In January 2020, Meghan Roach was appointed interim CEO of Roots. The nearly-50-year-old Canadian outdoor lifestyle brand, known for its iconic salt-and-pepper sweats and beaver emblem, was underperforming. Meghan’s job? To improve operational efficiency and execute on profitable growth opportunities, while honouring the brand’s heritage.
A mandate that would have proved challenging under normal circumstances, Meghan’s task was compounded when the COVID-19 pandemic hit just months into her tenure. But for someone who admittedly thrives in chaos, the pandemic played to the 38-year-old’s strengths. “Honestly, it was one of the most invigorating experiences of my career,” she recalls.
The obstacles facing the retail industry were unprecedented: store closures and layoffs, a pivot to e-commerce, upended work schedules, sweeping lockdowns, increased demand for safety protocols, and the repurposing of resources to provide PPE to those in need.
The way things were always done would no longer serve. Meghan embraced a company-wide shift that included a focus on outcomes versus ‘face time’ or hours worked. She put trust in her large team — from head office to factories, distribution centres, and retails outlets — to do what needed to be done in a much more flexible format.
With two small children at home, Meghan also had to adapt. “When COVID hit, we were living in a condo and my husband was also working from home,” she says. “My kids were literally running in and out of my meetings all day.”
Developing the skill set and mindset needed to thrive in these unsettling times started at a young age for Meghan. She credits her family with teaching her the value of hard work and perseverance. It was her grandfather who sparked her interest in finance and investing when he gave her BCE shares as a child. An undergraduate degree in Commerce from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University allowed her to expand upon those interests and solidified what she wanted to do beyond school.
“I am not the smartest person in the room and never want to be. If I am, then I’ve failed at my job. Working with others who are smarter or more experienced creates a better business — together.”
“It was unique at the time to have a four-year program in Commerce which focused on finance, investing, and marketing, among other things,” she says. “We focused on case studies, group work, and leadership skills, and learned to think on our feet, collaborate with others, and work to our own strengths.”
After graduation, Meghan explored a variety of career paths, including accounting, investments, and private equity. She served on a number of boards, including a stint on the Roots board from 2015 to 2017. In the summer of 2019, she was brought on as Roots’ interim CFO, and come the New Year was promoted to interim CEO. The CEO title became permanent in May 2020 after she had proved herself in the early days of the pandemic.
Meghan says there were times she felt like an “imposter,” being a young woman in her CEO role. But she’s held on to an important lesson from her business school days that proved helpful on her C-suite journey. “I am not the smartest person in the room and never want to be,” she says. “If I am, then I’ve failed at my job. Working with others who are smarter or more experienced creates a better business — together. That’s how we succeed.”
Bringing in a variety of perspectives, deeply understanding Roots’ customers, and collaborating with local and grassroots partners have all been part of Meghan’s strategy over the past year. “Roots has done a great job creating high-quality, long-lasting, comfortable products, and we wanted to expand upon that legacy with a focus on diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and global impact, among other things. This includes looking at our corporate culture, suppliers, and marketing.”
Meghan’s current focus is diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion in terms of campaigns, product development, and partnerships. “Being a well-known brand in Canada and internationally, I want to use our platform to amplify different voices and talk about issues going on today in a way that’s aligned with our values,” she says.
“Having gone through a pandemic and come out stronger, we know that muscle is in us and we have the capacity to deal with challenges, whatever they may be.”
Under Meghan’s leadership, Roots has partnered with Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in support of its “Dear Everybody” campaign to include more people with disabilities in ad campaigns; signed the BlackNorth agreement with the Canadian Council of Business Leaders; donated to Indigenous communities; and launched a limited-edition collaboration collection in honour of International Women’s Day, which saw a portion of proceeds go to Girls E-Mentorship (GEM), a program that helps high school girls overcome barriers in their transition to adulthood.
Meghan has also embraced the idea of storytelling, ensuring a variety of voices are heard and represented within Roots — as part of the Diversity and Inclusion Council she leads — and through partnerships and campaigns aimed at developing unique products and spotlighting existing favourites.
A self-proclaimed small-town girl, Meghan says her love of nature and connection to the Roots brand began as a child in Pembroke, Ont. Like many, she recalls getting new Roots clothing for back-to-school. She also developed an appreciation for outdoor sports while attending the 315-acre natural campus of Lakefield College School during her high-school years. These experiences shaped her into the ideal Roots customer and helped form connections she draws upon in her role as the brand’s CEO.
“I am so grateful for the connection I have with the Roots founders, Michael Budman and Don Green, who met at Camp Tamakwa. Michael even recalls traveling through Pembroke on one occasion during his camp canoe trips,” Meghan says. “Michael and Don have lived the Roots lifestyle since its inception and their support has been invaluable as we move forward during these exciting times.”
A strong connection to the past with forward momentum is what’s propelling Meghan these days. “Having gone through a pandemic and come out stronger, we know that muscle is in us and we have the capacity to deal with challenges, whatever they may be,” she says. “I have a lot of optimism for the future.”
Au travail, vous montrez-vous tel.le que vous êtes, autrement dit, êtes-vous vous-même?
Nombreux sont ceux et celles qui parmi nous peuvent répondre « oui », sans réaliser à quel point c’est un privilège. Pour la communauté LGBTQ2S+, et les personnes transgenres et non binaires en particulier, ce n’est pas aussi simple. Il existe encore des pratiques, des croyances et des barrières systémiques qui font qu’il est difficile, voire dangereux, d’être soi-même sur le lieu de travail.
De plus, vous pouvez éprouver ces difficultés quel que soit votre statut, employé.e ou entrepreneur. Selon un sondage mené par la CGLCC (Chambre de commerce LGBT+ du Canada) et l’Institut Deloitte, sur les quelque 28 000 entreprises appartenant à des personnes LGBTQ+ au Canada – combinant un chiffre d’affaires de plus de 22 $ milliards et un effectif plus de 435 000 Canadiens – une sur deux a délibérément caché le fait que ses propriétaires étaient des personnes LGBTQ+, et trois sur dix ont été victimes de discrimination.
Afin d’approfondir ces questions et de découvrir des solutions potentielles, j’ai rencontré Brad Sensabaugh, conseiller principal, Diversité et inclusion, à BDC. Brad s’est joint à BDC il y a quelques mois à peine, mais en peu de temps, il a eu un impact déterminant sur notre stratégie de diversité et d’inclusion. Homme transgenre engagé à faire connaître les défis auxquels sa communauté est confrontée, il a passé près de dix ans en tant que spécialiste de la diversité et de l’intégration à rendre le milieu de travail plus inclusif pour tous les groupes marginalisés.
Brad a expliqué pourquoi il est plus difficile d’être soi-même pour certaines personnes, en quoi la communication narrative peut contribuer à changer ce paradigme et comment nous pouvons tous être de meilleurs alliés à l’avenir.
Laura : Je suis persuadée que pour certaines personnes, il est difficile de se faire à l’idée de ne pas pouvoir être soi-même au travail. Commençons si vous le voulez bien par explorer les raisons pour lesquelles certaines personnes, comme les membres de la communauté transgenre, ne peuvent tout simplement pas être elles-mêmes sur le lieu de travail?
Brad : Je pense que pour les personnes trans, non binaires et de divers autres genres, le concept de dévoilement est incommensurable. Imaginez donc les défis que cela pose sur le lieu de travail. De bien des façons, nous pouvons être dévoilés sans le vouloir.
Par exemple, il se peut que notre carte d’identité ne corresponde pas à notre expression de genre, comme c’est le cas pour un homme transgenre dont la carte d’identité indique qu’il est de sexe féminin. L’acte extrêmement banal et simple de s’identifier légalement peut être un processus intimidant, avec parfois des conséquences telles que l’échec d’une affaire ou une occasion manquée, et quelquefois aussi une sécurité compromise.
Cela peut aussi se manifester très simplement, sous forme d’exclusion. Lorsqu’elles entendent parler de parité des sexes, c’est-à-dire d’une représentation de 50 % de femmes et de 50 % d’hommes, les personnes non binaires ont en quelque sorte le sentiment de ne pas exister.
« Imaginez que vous essayiez de fournir le nom d’une personne citée en référence et que vous deviez expliquer pourquoi cette personne ne vous reconnaîtrait pas sous votre nom ou votre genre actuel. »
Laura : Qu’en est-il pour les entrepreneur.es? Selon une étude canadienne, environ 50 % des propriétaires d’entreprises LGBTQ+ choisissent de ne pas divulguer cette partie de leur identité.
Brad : Pour commencer, c’est souvent une question de sécurité. Bien que de multiples droits et protections soient en vigueur ici, au Canada, nombreuses sont les personnes qui craignent encore la transphobie et l’homophobie et choisissent donc de ne pas être complètement franches ou transparentes – de peur que cela ait un impact sur le succès de leur entreprise, ou pire. D’autres entrepreneurs et entrepreneures doivent faire attention lorsqu’ils font affaire dans des pays ou des territoires – même dans certaines parties des États-Unis – dépourvus de ces droits et protections. Cette réalité peut être encore plus préoccupante.
Les personnes appartenant à la communauté transgenre ont parfois des trous dans leurs antécédents en matière d’emploi, de crédit ou de logement. Imaginez que vous essayiez de fournir le nom d’une personne citée en référence et que vous deviez expliquer pourquoi cette personne ne vous reconnaîtrait pas sous votre nom ou votre genre actuel. Cette difficulté peut également se présenter lorsqu’il faut fournir des relevés de notes ou des diplômes. Tout cela peut susciter le sentiment de ne pas agir avec franchise et une attention plus insistante à l’endroit d’une personne transgenre.
Il ne s’agit là que de quelques exemples. Chaque membre de la communauté a son propre vécu qui définit la mesure dans laquelle il ou elle se sentira à l’aise pour partager son histoire.
Laura : Je sais que vous vous sentez à l’aise pour partager votre propre histoire, et j’aimerais en savoir plus. Comment avez-vous commencé votre carrière dans le domaine de la diversité et de l’inclusion?
Brad : La défense des intérêts des autres et un sens aigu de la justice ont toujours fait partie de ma vie – ce sont des valeurs qui m’ont été inculquées par mes parents dès mon plus jeune âge. Ensuite, tout au long de mon propre parcours en tant qu’homme trans déclaré, j’ai vécu directement certains des défis, obstacles et problèmes auxquels les personnes trans peuvent être confrontées dans les environnements de travail. Mais cela ne m’a pas empêché de regarder ma vie en face; ce n’était pas quelque chose que j’allais essayer de cacher. J’ai saisi les occasions d’entamer le dialogue sur ce que signifie être un homme transgenre.
J’ai longtemps soutenu la communauté transgenre de façon parallèle. Puis, il y a environ dix ans, j’ai commencé à évoluer professionnellement dans le domaine de la diversité et de l’inclusion, et j’ai beaucoup appris sur d’autres communautés également. J’ai décidé de devenir un expert en matière de diversité et d’inclusion, en mettant l’accent sur l’inclusion. Car si la diversité est une question de mesure, l’inclusion est une question d’impact – et c’est là, je pense, que nous pouvons vraiment faire évoluer les choses dans les organisations. Ces convictions et ces valeurs s’accordent parfaitement avec le fait de travailler pour une entreprise qui a une optique sociale comme BDC, et je me suis senti extrêmement bien accueilli depuis mon arrivée, il y a quelques mois.
Laura : Je suis heureuse de l’entendre. En quoi, à votre avis, votre propre expérience a-t-elle façonné votre façon d’aider les autres communautés marginalisées?
Brad : Ce que j’ai appris durant ma transition touche aux concepts de privilèges et de stéréotypes. De nombreuses personnes trans sont visiblement trans, un terme qui, je considère, ne s’applique plus à moi. Je veux dire par là que si nous nous rencontrions par hasard, vous ne me percevriez probablement pas comme un trans, mais comme un homme cisgenre. C’est un privilège dont je jouis, contrairement à d’autres membres de ma communauté et à de nombreuses autres minorités visibles. Je ne suis pas dévisagé ou menacé à cause de mon apparence et je ne subis pas de moqueries.
Cela n’a pas toujours été le cas, à l’instar de nombreuses personnes transgenres. C’est pour cette raison que je me sens obligé d’affirmer qui je suis et de rappeler à tout le monde qu’il ne suffit pas de regarder une personne pour savoir si elle est transgenre. En partageant mon histoire personnelle, je contribue modestement à corriger ce qui se dit sur ce sujet ainsi que tant d’autres idées fausses.
« La communication narrative est indissociable de l’éducation; elle nous aide à élargir nos horizons et à ouvrir les esprits. »
Laura : Comme vous le savez, nous avons ajouté une composante de communication narrative à notre stratégie de diversité et d’inclusion à BDC, en présentant des témoignages d’employés et de clients pendant le Mois de l’histoire des Noirs, le Mois de l’histoire des femmes, le Mois de l’histoire des Autochtones, etc. Comment voyez-vous le rôle de la communication narrative dans l’inclusion?
Brad : La communication narrative est indissociable de l’éducation; elle nous aide à élargir nos horizons et à ouvrir les esprits. L’évolution et la compréhension qui en résultent peuvent être très puissantes. Plus nous écouterons et nous nous sentirons à l’aise pour poser des questions, et plus nous admettrons honnêtement nos lacunes et demanderons davantage de renseignements, mieux nous serons tous informés.
Chaque entrepreneur.e a une histoire qui contribue d’une manière ou d’une autre à son entreprise, et c’est également le cas pour chaque membre du personnel. Personne ne fait son parcours tout seul. Lorsque j’ai commencé ma transition, j’ai réalisé que mon histoire n’était pas uniquement la mienne. Mes parents ont eu leur propre parcours en devenant les parents d’un fils trans, et mon frère, qui avait autrefois une sœur, avait dorénavant un frère. Ainsi, je vivais ma propre expérience, ma propre histoire et ma propre vérité, et ils vivaient les leurs. Vous ne pouvez pas vous attendre à connaître absolument tout de l’expérience de quelqu’un d’autre.
L’acceptation et la compréhension progressent lorsque nous accordons aux autres le bénéfice du doute, que nous leur permettons de vivre leur propre parcours et que nous cherchons à trouver des moyens d’être de meilleurs collègues, amis et alliés en cours de route.
Laura : Y a-t-il des ressources que vous pouvez recommander aux personnes qui ne sont pas non binaires ou transgenres afin de les aider à mieux comprendre et à devenir de meilleurs alliés?
Brad : Il existe des organisations exceptionnelles qui offrent non seulement un soutien aux personnes non binaires et transgenres, mais qui proposent également des ressources – FAQ, témoignages, conseils précis, etc. – pour aider toutes les personnes, ainsi que les organisations, à améliorer leurs connaissances et leur compréhension.
« Être un véritable allié ou une véritable alliée exige des actions, et pas seulement de l’empathie ou de la sympathie. Quelquefois, cela peut vous mettre mal à l’aise, mais il vaut mieux agir et en tirer des leçons que de ne pas agir du tout. »
Laura : Ces connaissances et cette compréhension sont si importantes. Et si on passait à l’action? Avez-vous des conseils sur la façon dont un allié ou une alliée peut offrir son soutien?
Brad : J’aime l’idée de se demander cinq fois « Pourquoi? » avant de commencer à poser des questions concernant la communauté. Ce que je veux dire, c’est que vous exprimez votre souhait de devenir un allié ou une alliée pour cette communauté : Pourquoi? La réponse à cette question pourra vous donner des pistes d’action. Ensuite, posez la question « Pourquoi? » encore et encore et vous déterminerez plus précisément ce que vous pouvez faire ou ce sur quoi vous souhaitez vous concentrer. Souvent, le fait de demander aux autres « Que puis-je faire? » sans y réfléchir soi-même peut sembler être de la paresse. Commencez plutôt par lancer une idée : « Voici ce que j’aimerais faire », puis posez la question : « Qu’en pensez-vous? »
Être un véritable allié ou une véritable alliée exige des actions, et pas seulement de l’empathie ou de la sympathie. Quelquefois, cela peut vous mettre mal à l’aise, mais il vaut mieux agir et en tirer des leçons que de ne pas agir du tout. Il suffit souvent d’une seule personne pour briser la glace, défendre quelqu’un, ou agir – et cela suffit pour que tout le monde en parle. Nous voulons parvenir à parler ouvertement, afin de provoquer le changement.
Laura : Quel est le changement que vous aimeriez voir se produire concernant le genre?
Brad : Je voudrais que nous commencions à réfléchir à la parité des genres en comprenant que les femmes et les hommes n’ont pas toujours l’apparence, la voix ou le comportement « dont on a l’habitude ». L’appellation des femmes transgenres est souvent erronée, au téléphone et en personne. Mais pour être honnête, il en va de même pour les femmes cisgenres. Je pense qu’en tant que société, nous avons beaucoup d’attentes quant à l’apparence, à la voix et au comportement d’une femme, et chaque variation provoque un déclic.
J’aimerais que nous réfléchissions davantage à la diversité parmi les femmes, les hommes et les personnes non binaires. Le genre n’est pas la seule chose qui nous définit, ou qui fait de nous ce que nous sommes. Mais quelles que soient les expériences et les identités qui s’entrecroisent et nous façonnent, nous méritons tous de vivre et de travailler en étant vraiment nous-mêmes.
Mandy Rennehan — the fast-talking, down-to-earth CEO of Freshco, a retail maintenance and construction company that counts organizations like the Gap and Tesla as clients — is on a mission.
“We devalue the trades,” she says, of the way society looks down on blue collar workers — a group that includes everyone from estheticians to electricians. “We don’t think about the people who design and build all of the things we rely on. It’s now about making the trades relatable.”
Mandy, who’s called Bear by just about everyone who knows her, is hoping to fuel this revolution by bringing a little of her blue collar perspective to the white collar world. Her efforts have included everything from inspirational speaking (with viral TEDxTalks), providing scholarships and mentorship for women in trades, partnering with Barbie’s You Can Be Anything Mentorship Program, and an HGTV series called Trading Up that will air in 2022.(The show will follow her as she trains apprentices while renovating three unique properties in her hometown of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.)
“It will give me a bigger platform to share my message,” she says.
Growing up with financial struggles, Mandy hightailed it out of Yarmouth with “only a hockey bag and personality” after high school, taking odd jobs that played to her physical strength on dairy and horse farms. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t be academic or go to school, I just didn’t want to,” she says.
Instead, Mandy spent her spare time cold-calling construction companies asking if she could pitch in on projects. “I laid stones, concrete, electrical, and pulled wire for weeks so I could understand the foundation of everything,” she says.
“If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”
Luck struck when she landed a gig with a flooring company and was tasked with developing a customized cherrywood for a wealthy client in Halifax. The son appreciated her craftsmanship and work ethic — and was vocal about it.
“From that time, my name spread through the Maritimes like a bad fart,” she jokes. “There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know about the young woman from Yarmouth who was making waves in construction.” The then 19-year-old Mandy founded Freshco, which has since grown to service Fortune 500 clients across Canada and the Eastern United States.
“I am a pilot project that went really well,” she says, adding how important it is to share her own story. “If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”
Mandy points to the issue of how trade work is viewed versus earning a university degree. In her experience in the industry, blue collar parents push their kids to go to university thinking it will insulate them from the discrimination they faced, while white collar parents do the same because they think non-corporate jobs aren’t prestigious enough for their kids.
