicians in the energy field, and with her own business, she’s purposefully built up her workforce to be 20% women.
She joined me recently to talk about her unique story, and the role models that helped shape her own career journey — inspiring her to take on new challenges, learn new things, and support others along the way.
It’s fascinating that you went from being a globetrotting executive in the energy industry to the owner of a food processing SME in the Quebec countryside. How did that transition happen?
At 18 years old, I told my mother that I will own my own company, and this is the main reason for studying Industrial Engineering at Polytechnique of Montréal. It’s no surprise that after five to six years of working for a corporation, I had been thinking about running my own company. At first, I thought I’d like to have a start-up. In 2004, while working full time, I launched African Suppliers, which provided expertise in Quality Control, HR, and Project Management to African companies. What I found was that things weren’t going fast enough for me, and I realized that by acquiring an existing company, I could jump right in and get going more quickly.
In 2008, I actively started looking for business opportunities. I came to Canada with my husband, and we visited about 15 companies in the Mauricie Region in Québec, through the SADC (Société d’aide au développement des collectivités). I had decided that I wanted to have kids in my 40s, and my husband and I wanted to have our kids in Canada. I knew I wasn’t picky about the sector; I didn’t want anything too small, and I wanted something that would challenge me.
After years of looking, the opportunity came up in 2012 for this family business that was in good financial health with competent owners. The market — meat production — was growing, and while we didn’t know anything about the agri-food industry, we felt really good about the opportunity. We really hit it off with the company’s owner, who we are still very close with today, and we made an offer.
“That was one of the busiest years of my life. In the span of that year, I gave birth to my first child, acquired the company, and started in an executive role as President of Central Africa with Baker Hughes.”
So, was that it? You left the energy sector behind and started to run Viandes Lafrance full time?
Actually, no. That was one of the busiest years of my life. In the span of that year, I gave birth to my first child, acquired the company, and started in an executive role as President of Central Africa with Baker Hughes. In the energy sector, this job with Baker Hughes was one of the summits of my career, and it was impossible to turn it down. My husband said to me, ‘My dear, you are a career woman, take the job and I’ll run the business.’ So, we did that in parallel for a few years.
During that year we had a lot on the go, and I honestly couldn’t have done it without the help of my family. My parents, both young, retired medical doctors, helped me with the baby while I went to work. I have seen my mum working and raising a family, and I knew I could do both, thanks to the wonderful role model I had in her. Both my parents, in fact, have always been role models to me.
It’s wonderful to be able to grow up with strong role models in your own home. Outside of seeing that balance of career and parenting, are there other things you learned from them that impacted your own path?
Absolutely. I was born in Algeria, the second of three daughters, but I was raised in eight different countries. It wasn’t until I was 16 that my sisters and I settled in Montreal — but my parents continued to travel for work. I had roots in so many different countries that I was never afraid to move around, taking on new challenges, learning new things wherever I went, or embracing diversity.
My parents both had leadership roles in their careers. They understood my drive and ambition and supported me along the way. That definitely had an impact. My first job was as a field engineer in Nigeria with Schlumberger, a multinational tech company working in the oil and gas sector — and within three years, I had moved into a managing role in Gabon.
My oldest daughter is studying Engineering and I’m surprised by how few women are in the program, even today. I can imagine when you were starting out, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was even more male-dominated?
Yes, but the global energy sector was very conscious about the need to attract more diversity into the field. The sector in particular was booming, and Schlumberger was quite forward thinking when it came to recruiting and training women. In fact, in 2002, I was sought out to work in Schlumberger’s HR department in recruiting, with a mandate of looking for more people like me. That job took me to Paris —where I did meet my life partner — and during those years, I was able to hire, with my team of 12 recruiters, more than 3,000 new recruits a year for the company.
“During my career in the energy sector, there were many people helping move women leaders forward, and then it was our turn to do greater things — to develop other women and be role models for the next generation of women in the industry.”
That’s impressive! I imagine with your own success, you were a very relatable role model for the women they were hoping to attract.
Yes, and I felt it was my duty to be that role model. During my career in the energy sector, there were many people helping move women leaders forward, and then it was our turn to do greater things — to develop other women and be role models for the next generation of women in the industry.
What about in your current role, in yet another industry dominated by men?
I have the same dedication. As a woman and a minority in Shawinigan, I believe it’s my responsibility to pave the way for others. I didn’t get to where I’m at today without help and support, and the more I help and mentor others, the more fulfilled I feel. From helping daughters of my friends who are pursuing an education in engineering, to mentoring my team at Lafrance, or participating on panels or in events, I’m always giving time to others.
And it goes beyond gender. At Lafrance, we have not only increased the representation of women in our workforce to 20%, but we also went from one nationality in the company when we started, to 12 today — and we only have a staff of 40 people. I can tell you that creating a diverse company isn’t the easy path — finding the right people and getting everyone to understand each other and work together takes courage and patience — but it’s been the right move towards prosperity and inclusion.
With all your experience, what advice do you offer other women who want to follow you on a similar path?
The advice I offer other women is the same advice I give my own kids — when you fall down, stand back up and move on, with courage and resilience. Dream big and go after your dream.
Also, I believe it’s important for women to know that the time for burnout is over. I’ve been able to have this whole career without burnout, and that’s because I’ve taken time to take care of myself — physically and mentally. I ask for help and accept help, because none of us can do this on our own. Especially if you want to focus on your career, have a family, and raise a child, having the right help and support in place is essential.
As a career woman and mother, another thought I want to share on motherhood is this: We are moms not because we gave birth, but because we take care of children. Many children in this world have parents that are absent from their daily lives, for whatever reason; for me, it is a grace to have nephews, godchildren, and family or friends’ children that we can take care of, who consider us mothers or aunts. In some African or Indian cultures, for example, it is very natural to raise a kid that does not belong to you. If during our career as women, we cannot give birth for whatever reason, the avenue of taking care of other children is really fulfilling in life. My father has always said that we are not made only from our parents, but with the help of our teachers, neighbors, and community. It takes a village to raise a child.
I consciously chose to have kids in my 40s because I wanted to focus on building a career, and also I wanted to be in a position to give quality time to our kids. My dad always said, ‘Travel far, but do it while you’re young.’ And he was right. Most recently, I’ve been happy to slow down a bit, to run Lafrance here in Québec, and raise our two children. My next chapter is all about giving back, sharing my expertise as a global leader, and inspiring the upcoming generation. We must leave a better world for our kids, and this will be done by leading by example while being responsible.
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.
Priya Chopra is the founder and CEO of 1Milk2Sugars, a bilingual communications agency specializing in digital marketing and public relations for lifestyle brands. Launched in 2012, the award winning agency now has hubs in Montreal and Toronto, and has grown by over 200% in the last two years alone. An outspoken advocate for equality, in November 2020, Priya launched her most purpose-driven initiative yet: double shot, a talent management division aimed at amplifying BIPOC and underrepresented voices in lifestyle marketing.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
The pandemic has demonstrated the need for businesses to prepare for various financial scenarios — and 1Milk2Sugars is no exception.
With guidance from our financial partners, we routinely examine our goals and undertake financial forecasting to help us allocate our resources. This process, together with our annual budget, provides a holistic view of our finances and tells us how we’re trending versus our estimates.
Notably, we also secured affordable financing which has greatly increased our working capital. Being secure financially is key to us taking on more clients, executing on campaigns and bridging the periods between remuneration. It was also critical in helping us launch our newest venture, double shot, knowing we were on solid financial ground. Maintaining a stable source of capital will remain a priority for 1Milk2Sugars throughout the pandemic and beyond.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
We have a reputation for unmatched client service in the industry. The level of care we provide to our clients and the results we deliver has fueled word-of-mouth marketing to the point that our business is now primarily based on referral. Whereas we were once making sales calls to promote our business, clients are now coming to us!
