How Anu Bidani transitioned from a 20-year corporate career to bootstrapping a tech startup.

By Hailey Eisen 

For Anu Bidani — CEO of STEM Minds, a B Corp certified social enterprise that empowers youth through STEM education — the foray from a decades-long banking career into the world of tech entrepreneurship began with a problem. 

It was 2015, and Anu had been with Scotiabank for 20 years. She’d held a variety of roles within the bank with a focus on technology, in global capital markets, project management, security, and technology audit. She’d previously completed her MBA, had two sons, and for the most part considered herself to be quite happy. 

But like many who share her entrepreneurial spirit, Anu says she knew something was missing. 

Anu had a sense of adventure instilled in her from a young age — she and her family left India when she was 10 and moved around a lot — and had always been committed to lifelong learning. Still, leaving behind a stable job to build a company from the ground up wasn’t an easy decision. “I’ll be honest, I was fearful at first. In the corporate world I had a consistent paycheck and a strong support network — and starting out on my own was lonely.”  

What gave her that final push? One particular problem kept pulling at her, and the need to solve it was greater than the need for stability. 

While Anu was considering where she’d go next in her career, her sons were struggling to build new skills in school. “My older son, in grade two, had been diagnosed with ADHD,” Anu recalls. “He was reading at an SK level, he was learning so slowly, but I knew he was very smart.”

She enrolled him in a number of extracurricular programs but never got the value or results she expected. “The biggest problem was that no one spent the time listening to him the way he was,” she recalls. “Children are unique individuals and our job is to adapt to them; they shouldn’t have to adapt to us. The biggest heartbreak is knowing your child is smart but that others can’t see them that way.”   

I wanted to use all my skills and knowledge to solve this problem. And my kids were my inspiration.

With a background in computer science, Anu believed that technology could help solve this problem — but neither of her sons were showing any interest. While there were tools and skills Anu knew could help her son succeed, the program she wanted for him didn’t exist. “I wanted to use all my skills and knowledge to solve this problem,” she says. “And my kids were my inspiration.” 

In March 2016, STEM Minds was born. 

“What became very clear was how we teach kids really matters in terms of how they will grow and what they will end up being,” she says. Building a tech education program intended to arm kids with the science, technology, engineering, math, and soft skills they need to succeed in school, and later in the workplace, made a lot of sense to Anu. 

With her corporate hat on, she could see that the most successful candidates for any job she’d hired for all had the right technology skills. As a mother, it came down to a strong set of beliefs. “I’m a firm believer that if you follow your passion and your heart, work will never feel like work,” she says. “While I wanted to allow my kids’ passion to drive their choices, I knew their choices needed to be informed.” 

The data was also strongly in her favour. “Reports indicate that by 2030, 1 billion people will need to be re-trained in a massive global reskilling initiative, because the graduates today don’t have the skill set they’ll need for jobs of the future,” she explains.  

With no background in education or entrepreneurship, Anu began by seeking guidance from the local Small Business Enterprise Centre in York Region. Her first STEM Minds program was a camp run out of a Montessori School with 45 kids in attendance. From there she rented space in another local facility and began hosting weekend workshops. The response was excellent and eventually they ran out of space. 

In 2017, Anu decided to go full in, renting a 3,500 square foot space and launching her STEM Minds learning centre. “That was my commitment that I was going to stick to this and I was actually going to impact education. I knew that I wanted to build an enterprise platform, I wanted to make it accessible, I wanted to impact education globally, and I wanted to make it B Corp certified — I knew what I wanted, and now it was time to go into execution mode.” 

Today STEM Minds provides online courses, live virtual classes, and in-person classes for children ages 4 to 18, and has reached more than 39,000 students across North America. 

They run programs privately and also partner with schools. 

As much as we talk about innovation, I think there still needs to be more of an appetite industry-wide to support and fund start-ups.

“The greatest challenge for me was funding,” Anu says, looking back at her start-up journey. “And it’s a huge issue for most entrepreneurs.” Until she could prove that STEM Minds could make money, she was forced to boot-strap the business with her own savings. Thanks to her corporate experience, Anu was able to handle her own incorporation, marketing, and accounting until the business grew in complexity and scale, and she knew she had to bring people on to help in these areas. 

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get access to a simple credit card or line of credit, but financial institutions still look at start-ups as high risk,” she says. “As much as we talk about innovation, I think there still needs to be more of an appetite industry-wide to support and fund start-ups.” 