The reality, though, is that the world of construction and trades is not only rewarding — it is beginning to lead the way with innovative and future-proof technologies.
“You need more math and physics to do most of the things you need to do in trades than you need for a desk job. But the industry isn’t being sold that way,” explains Mandy.
Case in point: “You know those cabinets you dream about — the cabinets you see in magazines? Years ago we had to physically train someone about the art of spraying cabinets. Today, we put them in a spraying simulator. That simulator is all AI that’s teaching people how to do things using tech. We’re no longer wasting wood or resources,” she says. “And then we have exoskeleton suits that allow contractors to demo without putting wear and tear on their bodies.”
“We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”
Software has also changed the game. A general contractor can now work from home and watch what’s happening on site through cameras. Programs even allow teams to do scans of an area so crews can see what’s behind a home’s walls.
“What this is doing is attracting people with a tech background to trades,” says Mandy. “We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”
The challenge then is getting people’s viewpoints to catch up to the way the industry is evolving. “We’re still missing the people with the knowledge of modalities for building techniques. We don’t have enough people that have enough wisdom to do certain things. And if we don’t start training more people in building modalities or making them aware of the career possibilities, we’re all going to be sitting here struggling to find people to build things.”
Which is why she’s extolling the virtues of working in the trades for everyone.
“This industry was made for both genders,” she says — an assertion she’s supported not only through hiring and training women in her own company, but also by providing inspiration, mentorship, and financial aid to girls and women interested in trades. “But I’m not just after your daughter and those in junior high school. I’m after people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who say ‘I want to work with my hands. I want to build stuff. I want to build and maintain a new Canada.’”
All people have to do is take a cue from Mandy’s career to see how wildly successful and fulfilling life outside the white-collar world can be.
“I’m bringing the sexy back to the trade industry,” she jokes, “and I’m making and inspiring new leaders and general contractors who see the absolute gratifying fun and kick-ass part of the trade industry. The opportunities are endless.”
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. This month, she’s speaking with Bradley Sensabaugh, BDC’s own Senior Advisor, Diversity and Inclusion, on addressing gender bias at work.
When you go to work, are you showing up as you, as in your true, authentic self?
Many of us can say yes — without realizing how much of a privilege it is. For the LGBTQ2S+ community, and transgender and non-binary people in particular, it’s simply not that easy. There are still practices, beliefs, and systemic barriers that make the workplace a challenging or even unsafe place for expressing who they really are.
And these challenges can be present whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur. According to a survey conducted by CGLCC (Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce) and Deloitte Institute, of the approximately 28,000 LGBTQ+ -owned companies in Canada — who have total revenues of more than $ 22 billion and employ more than 435,000 Canadians — one in two had purposely hidden the fact that their company has LGBTQ+ ownership, and three in 10 had faced discrimination.
To further explore these issues and uncover potential solutions I sat down with BDC’s own Senior Advisor, Diversity and Inclusion, Brad Sensabaugh. Brad only joined BDC a few months ago, yet in a short time he’s had a big impact on our diversity and inclusion strategy. A transgender man who is committed to raising awareness around the challenges his community faces, he’s spent nearly a decade making the workplace more inclusive for all marginalized groups as a Diversity and Inclusion specialist.
Brad shared his insights on why showing up as your authentic self can be more challenging for some, how storytelling can play a role in changing that paradigm, and how we all can be better allies going forward.
Laura: I’m sure for some people, it’s difficult to understand the concept of not being able to bring your true self to work. Can we start by exploring why some individuals, such as members of the transgender community, face barriers just being their authentic self in the workplace?
Brad: I think for trans, non-binary and other gender diverse people, the concept of coming out is really big. You can imagine how, in the workplace, this presents challenges. In many ways, we can be outed without our choice.
For example, our ID might not match our gender presentation — as in a transgender man might still have an ID that lists him as female. The extremely mundane and simple act of legally identifying oneself can be an intimidating process, sometimes with consequences such as loss of business or opportunity, and sometimes compromised safety as well.
And sometimes it can manifest in really simple ways — such as not being included. For Non-Binary people, there is a sense of literally being non-existent when we hear people talk about gender parity meaning 50% representation of women and 50% men.
“Imagine trying to provide a reference, and having to explain why that reference would not know you under your present name or gender. There can be the same difficulty providing transcripts or diplomas. All of this can culminate in a sense of not being forthcoming with someone, which can further enhance the scrutiny being placed on a trans person.”
Laura: What about for entrepreneurs? According to one Canadian study, about half of LGBTQ+ business owners choose not to disclose this part of their identity.
Brad: To begin with, it’s often about feeling safe. While there are many rights and protections offered here in Canada, many still fear transphobia and homophobia and choose not to be completely honest or transparent for that reason — worrying that it will impact the success of their business, or worse. Other entrepreneurs have to worry about doing business in countries or jurisdictions — even parts of the US — where those rights and protections do not exist at all. That reality can be even more concerning.
For people within the transgender community, they may have to navigate around gaps in their employment, credit, or housing history. Imagine trying to provide a reference, and having to explain why that reference would not know you under your present name or gender. There can be the same difficulty providing transcripts or diplomas. All of this can culminate in a sense of not being forthcoming with someone, which can further enhance the scrutiny being placed on a trans person.
Those are just a few examples. Everyone within the community has their own lived experiences which contributes to their comfort around sharing their story.
Laura: I know you’re comfortable sharing your own story, and I’d love to hear more about it. How did you get started down a career path of Diversity and Inclusion?
Brad: Advocacy for others and a strong sense of justice have always been part of my life — they’re values my parents instilled in me at a young age. And then, with my own journey as a trans identified man, I experienced firsthand some of the challenges, barriers and issues that can confront trans people in professional work environments. Still, I saw it as the truth of my life; it wasn’t something I was going to try to hide. I welcomed the opportunity to open the discussion around what it means to be a transgender man.
I supported the trans community for a long time from the side of my desk. Then about 10 years ago I moved into the diversity and inclusion space professionally, and learned a great deal about other communities as well. My focus turned toward becoming a Diversity and Inclusion subject matter expert, with a focus on inclusion. Because while diversity is measurement, inclusion is impact — and that’s where I think we can really make the greatest difference across organizations. These beliefs and values align really well with working for a purpose-driven organization like BDC, and I’ve felt extremely welcome since I arrived a few months ago.
Laura: That’s great to hear. How would you say your own experience has shaped your approach to helping other marginalized communities?
Brad: What I’ve learned throughout my transition relates to the concepts of privilege and stereotypes. Many trans people are visibly trans, a term which I would say no longer applies to myself. By that I mean, if we met randomly, you wouldn’t likely perceive me as trans, you would likely perceive me as a cisgender man. This is a privilege I carry, which others in my community — and in many other visible minorities as well — do not. I am not stared at or mocked or threatened because of my visual appearance.
This wasn’t always the case for me and not the case for many trans people. It is for this very reason that I feel compelled to be out and to remind everyone that you don’t always know when someone is trans just by looking at them. Sharing my personal story is one small way to contribute to changing the narrative on this, and so many other misconceptions.
“There’s a huge educational component to storytelling; that’s how we broaden horizons and open minds. The growth and understanding we experience as a result can be very powerful.”
Laura: As you know, we’ve added a storytelling component to our Diversity and Inclusion strategy at BDC, featuring employees’ and clients’ stories during Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Indigenous History month, and many others. How do you see storytelling playing a role in inclusion?
Brad: There’s a huge educational component to storytelling; that’s how we broaden horizons and open minds. The growth and understanding we experience as a result can be very powerful. The more we listen and become comfortable asking questions and the more we can honestly admit the things we do not know and request more information, the better informed we all will be.
Every entrepreneur has a story and that contributes to their business in some way, as does every employee. And no one is on their journey in isolation. When I began my transition, what I realized was that my story wasn’t just mine. My parents had their own journey, becoming the parents of a trans son, and my brother who once had a sister, now had a brother. So, while I knew my experience, my story, and my truth, they had their own journey as well. You can never expect to know anyone else’s experience absolutely.
What increases acceptance and understanding is when we give others the benefit of the doubt, allow them to experience their own journey, and look to find ways to be better colleagues, friends, and allies along the way.
Laura: For those who are not non-binary or transgender, are there any resources you can recommend that can help with increasing our understanding, so we can become better allies?
Brad: There are some great organizations that not only offer support to non-binary and transgender individuals, they also have resources — from FAQs to shared stories to specific guidance — to help individuals and organizations increase their knowledge and understanding.
I’d start with The 519, which is a Toronto-based community centre with lots of corporate resources. Pride at Work Canada is great for entrepreneurs to tap into, and Pflag Canada is helpful for individuals and families. Finally, there is a great French language resource based out of Quebec called Gender Creative Kids.
“True allyship requires action, not just empathy or sympathy. Sometimes this may make you uncomfortable, but it’s better to act and learn from it, then to not act at all.”
Laura: That knowledge and understanding is so important. What about taking action? Do you have advice on how an ally can offer support?
Brad: I like the idea of asking yourself “Why?” five times before you start asking the community questions. What I mean is, you say you want to be an ally for this community: Why is that? The answer you come up with may give you some actions you can take. Then ask “Why?” again and again and you’ll hone in on specific things you can do or focus on. Often asking others, “what can I do?” without giving it any thought on your own can come across as lazy. Instead begin with an idea, “Here is what I would like to do,” and then ask, “How would you feel about that?”
True allyship requires action, not just empathy or sympathy. Sometimes this may make you uncomfortable, but it’s better to act and learn from it, then to not act at all. Often it just takes one person to break the ice, to stand up for someone, to take action — and that’s enough to get everyone talking about it. We want to get to that open dialogue, that conversation, in order to see change come about.
Laura: What’s one change you would like to see, when it comes to gender?
Brad: I want us to start thinking about gender parity by understanding that women and men don’t always look or sound or behave in “typical” ways. Trans women are mis-gendered a lot, over the phone, and in person. But to be honest, so are cisgender women. I think as a society we have a lot of expectations for how a woman should look, sound, and behave, and any variation is a trigger for us.
I would like us to think more about the diversity within women, men, and non-binary people. Gender isn’t the only thing that defines us, or makes us who we are. But no matter what intersecting experiences and identities shape us — we all deserve to live and work as our true selves.
Meet Sade and Rachel, the mother-daughter duo behind the personal care brand Sade Baron. Sade’s personal experience with eczema and the natural body care her grand aunt used to help treat it shaped Sade’s understanding of the power of natural ingredients — and it stuck with her throughout her life, even while she spent 35 years working as a midwife and nurse. Growing up with a mother who had a natural remedy for many skin and health ailments, Rachel had a deep understanding of the power of natural ingredients as well, and struggled to find skincare products that were natural and effective in her adulthood. Aware of the need for vegan, high-performance, gentle products, Sade and Rachel started their business in 2016, and used their understanding of botanical ingredients to craft products that contribute to our skin’s long term health.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
We definitely focused our cash flow on more activities that can get us in touch with our customers online. We focused our efforts on social media and email marketing which had been the best tools in staying in touch with our customers. The government programs have been a massive relief in keeping our business open and being able to adapt to the changing environment and purchasing habits of our customers.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
We had a very different approach pre-COVID with our marketing strategy mix, and as it was changing, we adapted to making more efforts in social media, online marketing, and email tools, which were once secondary and became primary. We spent more time updating our website and improved the flow, usability, and overall product experience (descriptions, images, video).
“Staying positive was something we had to focus on more — it’s hard to watch businesses you have known for years just shut down. We received a lot of support from our past customers, and some also sent notes to us to encourage us, which was super helpful.”
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
We upgraded some of our tools, such as inventory management to be able to forecast better. In e-commerce, we added a few more apps to monitor and understand the data, and to translate that into what’s next. We spent on creating more unique ad content, stayed away from outdated ways of looking at ads, and reached new and old audiences.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
Staying positive was something we had to focus on more — it’s hard to watch businesses you have known for years just shut down. We received a lot of support from our past customers, and some also sent notes to us to encourage us, which was super helpful. We spent some time regrouping and figuring out what we needed to work on better, and to improve our workflows.
Sade and I did a lot of walking and optimizing our business over the last year. From email sequences, to personalized notes, calling our customers to engage on social media posts and Instagram Lives. We also identified things that we are not strong in — we outsourced or hired a contractor on a project basis so we didn’t turn our wheels out.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
A big motivator is a quote by Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up,” which is something we really took to heart as businesswomen. The second was to pivot, which made it easier to move quickly and listen to the customer and market. That made it easier for us to stay in business and make necessary changes within days versus months. We also created better workflows. For example, our shipping usually took two to five business days. We reduced it to one business day, so customers knew if they ordered things, it got there faster.
Catherine Dahl is the co-founder and CEO of Beanworks, an automated accounting software company that is disrupting modern methods of accounting. Leveraging her 25 years of operational accounting and management experience, Catherine built Beanworks into an industry-leading software company that is widely respected in the Fintech industry. Catherine and Beanworks have also been awarded by highly respected organizations, most notably by CIX as one of Canada’s Most Innovative Tech Companies in 2020, moving on to represent Canada at the Startup World Cup finals in 2021.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
We are a venture-backed company and when COVID-19 hit, we decided to take more funds through internal investors only and shored up our cash position, just in case. We qualified for a couple of government programs, payroll assistance, and one program through the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP). With all of that, we managed very well. We did revise down our financial forecast and played out various scenarios to ensure we were ready to alter our spending course if need be.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
We altered our marketing message to reflect the benefits that our software provided in a pandemic. We automate payables workflow, so when our customers suddenly went remote, it made the demand for the software even higher. We already sold and implemented our system remotely; we are a fully cloud-based company and always have been, so we did not have to change much in our day-to-day functions.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
We moved our staff to home-based working, and so we did have to adjust who we interacted with. To ensure our strong culture was maintained with everyone, we organized online events and tried to ensure people interacted regularly.
“Culture has always been at the forefront. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That means without a strong cultural base, as a business we will not survive.”
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
As CEO, my mindset has always been one where company culture is at the heart of everything we do. I obsess over it. Culture has always been at the forefront. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That means without a strong cultural base, as a business we will not survive. And during a pandemic, this was more important than ever. We added more mental health support. We worked through the management teams, both formally and informally, to ensure burnout was not occurring anywhere. We did regular employee surveys and focused on their work-life balance.
Personally, I ensured I kept up my workouts with my trainer, and just moved them online. I continued with my mental health support, also online, and eventually got back to my weekly massages — it’s the best thing I do for myself! Taking care of yourself is key. I was worried in the early months, perhaps for the first 60 days, then as people do, we found a way through this strange time. Never just accept, always question is there a better way?
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
My industry is tech, and in tech, things are never easy, and always interesting. What I have learned is that our industry is resilient and very creative. My advice to most people is never give up. Keep searching and you will find a way. The old saying, “where there is a will, there is a way,” is very true. Someone out there is better off than you while someone else is in a worse situation. Don’t take your life for granted, but know that you can find a solution to whatever problem is in front of you. Ask for help, build or leverage your network, and help others where you can. I have found that this approach to life was even more productive during the pandemic.
Colleen Imrie is founder of The Nooks, a retail business incubator for Canadian artisans and entrepreneurs. Colleen created her business to help others build their own successful creative businesses and follow their dreams. With eight retail locations and an online marketplace, The Nooks is one of Canada’s go-to shops for handmade Canadian goods for customers, and with continued, community-based business support, it is also one of Canada’s go-to retail spaces for vendors.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
COVID-19 provided me with the opportunity to re-evaluate our budgets and where the leaks were in the business — leaks we possibly might have not known existed. We dug deeper into the data of the marketing, social, digital, and operational costs it takes (and does not take!) to not just sustain, but to substantially scale The Nooks business and our vendors during a global lockdown.
I decided early on that The Nooks was not going to take on any government funding, line of credits, or debt to sustain itself during the pandemic and beyond. Instead, I looked at our cash reserves, our growth strategy, and where money could be cleaned up and budgeted for two years without compromising what we stand for, or taking on money we did not raise ourselves. I released a formal COVID-19 response immediately to our customers and vendors, outlining how we are protecting our vendors and their participation with us no matter what — and the steps we were taking to do so. We protected our vendors and their investment in their business with us. No one would be burdened with paying membership fees during lockdown, and no one was going to be left behind.
I took our 18-month growth plan and condensed it into eight months, and this was the best thing for my business. Collapsing time tested and strengthened my vision, trust, and leadership. COVID-19 challenged the business to either step up, or step aside — and we’ve successfully positioned The Nooks to be in a league of our own, dominating and leading our retail industry.
Part of collapsing the growth plan timeline was building systems and technology, and focusing heavily on the relationships within the business. We increased membership prices by 10 to 15% before 2021, implementing both paid and free programs for my internal vendors to help continue to grow their business with us while our stores were closed, and we also hosted a virtual music festival. I continued my commitment to showing up daily for my vendors via email, phone and through our private Facebook group. The business strategy changed during the pandemic — our integrity did not.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
Our stores have always been a social hub for customers and vendors to connect as well as a retail experience, introducing our communities to the local, handmade businesses we represent. When COVID hit and our eight retail locations were closed for months, we quickly turned to our newsletters, our mobile app, website, and of course, our vendors, to keep the connection alive with our customers. We didn’t add any new channels, just enhanced our efforts towards existing digital and social outlets! We saw COVID as an opportunity to also share elements of our business that weren’t as known, and share our expertise in other areas beyond retail — like our nookSTART business program.
“The biggest shift in my business has been the practice of alignment. Doing the work of understanding my Human Design, the blueprint of who I am, and how I “work!” I encourage anyone who feels the only way to success is with hustle, sacrifice, and “working harder” (and maybe not getting anywhere doing all those things!) to connect with their design.”
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
Since December 2019, the development of our custom software to automate our business had been in the works. When COVID hit early March 2020, we had some components of the development ready to “test” internally with our vendors, while our retail stores were closed. While the development of our software continued, we launched The Nooks mobile app in December 2020. This allowed us to further connect with our customers and share our makers’ products, stories, and promotions in an entirely new way! Over 300 of our vendors now live on our customers’ phones countrywide!
We had plans for an app, but the timelines didn’t make sense anymore, and we saw the opportunity to launch it during holiday, while “shipping” was the norm for getting anything — especially during the biggest gift giving month of the year. COVID helped us cut to the chase with Beta testing for our software — we did not wait for it to be perfect and pretty until we moved on to the next phase and strategy of development. The Beta testing and building co-existed at the same time. Using the “down time” some of our vendors had supported the testing, and getting quick feedback helped make adjustments and carry on without some of life’s pre-COVID distractions.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
I have been studying Human Design, my energy type, and other self-development methods for over a year and experimenting with how I work best, lead, and how I am to be “seen” by others — and how I see myself. This practice and alignment has helped me put my needs first so I can show up best for my relationships, my community, team, and business.