Still, we don’t take our success for granted. We practice what we preach and employ a lot of the same brand-building techniques that we employ for our clients. For example, we have a dedicated PR lead to generate coverage about our agencies in lifestyle, business, and trade media. Moreover, we pursue thought leadership opportunities that highlight our expertise in brand communications.
To further reinforce our reputation and standing among our target clientele, we regularly apply for awards that shine a spotlight on our business and showcase our work. Notably, our agency was named one of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies by the 2020 Growth List and we are Great Place to Work-certified. We’ve been recognized with industry accolades, including a CPRS ACE Award acknowledging our achievements in promoting diversity and inclusion, and a PR Daily award recognizing excellence in brand journalism and content creation. On a personal note, I was recently named Inspirational Leader of the Year by a leading Canadian business magazine.
Further to our marketing strategy, we actively update our blog, “No Filter”, with useful insights and perspectives about the world of brand communications. We also distribute two subscriber-based newsletters, one for 1Milk2Sugars and one for double shot, and maintain robust social media profiles for both agencies.
All these factors work in tandem to help make the case for 1Milk2Sugars as the premier digital marketing and public relations agency to serve our clients’ needs.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
As a digital marketing agency, technology is core to our business in everything from media monitoring and analytics to content management and news distribution. These software systems enable us to optimize our services and streamline our workflows to ensure our clients are getting the most for their marketing budget.
In the last year alone, we unveiled a suite of new digital services including e-commerce and web development, email marketing, paid search advertising and SEO consulting to help our clients bring their online presences up to speed. Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve kept our content creation active by having our photographer work alone in the studio and transmit content digitally to the account team for pre-client approvals.
Additionally, we launched a digital showroom to help our brands maximize their PR in the absence of in-person launch events or deskside interviews during the pandemic. This new platform, which was the first of its kind in Canada, enables the media to seamlessly access hi-res images, press releases, product pricing, product availability, and credit details for our clients on-demand and 24/7.
Lastly, our team quickly pivoted to the world of virtual event planning amid the pandemic. From online hair tutorials with celebrity hairstylists to virtual yoga sessions, we leveraged technology and creativity to execute some truly memorable brand experiences for our clients and their target audiences.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
If there was a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s that it put health in the spotlight and forced executives to reexamine their commitments to workplace wellness.
Even though we’ve long prioritized work-life balance at 1Milk2Sugars, the COVID-19 crisis had us doubling-down on these assurances like never before. Within the last 18 months, we’ve instituted several initiatives aimed at bringing our team together even as we worked apart. Some activities, like weekly guided meditation sessions, were more lighthearted in nature while others, like video roundtables, were aimed at promoting productivity and peer-to-peer collaboration.
We’ve also instituted a new “weekly wins” newsletter to spread positivity and update everyone on the agency’s achievements like new business acquisitions, renewed contracts or positive media coverage for our clients and the agency. On a more peer-to-peer level, we created the “appreciation hot seat” where one member of the team would sit in the ‘hot seat’ and every employee would take a turn saying what they love and admire about that person. It was our way of spreading positivity during an otherwise stressful and worrying time.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
The one piece of advice I’d offer my fellow entrepreneurs is to spend time (and resources, if necessary) defining your agency’s mission statement. Don’t treat it as an afterthought; it’s the North Star that will guide your decision making on everything from new business to recruitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Not only will your mission statement provide transparency to employees and customers about what your company is about, but it will clarify your priorities when unforeseen events, like the pandemic, strike out of the blue. I can’t stress enough the importance of a well thought out mission statement in managing a team and running a successful business.
There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new hurdles and challenges for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Many are still reeling from the impacts experienced over the past 18 months, but there are also those that have made great strides in these unprecedented times, through innovation and reinvention.
What can we learn from the businesses that thrived during the pandemic, and how can we leverage those learnings to help other SMEs post-COVID?
According to Dr Nuša Fain, Director of the Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MMIE) program at Smith School of Business, the opportunities coming out of the pandemic will benefit the small business ecosystem for years to come. She has been eagerly tracking COVID success stories, looking for clues as to what other businesses can learn from these experiences.
“Never have changemakers been needed more than they are now,” she says. “Our goal through the MMIE program is to build the changemakers of the future.”
With business consulting experience in the areas of product development and innovation management in both Europe and Canada, Nuša has seen ‘innovation’ become a buzzword that people love to use — but often don’t understand well. “We define innovation as creating something new that generates value,” she explains. “That value can be profit, but it can also be social impact or operational value.”
At their core, Nuša says successful entrepreneurs have the very skills required for innovation. And creating a culture of innovation can improve productivity, reduce costs, increase competitiveness, build value and boost employee engagement.
“Creating a culture of innovation within a team means everyone is encouraged to think outside the box, improve processes and generate value,” she explains. “Those companies that really did well during the pandemic had flexibility and a culture of innovation already in place, meaning employees were engaged, incentivized and rewarded for providing new potential solutions to a particular problem.”
Some of the questions these companies likely asked themselves were: What are our customers’ needs? What are things we can no longer do because of COVID? How can we better serve our customers in this new environment? What can we do to change?
“Not everything needs to be a breakthrough innovation, but those companies that succeeded took time — but not too much time — to reassess and determine what they could do differently in order to continue to thrive and meet the needs of their customers, or potential customers.”
“Take the example of breweries and distilleries that started to produce hand sanitizer in the early days of COVID,” Nuša says. “They understood the capabilities of their manufacturing processes and they had the flexibility to change. Instead of just continuing to do what they had always done, they pivoted to add value, creating something new that was needed at the time.”
The same was true of manufacturers in other fields who quickly shifted to create PPE and ventilators. “Not everything needs to be a breakthrough innovation, but those companies that succeeded took time — but not too much time — to reassess and determine what they could do differently in order to continue to thrive and meet the needs of their customers, or potential customers.”
The ability to identify and create additional revenue streams is another trait that allowed some businesses to stay competitive in this new environment. “Many businesses suffered during COVID when the fixed income they were used to from their loyal customers dried up and they didn’t have an additional stream of revenue to keep them afloat,” Nuša explains.
To counter this, they had to adopt new models. One model that performed really well during the pandemic was the subscription model, taken up by many small businesses in various industries. Many restaurants and food retailers, for example, offered meal subscription services on a weekly or monthly basis, rather than just relying on one-off purchases. “This type of model builds loyalty, is often cheaper for the consumer and ensures consistency in terms of revenue generation for the small business,” Nuša says.
Paramount during the pandemic, and essential for success moving forward, was digital transformation — for sales and customer engagement.
“It used to be that having a website with a contact button or a phone number was enough for many businesses — but that has changed dramatically in the era of social media,” Nuša says. When it comes to communicating with customers and potential customers, social media offers a two-way communication flow that’s proved essential for many SMEs. “Not only do brands need social media to connect with customers, many customers are also engaging in conversations about brands online; if you don’t have a presence in social you’re really missing out.”
“We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how technology will help shape entrepreneurship and business in the future, which is why all of our MMIE students complete a certificate in disruptive technology which includes everything from engaging in branding on social media to blockchain and AI as future options.”
Some small businesses took their social media presence to new levels during the pandemic, expanding beyond bricks and mortar stores to social auctions and marketplaces. Small retailers held live auctions via Instagram or Facebook when their stores were closed, allowing them to engage with customers, keep them interested in their products and conduct sales in a more personal way without the need for in-person interaction.
“We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how technology will help shape entrepreneurship and business in the future, which is why all of our MMIE students complete a certificate in disruptive technology which includes everything from engaging in branding on social media to blockchain and AI as future options,” Nuša says. “With the data and analytics available, online businesses can understand their customers better than ever and cater to them in new and innovative ways.”