And while she could do a lot on her own, one of the things Anu knew she wouldn’t be doing was teaching. The goal for STEM Minds was to hire great teachers, in addition to STEM experts, and support them as they learned to teach in this new way. The collaboration between teachers and subject matter experts has been key to success, as the learning process enables them to understand the content more deeply and relate to them more. “We had subject matter experts designing the concepts and topics and then teachers learning how to teach them. I wanted anyone to be able to learn how to teach STEM — because if teachers were able to work with the content, kids would receive rich learning opportunities.” 

Building content for the future was her ultimate goal. “The jobs of tomorrow will expect kids to have skills that aren’t being taught in traditional education today,” she says. “My mission is to teach kids how to learn new skills, to embark on lifelong learning, so that no matter what comes to them they’re able to adapt, adopt, learn, and grow.” 

As her growth as a small business continued, Anu realized that she was only able to service her community within a 30KM radius. She was ready for international growth and scale. “In 2018, we got an IRAP grant and applied that toward building a tech platform — a hub of content and knowledge.”

In 2019, the platform was built and they were trying to pilot the project with school boards, “but the market just wasn’t ready for online learning,” she says. 

When COVID hit in early 2020, all that changed quickly. “COVID exaggerated the need to adapt to online learning and our platform was ready. Last year we ran virtual classes from March to June, then in the summer we ran 10 weeks of virtual camp, and since September the adoption in schools and with families has been wonderful.” 

One of the biggest mistakes many women make is to think small — and I strongly believe that if you have an idea you have to go big and you have to go bold.

The next step is global expansion. With her focus on scale and growth, Anu says the timing was perfect to be selected for the Tech Undivided program offered by York Region-based ventureLAB. Following a competitive application process, Anu was given access to a support ecosystem of resources, networking opportunities, and expert advice on capital, talent, technology, and customers. Over six months, through strategic advisory and skill-building workshops, the program challenged Anu to refine her pitch deck to better prepare for customer and investor meetings. “The support I’ve received through this program has been amazing, and I now have such good clarity on how to scale and grow my business. I’m getting investor-ready,” she says. “Having a cohort of other women entrepreneurs has been so inspiring — in fact, it really gives me hope.”

As she gets ready for the next step in her business journey, Anu is happy to offer advice to others considering entrepreneurship. “One of the biggest mistakes many women make is to think small — and I strongly believe that if you have an idea you have to go big and you have to go bold.” 

As for her sons, her eldest is completing Grade 12 and is planning to go into environmental studies. With the skills he’s learned over the years, growing up in STEM Minds, he could become a coder or an engineer — but for Anu, what’s most important is that he has the tools available to make his voice heard, the skills to make informed choices, and the ability to express himself however he should choose. “He’s really passionate about climate change and how the planet is being treated,” she says, “And, no matter what field he goes into, he now has the ability to innovate and solve problems.”

Worried about the risks of exporting? Start with a strategic plan.

Expanding your business into international markets can be very rewarding — but it can also be an intimidating process. Though risks and challenges are real, they can also be mitigated using a well-prepared strategy. With the right planning and support, you can gain access to new opportunities, increased exposure, and an expanded customer base that lies beyond our borders. Kseniya Stogniy, a Regional Manager, Partner Channel with Export Development Canada (EDC) and formerly an Export Help Advisor (EDC), answers the top questions EDC receives from companies who are looking to grow internationally, but don’t know where to start. 

How does a company properly research and plan to enter a new market?

The first step, prior to entering a new market, is to create an export plan — a roadmap for your global growth. This plan will help you assess your company’s readiness for expansion, including the availability of resources, from funding to the knowledge and skills of your team. It will also help you look at the market and the approach you want to take to enter it. Once you’ve assessed your readiness, you’ll want to identify international opportunities in your sector, who your potential customers are, and how to best reach them. The next step is to create a strategy, which is the meat of your plan — the who, what, when, where, and why. EDC’s Export Help Hub is a useful resource at this stage; it’s full of expert advice on entering the US, EU, and Mexico markets. Lastly, remember as you move through the export process, continuously measure your results with a set of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and adjust as you go. 

How should a business strategically plan for market risks and challenges?

When it comes to exporting, with opportunity comes risk. What if your customer doesn’t pay, or your product gets stuck at the border? Understanding the risks that your company may face will help you prepare for them accordingly. The likelihood of risk can be based on several factors, including your company’s size, the industry you’re in, the markets you’re looking to enter, and your financial strength. If you’re a small business looking to export as a growth strategy, your risks will be different than a company that’s already an avid exporter, exploring new markets.  