To recharge and reconnect I have early morning quiet time by myself in my home office with a coffee. This quiet time involves a mix of reading a chapter in a book, listening to a podcast, spiritual reflection, catching live lectures from some coaches I work with, researching new ideas, and playing in Canva! I take time to reflect and journal out my thoughts and feelings so I can read the wave of my emotions and get clarity on my next step. I do not need hours at the spa or “days off” to rest — I have daily, mini practices that work best for my life and business, and allow me to carry on doing what I love, no matter what comes up!
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
The biggest shift in my business has been the practice of alignment. Doing the work of understanding my Human Design, the blueprint of who I am, and how I “work!” I encourage anyone who feels the only way to success is with hustle, sacrifice, and “working harder” (and maybe not getting anywhere doing all those things!) to connect with their design. Not only does this practice and learning of Human Design continually blow my mind, it’s had a huge impact on my energy and clarity, and showed me the best way to lead myself and others. I’ve grown and continue to grow a wildly successful business for myself and for others to succeed.
Many of us consider wealth and estate planning as a way to ensure that our family is well taken care of — but with the right plan in place, your money can also go towards causes that are important to you. Having the ability to leave the world just a little bit better is a powerful and very attainable goal, no matter how much money you’re leaving behind.
Lydia Potocnik, Head of Estate Planning & Philanthropic Advisory Services with BMO, has spent decades working in the field, and uses her expertise to help guide families through the opportunities and strategies that exist to create a legacy that’s meaningful and lasting, with an impact that carries on through generations. She believes that aligning your estate with your personal values and beliefs is an important wealth planning priority.
If you’d like to support your charitable values beyond your lifetime — passing the torch to the next generation, so to speak — establishing a trust or private foundation allows you to do just that. We asked Lydia to share her advice on getting started.
Let’s start with a high-level understanding of estate planning. What is the difference between a will and a trust and how do you know when each is needed?
Both wills and trusts are useful estate planning tools that serve different purposes. One main difference is that a will is a legal document that directs who will receive your property at death and appoints a legal representative to carry out your wishes. By contrast, a trust can be used to begin distributing property — which can include cash, investments, artwork, real estate, and more — before death, at death, or afterwards. It is a legal arrangement through which one person who’s called a trustee, which can be a family member, a friend, or a trust company, holds legal title to property for another person who’s called a beneficiary. Depending on who your beneficiaries are and what their financial needs are, most of the time people will create a will that has a trust within it.
When would someone typically establish a trust?
One reason a person would want to establish a trust is to provide for children under the age of majority — which is 18 or 19 in Canada, depending on the province you live in — by providing a monthly or annual income. Trusts are also often created to protect the assets a person wishes to leave to someone with special needs to cover medication, medical expenses, or a monthly allowance for example. They can also provide for flexible distribution of assets to beneficiaries who are unable to effectively manage money or can’t be relied on to make sound financial decisions. It’s worth noting that trusts also offer greater privacy than wills because they don’t go through probate and therefore there would not be any public disclosure. In order to determine the best type of trust for your estate goals, consider the age of your beneficiaries, their financial needs, and their ability to manage their inheritance.
Beyond providing for their families, many people establish trusts to ensure their philanthropic goals are carried out after they’re gone. How does someone go about setting that into action?
Typically, a trust will be in the form of a written, legal document. To set the process in motion it’s best to meet with an estate planning lawyer who will help draft the terms of the trust. While a trust can be used to benefit individual family members, it can also be used to benefit a charity or several charities. To do this, many clients create a private foundation, set up as a trust structure with a trustee managing the money for various charitable organizations. In this format, the charities will get a set amount of money paid out to them each year from the trust.
Is there a benefit to setting things up this way, rather than just making a large one-time donation to a charity or charities of your choice?
Most of the time people create a charitable trust or a private foundation as a trust structure because they want to create a legacy and ensure that some of the causes that are important to them when they’re alive will continue on when they’re no longer here. Think of it as a formal structure to give meaning to their wealth.
A private foundation is established and operated exclusively for charitable giving purposes and can be structured as a trust or a non-share capital corporation. The individual will often be the trustee themselves while they’re still alive and will determine which charities will receive a grant each year and how it will be used. Before the individual passes away, they can appoint another trustee to step in and carry out the terms of the trust and ensure that the trust deed appoints an alternate trustee. In doing so, the charities will continue to receive a financial benefit year after year.
For many, the desire to pass along charitable beliefs and values to their children and grandchildren is important. How can a trust be used to accomplish this?
Establishing a charitable trust or private foundation is a wonderful way to pass on philanthropic values to the next generation. Most of the time, if a trust is created today by parents or grandparents, they will appoint their children or grandchildren to be successor trustees. That way, the family values and the vision to support certain causes — whether it be the environment, mental health, or supporting marginalized groups, for example — will be carried on through future generations with the trust.
How does the trust work so that there’s always money available to give?
Typically, the money in the trust will be invested by a professional. Someone like a family member can invest the assets, but if you have a professional investment advisor one of the goals may be to grow the capital by investing it prudently and then disperse the annual income. If it’s a private foundation set up as a trust you do have to disperse 3.5% every year to charities in Canada. So, the goal is to make sure you’re generating at least that much income to meet the minimum annual disbursement requirement
How do families decide on which causes to support and do they have to give to the same charities every year?
To help families through the process, we encourage them to meet as a group and establish a mission statement for their trust or foundation. We guide them through this process by finding out what is important to them as a family and what has impacted their lives. For example, if someone in the family has been impacted by mental health, they may choose to support mental health projects in their community. Families often accept proposals from various charities and then decide as a group which proposals they want to fund with the revenue generated by the trust or foundation. This can change. Often a family will support a specific charity for five years or so, and after that time they’ll reassess whether they want to continue to make grants to that sector or revise and update their mission statement and support another sector.
How important is planning and goal setting when it comes to estate planning and establishing philanthropic aspirations?
For women who want to make a meaningful impact in their community, the first step is setting goals around what kind of impact you want to make and factor in your own values and what’s important to you. The second step is to meet with a wealth advisor and put a wealth plan in place.
The wealth plan looks at everything from retirement needs, to tax planning, estate planning, business succession planning, and philanthropic planning. It allows a woman to assess how much money she has today and ask herself: can I afford to start taking a more strategic approach to my philanthropy today or do I need to hold off until I retire, or does it have to happen through my estate plan when I pass away?
A wealth plan also allows a woman to make a thoughtful decision around philanthropy and what tools she’ll use to meet her goals. You can’t make any decisions until you understand how much wealth you have, who are the other beneficiaries you want to leave money to, and what are your own personal financial needs. It’s important to note that most trusts are irrevocable, so once you transfer assets to a trust, you can’t get that property back out. Therefore, consulting with a tax and legal professional is critical to ensuring that a trust is appropriate based on your own unique personal circumstances.
In the midst of Ontario’s COVID-19 stay at home order in early 2021, Maria Poonawala was conflicted between a job she loved and becoming an entrepreneur. Making this sort of high-risk decision in the middle of a global pandemic was challenging, but Maria says working a 9 to 5 job, and running her start-up from 5pm to 1am was taking its toll.
“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this,” she recalls.
In officially launching Connexa, Maria was poised to offer small and medium sized businesses a customer service platform that would help them maintain a human connection with their customers through a centralized inbox that saves them time while leveraging machine learning to provide customer feedback insights in an analytics dashboard.
She’d built the idea into a functioning high-fidelity prototype in the months prior with a team of women in STEM apprentices. The premise for Connexa came from observations and experiences Maria accumulated during the five years she’d worked in the technology sector prior to venturing out on her own. But, as she explains, her interest in technology came about almost by accident, leading to a career journey she probably wouldn’t have imagined for herself.
“I went to Ryerson to study international business,” Maria recalls. “And while I was looking into strategy consulting for my third-year internship, I kept hearing that digitization was the way companies were going and that technology was where I should be focusing my attention.”
Maria credits Ryerson with being an entrepreneurial minded school with great incubators and an atmosphere in which students were encouraged to pursue ideas as student group leaders and start their own businesses. “That’s where the entrepreneurship seed was planted,” she says. “And while I’d never before considered technology, I decided to apply for internships in that space.”
While she faced many rejections, as a result of her inexperience, Maria says Cisco took a chance on her, offering her an internship and an opportunity to build her skillset. “I fell in love with tech that year,” she recalls.
Upon graduation, Maria took a consulting job with Ernst & Young (EY) in their Technology Advisory practice, where she had the opportunity to work on a number of projects and dive into Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Robotic Process Automation, and Virtual Agents (Chatbots). “Things were moving fast, I was learning on the job, and I just knew that it would be technology that would change everything – I wanted to brand myself as someone who was an expert in AI application, and I sought out opportunities to do that.”
“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this.”
Maria came across her next career move while doing a vendor assessment for a project she was working on with EY. “I was evaluating this small company against some big vendors, and when they pitched to me, I fell in love with what they were doing.” The company was Wysdom.AI, a conversational AI optimization platform and service that delivers chatbots.
“I went from a 4000-person company to a 40-person company,” she says. “Being part of an AI start-up was a really interesting, fascinating opportunity, and I was eager to learn as much as I could.”
Maria dove into her work at Wysdom, and within a few years, was promoted twice and became a people manager to a team. “I learned a lot about leadership and developed the confidence to know that if I ever started my own business, I’d be able to manage a team,” she says. “I’ve never loved a job more than I did working with them. Being part of a growing start-up is magical.”
This made Maria’s decision to start Connexa all the more difficult. But in late 2020, her entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with a calling and a strong desire to give back, propelled her forward.
“I’m an empath by nature, and during the pandemic, I really felt devastated for small businesses and also for the students who I noticed had a sense of hopelessness, facing limited career prospects,” she says. Feeling fortunate in her job and her ability to work from home, Maria says she wanted to employ a mentorship model with her start-up where she could help women in STEM and provide access to experience.
The idea for Connexa had been planted years prior when Maria worked in customer service automation and saw the need for a system that was easy for agents to interact with — and that handled the data analytics they often struggled with. “The goal was to reimagine customer service while letting the platform do the hard work,” she says. The platform would help those small and medium sized businesses that were already struggling because of the pandemic. Finally, she saw a way to build her platform while also providing opportunities to women in STEM who were looking for experience to build their resumes. “I wanted to give them the opportunity I’d been given in tech early on,” she says.
“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur. As such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.”
Thanks to an encounter with another woman founder and Tech Undivided alumnae, Maria was pointed in the direction of the Female Laboratory of Innovative Knowledge (FLIK), a program that connects female founders with student talent from around the world in an apprenticeship model. “I put out what I was looking for with Connexa, looking for help to build this company, and overnight my inbox was filled,” Maria says. “Over the December holidays in 2020, I booked 30 interviews in a week and ended up having the most incredible conversations with women from around the world who I was so impressed with and inspired by.”
Maria put together a team of 6 people in functional roles to begin with virtually, and maintained the goal of creating an inclusive, supportive environment where an all-woman team would thrive. She then began to build out her business in the hours she wasn’t working at Wysdom.
A few months later, with the support of her mentors at Wysdom and her family, Maria says she was ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship full-time. Since then, Connexa has continued to grow, building relationships with investors, and getting the platform in the hands of initial users. “We are delivering a simple platform that’s intuitive and affordable.”
Recently Connexa was selected as one of the women-led start-ups to be part of the third cohort of ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program. “Female founders are typically over-resourced and underfunded in North America. I was looking for an accelerator program that would centralize these resources, provide mentors to reach out to with targeted help, and a cohort or community of peers to lean on,” she says. Tech Undivided is designed for founders building breakthrough technology solutions. It draws on the expertise of strategic mentors and partners to help founders refine their product-market-fit, amplify sales, and hone their pitch for customer and investor meetings. “Being a woman founder can be lonely at times, and having others who are going through the same things at the same time can be really helpful.”
As Maria looks at Connexa’s growth ahead, she says she would love her company to be the next great Canadian success story, like Shopify. She’s committed to creating a culture that’s supportive, inclusive, and that values all of its employees. She’s also eager to advise other young women entrepreneurs, sharing advice she’s been given along the way.
“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur,” she says. “And, as such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.” Her advice for anyone with an entrepreneurial inclination: “Take action as soon as possible.”
Jolene Laskey is the founder of Wabanaki Maple, a maple syrup company based in Neqotkuk (Tobique) First Nation in New Brunswick. In 2018, inspired by her Wolastoqey roots, Jolene began her journey as an entrepreneur, sharing and reconnecting people and communities with a piece of Indigenous culture through Wabanaki Maple’s syrup products. For centuries, Peoples of the Wabanaki Confederacy (Wolastoqey, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Abenaki, and Passamaquoddy) have harvested the sap from the sugar maple tree — Jolene is carrying on the tradition with a twist, by providing signature flavours of barrel-aged whisky, bourbon, and toasted oak maple syrups.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
Initially it was scary and challenging to face the onset of this pandemic. I was very skeptical about how we would survive financially as a new company, especially since one of our biggest barriers as an Indigenous business located in a First Nations community has been securing funding for working capital. It hasn’t been easy to manage financially, but fortunately, I’ve been able to bootstrap over the past couple of years. I’ve also sought out other opportunities for securing business grants and financing for things like capital costs, which was very helpful in managing cash flow for the business.
Similar to many businesses throughout our nation, we were negatively impacted by this pandemic. Though the Government of Canada reacted quickly by providing various funding opportunities and programs like CEBA, there were still barriers for businesses like Wabanaki Maple. We discovered too often that for one reason or another, we did not meet certain criteria or eligibility for these programs. lt felt hopeless at times, and I often wondered how we could manage financially. Thankfully, these gaps were addressed for small businesses, and eventually we were successful and qualified for financial assistance through a program called the Regional Recovery Relief Fund (RRRF). Receiving this funding allowed us to face the hardships of COVID-19 with more resistance and resilience! l’m happy and proud to say we are now a thriving, young company looking forward to more success in the future.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
For the most part, our sales approach has remained the same throughout the pandemic. Since we already developed a great customer base and were very familiar with who our target segments were for both B2C and B2B, we thought it best to put more focus on our social media content on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. However, in some ways we were required to transition and shift our sales approach, since one of our main revenue streams was our in-person sales at various trade shows and events. Additionally, we had to pivot some of our marketing strategy and focus more on online opportunities.
Normally, we would have been participating at various trade shows and special events across Canada, but with the COVID-19 cancellations and restrictions, we had to adapt — so we moved to signing up for online virtual shows and venues. This really worked out well for us; we gained some traction and generated more sales through a lot of organic reach. lt also proved to be beneficial in other ways; it decreased some of our business expenses like travel and accommodations, and for the most part, the cost of fees and registrations were lower at the online events versus in person. On another note, I do believe having developed a website with a user-friendly e-commerce platform was a significant factor for our continued sales and overall growth of the company during this pandemic.
“If I were to only choose one important piece of advice to give to any entrepreneur in any industry, it would be to surround yourself and build meaningful relationships with like-minded, positive people.”
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
Since starting this company, technology has played a very important role for us. For pretty much everything we do in our daily activities and operations, we rely on technology. I have a small but mighty team who work remotely, so in order to communicate effectively, we started adding more digital tools to our operations. We use tools like Asana and Trello which help us stay organized with various projects and events. We also use digital tools for tracking, traceability, and inventory, just to name a few. I’m always willing to try new things that may help with organizing and managing the company!
It’s been extremely important to utilize what we have in place for Wabanaki Maple, such as our website, online store, and our social media platforms. With these tools and platforms, we can take a quick glance at any given moment to check out our analytics, financials, or any other important information. The use of technology has been a great way to communicate with both my team and others outside the business. Web meetings have helped bridge the gap throughout the pandemic. In the beginning stages of starting this company, I wasn’t much of a fan of digital tools, due to a lack of use and knowledge. I’ve definitely had a change of mindset in adapting to the digital world. Overall, incorporating various digital tools into my daily practices and managing the business has been of great value for me, the team, and the company.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
For me, staying positive and productive on a daily basis can often be challenging. Personally, I’m one who appreciates routine in in my life, but operating and managing a business is justthe opposite! With having to address so many different business matters both internally and externally, I’ve found that shifting from one role or another can be exhausting at times. However, I still try to maintain a certain level of routine throughout my day.
l tend to start work very early in the morning — usually at 5:30am — because I know I’m most productive during the first several hours in the morning. And if I’m experiencing a difficult or challenging day, I remind myself, “this too shall pass.” I’ve realized that stepping away and taking time for myself to reset and recharge is what works best for me. Stepping away for me often looks like taking a long walk or hike through our nearby forests and trails with my four dogs, or simply working in my flower and vegetable garden, which I love and consider my own ‘therapy,’ so to speak. Connecting with Mother Nature helps to keep me grounded, energized, and is my self care.
We are a small team at Wabanaki Maple, but I think that communication is key when it comes to managing our mindset. We use a number of communication tools and meet on a regular basis so we can have important social interaction with each other. We try to keep our conversations open and often have fun with them, and I also encourage my team to reach out to me if ever they need to chat. I think it’s probably been the most challenging to not have daily, in-person interaction with each other throughout the pandemic. Thankfully, we are now moving towards business as usual with many of the restrictions being lifted in our area!
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
If I were to only choose one important piece of advice to give to any entrepreneur in any industry, it would be to surround yourself and build meaningful relationships with like-minded, positive people. In other words, a strong network of friends, mentors, coaches, or other business owners that will support you — and vice versa. They can be an invaluable asset at any stage of your business. I personally have a wonderful circle of friends, family, and mentors who I know I can count on to share their knowledge, guidance, and experience with me. There’s been countless times I’ve connected to them for their support in finding solutions or navigating through a business obstacle. Sometimes, through my experience of simply just having a conversation, I’ve gained more insight, perspective, knowledge, and confidence about entrepreneurship and business practices as a whole.
When it comes to financing, women business owners face significant barriers when securing capital compared to men — but how bad is it?
“51% of the population are women, yet we receive 2% of the capital,” explains Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO. “That’s statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”
A serial entrepreneur who has made a career of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, Vicki Saunders’ latest venture was designed to directly tackle the issue of gender inequity. Launched in 2015 in Canada and now also in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, SheEO is a not-for-profit company that has made an entirely new model of financing for women-identifying and non-binary entrepreneurs.
Built on a foundation of ‘radical generosity,’ the five-year loans SheEO provides have zero interest. There are no requirements for collateral, and a simplified process for applying. And when the money is paid back, everything gets reinvested back into a perpetual fund to support the next round of business owners.
“When I was getting started with SheEO, people would say to me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with making money on an investment,’ because that’s how it’s always been done,” says Vicki. “But you don’t have to make money on everything. This is a radically different way of thinking about investing — it’s more about a collective ensuring capital is flowing to innovators who have been consistently put to the margins by our systems and structures. We need to rethink what we are investing in, for what kind of future.”
The capital is provided by a diverse community of women-identifying and non-binary individuals. Known as Activators, they come from all walks of life, varying in experience and ranging in age from 11 to 95. In addition to a monthly contribution of $92, they commit to sharing their expertise, networks, and buying power. “We have weekly community calls which are designed for us to get the support we need from one another,” says Vicki. “Everyone in this community has something to give, and we offer it up in a radically generous environment full of trust and love.”
“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically. When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.”