The shift to a more online-focused presence also opened many businesses up to audiences and customers they didn’t previously have access to. “Yes, the focus during COVID was how to support local businesses, but inadvertently many businesses gained exposure to a much wider audience base.” The key beyond COVID, then, is to stay relevant and find ways to stand out online in an even more global marketplace. While competition may be fiercer, so too is the potential to really grow.
The best ways for any small business to move forward beyond the pandemic is to learn from the efforts that did and didn’t work, and to get comfortable with failure and the idea that risk will always be present going forward. “We know that everything will continue to speed up and the most successful businesses will be those that can innovate quickly and efficiently,” Nuša says. “This time it was a pandemic, next it could be global warming. It’s how you plan, adjust and adapt that will determine your success in these uncertain times.”
Think about the last time you were asked by a company to take a digital survey about their customer service. You were likely asked to rate their performance in a variety of areas on a scale of one (not so great) to 10 (incredible). Halfway through the survey, you may even have started answering the questions on auto-pilot in an attempt to complete it in as little time as possible. It’s not the most fruitful experience for consumers nor does it net the most accurate results for companies.
“There was a specific need to develop a better way to understand consumers,” says Kathy Cheng about how her company Nexxt Intelligence came to be. “We feel very fortunate that we made some decisions early on that gave us a competitive edge.”
At its simplest, Nexxt is a digital, AI-powered platform that facilitates in-depth research conversations with consumers of brands and products. Instead of throwing a “traditional 20- to 45-minute survey at someone,” the innovative tool uses a chatbot to engage with the consumer real-time — it can even ask open-ended questions that prompt the survey taker to think about how they feel. The result is a fun and fresh platform that drives engagement and delivers incredibly accurate responses that companies can leverage to better understand their customers. “We deliver rich qualitative insights alongside reliable quantitative data companies can trust,” she says.
Kathy never thought she would be an entrepreneur, let alone one who would help change the way an entire industry evaluates consumer insights. In fact, she started her career as a simultaneous interpreter for qualitative research groups in China. Her end goal was to translate group research into English for some of the largest multinational corporations that wanted to make inroads in the country.
“Nearly 95 per cent of the tools used were built with a North American consumer in mind, but we know in Canada we have immigrants, and they think differently than a lifelong Canadian would.”
“I am a very curious person, and the profession allowed me to get to know consumers as humans and to understand their motivations,” she says. After years doing research for organizations like Nielsen, Ipsos, and Environics, she started to contemplate how to develop a technology that could change the way insights were collected. One of her biggest goals was to create a platform that took cultural differences into account.
“Nearly 95 per cent of the tools used were built with a North American consumer in mind,” Kathy says, “but we know in Canada we have immigrants, and they think differently than a lifelong Canadian would.” Many survey tools also lump Canadians and Americans into the same cultural group, but that’s not accurate either because of the nuances in how each group thinks, she adds.
“We spent about a year exploring various technologies and methodologies with the goal of understanding these hidden insights and a person’s views,” she says. “We knew participants would need to be fully engaged and that people had to be presented with real situations to gauge how they would feel about something.”
Instead of a bullet point survey, then, a taker of a Nexxt survey would be asked a question like: It’s your child’s birthday party and you’re at work completing a project with your colleagues and you’re on deadline. Do you stay and finish the project with your colleagues, or do you go home to see your child? A person’s actual response plus how long they took to answer the question then gets translated into data that is then leveraged as insights for a company.
Similar insights have been used to serve some of Nexxt’s biggest clients like Loblaws, Coca-Cola, Rotman, TD Ameritrade, Toyota, and RBC, among others.
“I wasn’t a natural at technology. I was very afraid of it for a long time. But I am curious and I asked a lot of questions — and I kept my eye on doing the best I could, knowing I wanted to solve an immediate need.”
“I often reflect on how far we’ve come,” says Kathy. “I wasn’t a natural at technology. I was very afraid of it for a long time. But I am curious and I asked a lot of questions — and I kept my eye on doing the best I could, knowing I wanted to solve an immediate need.”
She adds she wouldn’t be where she is without being a little stubborn and never compromising the quality of the product she wanted to put to market. “Doing the right thing at the right time has helped — and always following intuition. If you know you need to fulfill a need, don’t cut corners, don’t compromise.”
One of the greatest challenges Kathy has faced as an entrepreneur is saying no to quick fixes to hard-to-solve problems. “If there was a small voice that said a path wasn’t the right one to go down, we wouldn’t do it,” she says, even if that meant more work in the short-term.
The other challenge has been finding the support needed to actually build a start-up from the ground up. Kathy says she and her team have struggled to source funding and win competitions, so they have often gone their own way. When funds have been lacking, for example, her solution has been to double down on research and development instead of product creation. This has led to a better product overall.
In the end, she says she wouldn’t change the trials and tribulations she’s faced along the way to creating her groundbreaking platform. She’s more focused than ever on transforming the tool into something that can be leveraged for a variety of use cases — and not just for companies who want to understand their consumers.
“We can change the world. If we understand each other, the world will be a better place,” says Kathy. “By creating more opportunities to foster an in-depth understanding of people, we can be a part of that change.”
People have been trying to get Vivian Kaye to conform to preconceived societal standards since she was a kid. As a Ghanaian immigrant and one of four sisters, it was expected she would attend school, get a degree, and settle into a solid and stable career. But spend just a few minutes chatting with the effervescent and empowering entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of KinkyCurlyYaki — a first-of-its-kind, premium hair extension company for Black women — and you know fitting into a mould was something she was never going to let happen.
“People have always tried to fit me into a shape, but I’m a rhombus or parallelogram,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the black sheep. I’m the queen of the pivot, the queen of solving problems, and the queen of being me!”
Vivian says her entrepreneurial spirit likely developed as a young girl, watching her mother selling wares at Ghanaian markets to feed her family. “She did it all with me strapped to her back,” she says. Her family eventually immigrated to Canada with the help of her father, and she went on to graduate high school. By university, Vivian realized school wasn’t really her thing, and that she would rather find work by capitalizing on her “superpowers” — namely confidence, curiosity, innovative thinking, and the ability to speak two languages.
It was a gamble that paid off. Vivian immediately found work in call centres, which evolved into roles in medtech and fintech. This led to a job at a company supporting entrepreneurs, working for a boss who pushed her to try new things. “Even though he was the most random white guy, he helped me to see myself and to be who I am today,” she says.
With that encouragement, Vivian started a wedding business as a side hustle. “I saw an opportunity to help brides find better wedding decor without spending millions,” she explains, and her instinct was right — it grew to six figures.
“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed. I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad.”
And then a chance meeting with a woman in 2012 changed her career trajectory forever. “I had been looking for protective hair in the form of a wig, weave, or braid, but there weren’t a lot of options for women on the market — everything was based on white, European hair textures,” she says. “I really wanted to solve my own problem, so I joined social media groups with people like me.” They shared specifics about vendors who sold the kinds of hair Vivian was looking for, from curly to braided.
“Then one day I wore some hair to an event, and a Black woman pulled me aside and said, ‘who does your hair?’ I was like ‘girl, this is a weave.’ And I thought, if she would buy my hair, a ton of other women would, too.”
So, with the help of some human hair sourced from India, a Rubbermaid bin, and the support of the Internet, Vivian launched KinkyCurlyYaki. It immediately took off. Today, the company stands as the originator of an entire niche in the hair industry and has become so popular that companies have begun trying to replicate its business model.
“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed,” Vivian says. “I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad. It was all about influencer marketing on social media before influencer marketing was a thing, and using social media groups to talk about my products. I also hit the jackpot with online shopping. KinkyCurlyYaki started when people were becoming more comfortable with spending money online.”