You’ll want to start by examining your competition abroad. Some industries are traditionally safer than others, and while that’s subject to change, it can play a role in your decision to expand globally. You’ll want to look at what’s in demand in Canada for your industry compared to what’s in demand in the market you’re looking to enter. You’ll also want to determine how risky the market is you’re entering. Many Canadian companies are most comfortable first exporting to the US because it’s fairly similar to what you already know in terms of language, cultural norms, and similarity in tastes –– but you shouldn’t ignore the benefits of trade diversification. Finally, a financial analysis of your company’s strengths and weaknesses will help determine your appetite for risk. 

“When entering a new market, ensure that the opportunities you’re looking for are within the scope of your current business, that you can deliver on them, and perform to your highest ability.”

What should be considered when it comes to intelligent risk-taking?

The first step in intelligent risk-taking is to go into an exporting opportunity making sure you have the full picture. This is where your plan comes in. While companies often skip over the planning process, it’s a critical component. In creating your plan, you’ll be able to address what you need to know before entering a new market. These include: regulatory requirements, taxes, customs and tariffs, IP protection, due-diligence, and compliance. Having all of this in your plan means you’ll have a strategy to address these foundational items as you begin to take your company global.

How should a person set up their business to protect themselves? 

Many small businesses aren’t prepared for the risks their company may face during this growth process, which means they’re often caught off guard. There are steps you might want to take prior to exporting, like incorporating your business, rather than remaining a sole proprietorshipand there are benefits to both options. Beyond knowing your risks and preparing for them, companies may want to hire a risk manager. This individual will look at the market you’re expanding into to identify and monitor potential risks and use their expertise and market intelligence to guide internal decisions. You may also want to consider the costs and benefits of insuring your sales, to see if credit insurance makes sense for your business. 

At the end of the day, however, remember that not all risks can be planned for. The best advice I can provide is for companies to be open to experimenting. If you fail, fail fast, look back, make observations, learn from them and move forward, and adjust as you go. With the right tools, you can manage risks as they arise. Longer term, exporting can help lower business risk; a Deloitte study showed that companies who export are less risky because they’re more diversified, have a broader set of customers, and are better equipped to handle the ebbs and flows of economic upturns and downturns, leading to more resilient companies that stay in business longer.

What are some key factors to understanding distance/logistics and the use of resources?

When you’re dealing with a potential buyer or customer in a new market, there is a lot to be considered logistically. For example, who takes title of the product and when, who is responsible for delivering the product, who is responsible for placing products onto a boat or other form of transportation, and who is responsible for taking them off.  Reviewing Incoterms — a set of internationally recognized rules defining the responsibilities of sellers and buyers — would dictate who takes responsibility at what point. We also recommend hiring a freight forwarder as a small company exporting for the first time wouldn’t want to be stuck doing customs clearance or documentary clearance or dealing with other fees that may come up at the last minute. If you’re unsure of where to begin when looking for a trusted partner, EDC’s InList resource is a helpful tool companies can use when searching for a vetted list of providers. So, before you get into a new market, look closely at the supply chain as a whole. 

How do you research prospective business partners and build new relationships?

Once you’ve engaged with a prospective business partner, there are various ways to verify the business’ legitimacy before you go ahead and sign an agreement. The risk associated with this when you’re entering foreign markets is greater than when you’re dealing with domestic customers. This is a topic many companies don’t feel comfortable addressing because they don’t feel they have the contacts in those markets to conduct due-diligence. A good place to start is EDC Company InSight, which lets you search EDC data to discover insights about international companies — including buyers, suppliers, distributors, and potential partners. To dive deeper, the best resource you can use is the Trade Commissioner Service in a specific market. They will help you conduct due-diligence on a specific buyer or refer you to a local credit agency. They’ll also have best practices and other check-lists that will help you when working with a new partner for the first time.  

How can you plan to have sustainable growth in an exporting business?

When it comes to sustainable growth, the key is to not bite off more than you can chew. When  entering a new market, ensure that the opportunities you’re looking for are within the scope of your current business, that you can deliver on them, and perform to your highest ability. Do you have the backing to cover unexpected costs, longer payment cycles, and higher costs of sales? While ensuring you have the financial capital to pursue growth opportunities in new markets is key, don’t forget that having the right team of people in place is equally important. Make sure that you have sufficient support to operate the current business, so that you can pursue the growth opportunities in new markets, or alternatively, hire someone to focus on export market development. Taking all of this into consideration will help make sure the growth you’re approaching is sustainable. 