Each year, Activators democratically vote in their country on the Ventures that will be supported. The businesses who apply to SheEO come from a broad range of sectors, but they all have a few things in common: they are majority women- or non-binary-owned and led; they’re revenue-generating (from $50k to $2M); and they’re “tackling the World’s To-Do List” in their own unique way.
“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically,” explains Vicki. “When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.”
The ‘World’s To-Do List’ is based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. SheEO selected Ventures not only identify which of the 17 SDGs they are working on, but also measure their impact related to those goals.
Removing the requirement for a financial return has made it simpler to focus on supporting the businesses on their own terms, leaving space for new models and new approaches to emerge. “Many of our Ventures would not have received funding at this early stage unless they are privileged to have friends and family with capital. We are focused on creating more equitable systems and getting capital into the hands of those with brilliant innovations that help us get to a better world. And, in a community that comes from a place of radical generosity, we’ve experienced that businesses that look ‘uninvestable’ through a traditional lens can literally transform almost immediately when hundreds of women get behind them and support them as customers, advisors and connectors.”
Even by traditional metrics, the results are impressive: About 95% of the loans are repaid, and in the last year alone, the 63 Ventures in the program created 772 environmentally and socially sustainable jobs, and experienced 65% growth in revenue. Those successes, Vicki explains, wouldn’t have come about if not for the power of the deep relationships between Activators and Ventures.
“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers,” says Vicki. “The entrepreneurs who have been funded through SheEO would never run a business alone again.”
“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers.”
The connections are fostered with the help of several events, from fireside chats to the annual SheEO Summit. Their Learning Circles feature topics ranging from the power of email marketing to the creation of sacred space through Indigenous teachings. Since the pandemic started, everything has been pushed online, but Vicki says that’s actually been beneficial. “The virtual transition really worked well for us. We were able to connect more with our community from across the globe.”
In 2020, SheEO hosted 263 Zoom calls, and reached over 8,000 guests through virtual events. They also welcomed nearly 1,500 new Activators, growing the community by over 30%. This year, largely enabled by $1.2 million in funding provided by BMO, they’ve gone from 20 to 44 Ventures supported globally, including all 23 Canadian applicants.
“BMO’s investment in SheEO is helping a growing number of women-owned businesses affected by the pandemic to have the opportunity to grow and prosper,” says Vicki. “We are excited to have the opportunity to double the number of ventures for the first time since we launched in 2015 — and we’re particularly excited that BMO has matched our lending terms at 0% interest, recognizing the power of our unique ecosystem.”
Of course, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. SheEO’s relationship-based, impact-focused ecosystem is doing far more than providing loans, generating jobs, and increasing revenue. “It’s showing the world that another way forward is possible,” says Vicki.
“Our current economic system isn’t working; it’s built on inequality and it’s unsustainable. We’ve lost our sense of community, and we don’t know how to say, ‘maybe we have enough,’” she says. “That’s why SheEO is redefining how things are done.”
Vicki believes the old system is dying, but that we’ll continue to be held back if we don’t foster an entirely new mindset.
“We have this inertia. Even though we’re not happy, we just keep doing what we’re doing because it’s easier, because we know how. And overcoming that inertia takes an incredible amount of force,” says Vicki. “It takes a stretch of the imagination to think in a non-transactional way. Everything in this world is transactional. What if instead we asked, ‘How can I make things better?’ We all have excess capacity. We all have a talent we can share. Maybe you’re a storyteller or a super-connector — whatever it is, there’s a way you can contribute.”
As Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy at Scotiabank, Anique Asher shares why and how mentorship is a mutually beneficial relationship, the ways her mentors impacted her career, and how she’s supporting others in their career aspirations.
By Shelley White
Take a risk. Trust your instinct. Seek out mentorship. Work hard.
These are the words of wisdom that Anique Asher has kept front and center while building an impressive career as an executive in the financial industry. Now, she’s passing along that advice and more to a new generation of go-getters.
“Mentorship is one aspect of my job that I really enjoy, because now I get to see it from the other side and provide advice that may help others in their own careers,” says Anique, Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy for Scotiabank.
“When I say to someone I’m mentoring, ‘I don’t think you’re challenging yourself enough, I think you should take that risk,’ I see myself 10 or 15 years ago,” she says. “And it feels really good to know that you can help that person make an impact in their career.”
Anique is no stranger to taking risks and leaping into the unknown. Growing up on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, she was the third generation in a family-owned and operated business, and spent her summers as a teenager working alongside her parents.
“I always envisioned myself becoming an entrepreneur,” Anique says. “I never envisioned a scenario where I would be working in a large financial institution because it’s just not something I had ever seen growing up.”
But her path would prove very different. Anique’s father had gone to university in Montreal, Quebec, and wanted to give his children the same opportunity. “My parents made the financial decision to enable us to go to a university that was outside of Trinidad. They felt that experience was important for us to expand our thinking and have different experiences,” she says.
“I never envisioned a scenario where I would be working in a large financial institution because it’s just not something I had ever seen growing up.”
Anique went to the University of Western Ontario in London, completing her undergrad and MBA at the Ivey Business School. Instead of pursuing a path of entrepreneurship, she took a position at a multinational financial consulting firm, working in mid-market M&A, eventually moving into investor relations for a major life insurance company.
“Being in that role, I knew early on that I was going to have a significant learning curve,” she says. “What I needed to do to be effective was to build-out a strong team, to ask questions, to ask for help when I needed it, and to make sure that we were addressing the issues of the shareholders and the institutional investors.”
When Scotiabank approached her in 2018, Anique says she was initially hesitant to make the move, having never worked in banking. But she was enticed by the idea of a new challenge, and once again was encouraged by her mentors to take the risk of the new role.
“What made this role very appealing to me was a couple of things: First, it was a much larger team than I’d ever managed — 100+ people. Secondly, it was a different industry, and one of the things I have prided myself on in my career is being able to get up to speed quickly, being able to be challenged and learn new things,” she says.
Anique joined the Scotiabank in 2018 in a Senior Vice President role, and in November 2020, she was promoted to Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy. It’s a role she relishes because it encompasses varied sides of the business, she says. While she is responsible for the more traditional financial side of things, such as global financial planning and forecasting, Anique is also involved in formulating and articulating the bank’s identity from a strategic perspective.
“It’s rare that you would see finance so well connected to strategy, and sometimes people scratch their heads and say, ‘It’s actually such a different skill set, why would you have the same person doing that?’ But the reality is that it’s such a valuable opportunity to connect those things in a way that will drive meaningful value for the bank and deliver value for our shareholders,” she says.
Throughout her career, Anique says mentorship has been invaluable. Sometimes, her mentors were people that she worked with. Sometimes, they were people that she worked for. And sometimes, they were people outside of her organization.
Anique says that one of the most valuable things she gained through being mentored is having others see things in her that she didn’t see in herself.
“I remember having a conversation once about a role that I was contemplating taking. And the individual said to me, ‘I think you’re making a big mistake if you take that role, because I don’t think you’re thinking big enough.’ And it was the first time in my life that I’d ever thought, ‘If this person thinks I could do that, maybe I can.’”
“Early on in my career, I would say, ‘I really appreciate everything you do, is there something that I can do?’ And nine times out of ten when you ask that, you get an answer.”
Now, Anique is the one doing the mentoring, through both informal and formal programs like Scotiabank Inspire. She says that the best mentor relationships are reciprocal, with both sides benefitting. As mentees, people should always be asking how they can help their mentor, she says.
“Early on in my career, I would say, ‘I really appreciate everything you do, is there something that I can do?’ And nine times out of ten when you ask that, you get an answer,” Anique says. “Maybe, it’s helping them with a project that’s off the side of their desk, or maybe it’s dealing with an issue that they’re struggling with from a different perspective.”
As the leader of a large team, Anique says that diversity is essential in any organization. She notes that of the 100+ people on her team, more than 50 percent identify as women. “I feel very proud of that as a woman leader,” she says.
It’s important for people in an organization to see women in leadership, Anique says. It’s about role modeling, she adds.
“My husband and I have two kids, 14 and 12. Many times, I’ll say to my team, ‘I have to leave now because I need to do something for one of my sons. I’m going to a baseball or hockey game, so I’m not available at this time.’ And I think that it’s important to role model these behaviors for the team.”
Anique notes that there were times in her career when she was the only woman in the room, and she had to trust her instincts and ensure that she was heard.
“I came back to work after my second maternity leave, very clear that I wanted to be promoted, and I was an advocate for myself,” she says. “But if I didn’t have strong women mentors that were supporting me and giving me the runway in which to do that, while still getting to be a mom where I could actively engage with my kids, that would have been a lot harder. I feel a responsibility, particularly within my own team, to be a role model so that people see that it’s possible to have both, just not always at the same time.”
Beyond gender, other aspects of diversity are essential to any successful team, Anique says, which is why it’s important to hire people with different perspectives, such as newcomers. “Because that was me. I was new to Canada and needed somebody to give me an opportunity,” she says.
“If the person happens to be from a warmer country, I’ll send them a note at the first snowfall saying, ‘Don’t worry, don’t leave. It’s not that bad. You’ll get through it!’” she adds with a laugh.
“When I’m most challenged and I’m really struggling with something, I always think, there’s a path through. Maybe that means getting a different perspective. Maybe that means asking for help.”
Outside of work, Anique loves to travel, read, and play tennis, but most of all, she enjoys spending time with her kids, especially when they’re on the baseball field or at the hockey arena.
“Both of my sons play competitive sports. I actually find it funny, because I go to these games and they can be so intense for other parents, but I find it to be a source of stress relief for me, because I was so terrible at sports growing up. It just amazes me that we’re genetically related because they are pretty good. And it’s so great to see them take on those challenges and learn how to win and lose as a team — a valuable lesson that they can take with them as they grow up.”
While she can’t predict where her career will take her in the future, Anique notes that she’s always ready and willing to take on any new challenge that comes her way.
“One of the things a mentor said to me is, ‘There’s always a path through, you just have to find the path.’ When I’m most challenged and I’m really struggling with something, I always think, there’s a path through. Maybe that means getting a different perspective. Maybe that means asking for help.”
Or maybe it comes down to those earlier words of advice: Take a risk, and work hard.
“Don’t feel you can’t do something because it’s not innate to you,” Anique says. “You can always figure it out.”
How do you know it’s the right time to leave a job? It’s a question many people seem to be asking themselves as Canada comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have even begun to warn of a coming wave of resignations.
For Diana Olsen, who left her long-term career at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters in December 2020, it came down to two things: gut instinct and timing.
“You have to hone in on your intuition and what it’s telling you,” Diana says. “You can’t listen to the advice or thoughts of anyone else. The decision to leave has to be one you make for yourself.”
Diana became a household name in the coffee world after beginning the much-beloved brand in Stratford, Ontario in 1996. She spent almost 25 years building the company and turning it into a café chain with outposts across the province.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced her into an unusual period of downtime, which she used to reflect on her career and future goals.
She knew she loved the people she was working with and adored her customers. “The thing that set Balzac’s apart from other coffee shops was I did take the coffee seriously — we roasted it ourselves. I learned the craft of roasting,” Diana explains. “But I was also interested in the design and ambience of the café, and I took my inspiration from the ones in Paris, a city I lived and worked in for years. That’s what made Balzac’s unique. It wasn’t just a chain of coffee shops, it was a coffee roaster with a beautiful space.”
But as the brand grew, so too did her disconnect with these elements of the business. Diana began to desire a return to the fresh and small. That led to the creation of her latest venture, Inner Beach.
“Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person. The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.”
“I started Inner Beach in the spring of 2021, months after retiring from Balzac’s, because I wanted to build a community and bring the laid-back energy of beach culture to everyone at a time when they need a way to escape their day-to-day and destress and relax,” she notes.
The result is a thriving omni-channel business — with a stand-alone store near the shores of Port Credit, Ontario, and online presence at innerbeach.com — full of boho-chic finds. Integrated into the experience is a partnership with Swim Drink Fish, a charity with a goal of cleaning up Canadian shorelines to protect swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone.
Launching an entirely new retail brand during a pandemic came with unique challenges. Diana leaned on technologies she had used at Balzac’s to create an online sales channel, and she turned to social media to source suppliers. “Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person,” she says. “The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.”
Even the vintage products carried in the store were found through a combination of virtual and live thrifting events, as well as auction sites. Embracing a hybrid model of online and in-person — which she’s used from sourcing to sellingChas led to success.
Today, Diana says she feels a renewed passion for the work she does; she’s reconnected to her start-up roots and her ability to be creative. While she acknowledges some may think her move to leave a successful brand to launch something new is risky, she doesn’t let their thoughts phase her.
“Being an entrepreneur is risky. You want to stand out and you want to be unique, but sometimes in the back of your mind you’re thinking, should I be doing this?” she says. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you feel you need a change, tune into your intuition. You have to keep pushing and being forward thinking. You have to remain resilient and do what works for you.”
“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day.”
She adds all entrepreneurs should remember that advice or the unsolicited thoughts of others should always be taken with a grain of salt. You will know your business best, and just because someone advises you of something doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s great to have a trusted mentor to lean on and bounce ideas off of, but you can’t let them knock your confidence or confuse your instincts.
“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day,” she says.
Diana’s last piece of advice for anyone who is looking to make a career shift during this time is to make sure the move is calculated. She reiterates she still loved Balzac’s when she left, but knew it was time to challenge herself in a different way and to take a smart risk.
“I’ve failed over the course of my career. But I know you have to make mistakes along the way to learn and grow. Any entrepreneur is going to make mistakes. You’re going to be completely convinced of something and then you’re going to realize you’re wrong,” she says. “Just remember: there will be plenty of times you’re right. You can’t let fear stop you. Know when something is no longer working for you. Tap into your intuition. Take risks. All of this is way better than not having the confidence to try something new.”
En tant que vice-présidente, Clients – Diversité à BDC, Laura Didyk dirige les efforts de la banque visant à comprendre et à relever les défis auxquels sont confrontés les entrepreneurs sous-représentés et mal desservis, qu’ils soient racialisés, qu’ils s’identifient comme femmes, qu’ils s’identifient comme membres de la communauté LGBTQIA2S+, qu’ils vivent avec un handicap ou qu’ils aient une combinaison de ces identités. Elle présente leurs parcours dans le cadre d’entrevues, et ce mois-ci, elle reçoit Lise Birikundavyi, directrice et gestionnaire de fonds de Black Innovation Capital.
Au Canada, moins d’un fonds de capital de risque sur dix est géré par une femme. En ce qui concerne les fonds soutenus par du capital institutionnel, on trouve une seule femme noire aux commandes : il s’agit de Lise Birikundavyi. Elle est directrice et gestionnaire de fonds de Black Innovation Capital, un fonds de capital de risque de 10 millions de dollars, soutenu par BDC Capital et lancé en juin 2021, qui investit dans des entreprises technologiques en démarrage dirigées par des Noirs.
Avant de prendre la barre de Black Innovation Capital, Lise a travaillé dans le domaine de la finance internationale pour plusieurs institutions. Elle a grandi à Montréal, mais son parcours l’a menée en Argentine, en Chine, au Ghana, en Côte d’Ivoire et à Toronto (ce qui fait en sorte qu’elle puisse s’exprimer en français, en anglais, en espagnol et un peu en mandarin). Au fil de ses études et de sa carrière, elle a orienté son travail vers l’entrepreneuriat social et l’investissement d’impact.
Lise croit fermement à la possibilité de mettre à profit les forces des marchés de capitaux pour générer une richesse plus inclusive et réduire la pauvreté de façon durable. J’ai rencontré Lise pour en savoir plus sur son impressionnant parcours, qui a abouti au récent lancement de Black Innovation Capital.
Laura : Vous avez consacré une grande partie de votre carrière à la finance à but social. Quel a été le point de départ de ce cheminement?
Lise : Tout a commencé lorsque je suis retournée au Burundi pour la première fois, à 18 ans. J’ai grandi à Montréal, mais je suis née là-bas. C’est un pays qui a connu son lot de problèmes, notamment la pauvreté, la guerre civile et les difficultés d’accès à l’éducation. Je ne savais pas à quoi m’attendre en arrivant, mais j’ai été émerveillée par la beauté du pays et l’intelligence de ses habitants.
J’ai été également frappée par le fait que pour la plupart des gens la réussite passe par le travail dans une organisation internationale. Il y avait très peu d’entreprises locales alors que les opportunités semblaient multiples. Lorsque que je réfléchissais avec amis et cousins sur des compagnies qui pourraient voir le jour et régler certains problèmes, on me répondait souvent « c’est une bonne idée, tu devrais créer cela » ou « Oui, pourquoi tu ne viendrais pas commencer cette initiative? ». Et je me disais toujours : « Mais, je ne vis pas ici,pourquoi ne le faites-vous pas? ». Je me suis rendu compte de fil en aiguille que l’aide humanitaire avait son rôle à jouer, de façon bien involontaire, dans la diminution de l’esprit entrepreneurial.
“J’ai réalisé qu’il s’agissait là d’une véritable autonomisation, qui soutenait la création de modèles dans différentes sociétés en donnant aux populations vulnérables les moyens de bâtir leurs propres solutions.”
Quelques années plus tard, pendant mon séjour en Argentine, j’ai découvert la notion d’entrepreneuriat social. J’ai lu Comment changer le monde : Les entrepreneurs sociaux et le pouvoir des idées nouvelles de David Bornstein et j’ai commencé à me renseigner sur l’entrepreneuriat et sur la microfinance. Cette idée de pouvoir faire le bien tout en renforçant les capacités et en gagnant de l’argent m’a plu. J’ai réalisé qu’il s’agissait là d’une véritable autonomisation, qui soutenait la création de modèles dans différentes sociétés en donnant aux populations vulnérables les moyens de bâtir leurs propres solutions. Cela aurait ensuite un effet d’entraînement au sein de leurs communautés, sans que personne ne se sente redevable puisque le bénéfice financier serait partagé.
Laura : C’est génial. Je sais que vous avez commencé votre carrière dans les fonds spéculatifs. Comment vous êtes-vous ensuite orientée vers l’investissement d’impact?
Lise : J’ai adoré travailler dans le monde des fonds de couverture, mais je savais que je pouvais faire quelque chose de plus, sans pour autant savoir comment accéder au domaine du développement avec cette perspective d’autonomisation. Une amie m’a parlé de l’investissement d’impact, puis j’ai commencé à me joindre à un groupe de femmes du secteur bancaire à Montréal qui organisait régulièrement des événements pour en parler et réfléchir à la façon dont nous pourrions développer ce concept au Canada.
J’ai décidé de m’engager dans la voie de l’investissement d’impact en m’intéressant aux marchés émergents. J’ai fait mon MBA à Shanghai avec trois objectifs en tête : apprendre le mandarin, créer un réseau solide et mieux comprendre la relation entre la Chine et l’Afrique. Tout ce que j’ai fait là-bas tournait autour de l’investissement d’impact, et j’en ai profité pour élaborer soigneusement mes prochaines actions.
Au début, je me suis concentrée sur les marchés émergents dans une perspective de développement. L’objectif était de faire en sorte que d’énormes problèmes puissent être résolus en donnant aux gens les moyens de le faire, tout en générant des revenus aux fonds pour lesquels je travaillais à l’époque.
Laura : Qu’avez-vous fait après votre passage à Shanghai?