Vivan says learning the ins and outs of doing business in a digital world has been paramount to her success, but she openly states her company wouldn’t have become successful if she wasn’t the person running it.
“I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me.”
“What no one can compete with is me. I get high on my own supply, and I resonate with customers because I’m not afraid to go to work with my afro. I know what it feels like to be judged by others because of my hair, so I can communicate with my customers in a way no one else can.”
She also attributes part of her success to her approach to business in general. “I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me,” she explains.
And from there, Vivian defined success on her own terms — which she recommends all entrepreneurs do. “If you’re worried about ‘making it,’ you have to define what that means for you. For me, it was about flexibility, especially after my son was born, because as a single mother, I wanted to stay home and raise him. I wanted a business I could do at 2 a.m. while he was sleeping,” she says. “If money is your number one driver, you are going to be sorely disappointed in anything you do.”
Vivian also has advice for anyone who doubts themselves: sit back and ask, “What would Chad do?”
“There are some mediocre men out there who don’t have any idea what they’re doing, but they walk into roles because they know they might not know B, but they have A and C figured out. You, as a woman, can figure it out. Stop looking for someone to give you permission to be you and be successful. Don’t be the damper to your own light. If someone doesn’t like the path you’ve taken? Well, they can kick rocks with flip-flops.”
Vivian adds that everyone will face challenges when building a business, but it’s the ability to push through difficult times that will make the impossible possible.
“The past 18 months of the COVID pandemic have been difficult — as a business person and a mother,” she says. “But shit transforms into manure. Manure helps things grow, it fertilizes. In order to grow, you sometimes have to wade through the shit to get to the place where success happens.”
Jenn Denouden is the President and CEO of Avana, a purpose-led real estate development company in Saskatchewan that has grown by 9888% in five years, holds 45% of Regina’s new development permits, and was named Canada’s tenth fastest growing company on the Profit 2020 Growth List. Transitioning out of a career in private banking to real estate, Jenn founded Avana in 2014, intent on disrupting the male-dominated space of real estate and property development while providing people with quality housing. Additionally, Jenn is passionate about helping women and children that are victims of domestic abuse find safe and affordable housing with privately funded housing support through her work with the Avana Foundation.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
Sadly, during the pandemic, women and children needed our business more than ever. Due to the economic downturn, homelessness has been on a steady incline in Saskatchewan. This meant that the need for affordable housing is at an all-time high. With that being said, our team has continued to grow at a rapid rate. Not only did we not lay any of our employees off, we extensively grew our team in order to continue to provide housing to people in need. Although we experienced slight disruptions due to lower processing times, we did not see a significant impact on cash flow.
The only government program we utilized was the Canada Emergency Business Account loan of $40,000, which we repaid the same year. Because we continued to grow and expand so aggressively through COVID, the financial institutions’ hesitancy to provide assistance during the peak of the pandemic posed the biggest risk to our strategic business plan, but we were able to navigate that successfully.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
Like most businesses, when the pandemic initially hit, we were forced to pivot what had once been done in-person to online or virtual spaces. When you’re a rental home company that traditionally would rely on potential residents seeing themselves in the space, the pandemic made things more challenging. However, the reality is that you can either pivot and try something new, or you can attempt to stick to old habits that no longer fulfill their purpose. We chose to pivot, ensuring we still could give our potential residents the Avana experience in-person or virtually: socially distanced viewings, 3D tours of our homes, better video and photography on our listings, and a more holistic, personalized approach to every single inquiry.
Our marketing strategy has been changing non-stop over the last seven years of business. As we grow and work our way through hypergrowth, our marketing needs change. The pandemic was simply another factor to consider when we thought through our strategy for the next few years to come. Over the last year and a half, our digital presence has grown exponentially. Sure, the pandemic put added stress on ensuring your digital marketing was where it should be, but that was inevitable. Digital marketing, social media, and engaging online content are at the forefront of the new marketing era, and COVID-19 just expedited that transition. We’ve begun investing heavily into these channels and will continue to do so. Not only have we put a heavier emphasis on our digital efforts, but we also decided to bring on an in-house marketing team.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
In our efforts to implement more efficient and effective procedures, we’ve upgraded the technology and systems we use immensely. We leaned heavily on our property management platform. We needed to quickly provide leasing, maintenance, and resident support services, with as little in-person interaction as possible. This meant that we needed to digitize our interactions with residents. Our software system allowed us to communicate and engage with residents through the platform. This helped to lessen our in-person interactions and contact while still providing the care our residents needed.
Without these platforms, we would have seen a significant drop in our ability to support our residents properly; however, we saw our positive ratings and feedback rise. This pandemic was a direct opportunity to show us some of our blindspots. A more automated, less manual cadence to our resident support processes has benefited our team and residents.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
I avoid burnout by ensuring I still found moments for myself. My moments are my time with friends and family, the glass of wine before bed, the “geeking out” over spreadsheets, or cooking a meal. No matter how busy or chaotic things may have been or will be, I will always take opportunities to do the things I enjoy most. It also helps if you love what you do while driving with your purpose and ethos first. Before anyone starts with Avana, we ensure they have similar values and beliefs; this helps them succeed in the long run at Avana. If we do a good enough job in the recruitment process, the work rarely feels like work for the team hired.
It is a rigorous process to find people who are so purpose-led in their own beliefs that they wholeheartedly believe in Avana’s mission, but it has proven to be the most critical step. We look for big picture thinkers who can aid in our journey towards a better future. When an organization has employees who understand that the work will lead to more significant social change, they will stay motivated. Our relentless pursuit of gender equality is inspiring and rejuvenating to our employees. Standing side-by-side every day with people who share this same passion is an immense motivator. On top of this, regular check-ins and as much communication as possible were and are vital for our team during the pandemic and beyond.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
In order to pave the way, to do something that has never been done, to change the status quo, you need to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. In order for your business to be extraordinary, you’re going to have to make hard choices — the type of choices that may keep you up at night. Stick to your values, lead with your purpose, and push past fear. Take calculated risks and trust your gut. Be unapologetic in your pursuit of becoming purpose-led. Our business changed forever when we “pivoted to purpose” a few years ago, and our hypergrowth truly began. Throughout the pandemic, it was more important than ever to stick to this approach.
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, 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.
On dit souvent qu’il faut du courage pour être entrepreneur, mais je pense que c’est plus compliqué que cela. Après avoir travaillé pendant près de 27 ans auprès d’entrepreneurs à BDC, j’ai appris que chaque personne avait sa propre définition du mot courage.
Parfois, il s’agit du courage d’un innovateur qui lance une idée inédite n’ayant jamais été éprouvée jusqu’ici dans le monde. D’autres fois, il s’agit de la capacité à faire face à n’importe quel obstacle et à le transformer en une occasion de croissance. Il arrive aussi qu’un entrepreneur doive faire preuve de courage pour être simplement lui-même et bâtir son entreprise comme il l’entend (un problème pour de nombreux propriétaires d’entreprises sous-représentés – problème que mon équipe et moi aidons à résoudre).
Il est rare que ces trois définitions s’appliquent, mais c’est le cas pour Sarah White et Denise Taschereau, cofondatrices de Fairware. Au cours des 16 dernières années, elles ont fait de leur entreprise de Vancouver, qui a démarré dans le garage de Sarah, le premier fournisseur nord-américain de produits promotionnels durables et éthiques.
Non seulement Sarah et Denise ont maintenu leur engagement ferme pris dès le début quant à l’impact sur l’environnement et la communauté (elles possèdent la certification B Corporation [BCorp] depuis des années), mais elles se sont également inspirées de leurs propres difficultés en tant que petite entreprise appartenant à des membres de la communauté queer, qui plus est à des femmes, pour orienter leurs politiques d’entreprise. Elles ont délibérément mis en place une équipe diversifiée et surtout, une culture qui encourage à être soi-même au travail.