Lise : Je suis revenue en Amérique du Nord. Puis, lorsque je suis tombée enceinte de mon premier fils, j’ai décidé d’aller vivre au Ghana pour y travailler pendant mon congé de maternité. J’avais toujours voulu vivre sur le continent africain et je supposais, naïvement, que je m’ennuierais en restant à la maison avec un bébé. J’étais prête pour une nouvelle aventure et je voulais poursuivre mon travail de sensibilisation. Au Ghana, j’ai appuyé Ingénieurs sans frontières, Canada. Nous avons trouvé une communauté là-bas et ce fut une belle expérience. Nous avons ensuite passé trois ans en Côte d’Ivoire, sur la côte sud de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, où je gérais un fonds de technologies éducatives pour la Jacobs Foundation.
Laura : Et ensuite, vous avez créé Black Innovation Capital. Comment avez-vous eu cette idée?
Lise : Lorsque j’ai décidé de me lancer dans cette aventure avec Isaac Olowolafe pour fonder Black Innovation Capital, cela me semblait similaire au travail que j’avais fait auparavant, bien qu’il s’agisse d’un marché complètement différent. Je travaillais auprès d’une population extrêmement talentueuse qui ne reçoit pas le financement qu’elle devrait, en vue de l’aider à créer de la richesse pouvant être réinvestie au sein de leur communauté. Pour nous, avec le Black Innovation Fund, il ne s’agit pas d’une communauté en opposition à une autre, mais plutôt d’une incitation à une plus grande participation de toutes les communautés au secteur du capital de risque. Il est question de diversité et d’inclusion, et de la contribution de chacun à un meilleur système.
Le fait que BDC soit devenue notre investisseur principal a eu une contribution importante à la création du fonds. Nous avons apprécié l’expérience et le soutien que nous avons reçus, particulièrement au niveau de l’aide apportée aux nouveaux gestionnaires de fonds. Nous avons officiellement lancé le fonds le 7 juin de cette année et sommes actuellement en train de négocier nos premiers investissements.
Laura : Quelle est la vision de Black Innovation Capital? Qu’est-ce qui le distingue des autres fonds de capital de risque?
Lise : Nos objectifs sont de contribuer à la création d’entreprises technologiques dirigées par des Noirs, d’offrir un rendement supérieur à nos investisseurs et d’accroître la diversité dans l’écosystème du capital de risque. Globalement, notre thème principal est donc la diversité.
Toute entreprise dans laquelle nous investissons doit comprendre au moins 25 % d’actionnariat ou de cadres dirigeants noirs et être une entreprise technologique en phase de démarrage. Nous nous attendons à ce que les équipes viennent d’horizons divers, car même au sein des communautés noires, on observe généralement des origines et des perspectives riches et diversifiées.
“Jusqu’à présent, nous avons constaté une résilience intrinsèque au sein des entreprises que nous examinons. Beaucoup d’entre elles ont eu de la difficulté à trouver des financements et ont dû faire preuve d’une grande créativité pour en arriver là où elles en sont aujourd’hui.”
Jusqu’à présent, nous avons constaté une résilience intrinsèque au sein des entreprises que nous examinons. Beaucoup d’entre elles ont eu de la difficulté à trouver des financements et ont dû faire preuve d’une grande créativité pour en arriver là où elles en sont aujourd’hui. Nous voyons également beaucoup de produits et de services inclusifs, qui résolvent les problèmes sous différents angles et perspectives. Et c’est exactement ce que nous recherchons : des entreprises en démarrage qui font les choses différemment, qui répondent à des besoins qui ne sont pas actuellement satisfaits et qui apportent de sérieuses améliorations à des concepts déjà existants.
Laura : Alors, le Black Innovation Capital est-il un fonds d’investissement à impact?
Lise : Pour moi, l’investissement d’impact consiste à faire le bien tout en ayant un retour sur investissement qui soit positif. Bien que Black Innovation Capital ne soit pas à proprement parler un fonds d’impact, il a néanmoins un impact qui me tient à cœur. Je comprends ce que c’est que d’avoir l’impression de devoir travailler plus dur que les autres, de ne pas être évalué selon les mêmes critères et de ne pas avoir le droit à l’erreur. En créant des outils qui aident à la création de richesse ou à l’autonomisation en général, je rêve d’un monde où nous n’aurons pas à avoir de telles conversations avec nos enfants et où la diversité deviendra la norme. Pour moi, c’est ça le véritable impact.
Laura : Le financement par capital de risque convient-il à tout le monde? Qu’en est-il des autres options pour les entrepreneurs noirs, comme les prêts?
Lise : C’est formidable de voir émerger davantage de soutien pour les entrepreneurs noirs, comme le Programme de démarrage pour entrepreneur.es noir.es ou le Fonds de prêts pour l’entrepreneuriat des communautés noires. Ces deux programmes offrent un financement et un mentorat, ce qui constitue une combinaison importante pour la croissance d’une entreprise. Le choix entre un programme de ce type, l’octroi de prêts, ou l’investissement en capital de risque dépend vraiment de l’entrepreneur et de son entreprise, car les deux sont assortis de conditions différentes et répondent à des besoins différents.
Quand notre fonds investit dans une entreprise, nous devenons actionnaires et donc un partenaire d’affaires. Nous nous rendons disponible afin que l’entrepreneur puisse nous appeler pour obtenir de l’aide lorsqu’elle ne sait pas quelle décision prendre. Nous restons présents sur le long terme car nous sommes des partenaires de croissance et nous assumons le risque avec l’entrepreneur.
Il est important d’obtenir des conseils pour déterminer quel est le meilleur modèle de financement pour chacun.
Laura : Nous savons que les entrepreneurs noirs ont de la difficulté à trouver des capitaux et des modèles inspirants. Quels sont, selon vous, les facteurs à l’origine de cette situation et comment envisagez-vous d’y remédier?
Lise : Les raisons pour lesquelles les entreprises appartenant à des Noirs obtiennent disproportionnellement moins de capitaux sont nombreuses. Il est important de reconnaître que les préjugés inconscients existent dans tous les domaines, y compris dans celui de l’investissement. Les gens ont tendance à faire confiance à des personnes et à des concepts qu’ils connaissent bien, donc ne prennent pas toujours des décisions sur la base de leurs valeurs, de leur expérience ou d’une solide analyse de rentabilité.
Nous avons également souvent vu des programmes de mentorat qui ne sont pas assortis d’un accès au capital. Or, le succès repose sur la combinaison de ces deux éléments. Nous nous efforçons de résoudre ce problème de mentorat excessif et de sous-investissement.
“L’objectif est de changer la perspective des jeunes générations et de leur faire voir qu’il leur est possible de faire tout ce à quoi elles aspirent.”
On observe aussi parfois un manque de sensibilisation des entrepreneurs qui ne savent pas où ni comment trouver du soutient. Les communautés d’investissement sont cloisonnées et manquent souvent de diversité. Cela peut entraîner un manque de confiance chez certains entrepreneurs noirs. Même s’ils ont une bonne idée, ils ne croient pas nécessairement qu’elle intéressera d’autres personnes.
Ainsi, le fait qu’Isaac et moi représentions un homme noir et une femme noire à la tête de cette initiative nous positionne comme un reflet de la population qu’on souhaite servir. L’objectif est de changer la perspective des jeunes générations et de leur faire voir qu’il leur est possible de faire tout ce à quoi elles aspirent. Nous investirons dans des entreprises qui finiront par connaître un franc succès et leurs dirigeants deviendront des modèles de réussite pour leurs communautés.
Lise : Mon conseil est tout simplement d’oser, de se concentrer sur son objectif et de connaître sa valeur. Beaucoup de femmes noires sont audacieuses, elles n’ont pas peur d’être plus fortes et d’aller là où elles ne devraient pas être. Donc c’est de garder cet esprit car nous n’avons rien à perdre. Je crois que nous devons apprendre à nos filles à s’instruire continuellement, à ne jamais avoir peur d’exprimer une opinion si elle est fondée sur la vérité, même si elle semble impopulaire, et à saisir les possibilités qui se présentent. Ce n’est pas parce que nous avons peu de modèles de réussite qui nous ressemblent dans un certain domaine que nous devons nous imposer des limites. Finalement, ne pas oublier de soutenir les autres tout au long du chemin!
Laura : Dans cinq ans, qu’envisagez-vous pour le Black Innovation Fund?
Lise : J’aimerais voir beaucoup d’exemples de réussite, pour les entreprises dans lesquelles nous investissons, pour nous-mêmes et, surtout, pour le secteur du capital de risque en général. Nous nous efforçons également de modifier l’optique d’investissement en formant des professionnels noirs dans le domaine de l’investissement qui travailleront dans l’écosystème du capital de risque afin de renforcer la diversité au niveau de la prise de décision. Nous espérons que cette tendance devienne la norme, à la fois dans les entreprises qui recherchent des fonds d’investissement et dans celles qui réalisent ces investissements. Dans cinq ans, j’espère voir des fonds de plus grande taille pour les initiatives dirigées par des personnes issues de communautés diverses dans le domaine du capital-investissement et du capital de risque. J’espère que 15 à 20 ans plus tard, ces fonds n’existeront plus, parce qu’ils ne seront plus nécessaires et que la diversité fera partie du quotidien.
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 Lise Birikundavyi, principal & fund manager for Black Innovation Capital.
In Canada, fewer than one in ten venture funds have a woman as a managing partner. Narrow that down to Black women and institutionally-backed funds, and there’s only one: Lise Birikundavyi. She is principal & fund manager for Black Innovation Capital, a $10 million VC fund that invests in Black-led tech start-ups, backed by BDC Capital, and launched in June 2021.
Before taking the helm at Black Innovation Capital, Lise worked in finance internationally for a number of institutions. Raised in Montreal, her journey has taken her to Argentina, China, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and back to Toronto (picking up French, English, Spanish, and a bit of Mandarin along the way). Through her education and career, she’s steered her work towards social entrepreneurship and impact investing.
Lise is a firm believer in using the forces of capital markets as a basis for the more inclusive wealth creation and sustainable poverty alleviation. I caught up with Lise to discuss her impressive journey, culminating in the recent launch of Black Innovation Capital.
Laura: You’ve focused a lot of your career on finance with a social purpose. How did you get started down this path?
Lise: It started when I was 18 and went back to Burundi for the first time — I grew up in Montreal, but I was born there. It’s a country that’s had its share of issues; poverty, civil unrest, and access to education are some of the main ones. I didn’t know what I’d find when I arrived, but I was amazed by the beauty of the country and the intellect of the people.
One thing that really struck me is that most people’s idea of success meant working at a large institution or at an international organization. There weren’t many locally owned businesses. When I talked with people about their entrepreneurship ideas, they would always say, “you should start one,” or “you should do it.” And I kept thinking, I don’t live here,why don’t you do it? I realized that an unintended consequence of humanitarian aid was that it was weakening the entrepreneurial spirit.
“I realized that this was real empowerment — supporting the creation of role models in different societies by giving them the means to build something on their own which would then have a ripple effect in their communities.”
A few years later in Argentina, I stumbled upon the idea of social entrepreneurship. I found the book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein and began learning about microfinance. I liked the idea of doing good while building capacity and making money. I realized that this was real empowerment — supporting the creation of role models in different societies by giving them the means to build something on their own which would then have a ripple effect in their communities, without anyone feeling indebted as the financial benefit would be shared.
Laura: I love that. I know you started out working in hedge funds, though — how did you steer your career into impact investing?
Lise: I loved working in the hedge fund world but I knew there was something more I could be doing, I just didn’t know how to enter the development space from an empowerment perspective. A good friend started talking to me about impact investing, and I began to meet with a group of women bankers in Montreal organising regular events to talk about what it was and exploring how we could develop it in Canada.
I decided I would try to create my own pathway in impact investing with an outlook for emerging markets. I went on to do my MBA in Shanghai with three goals: to learn Mandarin, to create a strong network, and to understand the China-Africa relationship. Everything I did there was around impact investing, and I took the opportunity to carefully craft my next steps.
At the beginning, my focus was emerging markets with a development outlook. The goal was to make sure huge problems could be solved by empowering people to solve them, while making money for the fund I was working for at the time.
Laura: What came next for you after Shanghai?
Lise: I came back to North America, but when I got pregnant with my first son, I decided we should go live and work in Ghana. I had always wanted to experience living on the African continent and I assumed, naïvely, that I would get bored staying home with a baby. I was up for another adventure and wanted to continue my impact work. In Ghana, I worked supporting Engineers Without Borders, Canada. We found a community there and it was a beautiful experience. We then spent three years in Côte d’Ivoire, a country located on the south coast of West Africa, where I was managing an edtech fund for the Jacobs Foundation.
Laura: And then your next step was Black Innovation Capital. How did that come about?
Lise: When I decided to start this adventure with Isaac Olowolafe to found Black Innovation Capital, it felt similar to the work I had done in Africa — despite it being a completely different market. The fund was about economic empowerment, working with a population that is not receiving the funding it should, and wanting to help them create wealth that can be reinvested in the community. For us, it’s not about one community versus another, it’s about the greater participation of all communities in the VC space. It’s about diversity and inclusion and everyone contributing to a better system.
Having BDC come on as our anchor investor really helped to bring the fund together; we’ve loved the experience and the support we’ve received in everything from working out the funding model to facilitating first time fund managers. We launched officially June 7 of this year, and are currently in negotiations for our first investments.
Laura: What’s the vision for Black Innovation Capital? What sets it apart from other VC funds?
Lise: Our hope is to help build successful Black-led tech businesses, deliver returns to our investors, and increase the diversity in the venture capital ecosystem. So overall, our main theme is diversity.
Any business we invest in must be Black-led — that’s at least 25% of ownership or executive management — and an early-stage tech company. We expect the teams will come from various backgrounds, because within Black communities you tend to see many different backgrounds and perspectives.
“So far, what we’re finding among the companies we’re looking at is this embedded resilience. Many have had a hard time finding financing and have had to be really creative to get to where they are at now.”
So far, what we’re finding among the companies we’re looking at is this embedded resilience. Many have had a hard time finding financing and have had to be really creative to get to where they are at now. We are also seeing a lot of inclusive products and services, solving problems from different angles and perspectives. And that’s exactly what we’re looking for: start-ups that are doing things differently, addressing needs that aren’t currently being met, and bringing about serious improvements to concepts that already exist.
Laura: So, is Black Innovation Capital an impact fund?
Lise: To me, impact investing is doing good while doing well — making money while creating a positive change in society. While Black Innovation Capital isn’t technically an impact fund, it does have an impact that’s very close to my heart. I understand what it is to feel like you have to work harder than the rest, that you’re not measured against the same standards and making a mistake is not an option. In creating tools that are helping with wealth creation or empowerment in general, I dream of a world where we don’t have to have these conversations with our children. Where diversity becomes the norm. To me, that’s the real impact.
Laura: Is VC funding right for everyone? What about other options for Black entrepreneurs, like loans?
Lise: It’s great to see more support emerging for Black entrepreneurs, such as the Black Entrepreneurship Startup Program or Black Entrepreneur Loan Fund. Both offer funding and mentorship which is an important combination for growing your business. Choosing between a program like these, extending loans, or VC investment really depends on you and your business — because both come with different terms and serve different needs.
One of the biggest differences between venture capital and a loan is the loan is paid back on set terms. With venture capital, we mainly use equity, which means that we invest in your company and our return on investment generally depends on how well your company does, so the kind of partnership you have with a VC fund can often be a bit more hands-on. We’d expect you to call us for support when you don’t know what decision to make. We’re there for the long run, we’re partners in growth, and we really take the risk along with you.
In any instance, what is most important is to get advice to determine what is the best financing model for you and your business.
Laura: We know that Black entrepreneurs struggle to secure capital and find role models. What do you see as some of the issues causing this, and how do you hope to address them?
Lise: There are many reasons Black-owned businesses aren’t getting capital. It’s important to recognize that unconscious bias exists everywhere, including in investing. People typically invest in individuals and concepts they are familiar with, not always based on their values, experience or a sound business case.
What we often see are mentorship programs that don’t come with access to capital. To be successful, you need both. We’re trying to solve this issue of over-mentoring and under-investing.
“From a role model perspective, it’s really nice that Isaac and I represent a Black man and a Black woman leading this initiative. The goal is to change the perspective for younger generations and make them see that it is possible for them to do whatever they decide to do.”
On the part of the entrepreneurs, there is also sometimes a lack of awareness — they don’t know where to go for help. The investment communities are siloed and often lack diversity. That can lead to a lack of confidence for some Black entrepreneurs. Even if they have a good idea, they don’t necessarily believe others will be interested in it.
From a role model perspective, it’s really nice that Isaac and I represent a Black man and a Black woman leading this initiative. The goal is to change the perspective for younger generations and make them see that it is possible for them to do whatever they decide to do. We will be investing in companies that will eventually create massive success stories, and those leaders will become models of success as well.
Lise: My advice is simply to be daring, laser-focused, and know your value. A lot of Black women are actually fearless, not afraid to be louder and go where they should not be. Many feel they have nothing to lose. I want us to teach our daughters to educate themselves, to never be afraid to express an opinion if rooted in truth, even when it seems unpopular, and to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Just because we haven’t seen many others who look like us be successful in a certain field, it doesn’t mean we should put limits on ourselves. And, be sure to support others along the way!
Laura: In five years from now, what do you envision for the Black Innovation Fund?
Lise: I’d like to see a lot of success stories, for the companies we invest in, for ourselves, and as importantly for the VC space in general. We’re also working to shift the investing lens by training Black investment managers who will be placed in the VC ecosystem to help create more diversity at the decision making level. We hope for that to be the norm — more diversity not only in the companies seeking investment dollars but in those making the investments. In five years, my hope is to see larger size funds for Black-led or BIPOC-led initiatives in the private equity and venture capital space. In 15-20 years, I hope they no longer exist because they won’t be needed anymore — that diversity will be business as usual.
Jen Lee Koss is an entrepreneur and investor, passionate about supporting, uplifting, and making a change in the lives of entrepreneurs and working families. A graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and Harvard Business School, Jen has worked in the consumer and retail sectors for most of her career. Before launching BRIKA, a business focused on helping businesses with innovative, curated retail experiences in 2012, Jen worked in the management, consulting, investment banking, and private equity spaces. Alongside her work with BRIKA, Jen is a Founding Partner of Springbank Collective, an organization that invests in early-stage companies that are re-imagining work, building the care infrastructure, and creating solutions for working families — with a goal of a more inclusive future.
My first job ever was… as a House Manager atThe American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. I was responsible for making sure the shows started on time and that the audience was taken care of!
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… if I look back at the trajectory of my education and career, I have always had big ideas and executed them. For example, I founded my University’s first conductorless orchestra (which still exists today!). When I left my finance career to start BRIKA, I was craving a more creative path in life.
I co-founded BRIKA because… I met the right person to start the business with. When I met my co-founder Kena, I knew she had the right experience and skillset that was complementary to my own, and that we would make a great team.
I co-founded Springbank Collective because… in my role with BRIKA, I have been privy to working and partnering with thousands of small businesses, of which the majority are women-founded, run, and owned. I have understood firsthand how difficult it is to work and raise a family at the same time (I have four young children under the age of 10), so, in many ways, I have always felt passionate about gender equality issues, but didn’t know how or what I could do to make a change. With my founding partners, Courtney and Elana, I knew that the thesis we came up with was a large enough platform to make a difference. We believe the gender gap can’t be siloed as a “women’s issue” — it is an infrastructure gap and a massive, overlooked opportunity.Weinvest in the tools and services to support working women and working families across the categories of care, career, and household consumer, irrespective of the founders’ gender.
“There’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.”
My biggest setback was… not being able to accept what I considered my “dream job,” due to a Visa issue that I had overlooked. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world, but in hindsight, I may not have ever started my entrepreneurial journey.
I overcame it by… accepting it was completely my fault and focusing on the next thing ahead.
One misconception about social enterprises is… that it’s not big business. You can make an impact and a return at the same time.
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs with a social mission is… there’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.
The thing I love most about what I do is… meeting and connecting with new people.
One tangible way you can make your everyday spending more impactful is… putting your money where your mouth is. Go out of your way to support your local businesses and small makers because when you do, you’re supporting a dream.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… the people with whom I have had the privilege of working with. I have worked with some of the best, hardest working, most inspiring individuals out there who believe in supporting talented founders and businesses.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I played Division I lacrosse in college for four years.
I stay inspired by… my kids. They are 10, nine, six, and four, and have completely different personalities and interests. I love the lens from which they look at the world, and how their brains work as they learn.
The future excites me because… there is still so much to do, but also so much that can be done to make lives better for the generations ahead. The onus is on us to change the gender equality equation for our kids!
Les entrepreneurs sont parmi les plus forts agents de changement dans nos communautés, et comptent également parmi les plus inspirants. Grâce à leur cran, leur ténacité, leur passion et leurs compétences, ils créent une entreprise à partir d’une vision.
Je suis fière d’avoir passé les 26 dernières années de ma carrière à travailler avec des entrepreneurs à BDC. Depuis plus de 75 ans, BDC reste une institution financière dédiée aux entrepreneurs exploitant des petites et moyennes entreprises. Nous ne nous contentons pas de fournir du financement, des conseils, des outils et des ressources, nous établissons également des relations significatives avec nos clients afin de leur offrir un service à valeur ajoutée.
Au cours de toutes ces années, j’ai pu moi-même constater que le parcours d’un entrepreneur est jalonné de réussites, d’obstacles et de quelques revirements. J’ai également appris que l’accès au financement, aux conseils commerciaux et à un réseau de soutien peut être particulièrement difficile à trouver pour les entrepreneurs mal desservis.
« Notre engagement est d’écouter et d’apprendre, en travaillant avec nos équipes internes et nos partenaires externes pour comprendre ces défis uniques en se fondant sur la recherche, des conversations et des données. »
Que signifie le terme « entrepreneur mal desservi »? Ces entrepreneurs sont souvent membres de communautés marginalisées; ils peuvent être racialisés, s’identifier en tant que femmes ou en tant que membres de la communauté LGBTQIA2S+, vivre avec un handicap, ou exister dans une combinaison de ces identités. Souvent, ces entrepreneurs sont confrontés à davantage d’obstacles au départ lorsqu’il s’agit de créer ou de développer une entreprise, et ces défis ont été exacerbés par la pandémie.
Conscients de ces défis, nous avons travaillé à l’élaboration d’une approche inclusive et efficace de la diversité des clients. Notre engagement est d’écouter et d’apprendre, en travaillant avec nos équipes internes et nos partenaires externes pour comprendre ces défis uniques en se fondant sur la recherche, des conversations et des données. Ensuite, nous développerons des solutions produisant des résultats tangibles et mesurables.
Toute la banque est engagée dans la mise en œuvre de cette stratégie. Ses cinq directeurs régionaux m’aident à mener la charge, chacun se concentrant sur un segment de clientèle précis. Ces cinq personnes ont des idées, des connaissances et des expériences diverses à transmettre, ainsi qu’une passion pour aider les entrepreneurs à atteindre leur plein potentiel et à prospérer dans tous les aspects de leurs activités.
Je vous présente Monica, Brooke, Chelsea, David et Nancy qui forment l’équipe d’experts en diversité de la clientèle avec laquelle j’ai le plaisir de travailler pour rendre le financement des entrepreneurs canadiens plus équitable.
« Tous les entrepreneurs méritent l’espace et le temps nécessaires pour partager leurs succès et leurs difficultés, en particulier ceux qui sont mal desservis. »
La diversité et l’inclusion font partie intégrante de tout ce que je fais à BDC. Depuis que j’ai rejoint la banque, en 2003, je me suis profondément investie dans le soutien et l’orientation des entrepreneurs autochtones, dans l’atteinte de leurs objectifs et dans la célébration de leurs réalisations. Officiellement, je dirige la stratégie nationale de la Banque qui répond aux besoins des entrepreneurs autochtones, afin qu’ils puissent surmonter les obstacles, se développer et prospérer. Je suis également la responsable autochtone de la stratégie interne de BDC pour honorer l’appel à l’action 92 de la Commission de vérité et de réconciliation.
En tant que fière femme crie de la Nation des Cris de Peter Ballantyne et ayant été élevée dans le nord du Manitoba, mes efforts s’inspirent de mon expérience personnelle. Je comprends les défis uniques auxquels sont confrontés de nombreux entrepreneurs autochtones des régions rurales et éloignées. Je sais également ce qu’il faut pour que les règles du jeu soient responsables et équitables dans le domaine de l’entrepreneuriat et de la finance, et je suis déterminé à faire en sorte que tous les entrepreneurs aient accès aux outils et aux ressources dont ils ont besoin pour réussir en affaires.
Tous les entrepreneurs méritent l’espace et le temps nécessaires pour partager leurs succès et leurs difficultés, en particulier ceux qui sont mal desservis. J’ai appris que la meilleure façon d’avoir une influence est de croire en leur capacité à réussir, de les aider à développer leur activité, de les soutenir en achetant leurs produits et services, et de créer de la visibilité en promouvant leurs marques auprès des autres.
« Moi-même chef d’entreprise, je comprends le stress qui peut résulter du lancement et de la croissance d’une entreprise. »
Je suis passionnée par le soutien aux femmes propriétaires d’entreprises tout au long de leur parcours professionnel, et j’ai rejoint BDC en 2017 avec cet objectif précis. Je combine également près de deux décennies d’expérience dans le soutien aux organisations en matière de planification stratégique et de réalisation de changements.
Si vous êtes entrepreneur et que vous vous sentez stressé, j’ai deux conseils à vous donner. Premier conseil : bougez! Des formes d’exercice plus douces, comme la marche, peuvent vous aider à rassembler vos idées et à faire le plein d’énergie, en plus de faciliter la digestion. Deuxième conseil, réservez du temps à la fin de chaque semaine pour passer en revue vos revenus et vos dépenses de la semaine, et prévoyez ce qui se passera dans 13 semaines. C’est un moyen tangible de développer votre intuition avec les chiffres (pour tous ceux qui doutent de leur acuité financière, sachez que vous pouvez acquérir une compétence en la mettant en pratique). Si l’on considère que la trésorerie est la source de stress la plus souvent mentionnée par les propriétaires d’entreprise, c’est un excellent moyen de favoriser la tranquillité d’esprit.
« J’ai été à la fois la personne la plus jeune et la seule personne noire dans de nombreux rôles, et je comprends les difficultés et les défis que représente le fait de se retrouver dans des espaces majoritairement blancs. »
L’autonomisation et la mobilisation des jeunes, des femmes et des entrepreneurs issus de la diversité est la passion qui m’habite. Je crois en l’entrepreneuriat équitable et j’ai choisi cette voie pour pouvoir aider le plus grand nombre possible d’entrepreneurs, en particulier ceux issus de communautés mal desservies, à créer une richesse générationnelle et à faire tomber les barrières systémiques. J’ai un parcours professionnel et entrepreneurial éclectique, et je possède seize ans de leadership dans l’engagement civique.
En tant que femme d’origine afro-caribéenne, fille d’un chef d’entreprise et d’un entrepreneur en série, j’ai vu et vécu ce que c’est que de diriger une entreprise en tant que personne de couleur. J’ai été à la fois la personne la plus jeune et la seule personne noire dans de nombreux rôles, et je comprends les difficultés et les défis que représente le fait de se retrouver dans des espaces majoritairement blancs. Je sais ce que l’on ressent quand on ne s’intègre pas et que l’on doit « changer de code » pour s’en sortir. En outre, je comprends que l’accès au financement et aux réseaux constitue un obstacle important pour de nombreux entrepreneurs noirs, ainsi que pour d’autres communautés marginalisées par le système. Dans mon rôle, je veux aider ces propriétaires d’entreprise à naviguer dans l’écosystème complexe de l’entrepreneuriat, en veillant à ce qu’ils soient conscients des ressources à leur disposition, de la manière d’obtenir le financement et des nouvelles possibilités qu’offre le marché pour les aider à développer leur entreprise. Il est temps que tout le monde s’assoie à la table.
Ce qui me motive chaque jour, c’est de construire un avenir meilleur et équitable pour mes jumeaux, Justice et Freedom. Je veux qu’ils vivent dans un monde où ils sont jugés sur le contenu de leur caractère et non sur leurs origines. Je veux que leur avenir soit sans limites. Je suis fière de faire partied’une organisation qui me permet d’être un agent du changement et d’égaliser les chances pour un si grand nombre de personnes.
« Grâce à cette représentation, j’ai été plus à même de croire qu’en tant que minorité visible, je peux occuper une position d’influence. En étant visible, j’espère montrer à tous les entrepreneurs issus de la diversité qu’ils sont compris et qu’ils sont soutenus. »
Directeur Régionale, Clients- Diversité,
North Vancouver, BC
L’esprit d’entreprise, c’est une histoire de famille. J’ai moi-même été entrepreneur, et mon épouse et sa mère, deux femmes influentes dans ma vie, sont toutes deux propriétaires d’entreprises. Bien qu’elles aient bénéficié du soutien généreux de leurs clients respectifs, elles ont malheureusement été confrontées, en tant que femmes d’origine asiatique, à la discrimination en tant que minorité visible.
Dans le cas de ma belle-mère, il s’agissait de l’histoire typique d’une immigrante, avec les obstacles supplémentaires d’une nouvelle langue, le manque de fonds et de connaissances financières, sans compter l’absence de réseau et une compréhension limitée de l’écosystème commercial. De plus, elle avait une famille à faire vivre. Obligée de compter sur sa jeune fille pour interagir avec les institutions, elle évitait souvent de chercher du soutien, car personne ne la comprenait vraiment. Elle rappelait fréquemment à ses enfants l’importance de travailler dur et de persévérer. Le fait de voir quelqu’un en position d’autorité et de leadership qui lui ressemble l’aurait rassurée et lui aurait donné confiance pour développer son entreprise.
Pourquoi est-ce que je crois que cela aurait pu aider à soulager l’anxiété et le stress de ma belle-mère, qui luttait pour développer son entreprise? Au début de ma carrière bancaire, j’ai fait l’expérience du pouvoir des modèles visibles. J’ai passé un entretien d’embauche avec quelqu’un qui me ressemblait et, bien que je ne l’aie pas consciemment réalisé au début, cela m’a donné confiance et inspiré. Grâce à cette représentation, j’ai été plus à même de croire qu’en tant que minorité visible, je peux occuper une position d’influence. En étant visible, j’espère montrer à tous les entrepreneurs issus de la diversité qu’ils sont compris et qu’ils sont soutenus.
« L’attention portée aux femmes a toujours fait partie intégrante des postes que j’ai occupés à la Banque, et je suis même allée jusqu’à accompagner des femmes entrepreneurs à plusieurs missions commerciales internationales. »
Lorsque je me suis jointe à BDC, il y a 10 ans, après avoir travaillé pendant plus de 15 ans dans le domaine du développement des marchés et du capital de risque, le mandat de l’organisation m’a interpellée, et j’étais ravie de pouvoir utiliser mon expérience et mon réseau pour accélérer le développement des entrepreneurs canadiens. Au cours des premiers mois, j’ai réalisé que les femmes entrepreneurs n’étaient pas à l’aise avec le financement et que la plupart d’entre elles ne savaient pas à quel point BDC était accessible. J’ai eu la chance de croiser la route de la présidente du Réseau des femmes d’affaires du Québec (RFAQ), qui mettait sur pied une merveilleuse initiative visant à développer les entreprises appartenant à des femmes en leur offrant la possibilité de travailler avec de grandes organisations.
À partir de ce moment-là, j’ai eu la piqure et j’ai amorcé mon plus brillant parcours vers l’inclusion, en mettant l’accent sur l’accessibilité pour les femmes. Je suis rapidement devenue présidente d’une grande initiative du RFAQ appelée Développement économique féminin (DEF), qui aide plus d’une douzaine de chefs d’entreprise influents, hommes et femmes, à accélérer et à accroître leur influence dans notre communauté d’affaires. Cette initiative m’a permis de nouer des liens incroyables avec les femmes chefs d’entreprise que j’ai rencontrées, et leurs histoires de réussite sont devenues mes points forts quotidiens, m’inspirant la certitude que je faisais une différence.
Depuis, je suis restée très active en participant à l’élaboration de la stratégie de BDC pour les femmes en entrepreneuriat, qui était déjà bien avancée avant même qu’elle ne devienne officiellement une priorité nationale. L’attention portée aux femmes a toujours fait partie intégrante des postes que j’ai occupés à la Banque, et je suis même allée jusqu’à accompagner des femmes entrepreneurs à plusieurs missions commerciales internationales pour m’assurer qu’elles se sentaient soutenues et habilitées à saisir toutes les occasions qui se présentaient à elles. Maintenant que mon influence s’est étendue à d’autres groupes sous-représentés, je suis très enthousiaste à l’idée de pouvoir reproduire et appliquer cette approche stimulante pour aider leurs entreprises à prospérer et à se développer.
Most of us can’t afford to have our name on a building, but the advice on the opposite end of the spectrum — building a legacy in non-financial terms — tends towards vague platitudes about a life well lived. If you want to do more than dance like nobody’s watching, but you aren’t sure how to get started, here are three steps you can take:
1. Start with a definition.
If you take it literally, you’ll find that the basic definition of legacy is “a gift by will, especially of money or other personal property” — but its meaning and use are a lot broader. To get clarity on how to leave your legacy, begin by ignoring ‘how’ and focusing on ‘why.’ Do you want your name and story to be remembered? Do you want to make an anonymous impact that lasts beyond your lifetime? Do you want to focus on your family, friends, and close community? Do you have a broader cause that you wish to support?
All these choices aren’t mutually exclusive — you can contribute to solving the climate crisis and leave behind a book of family recipes — but defining what your legacy means to you is the first step to taking action. Depending on your goals and what you consider most important, the way you allocate your resources to build your legacy will likely differ.
2. Figure out your resources.
It’s important to spend time on defining your goals because reaching them requires personal resources. That’s not just referring to money — your skills and talents, your time, and even your connections are resources, too. We all have a different mix, with one thing in common: these resources are limited, so how you choose to allocate them matters.
Start by asking yourself the question: “What can I offer?” You might find you’re able to set aside a portion of your income, or you can commit to a certain number of hours. Whether that money and time goes to charitable causes and writing your memoir, or helping pay for your child’s education and volunteering, is entirely up to you and how you define your legacy.
3. Find your avenues, with help.
Seeking out and selecting the method for leaving your legacy becomes a lot more manageable once you’re clear on the impact you hope to have and on what you have to offer— but you may still find countless options even after defining this criteria. Simplify the selection process by considering two more questions: Is it more important to see the impact in your lifetime, or leave a mark after you’re gone? Are your goals better served by continual habits, or singular actions?
There’s no wrong answer, and for you it might be a mix of all of the above. If you’re unsure, you can look to role models for inspiration — how are leading activists in the cause you’re passionate about making an impact, or how are people you admire leaving their legacy. You can also find experts to help guide you. For example, you can work with a wealth planner on your philanthropic efforts, whether you want to give directly to a cause or set up a private foundation.
Remember, your legacy is not a one-time financial transfer after your death, it’s an accumulation of all you’ve done in your life that leaves an impact. With that broader timeframe in mind, it’s easy to see that your goals and values, the resources you have, and even the avenues available to you will likely evolve. If you live with intention — guided by these three steps and revisiting them as you enter new life stages — your legacy will evolve and you’ll do a lot of good along the way.
If you’ve ever purposefully purchased an eco-friendly product, supported a local small business, or donated to a charitable cause, you already know that the dollars you spend can help build a better future, for your community and beyond.
Your investments can do the same thing — aligning with your values and having a positive impact — while still generating a return. There are a wide variety of approaches for sustainable investing, and deciding how to incorporate them depends on your goals and needs. We’re covering the basics of three similar but subtly different strategies — environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, socially responsible investing (SRI), and impact investing — to help you understand your options.
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Investing
As the name suggests, ESG investing uses a framework that takes into account three factors when selecting which companies to support: environmental (the effects on the earth), social (the impact on society), and governance (how the company is run). You can focus on one area or all three, and there are even themes within each — from alternative energy to women in leadership.
There are several companies that calculate and publish ESG scores for corporations, which makes it possible to consider a company’s ESG metrics as part of an investing decision, similar to how their performance would be evaluated. There’s no rule to say how much weight you should give to a company’s ESG score versus traditional financial analysis, but many investors consider both elements as part of their ESG investing strategy.
Socially Responsible Investing
While ESG provides an extra layer of evaluation alongside traditional financial analysis, socially responsible investing tends to be more rigid in applying ethical guidelines to your investment decisions. It can involve excluding stocks that don’t align with your beliefs, or you can also use positive inclusion — giving your investment dollars to companies that perform better than industry peers on ESG attributes.
So, if a tobacco company has a stellar performance, an ESG investor might still consider that as part of their investment decision. In contrast, a socially responsible investor who draws the line at tobacco will refuse to invest in any stocks that benefit a tobacco company, regardless of how well they do.
As the name implies, the goal of impact investing is to generate a measurable impact in an area of need — and that can range from environmental to societal concerns, depending on your personal values. It goes the furthest to tie your personal values to your personal capital, as typically you’ll be prioritizing the positive effects of your investments over your financial returns.
That doesn’t mean you can’t generate gains with impact investing, they’ll just be weighted with less importance compared to the specific positive impact that comes from your investment — so you might only get back the capital you put in, or see returns below market rates. Areas like conservation, microfinance, and providing access to basic services like housing, healthcare, and education often fall into this category.
Which investing strategy is right for you?
If all these options sound very similar, that’s because they are. With ESG, SRI, and impact investing, you’re making a choice to consider environmental, social, and governance factors in your investing decision. From there, you can tailor your strategy based on how much weight you give to financial returns versus ESG factors, but you don’t need to think of these as mutually exclusive — making investments aligned with your values doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing returns.
According to a recent report, the value of global assets applying ESG data to drive investment decisions was $40.5 trillion in 2020, more than tripling since 2012. That means the options available are growing, too — so all you need to think about is what is right for you.