J’ai rencontré Sarah pour qu’elle nous parle de son parcours personnel et entrepreneurial, notamment de son engagement permanent en faveur de l’approvisionnement éthique et des pratiques commerciales durables, de l’importance qu’elle accorde aux objectifs ainsi qu’à la diversité et à l’inclusion, et de sa capacité à survivre et à prospérer en période d’incertitude. Sarah est une force à ne pas négliger. Elle s’est engagée, avant tout, à se servir du monde des affaires pour faire le bien.
Laura : Lorsque vous et Denise avez lancé Fairware en 2005, l’accent mis sur la durabilité et la volonté d’améliorer le monde par le biais des affaires était une idée relativement nouvelle. Comment vous est-elle venue?
Sarah : Fairware a vu le jour parce que mon amie Denise, qui est désormais ma partenaire commerciale et qui travaillait à l’époque comme Directrice, développement durable et relations communautaires à MEC dans le domaine de la durabilité et de l’approvisionnement éthique, avait constaté que de nombreuses marques de qualité offraient des cadeaux publicitaires fabriqués dans des conditions suspectes. À cette époque, le sujet de la responsabilité sociale des entreprises commençait à être abordé dans la presse et un peu partout dans le monde, et il y avait un décalage avec ces grandes marques qui distribuaient des produits inconvenants. C’est de cette constatation qu’est née l’idée de Fairware.
« Notre objectif a toujours été d’aligner nos valeurs d’entreprise sur nos valeurs personnelles. »
Laura : Comment l’idée a-t-elle été reçue à l’époque? Comment vous êtes-vous aperçues que les choses évoluaient? Je suppose que les entreprises sont aujourd’hui plus ouvertes à parler des pratiques durables.
Sarah : Si le développement durable est aujourd’hui bien plus ancré dans les esprits, ce n’était certainement pas le cas à l’époque. Dès le départ, lorsque nous prenions le téléphone pour appeler un fournisseur potentiel, nous lui disions « nous aimerions discuter de l’origine de vos produits », et souvent, on nous raccrochait au nez.
Au fil des ans, cette conversation a considérablement évolué. Nous avons commencé avec la conformité et la sécurité des produits, puis nous nous sommes intéressées aux droits des travailleurs et à l’impact environnemental. Depuis quelques années, nous discutons avec d’autres distributeurs de l’antiracisme et de la justice sociale. Nous discutons avec les fournisseurs d’emballages durables d’une représentation diversifiée dans les catalogues. Ce que nous vivons aujourd’hui est en net contraste avec la situation qui prévalait au début de notre parcours entrepreneurial.
Aujourd’hui, nous allons également au-delà de notre chaîne d’approvisionnement traditionnelle pour travailler avec des entreprises qui ont un impact – des entreprises à vocation sociale, souvent locales, appartenant à des entités issues de la diversité – qui n’auraient pas autrement la capacité de répondre à de grosses commandes d’entreprise. Nous consultons ces entreprises pour les aider à fixer leurs prix et à renforcer leurs capacités afin qu’elles soient en mesure de créer des produits à notre intention. Ainsi, notre succès nous permet non seulement d’aider les autres à se développer, mais aussi de contribuer à construire un écosystème qui soutient nos convictions en matière de durabilité et d’équité.
Franchement, si nous avons créé notre entreprise, ce n’est pas parce que nous aimons les babioles, mais parce que nous voulions faire bouger les choses. Notre objectif a toujours été d’aligner nos valeurs d’entreprise sur nos valeurs personnelles.
Laura : Et je sais que cela s’applique non seulement à la façon dont vous faites affaire avec vos clients et vos fournisseurs, mais aussi à la manière dont vous avez façonné la culture d’entreprise de Fairware. Pouvez-vous nous dire en quoi vos valeurs personnelles et même vos expériences personnelles ont joué un rôle à cet égard?
Sarah : Je plaisante parfois en disant que j’ai créé une entreprise simplement pour pouvoir m’habiller comme je l’entendais et être en accord avec moi-même, mais franchement, je pense que c’est en grande partie la vérité. Donner le ton de l’acceptation et de l’inclusion confère un certain pouvoir, et en me montrant telle que je suis, j’espère encourager les autres à en faire de même. Pour vous donner une idée de la culture que nous avons créée, une année à Halloween, un de nos employés s’est habillé en tenue de travail, juste pour nous embêter.
Mais être moi-même n’a pas toujours été facile. Étant de genre non conforme, j’ai souvent été mégenrée et confrontée à l’homophobie et à la misogynie, sous forme de micro-agressions. Alors que de nombreux membres de la communauté des entreprises progressistes se considèrent très au fait des questions d’antiracisme, de LGBTQ+, etc., nous nous sommes rendu compte cette année que la plupart d’entre nous ne l’étaient pas. Nous avons tous encore beaucoup à apprendre et à faire.
Sarah : Le parcours a été long. Je suis avec ma partenaire depuis 36 ans et j’ai deux enfants adultes. Avoir des enfants en tant que couple homosexuel était pour le moins avant-gardiste dans les années 1990. Je ne suis pas certaine d’avoir beaucoup changé depuis, mais j’hésite maintenant moins à être moi-même, je suis plus consciente des problèmes qu’éprouvent les personnes LGBTQ+ et j’en parle ouvertement.
Toutefois, pour le bien de mes enfants, même à l’époque, je n’ai jamais cherché à dissimuler qui j’étais vraiment, même si c’était difficile pour eux d’avoir une maman qui ne ressemblait pas aux autres mamans. Si j’avais dû changer à l’époque, mes enfants en auraient conclu qu’il n’est pas acceptable d’être soi-même et que l’on doit se conformer pour ne gêner personne. De plus, certains d’entre nous n’ont pas d’autre choix que de s’accepter. Certaines personnes peuvent passer pour cisgenres, d’autres non. Je veux que les autres se reconnaissent en moi et sachent qu’eux aussi ont leur place dans le monde de l’entreprise.
« Pour nous, la culture consiste à laisser les gens mettre leur propre diversité à contribution. »
Laura : Pouvez-vous indiquer aux propriétaires d’entreprise qui espèrent créer la même culture inclusive que la vôtre – y compris ceux qui n’ont pas vécu les mêmes expériences – quelques tactiques précises que vous avez utilisées pour harmoniser votre équipe avec vos valeurs?
Sarah : Pour nous, la culture consiste à laisser les gens mettre leur propre diversité à contribution. Bien que Denise et moi ayons toujours été des militantes – elle en politique, et moi dans le milieu communautaire – nous faisons de notre mieux pour ne pas engager des personnes comme nous. Nous encourageons tous ceux qui travaillent avec nous à intégrer leurs propres intérêts et passions à l’entreprise. Nous sommes également très transparentes sur notre site Web et dans nos offres d’emploi : si vous postulez pour travailler avec nous, vous rejoindrez un environnement de travail inclusif. Si cela ne vous convient pas, vous ne postulerez pas.
De plus, ce n’est pas parce que la durabilité est un sujet qui nous passionne, à Denise et à moi, qu’elle doit susciter le même degré d’intérêt chez nos employés. Lors d’un entretien d’embauche, nous posons la question suivante : « Sous quelle forme contribuez-vous au développement durable dans votre vie quotidienne? ». Si la réponse est : « Je recycle, mais je veux en savoir plus », cela nous suffit. Avant tout, nous recherchons des personnes ouvertes et intéressées.
Lorsque nous accueillons de nouveaux employés, nous appliquons une pratique que j’ai apprise durant un atelier sur la réconciliation. Nous demandons au nouveau membre du personnel de donner son nom, son nom traditionnel s’il en a un, et son identité culturelle, ainsi que toute information à son sujet dont il souhaite faire part à l’équipe. Dans une entreprise comptant moins de 20 employés, on parle au moins 11 langues différentes. La diversité est incontestablement ancrée dans notre culture.
Laura : Vous êtes également une société certifiée B Corporation, ce qui signifie que vous vous êtes engagées à créer un impact positif pour vos employés, ainsi que pour les communautés et l’environnement. Ce n’est pas chose facile, mais vous l’avez fait en 2010, en tant que l’un des membres fondateurs de la Canadian B Corp. Comment s’est déroulée cette expérience et pourquoi était-elle si importante pour vous?
Sarah : Au début, nous étions une petite entreprise dont l’équipe était restreinte. Nous nous sommes demandé si, étant donné que nous observions déjà ces pratiques de toute façon, nous disposions de la capacité ou du temps nécessaire pour nous soumettre au processus rigoureux d’obtention de cette certification. Mais à mesure que nous rencontrions des personnes du milieu des affaires de Vancouver qui avaient les mêmes idées que nous, nous avons commencé à comprendre qu’il ne s’agissait pas seulement de nous, mais de faire partie d’un mouvement qui utilise les entreprises comme une force pour faire le bien.
L’obtention de la certification B Corp a contribué à structurer nos engagements, à nous responsabiliser et à nous montrer les points que nous devions améliorer. Aujourd’hui encore, cette certification nous pousse à aller plus loin, à réfléchir à des choses auxquelles nous n’aurions pas pensé autrement et à nous dépasser pour atteindre nos objectifs. Cela va de la gestion de la chaîne d’approvisionnement aux pratiques durables, en passant par la culture interne, les salaires, les engagements sociaux, et bien plus encore.
Nous avons eu beaucoup de chance d’avoir BDC comme partenaire de financement, car non seulement vous nous avez fourni d’excellents conseils et services au fil des ans, ainsi que de l’aide pour renforcer nos capacités, mais vous avez vous-même obtenu la certification B Corp, ce qui signifie que nous avons encore plus de valeurs en commun.
« L’obtention de la certification B Corp a contribué à structurer nos engagements, à nous responsabiliser et à nous montrer les points que nous devions améliorer. »
Laura : Je suis certaine que votre engagement à construire une entreprise basée sur des valeurs et une culture inclusive a joué un rôle primordial dans le succès de Fairware, mais qu’en est-il pendant les périodes difficiles? Comment avez-vous, vous et votre entreprise, vécu les 18 derniers mois d’incertitude engendrée par la pandémie?
Sarah : En tant que jeune entreprise, nous avons survécu à la récession de 2008-2009, ce qui nous a donné un bonne idée du comportement à adopter pendant la pandémie de COVID-19. Lorsque la pandémie a frappé, nous venions de terminer une année durant laquelle nous avions engagé des dépenses importantes, ainsi qu’une rénovation majeure de nos bureaux. D’ailleurs, notre équipe de Vancouver avait été configurée pour travailler à distance en raison de cette rénovation, puis personne n’est revenu au bureau à cause de la COVID-19.
Nous avons alors compris que nous avions très peu de marge de manœuvre; Nous savions que nous devions procéder à des mises à pied et que si nous tergiversions, nous pourrions perdre l’entreprise. Ce furent les moments les plus durs et les plus pénibles de notre vie. Nous avons dû licencier la moitié de notre effectif. Vous parlez d’un impact sur la culture. Heureusement, nous sommes restées proches de tout le monde et avons aidé ces gens à accéder à des ressources et à du soutien. Petit à petit, nous avons pu les réembaucher grâce aux subventions du gouvernement.
Pendant la pandémie, comme vous le savez, de grandes questions sociales ont également surgi, notamment le mouvement Black Lives Matter et, plus récemment, la découverte de tombes non marquées d’enfants autochtones assassinés. Malgré tous ces événements, nous avons continué à parler, à travailler et à apprendre. Notre objectif et nos valeurs sont demeurés les mêmes. Nous nous réunissons quotidiennement en ligne et, petit à petit, les gens commencent à revenir au bureau.
Malgré les défis auxquels sont confrontés le monde des affaires et notre secteur, la COVID-19 a fourni à certaines entreprises une bonne occasion d’utiliser les budgets normalement alloués aux événements ou aux conférences pour montrer de la bienveillance à leurs employés en leur remettant des colis et des paniers, et nous avons pu les aider dans cette démarche. Nous sommes demeurés engagés à n’offrir que des produits et des cadeaux pratiques qui ne finiraient pas à la décharge, et nous avons mis au point un programme qui permet à une personne qui ne souhaite pas recevoir de cadeau de choisir de faire un don en son nom.
Dans l’ensemble, nous en sommes sorties plus fortes et plus dévoués que jamais à notre mission. Et nous nous réjouissons de voir notre bureau nouvellement rénové, qui était trop calme, rempli de gens à nouveau.
As Vice President, Client Diversity at BDC, Laura Didyk is leading the bank’s efforts to understand and address the challenges faced by underrepresented and underserved entrepreneurs — whether they be racialized, identify as women, identify as members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, be living with a disability, or exist within a combination of these identities. She’s sharing their journeys through conversations, and this month it’s with Sarah White, co-founder of Fairwaire, North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.
It is often said that being an entrepreneur takes courage — but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. After nearly 27 years of working with entrepreneurs at BDC, I’ve learned that courage tends to take on different meanings for each individual.
Sometimes it’s the courage to be an innovator, bringing a new and unproven idea out into the world. Sometimes it’s the ability to face down any obstacle and turn it into an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it’s a courageous act by an entrepreneur to simply be their authentic self, and build their company their own way (an issue for many underrepresented business owners — one that me and my team are working on improving).
Rarely is it all three, as is the case with Sarah White and Denise Taschereau, co-founders of Fairware. Over the past 16 years, they have built their Vancouver-based business — which got its start in Sarah’s garage — into North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.
Not only have Sarah and Denise maintained a steadfast commitment to environmental and community impact since day one (they’re a Certified B Corporation (BCorp) and have been for years) — but they’ve also tapped into their own struggles as a queer-owned, women-owned, small business to guide their corporate policies. They’ve intentionally built a diverse team and, more importantly, a culture where people are encouraged to bring their true selves to work.
I sat down with Sarah to unpack her personal and entrepreneurial journey, including her ongoing commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainable business practices, her intense focus on purpose, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and her ability to survive and thrive during uncertain times. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with — committed, above all else, to use business as a force for good.
Laura: When you and Denise launched Fairware in 2005, a focus on sustainability and bettering the world through business was relatively novel. How did the idea come about?
Sarah: Fairware started because my friend, and now business partner, Denise was the Director of Sustainability and Community at MEC in sustainability and ethical sourcing, and she found that many really good brands were giving away swag that was manufactured under suspect conditions. This was at the time that corporate social responsibility was bubbling up in the press and around the world, and the disconnect between good brands giving away bad stuff meant there was a gap — which was how the idea for Fairware was born.
“To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values.”
Laura: How was the idea received then? And how have you seen that evolve? I imagine companies today are more open to conversations around sustainable practices.
Sarah: While sustainability is now much more embedded in the mainstream, it certainly wasn’t then. From day one we’d pick up the phone, call a potential supplier, and say, ‘we’d like to talk to you about where your products come from’ — and we were often hung up on.
Over the years, that conversation has evolved significantly. It began with compliance and product safety, and moved into workers’ rights, environmental impact, and over the last few years, we’re now talking with other distributors about anti-racism and social justice. We are talking to suppliers about sustainable packaging and diverse representation in the catalogues. What we are seeing is night and day from the beginning of our entrepreneurial journey.