Jennifer So is a Portfolio Manager with BMO and has been a member of the BMO Asset Management Inc. team since September of 2015. In addition to her work as a Portfolio Manager, Jennifer is a specialist in Responsible Investing with an emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. Jennifer also has knowledge of Investment Banking, Research, Institutional Sales, and seven years of experience as a Chartered Accountant, contributing to her robust knowledge of and experience with finance and banking.
My first job ever was… delivering newspapers.
The thing I enjoy most about being a Portfolio Manager is… no day is the same, I’m constantly learning, working with a smart team, and finding companies that can create long term shareholder value.
The best advice I received from a mentor was… develop your ability to communicate — written and verbal. Be succinct, combine numbers with a compelling narrative, and be confident. What is the point you want to convey? What is the action item for people to take away?
Investing with the intent to make a positive impact is important because… finding companies that are making a positive impact translates into opportunities for growth, which will translate into better financial performance and address the many sustainability challenges around us.
I would tell my 20-year old self… the key to success is to find a “sponsor.” This is different from a mentor. A sponsor, or, even better, sponsors is someone within your organization that is senior to you and will basically say nice things about you behind your back. They will put your name forward at promotion time, for new projects, and help support your initiatives. The really hard part is finding a sponsor, and often, each time why a sponsor takes a shine to you is different.
“Finally, governments, society, and capital allocators are working together to address the transition to a lower carbon economy and important social justice issues. We can all make a difference.”
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… good habits — they are the compound interest of self-improvement. Many people know that compounding interest (if not, Google it ASAP) builds long term wealth.
Small choices like a salad over burger, calling the client instead of leaving early, or volunteering for extra assignments doesn’t seem to matter much at the moment. But, as days turn to weeks, those tiny repeatable choices compound. These habits build your skill set and open doors in the future you never imagined.
The one piece of advice I would give someone who is starting to invest is… do your homework, read or listen (e.g., podcasts) to lots of different investors to see what style suits you. You need to have a passion for this business or you won’t last.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I am reliving my childhood through the lens of my two sons (8 and 10 years old). I’ve learned to skateboard (kinda), and play Dungeons and Dragons. I am a level 5 elf magic user.
The future excites me because… finally, governments, society, and capital allocators (the Paris agreement, carbon taxes, Greta Thunberg, ESG funds) are working together to address the transition to a lower carbon economy and important social justice issues. We can all make a difference.
Caroline Dabu is a strategic marketer, communicator, and Head of BMO Wealth Distribution and Advisory Services. After earning her journalism degree and working for various publications, Caroline transitioned out of journalism to work in Communications in the Financial Services sector. Since joining BMO Nesbitt Burns in 2000 as the Head of Marketing, Caroline has held various leadership roles in Marketing and Client Strategy, and established BMO’s Enterprise Wealth Planning team in 2012. Today, Caroline is responsible for guiding a team of people that provide wealth planning, estate, and advisory services for BMO wealth clients.
My first job was… an intern cub reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press. I think I got paid by each word I wrote!
I chose my career path because… I became fascinated by the impact financial decisions can make. After graduating from Journalism School at Carleton University, I worked at Financial Post Magazine and it was such a rush working at the magazine, and in particular, learning more about personal finance. After that experience, I wanted to be in a position to be able to communicate how meaningful of an impact financial decisions have in people’s lives. Taking a communications role at a bank was a pivotal moment that set me on my career path.
My boldest personal or professional move to date was… to move out of my comfort zone around Marketing and Communications. I moved out of a senior role in Marketing and Communications ten years ago for an opportunity to build up the retirement, financial, and wealth planning area of BMO.It was a risk because I didn’t go to business school, and my career to date had been focused on being a strategic Marketer and Communicator. This role was developing a strategy that not all our businesses bought into at the time, and its value was not well understood. It tested me as a leader in many ways and starting up in a new area required evolving and learning well outside of my comfort areas. This move has broadened my leadership and helped me tackle additional opportunities and challenges in my career.
The thing I love most about my role as Head, Wealth Distribution & Advisory Services is… working with an incredible team of professionals who are passionate about what they do and the direct impact they can have on helping individuals, families, and businesses achieve their goals and dreams for the future and be prepared for some of the challenges that may come along the way. Our team provides wealth, tax, estate, business advisory, philanthropy and insurance planning, and not a week goes by where I don’t hear about the meaningful difference they are making for BMO Wealth clients and their families.
Having a wealth management plan is important because… together with your advisor, it helps you identify and get specific around your wants, needs, and goals and helps you stay the course. A plan helps you prioritize what is truly important and gives you the confidence to stay focused even when there are things happening in the short term that can veer you off path. A wealth management plan also gives you the ability to thread all the different aspects of your financial picture together, rather than in disparate pieces.
“The best piece of advice I would give to someone who wants to use their wealth to make a positive impact is to think about how they want to give “meaning” to their wealth, what they are passionate about supporting, and then speaking to an advisor about how to do this strategically.”
One misconception about wealth management is… that it’s intimidating and that it’s not accessible.Wealth management is really about having a comprehensive view of your financial goals and managing how you will achieve them — whether you are a young family with goals to save for your kids’ education, a professional early in your career just starting to make some investments, or if you have a family business and want to plan for your business to be passed on to the next generation. If you’ve got a goal, you need wealth management — whether that means working with a financial planner or a Wealth Advisor.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… being open to feedback and being willing to evolve — this attitude opens up so many more pathways and doors. And embracing every opportunity to learn. (Ok, that’s 3 things!)
The first thing I would suggest to someone that wants to set financial goals is… categorize your needs, your wants and your wishes — and be specific about them. This will help you prioritize and set a realistic plan. Your needs are what you need to make sure is fully funded, full stop. Then, you can plan for your “wants or must-haves.” Your wishes are your “nice-to-haves” after you can fund the first two buckets.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I never saw being a hockey mom in my future!
The best piece of advice I would give to someone who wants to use their wealth to make a positive impact is… to think about how they want to give “meaning” to their wealth, what they are passionate about supporting, and then speaking to an advisor about how to do this strategically.
I stay inspired by… tackling at least one new personal challenge every year that takes me out of my comfort zone.
The future excites me because… technology in financial services is accelerating in such a way that we’ll see the convergence of the power of human advice with digital to make personal finance and wealth management even more engaging, easier, and collaborative.
My first job was… working as a Counsellor at a YMCA summer camp. It was an incredible job as I was able to work outdoors with my peers, trying new things and gaining a wide range of skills. I was put into very challenging situations that stretched me, giving me the opportunity to develop leadership skills from a very young age.
I did not set out with a specific career path in mind, but I did know that I wanted to do work that was purposeful and impactful. I have been fortunate to have found or been given opportunities that align with this goal. When I reflect on my winding path, I see intentional steps of growth and opportunity that I could not possibly have predicted.
The thing I love most about what I do is… seeing the women I work with realize their dreams and goals. Entrepreneurship is not easy, but when fueled by passion and surrounded by support, anything is possible. I am inspired every day by these women creating the businesses of the future.
Being the CEO of the Women’s Enterprise Centre is important to me because… we recognize the unique growth pathways of women entrepreneurs. We offer an integrated approach including mentorship, skills development and capital, meeting women entrepreneurs and business owners where they are in their business evolution. As a result, we see them realize their business potential and have the impact they want to have in the world. We are also able to use our established record of success to educate other funders and stakeholders on the different definitions of growth to influence systemic change.
My best advice for new entrepreneurs is… ask for help. You are not alone, and building a business is hard. We cannot be good at all aspects of business. We are fortunate in Canada to have many incredible resources for entrepreneurs. Sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know, and by utilizing resources and reaching out to entrepreneurs who have forged the path ahead of you, you will be better set up for success.
“One misconception about women-focused funding is that women are risk adverse. We need to reframe this narrative as women tend to be “risk-astute,” meaning they take calculated risks based on research and consultation.”
I believe in the importance of investing in women… because women entrepreneurs are building incredible businesses having a positive impact in this world. Women entrepreneurs currently receive less than 4% of Venture capital and less than 20% of traditional loans. Less than 20% of Angel Investors in Canada are women and less than 15% are Venture Capital Partners. We need more diverse perspectives making investment decisions to ensure more diverse entrepreneurs and businesses receive funding. I consider myself a micro-investor and an advocate to encourage more women to participate as investors. I have been doing this work for the past 10 years and we are finally starting to see the numbers shift ever so slightly. Having more women investors will lead to a greater distribution of wealth, different types of businesses being supported and more investment into the community. Participation by women as scaling entrepreneurs and investors is essential as we consider economic recovery, and growth.
One misconception about women-focused funding… is that women are risk adverse. We need to reframe this narrative as women tend to be “risk-astute,” meaning they take calculated risks based on research and consultation. The result is that women access capital in smaller tranches over a longer period of time. This is actually a very strong approach but it does not always align with the existing venture model of growth. As more types of financing emerge, we will see more women access the capital they need for their businesses to grow and thrive.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed… it would be always being curious and open to learning and being surrounded by incredible people.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I did my undergraduate thesis studying how the size of a person’s eyes predicts how trustworthy they are. This has come in handy in my business career.
I stay inspired by… reading, learning and spending time in the mountains with friends and family.
The future excites me because… we are seeing new models emerging that are more inclusive. We are in a time of change when traditionally underrepresented voices are being acknowledged and heard. Incorporating diverse perspectives into decision making across all levels and sectors is hard but critical if we want our country to thrive.
Tanya Hayles is an award-winning writer and storyteller who uses different platforms to encourage thought, create dialogue, and be an agent for change. She is the founder of Black Moms Connection, a global platform and non-profit that provides resources, support, and education for Black women and their families. In addition to being a writer and founder, Tanya’s work ranges from event planning to anti-Black racism advocacy and public speaking.
I chose my career path because...it chose me. It started because I liked that when I went to work, it had a bigger purpose than just a paycheque. While I eventually left the non-profit sector to pursue a career in event planning, the sector never left me.
I started the Black Moms Connection because…I wanted a space to ask culturally relevant questions and get culturally relevant answers. I wanted it to be a safe place to do so without the sexist and racist vitriol lobbed our way as Black women (sometimes from women themselves).
The thing I love most about what I do is… it is always rooted in the service of others. If I cannot answer how this benefits the moms and their families, I don’t do it.
My best advice for anyone that cares about a cause and wants to contribute to it would be… to look at who is doing the work. Ask questions about where the money is going. See how you can help an organization grow and be sustainable. It isn’t always money they need. Don’t make them fit your mandate, build a relationship to see how you can both mutually benefit.
“Why are you doing what you are doing? Is it solely for money? If yes, then you are destined to lose your way.”
Black Moms Connection partnering with BMO for the Rent Bank Grant Program was important because… it showed the value of building authentic and reciprocal relationships. We didn’t ask BMO for money, we asked for amplification. They gave us both and added validation.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… authenticity. I am the same person chatting with CEOs and banks that I am on social media (with a few slight filters of course). I don’t promote anything unless I love it. I don’t align with brands unless I can do so enthusiastically without compensation. People can trust what I’m going to do and who I am because I choose my words very carefully and intentionally.
One tangible way you can build your legacy is… constantly circling back to your why. Why are you doing what you are doing? Is it solely for money? If yes, then you are destined to lose your way. Who is it serving? What problem are you trying to solve? Why are YOU the one to do it?
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know that… I amobsessed with planners, notebooks, and stickers. Yes, stickers. It’s part of my self-care and brings out my inner 8-year old!
I stay inspired by… being connected to the community. I read the posts from our members, the emails from donors, and on the days when it becomes too much, I am reminded that the universe chose me to be here.
The future excites me because… I have big lofty dreams that do not scare me. I also love that Gen Z is highly impatient to fix the issues that previous generations have been working for decades to solve.
Conversation around living a greener lifestyle continues to garner more attention, but what does that actually mean? Is it affordable? Can it really make a difference? Living ethically and sustainably is a journey that takes time to cultivate and maintain, with no singular way to do it. However, if you’re looking for some small steps you can take to make a difference in your own way, consider these 7 ways you can live and shop a little greener.
1. Rethink your everyday essentials and switch to reusable and eco-friendly items.
No one can deny the convenience of taking a short trip to a local drugstore chain to pick up another toothbrush or the ease of ordering household items online from Amazon, but there are ways to maintain that ease without having a negative impact on the environment. About half of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced each year is for single-use and other disposable items (like that toothbrush) waste resources, leach toxins, and can take hundreds of years to decompose. Many of us have gotten comfortable with using something once and throwing it away, but purchasing items that are reusable or made of recycled materials is a helpful first step towards living more sustainably and being eco-friendly. There are options available for just about any everyday item you may need. From paper towel substitutes to reusable bags and beauty products, many sustainable and environmentally friendly products exist.
2. Shop and eat locally or grow your own produce.
While shopping and eating locally is not accessible to everyone, if you’re able, there are several benefits to it: it’s a financial investment in your local community, you have a better understanding of where your money goes and who it helps, and most often, the food you purchase is sourced from a farmer right in your city or province, which helps reduce packaging waste and gas emissions that arise from transportation. These benefits of local shopping and eating are direct results of community-driven actions taken towards sustainability. You may not be able to get everything on your list, but picking up your produce from a local shop or farmer’s market is an action that helps you, others, and your environment.
“You may not be able to get everything on your list, but picking up your produce from a local shop or farmer’s market is an action that helps you, others, and your environment.”
If you’re interested in taking on a personal project, growing your own produce is an alternative to purchasing locally. You don’t need a ton of space to grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs, either — you could start with a container or a small box that can fit comfortably by a window. This is a larger undertaking than simply heading to your local store, but growing your own food can be an enjoyable and meditative way to spend your time — and you happen to be doing something that’s eco-friendly in the process.
3. Rent, repair, shop secondhand, or invest in sustainable clothing and accessories.
“Although purchasing sustainable clothes is a wonderful alternative, it’s a luxury and privilege that isn’t available to all of us. If paying for an eco-friendly item is something you can’t do, you still have options.”
Although purchasing sustainable clothes is a wonderful alternative, it’s a luxury and privilege that isn’t available to all of us. If paying for an eco-friendly item is something you can’t do, you still have options: try sewing up holes or tears in any worn clothes you already have and shopping second hand. There are several stores that provide quality used clothing at affordable prices, from your local thrift store to boutique in-store and online vintage shops.
Another way to be a little greener is by renting clothes. Canadian rental platforms like dresst or The Fitzroy give you the feeling of having gone shopping without constant consumption and a lot of clothes piling up in your closet. For a fee, these services will ship a select number of items right to your door and you can wear them for an allotted amount of time. All you have to do is ship the clothes back (often for free) and the company will take care of cleaning the items for the next rental.
4. Repair, shop secondhand, and try purchasing other sustainable goods.
If you have a tablet that’s glitchy or a chair with a wobbly leg, try repairing it first. Taking the time to send a product in or fix a piece of furniture as a DIY project can save you a little to a lot of money, depending on the item. Many times, we can be more interested in replacing or repurchasing things because of how affordable a product might be or to simply have something new, but the items we’re quick to throw away are salvageable and might just need a little sprucing up.
“Many times, we can be more interested in replacing or repurchasing things because of how affordable a product might be or to simply have something new, but the items we’re quick to throw away are salvageable and might just need a little sprucing up.”
Have you ever considered purchasing electronics and furniture second hand? If not, this option is a way to have exciting, new items while reducing the number of products that end up in landfills. Refurbished electronics, furniture stores, vintage shops, and community-based marketplaces are an internet search away, and they can save you money while you take home a product that’s as good as new or unique with tons of character.
If you need a new couch or new headphones, try shopping with environmentally friendly brands. While we can’t ignore that eco-friendly electronics can be harder to find, brands like The House of Marley and Nimble provide products made from natural and recycled materials. Furniture and other home goods that have been made sustainably are also not the easiest to find and are more expensive, but if you can afford to invest in eco-friendly furniture, it’s something worth considering — and there are brands making quality, timeless items that will outlast any furniture that was made with cheap materials, preventing you from throwing out goods every few years when you move or redecorate.
5. Purchase from B Corp businesses.
Businesses that are B Corporations operate with the environment and people in mind. These certifications are given by B Lab, a non-profit organization that created standards for environmental and societal change organizations need to meet in order to be certified. Certified organizations don’t just focus on money — making a positive change is integral to their business goals as well.
B Corp companies use their businesses and profits to address environmental issues, social inequalities, and treat their employees fairly. Not all businesses are able to become certified; the process is extensive and rigorous, which adds a level of legitimacy and credibility to any business that successfully becomes a certified B Corporation. To be certified means that the company operates ethically and does exactly what they claim to do, from their production processes and work environments to their environmental and societal initiatives. If you want to be more eco-friendly, you can put your money toward buying products from certified organizations that align with your ethics and beliefs. In doing so, your money can contribute to the environment, the community, and employees.
6. Recycle, donate, and sell thoughtfully.
Instead of reflexively putting items you no longer want in the trash, consider donating them or selling them to family, friends, or on online marketplaces and consignment shops. In many cases, people would love to purchase an item you already own because they can’t afford the full price or have to prioritize more important purchases. You can help them by donating, gifting, or selling your pieces.
There will always be items that you won’t need more than once after you’ve used it or unboxed it. Recycling the right things as much as you can is a helpful way to reduce trash and responsibly get rid of items. Recycling is different depending on where you’re located — you may need to do some research to properly dispose of items in your area — but there are a couple of things you should keep in mind as you recycle. Clothing, containers with leftovers, food waste, appliances, electric cords, plastic bags, and propane cylinders can’t be recycled alongside your traditional (clean) glass, steel, and paper products. Confirm what can be recycled in your area and learn how to responsibly dispose of these items. Combining recyclable material with what can’t be recycled will not be organized by someone else — and your entire collection of items could end up in the trash.
“Combining recyclable material with what can’t be recycled will not be organized by someone else — and your entire collection of items could end up in the trash.”
7. Resist the urge to purchase something unless you actually need it.
It’s easy to get swept up into the idea that by shopping, we will feel restored. We get excited about having new things — and we all succumb to that in our own ways. Although this is something many of us can relate to, our collective over-consumption has a detrimental impact on others and the environment. Though resisting the urge to have new things is challenging, one of the most vital ways we can shop greener is to buy less. Wait until you actually need something to make a purchase, and if you find yourself suddenly having several items in your cart, ask yourself, do I really need this? Taking a moment to pause and reflect on your potential purchases could help deter you from buying something “just because.”
Sharon Haward-Laird, General Counsel and Executive Committee Lead for Sustainability at BMO Financial Group, shares how BMO is leveraging their commitment to sustainability with its new platform, the BMO Climate Institute.
By Shelley White
As the world races to transition to net zero emissions, every one of us has a role to play, says Sharon Haward-Laird, General Counsel of BMO Financial Group.
Financial institutions will be a crucial part of the solution, she adds, particularly when it comes to the significant task of financing the development of clean and renewable energy sources.
“There will be a significant amount of financing required for the scale of the transition that needs to happen,” says Sharon, who championed BMO’s recent statement of its climate ambition: to be their clients’ lead partner in the transition to a net zero world. “It’s trillions of dollars a year, from a global perspective. Government alone is not going to be able to do that.”