Today, we are also reaching beyond our traditional supply chain to work with impact businesses — diverse-owned social enterprises that are often local — that wouldn’t otherwise have the capacity for large corporate orders. We consult with these companies to help them with pricing and capacity building so that they can create products for us. So, through our success, we’re not only lifting others up, we’re also helping to build an ecosystem that supports our beliefs on sustainability and equity.
To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values.
Laura: And I know that applies not only to how you do business with your customers and suppliers, but also to how you’ve shaped the corporate culture at Fairware. Can you share a bit about how your personal values and even your personal experiences have played a role in that?
Sarah: I sometimes joke that I started a business just so that I could dress and be how I wanted to be — but honestly, there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s power in setting the tone of acceptance and inclusion, because when I show up as myself, I hope I make it easier for others to do the same. To give you a sense of the culture we’ve created, one Halloween, our staff dressed up in business attire just to bug us.
But being my true self in the world hasn’t always been easy. Because I’m gender non-conforming, I’ve often been misgendered, and I’ve experienced homophobia and misogyny in the form of microaggressions. While a lot of folks in the progressive business community see themselves as up to speed with anti-racism, LGBTQ+ issues, etc., what we’ve learned this year is that most of us aren’t. Some of us have a ton of work and learning to do.
Sarah: That journey has been a long one. I’ve been with my partner for 36 years and I have two adult kids. Having kids as a gay couple in the 1990s was pretty trailblazing. I’m not sure I’ve actually changed too much since then, but I do have more courage now to be myself, I feel more aware of LGBTQ+ issues, and I openly speak out about them and myself.
But for my kids’ sake, even back then, I never wanted to change who I was, even if it was tough for them having a mom that didn’t look like all the other moms. If I were to have changed then, I would have given my kids the message that it’s not okay to be who you really are, that you must conform for others’ comfort. Plus, some of us don’t have a choice but to embrace who we are. Some people can pass as cisgender, and others can’t. I want others to see themselves in me and know they too have a place in the corporate world.
“For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company.”
Laura: For business owners that hope to create the same inclusive corporate culture that you have — including those that don’t have the same lived experience to draw from — can you share a few specific tactics you’ve used to align your team and your values?
Sarah: For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company. We’re also very transparent on our website and in our job postings that if you apply to work with us, you’ll be joining an inclusive work environment, and if that doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not going to apply.
Also, while Denise and I are both hugely passionate about sustainability, our employees don’t necessarily have to be. We’ll say in an interview, ‘how does sustainability show up in your life?’ and if the response is, ‘I recycle, but I want to learn more about it,’ that’s good enough for us. We want people who are open and interested, above all else.
When we on-board new staff we have a practice that I borrowed from participating in a reconciliation workshop. We have the new staff member say their name, their traditional name if they have one, and how they identify culturally, plus anything else they want the team to know about them. In a company of fewer than 20 employees there are at least 11 different languages spoken. Diversity is unquestionably ingrained in our culture.
Laura: You’re also a Certified B Corporation, which means you’ve committed to create a positive impact for your employees, as well as for communities and the environment. It’s not an easy feat — and you did it back in 2010, as one of the founding members of the Canadian B Corp. What was that experience like and why was it so important to you?
Sarah: In the beginning we were a small company with a small staff. We wondered, if we are doing all of this anyway, do we have the capacity or time to undergo the rigorous process to gain this certification? But as we began to meet more like-minded folks in the Vancouver business community, we began to see that this wasn’t just about us, it was about being part of a movement that uses business as a force for good.
Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve. To this day it pushes us to go further, to think about things we wouldn’t have otherwise, and to stretch us to meet goals. This is everything from supply chain management, to sustainable practices, to internal culture, to wages, to social commitments — and more.
We’ve been really fortunate to have BDC as a funding partner, because you’ve not only provided great advice and service over the years, helping us build capacity, but you’ve become B Corp certified, which means we have even more values aligned.
“Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve.”
Laura: I am sure your commitment to building a values-based business with an inclusive culture has played a huge role in Fairware’s success, but what about during the tough times? What have the last 18 months of pandemic uncertainty been like for you and your business?
Sarah: As a young business, we survived the recession of 2008/2009, and that gave us a lot of insight into how to behave during COVID. We had just come out of a significant year of spending and had completed a major office renovation right before the pandemic hit. Incidentally, our team in Vancouver was set up to work remotely because of that reno —and then because of COVID, no one came back to the office.
From there, we knew our runway was short — we knew we’d have to lay people off, and procrastinating could lead to losing the business. Those were the hardest and most brutal moments of our lives. We had to let half of our staff go. Talk about an impact on culture. Thankfully, we stayed close with everyone, and helped them access resources and support. Slowly, we were able to hire people back, thanks to Government subsidies.
During the pandemic, as you know, some major social issues also came up, including the Black Lives Matter movement, and more recently the discovery of unmarked graves of murdered Indigenous children. Through it all we kept talking, kept working, and learning. Our focus and values haven’t shifted at all. We meet daily online and slowly, people are starting to come back into the office.
And despite the challenges to the corporate world and our industry, COVID provided a nice opportunity for some companies to take their budgets that they weren’t spending on events or conferences and show their employees some love with packages and baskets — and we were able to help with these. We remained committed to only providing products and gifts that were practical and wouldn’t end up in the landfill, and we developed a program that if someone opted out of the gift, they could choose to have a donation made in their name instead.
All in all, we came out stronger and more committed than ever to our mission. And we’re certainly excited to see our newly renovated office that’s been all too quiet, filling up with people again.
For the last year and half, entrepreneurs have faced numerous, varied, and entirely new challenges — all thanks to COVID.
Suzanne Trusdale, Vice-President of TELUS Small Business Solutions, can relate. Early on in her career, she ran her own small business — a restaurant and catering company in Western Ontario. Now, she’s leading a team that not only provides everyday support to TELUS’ small business customers, but also creates initiatives and programs to enable entrepreneurs to thrive.
Running her own business has brought her closer to those who want to follow an entrepreneurial path. “I always wanted to have my own business, long before university,” Suzanne says. “I went to Ryerson University in Toronto to study hotel administration and believed that one day I was going to have my own restaurant and hopefully a catering company.”
After graduating, Suzanne spent a few years working for a prominent restaurateur. When they announced they were going to sell one of their locations, she seized the opportunity to get her start as a small business owner. Alongside a business partner and team, Suzanne built a strong brand and continued to grow the catering side of the business — enjoying every exciting moment and challenge of her journey. That was until the recession of the late 80’s hit. After months of trying to stay solvent and keep things afloat, she realized that she needed to make the very difficult decision to close the business.
“This all happened before I was 30,” she says. “If you come from a place where you go from university to making your dreams come true to losing everything and then having to start all over again… it’s daunting.”
Ready to start again, she left Ontario for British Columbia, and eventually took on a role at BC Tel, a telephone company that merged with TELUS in 1998 to become the second-largest telecom company in Canada.
“If you come from a place where you go from university to making your dreams come true to losing everything and then having to start all over again… it’s daunting.”
“I thought I would go there for a bit, but that I would eventually get back to what I was passionate about: hospitality and starting another business.” Instead, Suzanne was given the opportunity to grow her position at TELUS and to bring some of her passion for small business to the roles she took on. “I’ve been able to build a tremendous career for myself in a space I’m incredibly passionate about. Some may say I have the best of both worlds.”
Suzanne credits mentorship and sponsorship — having internal champions that helped guide her and connect her to opportunities — for playing key roles in her career growth. It’s become a passion point for her as well; she regularly volunteers her time with organizations that look to advance opportunities for women and girls, especially in STEM. She’s also taken on the role of global co-chair for TELUS Connections, a resource group that looks to empower and create development and leadership opportunities for women within the organization.
As of late, Suzanne’s focus has been on leading her team to help support small businesses as they navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic. “There was a lot of panic last March. What’s been so inspirational is how quickly the majority of small businesses were able to pivot. Some were able to move faster because they had great digital infrastructure in place, and we saw an influx of organizations come forward with products enabling small businesses to connect with their customers in new ways,” she notes. “TELUS is one of those key partners for small business owners. We’ve been able to offer tools and products to help small businesses and entrepreneurs go from brick and mortar stores to digital, or vice versa.”
Suzanne served a key role in advocating for TELUS’ small business customers through the ideation of the now viral campaign called #StandWithOwners. The initiative has done everything from surprising business owners with gift certificates to giving them the funds they need to enhance their digital presence or improve their advertising. Since mid-2020, TELUS has invested $1.5 million (and counting) in the entrepreneurial community.
“I am proud of so many things that we have done this year, but this one is near and dear to my heart,” Suzanne notes. “TELUS has done so very much to give back and that is so important to me as a team member, as a Canadian, and as a woman in business.”
“It takes a ton of courage to ask for help. But why not stick up for yourself? Why not be your biggest advocate and get in there and get involved and see who can help you?”
The “she-cession” — a term coined to describe the unequal impact COVID has had on working women — has been difficult for Suzanne to witness first-hand. “If you think about the pressure of balancing home and work, especially when the sectors that have been impacted the most are sectors led by women — everyone has a breaking point,” she says. “It’s been unfortunate to see so many women forced to choose between supporting their family and career. It’s the wrong direction we need to go in Canada.”
The two big things Suzanne wants women entrepreneurs struggling in these COVID circumstances to know is they are not alone, and “this too shall pass.”
“I do think so many women entrepreneurs feel they’re alone, but they’re not. Women aren’t really great at saying ‘I’m on the cusp of giving up or shutting it down and I just need some help,’” she notes. “It takes a ton of courage to ask for help. But why not stick up for yourself? Why not be your biggest advocate and get in there and get involved and see who can help you?”
Her advice for small business owners is to take a step back and assess the stress of the times and the “tyranny of the now.” She says it’s always better to “stop, calm down, breathe, and step back for a second,” so you can figure out who to lean on for support.
“If a person doesn’t have a mentor or coach and isn’t actively working with an organization that can provide education and advice — organizations like local chambers of commerce and Women of Influence — they need to start taking advantage of them,” she says. “There are so many people and companies that want to help small businesses and entrepreneurs. All someone needs to do is reach out and ask.”
Tanja Perry’s passion for allyship with Indigenous peoples has always come naturally. It stems from her upbringing, her friends and family, her environment, and her job.
“I grew up in a very small town in British Columbia and went to school with many Indigenous kids my age. They were my friends, my neighbours, and I’ve always had very strong relationships with their families,” says Tanja, who is District Vice President for Alberta/Northwest Territories at Scotiabank. Tanja also met her Indigenous husband living in the north. “My children embrace their Indigenous heritage and it is my role as a parent to ensure it is valued and honored. And living in remote communities has always been in my wheelhouse. I love the remoteness, and all that it has to offer.”
Tanja moved to the Northwest Territories at a very young age to work as an apprentice mechanic. But her chosen career would take a turn when she was approached by a recruiter from a local bank.
“They said I had the personality to talk to people, so why am I not in banking?” recalls Tanja. “Once I stepped into my role as a banker, I saw very quickly that there were a lot of challenges with credit and accessibility to banking in the Indigenous communities around me. And my passion and advocacy started there.”
Now, with 30 years of experience in the banking industry, Tanja is a driving force for allyship and positive change in both her role as District VP and as Co-chair for the National and Prairie Region Indigenous Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Based in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Tanja has made it her mission to build trust and forge relationships between the bank and the Indigenous communities in her district and across Canada. She’s particularly passionate about improving relationships with those that are challenged geographically and lack access to banking services.
“These are relationships that we need to repair as bankers, not the other way around.”
“These are relationships that we need to repair as bankers, not the other way around,” Tanja notes. “And I continue to try and show others what I do, how I work within Indigenous communities, and the relationships that I have been able to build.”
Another passion of Tanja’s is financial literacy, or, as she prefers to call it, “financial fitness.” Over the past year, in cooperation with the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association, she helped to develop customized Financial Fitness modules specifically tailored to Indigenous community needs. The four modules — targeting Grades 3/4, Youth, Adults and Older Adults/Elders — will soon be making their way into Indigenous communities across Canada via trained facilitators.
“We’ve selected 12 Scotiabank employees from across Canada to act as facilitators due to their outstanding work within their Indigenous communities,” she says. “They have all completed their facilitation training and as of September, they will be supporting our branches going forward to offer these great programs. So, I’m really proud of that,” she says.
Tanja points out that the modules aren’t meant to be one-size-fits-all. They have been developed so that they can be adjusted based on an individual community’s needs. “We can really come in with something to offer that’s meaningful, to help individuals plan for their future. It will also allow us to be in our communities to listen, learn, and be partners.” she says.
Another important aspect of Tanja’s advocacy and community-building work has been through her work with the Scotiabank Indigenous ERGs, which are composed of both Indigenous employees and allies. “Employee Resource Groups are a fantastic way to grow opportunities for leadership, networking, and professional development,” she notes.
The groups’ mandates include striving to recruit and retain Indigenous employees, strengthening partnerships with Indigenous-focused organizations, establishing and maintaining an inclusive banking experience for Indigenous customers, and acting as a key influencer to foster, support, and raise awareness of the bank’s National Indigenous People Inclusion strategy.
“The collaboration, vision, and work that the Indigenous ERG team is doing is truly inspiring, and I am honored to be a part of it.”
One important project Tanja helped to create is the Indigenous Cultural Competency program, a mandatory learning course for all Canadian-based employees to further enhance their learning and allyship, she says. The Indigenous ERGs have also been increasingly exploring opportunities for collaboration with other ERGs at the bank, to great success. “The collaboration, vision, and work that the Indigenous ERG team is doing is truly inspiring, and I am honored to be a part of it,” she says.
Tanja notes that September 30, which will be the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, marks a critical step to honour survivors of residential schools, their families, and communities. “It is a time to learn and reflect on how we can do our part to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination,” she says. “We must stand together to learn this history and take action to ensure it is not repeated — it is the only way forward.”
There is still much work to be done to repair and build relationships with Indigenous peoples, adds Tanja, and all Canadians can do their part to help support the healing process. “We must recognize the unique history, culture, and traditions of each community as a fundamental first step. Educate ourselves, be knowledgeable, empathetic, and respectful of Indigenous peoples,” she says. “The culture is beautiful, steeped with values, spirituality, and connections to the land. It is important we all develop a greater understanding, know what is important to them and what they will fight to protect.”
Tanja says she treasures her own connection to the natural environment. When she’s not at work in Fort McMurray or travelling through Northern communities, she and her family spend time in the wilds of British Columbia. “We have a 600-acre ranch where we enjoy our horses, developing our land, kayaking, quadding and taking in the breathtaking surroundings. It’s my happy place.”
In her role as a business leader, Tanja hopes to send a message to others in positions of power about the importance of an inclusive and diverse workplace, offering this advice to managers and executives looking to become diversity champions: “Lead by example by fostering transparency and two-way communication in which every opinion is valued. Embrace the uniqueness people bring to the table and ask yourself what perspectives and voices have not yet been heard,” she says. “Be a leader who creates an environment where individuals feel they can be their true authentic selves.”
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.”