Aligned with BMO’s long-standing commitment to sustainability and support of the Paris Agreement, the bank recently launched an industry-leading platform for change, the BMO Climate Institute. This virtual hub will bring together science, analytics, expertise and partners to understand the financial risks and opportunities related to climate change and transition, for the bank’s clients and the bank itself.
BMO promotes sustainability through lending, investing, underwriting and advising companies on sustainability strategies, Sharon explained, and the BMO Climate Institute will be a key resource and source of expert advice for BMO’s clients.
The inspiration for the BMO Climate Institute is the concept of convening stakeholders, leading information and best practices at the intersection of climate adaptation and finance, driving thought leadership and providing best practices for clients.
“The mission of the BMO Climate Institute makes it clear that our climate ambition isn’t about BMO, it’s about our clients,” Sharon says. “It’s about creating a space where all stakeholders — BMO, clients, experts in the field, academics, government regulators — can come together and help solve the complex problems presented by the transition to a net zero world, and the opportunities that it creates for our clients to play leading roles in it.”
Sharon notes that BMO’s purpose is to “boldly grow the good in business and life.” It’s a philosophy the company takes seriously, she says.
“When we have experience actively participating in the transition to a net zero world in our own operations, it’s easier for us to act as our client’s advisor in making their own transition — because you learn as you go.”
BMO was one of the first major banks to sign the UN Principles for Responsible Banking, and the bank is committed to aligning its business strategy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. BMO is a pioneer in sustainable finance, recently announcing its goal to more than double its sustainable finance commitment, deploying $300-billion in green, social and sustainable lending, underwriting, advisory services, and investment by 2025.
BMO also is dedicated to finding innovative ways to minimize the environmental impact of its own operations. Proudly carbon neutral since 2010, in 2020 BMO reached its goal to match 100 per cent of its global electricity use with electricity produced from renewable sources. Now, through operational efficiency improvements and building upgrades, BMO has set a new science-based target to reduce operational greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
These actions aren’t just important because every company needs to do its part, Sharon says. They also position the bank to share expertise and best practices with clients.
“When we have experience actively participating in the transition to a net zero world in our own operations, it’s easier for us to act as our client’s advisor in making their own transition — because you learn as you go,” she says. “What worked well? What could you have done differently? We can connect with clients that may be at an earlier stage in their transition and support them with the benefit of our experience.”
While the conversation around the transition to a net zero world and the development of clean energy sources often revolves around the costs and challenges of this process, Sharon points out that it’s important to remember the vast opportunities that exist as well.
Sharon notes there are two major categories of how climate will affect the economy and the business world. On the one hand, there are the costs associated with a transition to a net zero world and development of clean energy. On the other, there are the physical risks of climate change, and that’s another major priority for the BMO Climate Institute.
A new climate analytics lab, built by BMO’s Sustainability team and BMO Enterprise Artificial Intelligence (AI) Labs with external partners, will enable the bank to analyze climate-related risks and opportunities facing the financial sector and key client industries. The platform leverages geospatial data and scientific modelling to generate actionable insights — all in service to clients, Sharon says.
“It allows us to analyze all kinds of different physical hazards, both today and in the future, based on different climate scenarios,” she explains. “Things like wildfires, extreme weather events, coastal flooding — we’re able to model these with geospatial data and satellites. We built this platform for analysis of our own assets, and we want to use it to have value-added conversations with clients about the types of challenges they’re facing too.”
“I don’t want to leave a world for my kids and grandkids that’s a mess for them to clean up. I think we have a responsibility not to push the problem out into the future to be resolved by somebody else.”
One tangible example is around the effects of climate change on real estate. Sharon says that the analytics lab is also working on capabilities to model the transition to clean energy, in order to understand the economic impacts for different sectors.
“What will the decarbonization pathways look like? Where are we now and where are we going to end up?” she says. “And for individual clients, how much will that cost and what are optimal investment structures?”
BMO’s sustainability team is developing capabilities to do this kind of modelling, and are exploring a variety of different tools and methodologies. As data availability becomes more widespread and data quality continues to increase, the opportunities will increase exponentially, she adds.
“This isn’t a two-year thing. The transition to a net zero world is going to take a considerable amount of time,” she says. “There’s a huge opportunity here for us to grow with our clients, and we want to make sure that we’re experimenting with different analytical tools in the meantime.”
As the mother of young adults, Sharon says her children’s passion about climate change is one of the things that has inspired her in her role in BMO’s sustainability work.
“I have three kids and I’m not a grandmother yet. But when you think of the urgency of the transition that must happen by 2050, and the concrete steps that need to be taken now, I don’t want to leave a world for my kids and grandkids that’s a mess for them to clean up,” she says. “I think we have a responsibility not to push the problem out into the future to be resolved by somebody else.”
Transforming the world into a place where clean energy is the norm will take the work of many generations, she says.
“But I think we have the chance now to really get the work started.”
Entrepreneurs are some of the strongest agents for change in our communities, and some of the most inspirational as well. They use their grit, tenacity, passion, and skills to build a business out of a vision.
I’m proud to have spent the last 26 years of my career working with entrepreneurs at BDC — which for over 75 years has remained a dedicated financial institution for entrepreneurs operating small to medium-sized businesses. We not only provide financing, advice, tools and resources, we also build meaningful relationships with our clients to provide value-added service.
Over all those years, I’ve seen firsthand how the entrepreneurial journey can be filled with successes, hurdles, and a few pivots. I’ve also learned that access to financing, business guidance, and a supportive network can be particularly challenging for underserved entrepreneurs to find.
What does it mean to be an ‘underserved’ entrepreneur? They are often members of marginalized communities; they may 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. Often, these entrepreneurs face more barriers to entry when it comes to starting or growing a business — and these challenges have been exacerbated through the pandemic.
“Our commitment is to listen and learn, working with our internal teams and external partners to understand these unique challenges through research, conversations, and data.”
Acutely aware of these challenges, at BDC we have been working to develop an inclusive and impactful approach to Client Diversity. Our commitment is to listen and learn, working with our internal teams and external partners to understand these unique challenges through research, conversations, and data. Then, we will develop solutions with tangible, measurable outcomes.
The whole bank is engaged with delivering this strategy, with five regional managers, each with a specific client segment focus, helping me lead the charge. These five individuals have diverse insights, knowledge, and experiences to share, plus a passion for helping entrepreneurs reach their full potential and thrive in every aspect of their business.
Below, meet Brooke, Nancy, Monica, David, and Chelsea — the team of client diversity experts I have the pleasure of working with to make funding for Canadian entrepreneurs more equitable.
"All entrepreneurs deserve the space and time to share their successes and struggles — especially those that are underserved."
Diversity and inclusion are weaved into everything that I do at BDC. Since joining the bank in 2003, I have been deeply invested in providing support and guidance to Indigenous entrepreneurs, championing their goals, and celebrating their accomplishments. Officially, I lead the Bank’s national strategy addressing the needs of Indigenous entrepreneurs, so they can overcome barriers, grow, and thrive. I’m also the Indigenous Lead for BDC’s internal strategy to honour the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action #92.
As a proud Cree woman from the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and having been raised in northern Manitoba, my efforts are informed by my own personal experience. I understand the unique challenges many rural and remote Indigenous entrepreneurs face. I also know what is required for an accountable and equitable playing field in the realm of entrepreneurship and finance, and I’m driven to ensure that all entrepreneurs have access to the tools and resources they need to be successful in business.
All entrepreneurs deserve the space and time to share their successes and struggles — especially those that are underserved. I’ve learned that the biggest ways I can have an impact are believing in their ability to succeed, helping to nurture their business, supporting them by purchasing their products and services, and creating visibility by promoting their brands to others.
"I’m also an entrepreneur myself, so I understand the stress that can come from starting and growing a business."
I am passionate about supporting women business owners through their entire business journey, and I joined BDC in 2017 with that specific goal — plus nearly two decades of experience supporting organizations in strategic planning and effecting change.
For any entrepreneur feeling stressed, I have two tips I can share with you. Number one: get moving! Gentler forms of exercise, like walking, can help focus your thoughts, ease digestion, and replenish your energy. Number two: set aside time at the end of each week to review your income and expenses for that week, and forecast what you expect to happen 13-weeks from now. It is a tangible way to build your intuition with the numbers (for anyone doubting their financial acumen, know you can learn a skill by putting it into practice), and considering cash flow is the most often mentioned source of stress from business owners, it’s a great way to create peace of mind.
"I have been both the youngest person and the only Black person in many roles, and I understand the difficulties and challenges navigating oneself in predominantly white spaces."
Empowering and mobilizing youth, women, and diverse entrepreneurs is the work that I live and breathe. I believe in equitable entrepreneurship and chose this path so I could help as many entrepreneurs as I can, particularly those from underserved communities, to build generational wealth and break down systemic barriers. I have an eclectic professional and entrepreneurial background, as well as sixteen years worth of leadership in civic engagement.
As a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent who is the product of a business leader and a serial entrepreneur, I have seen and experienced what it is like to run a business as a person of colour. I have been both the youngest person and the only Black person in many roles, and I understand the difficulties and challenges navigating oneself in predominantly white spaces. I know what it feels like to not fit in and have to ‘code switch’ to get by. Moreover, I understand that access to financing and networks are significant barriers for many Black entrepreneurs, as well as other systemically marginalized communities. In my role, I want to help these business owners navigate the complex entrepreneurial ecosystem, ensuring they’re aware of the resources available to them and how to get the financing and new market opportunities they need to scale their business. It is time that everyone gets a seat at the table.
What drives me daily is building a better and equitable future for my twins, Justice and Freedom. I want them to live in a world where they are judged by the content of their character and not their background. I want their future to be limitless. I am proud to be partof an organization where I can be an agent of change and level the playing field for so many.
"With their representation, I was more able to believe that as a visible minority, I can be in a position of influence. By being visible, I hope to show all diverse entrepreneurs that they are understood — and they are supported."
Regional Manager, Client Diversity,
North Vancouver, BC
Entrepreneurship runs in my family. I’ve been an entrepreneur myself, and my spouse and her mother — two influential women in my life — are both business owners. They have experienced the generous support of their respective customers and unfortunately, as women of Asian descent, faced discrimination as a visible minority.
In my mother-in-law’s situation, it was the typical immigrant story — with the added barriers of a new language, little funds and a lack of financial literacy, plus no network and a limited understanding of the business ecosystem. And she had a family to support. Having to rely on her young daughter to interact with institutions, she often avoided seeking support, as there was no one who fully understood her. Instead, she frequently reminded her children of the importance of working hard and persevering. Seeing someone in a position of authority and leadership that looked like her would have given her comfort and confidence when growing her business.
Why do I believe that could have helped with my mother-in-law’s anxiety and stress as she struggled to grow her business? Early in my banking career, I experienced the power of visible role models. I interviewed for a role with someone who looked like me, and though I didn’t consciously realize it at first, that sparked a sense of confidence and provided inspiration. With their representation, I was more able to believe that as a visible minority, I can be in a position of influence. By being visible, I hope to show all diverse entrepreneurs that they are understood — and they are supported.
"Focusing on women has always been an integral part of the positions I’ve held at the Bank — I’ve gone as far as accompanying women entrepreneurs on several International Trade Missions."
When I joined BDC 10 years ago — after more than 15 years working in the market development and venture capital space — the mandate of the organization called to me, and I was thrilled to be able to use my experience and network to accelerate the development of Canadian Entrepreneurs. In the first few months, I realized that women entrepreneurs weren’t comfortable with financing, and most didn’t know how approachable BDC was. I was fortunate to cross paths with the President of the Reseau des Femmes d’Affaires du Quebec (RFAQ), who was building a wonderful initiative aimed at scaling women-owned businesses by providing them with opportunities to work with large organizations.
From then on I was hooked, and began my best and brightest journey into inclusion, with a focus on opening doors for women. I quickly became president of a great initiative at RFAQ called Développement Économique au Féminin (DEF), helping more than a dozen influential business leaders — both men and women — to accelerate and grow their impact in our business community. It led me to form incredible bonds with the women entrepreneurs I met, and their success stories have become my daily highlights, inspiring me with the knowledge that I was making a difference.
Ever since, I stayed highly involved by helping develop BDC’s Women Entrepreneur Strategy, which was going strong even before it was officially made a national priority. Focusing on women has always been an integral part of the positions I’ve held at the Bank — I’ve gone as far as accompanying women entrepreneurs on several International Trade Missions, to ensure they felt supported and empowered to take on any opportunities coming their way. Now, to see my influence grow to include other underrepresented groups, I’m beyond excited to be able to replicate and apply this nurturing approach to help their business thrive and grow.
Diane Scott couldn’t have planned a career as dynamic as the one she has. Five years ago, it didn’t exist. As Chair and CEO of JMCC Group, Diane sits at the helm of Canada’s only woman-led international medical cannabis company. She built the business from the ground up and today operates on fourcontinents and the Caribbean.
JMCC, which stands for Jamaican Medical Cannabis Company, was founded in 2016. After more than a decade working in New York and London in the global financial services and technology industries — including work in the financial services practice of presidential candidate Ross Perot Sr — Diane felt burnt out and in need of a restart. “After all those years I wasn’t loving what I was doing anymore, and I didn’t like the person I had to be to do it,” Diane recalls.
Taking a career pause gave her the opportunity to return home to Toronto after 17 years. “I sold my apartment in New York and came home to the town I was raised in to reflect. Suddenly I had five acres to look after, and I had to learn how to garden.”
While her next steps weren’t clear, Diane felt fortunate to have the time and resources needed to regroup. She’d been following the medical cannabis industry closely for some time and saw its potential from an investment perspective. In 2014 she started making investments in Canadian cannabis companies.
What followed was a sequence of events which led Diane to explore cannabis farming in Jamaica. She was asked to consider investing in a family farm on the island, and while she initially said no as she felt only comfortable dealing with Canada, the idea stuck with her.
“I took a conference call with the family who were looking to convert their sugarcane farm into medical cannabis. While we didn’t end up taking that opportunity, it made a few things very clear,” she says. First came the understanding that growing medical cannabis outdoors — what she calls a ‘natural grow’ in proprietary greenhouses — would ultimately be better for the end patient than growing it in big warehouses. And second, Diane came to learn that Jamaica has the most optimal growing environment, combined with regulations in line with what you’d see in Canada, Germany, and Australia.
“We both reject the notion that you have to compromise profit in order to do good.”
Soon after Diane and a close friend in London, Tom Speechley, decided to build and launch a global venture capital business, SX2 Ventures. Their goal was to support innovation and long-term value creation in the human care sector, with a focus on life sciences, longevity, specialized care and emerging market healthcare solutions. “We were clear when we started that we wanted to do more with our investments. Rather than solely focusing on financial returns, we saw an opportunity to direct our funds to have a positive impact,” Diane explains. “We both reject the notion that you have to compromise profit in order to do good.” SX2 was an early expression of an environmental, social, governance (ESG) investment model years ahead of today’s standards.
It was upon this ethos that JMCC was founded. “Starting SX2 naturally led us to create JMCC because we found there was nothing like it in the world. We saw the need, and believed that if it didn’t exist, we should build it.” After nine months of due diligence in the Jamaican market, Diane got on a plane to visit the island.
“The huge learning curve for me became about the science and medicine,” she explains. And to help grow the business, Diane turned to people who she knew and trusted. “As an entrepreneur, you need to know your own strengths. We can’t be great at everything, so you need to build a team that’s great at everything.” Starting with her well-established network, Diane began to build the JMCC team, both in Jamaica and internationally. While Tom continued to run SX2, Diane focused on JMCC — taking a “divide and conquer approach.”
Diane knew her strategy with JMCC was unconventional from the get-go. “Being a female CEO who had chosen to do things differently than they were being done in Canada at the time, not going public, not growing in a big warehouse, cultivating on an island — I wasn’t making the most popular choices,” she recalls. Even still, she was clear on her vision and happy to be occupying a place that others were not.
And her outside-the-box thinking paid off. In the five years since its inception, JMCC has become a fully integrated medical cannabis company, operating with a self-contained supply chain — from propagation and cultivation of raw materials supply, product development, manufacturing and packaging, through to global logistics and distribution. “We are the leading global provider of premium Jamaican medical cannabis products and services to the world.”
She’s also in the final stages of organic certification, which should be in place by later this year. “Not many others can say they’re naturally grown, organic, and control their supply chain from start to finish. This allows us to ensure the highest possible quality patient experience,” explains Diane. “For JMCC, patient quality is at the center of everything we do. It has to be.”
The company also just completed a joint venture in the Channel Islands, UK to establish a JMCC distribution hub in order to ensure seamless and timely prescription fulfillment to UK patients, and has expanded into an exclusive distribution agreement for the Australasian Region.
Being a woman running a global medical cannabis company is unprecedented (the industry is dominated by men), but it has pushed Diane even harder to ensure an environment of equality for everyone on her team. “I’ve made it clear for all the women and teams I work with, that we are a company that will find the best talent — regardless of gender, religion, or sexual orientation — and that everyone who joins us has to believe and respect this.”
Diane and her partner’s commitment to do their part to leave the world a better place has carried over in other ways to JMCC. “This is more than impact investing. We focus on profitable businesses that also are committed to doing good in the community,” she says. “We created the JMCC Foundation, and have committed to reinvest 10% back into communities, education, scientific research, and the medical cannabis industry.”
“The idea of giving back has become more important to me the older I get. Societal benefit is as important as financials or unique value propositions when looking at an investment.
This includes working with academic institutions to support trials — such as an epilepsy trial being conducted via a Canadian university, which JMCC will provide the cannabis for at their own expense. They’re also one of only five companies in the world chosen to support Drug Science’s Project T21 — which is deemed to be the largest observational evidence-based study in the world, with a target of 20,000 UK patients.
“The idea of giving back has become more important to me the older I get. Societal benefit is as important as financials or unique value propositions when looking at an investment. In SX2 and the companies we fund, we look for investment opportunities with those who share our vision for this.”
Personally, Diane carries on that legacy with her involvement in community initiatives beyond her work. She’s a patron of a small school in Maasai Mara, Kenya on a 3,000-acre conservation area protected by the Kenyan Government. She was introduced to the school while on a business trip in Nairobi. “I had decided to stay over for a weekend and go on safari, and I met the manager of the safari who offered to take me to the local school,” she says. Since connecting with them, Diane has sponsored a water harvesting program that has allowed the school to harvest rainwater rather than the village mothers having to bring it from the river, which can be very dangerous. She’s also organized a program to ship books and sporting equipment from Canadian children to the children at this school, who are now learning to read in English.
Diane is also a Royal Patron of the Royal Ontario Museum (also known as the ROM, in Toronto) and an Activator for SheEO, an organization which has built a $1B fund to help women-led businesses. SheEO is focused on investing to help with the ‘worlds to do list’. She’s also a mentor and advocate for women, encouraging others to have confidence in themselves and their decisioning.
“I think as women we don’t always feel like we deserve to be at the Board table, but the truth is, most of the time we’ve earned the right to sit in that seat,” she says. “Use your voice, share your knowledge and experiences, and contribute your thoughts as diversity always leads to better decision making.”
She also has advice for anyone who is feeling the same sense of burnout and dissatisfaction she was before her pivot: “Doing what you love should be a career goal,” says Diane. “I don’t think people prioritize that enough.”