What is one way an export business can remain adaptable in an ever-changing market?

This is an important question, and the answer is to listen to your customers’ feedback. What works well in Canada may not work in a different market. So, after entering that market, take the time to step back and assess whether that solution is working there. You’ll want to determine how your reception is in the new market and whether there are customer comments or feedback you can incorporate into easy improvements. The most successful companies will be flexible and willing to make changes to their strategy as needed. It goes back to the advice I gave prior: if you’re going to fail, fail fast, and be agile to change and improve. 

AI can help small retail businesses make data-driven decisions — thanks to this tech founder.

By Hailey Eisen

Fatima Khamitova always felt that entrepreneurship was something she was born to do. The co-founder and CEO of Veer AI — a software company that aims to help retail companies make data-driven decisions — she credits this inner sense to her family and their unusual entrepreneurial paths.

Her father, a surgeon in Kazakhstan, left his medical career behind to start a real estate entertainment business. “My dad became a condo developer and had a chain of entertainment parks — like Canada’s Wonderland, but smaller — across many cities,” Fatima explains. Her grandmother, a role model for Fatima and a woman ahead of her time, worked as a dentist and then opened the first private dental clinic in Kazakhstan, which later grew into a chain of clinics.

“Growing up with an entrepreneurial family, I always had the idea that I’d go out on my own someday, I just didn’t know how,” she says, looking back at her own journey. 

Fatima began her career in investment banking, followed by an internship in Milan, where she worked for an incubator developing strategy for Italian start-ups in luxury goods. While this international experience helped her realize she didn’t want to spend her career in banking, she did recognize that her strength was in numbers. After a Master of Science degree in Analytics back in Toronto, Fatima embarked on a nearly 10-year career in consulting and data-driven strategy. 

Her corporate experience, including a few jobs with firms that were just starting out, gave her the confidence and expertise to eventually go out on her own. She also credits the robust network she built with helping her start Veer AI.

One evening I called up a bunch of my friends and invited them over for pizza and a brainstorming session. We were talking about all the things we’d learned at the companies we’d worked for. 

“Thanks to the nature of my career, I knew a lot of people in Toronto in the fields of data, strategy, and marketing,” Fatima says. “One evening I called up a bunch of my friends and invited them over for pizza and a brainstorming session. We were talking about all the things we’d learned at the companies we’d worked for.” 

The realization that came out of that brainstorming session was that while data was being leveraged to help large retail corporations understand their customers and market to them accordingly, none of the existing data-driven strategies were scalable for smaller players. “From that night, we decided we wanted to go after the small and medium size business sector, because a lot of things being done for those businesses were rudimentary.” 

Taking on the co-founder role with a partner as CTO, and many of the others who joined them that night becoming advisors, Fatima got to work bringing her vision to life. The goal: to use AI and machine learning to provide a better understanding of customers to small retail companies, allowing them to connect with customers in a more meaningful and impactful way. 

“We started our business a bit unusually, in that we didn’t want to take seed money right away,” Fatima explains. “While we had some interest, we didn’t want to dilute the value of the company and weren’t exactly sure what we were building. Instead, we decided to take on consulting work to pay the bills and pay for everyone we had hired.” 

When COVID hit in early 2020, Veer AI was faced with its first big challenge. “All of our consulting projects were canceled or postponed and many of our early clients whose data we were using to build out our software also faced a huge panic,” Fatima says. 

I’m very much in awe of how amazing people have been; it was incredibly easy to call up people and ask for advice, and so many retailers have offered to support us, giving over their data so we could use it to build this platform.

From this great challenge, Fatima was surprised to find a lot of opportunity. “I was the happiest person on earth when I found out that I actually had access to a number of hiring grants from the Canadian government which we could use to offset the income we’d been bringing in.” She also found great support through the start-up ecosystem in Canada and especially in Toronto. 

“I’m very much in awe of how amazing people have been; it was incredibly easy to call up people and ask for advice, and so many retailers have offered to support us, giving over their data so we could use it to build this platform.” 

In a time when being an entrepreneur is especially lonely, Fatima has also found support and connection through Tech Undivided, a program run through ventureLAB to challenge women-led tech companies to scale their businesses and compete globally. From being connected to a community of women entrepreneurs that were embarking on a similar journey, to being assisted with sourcing different avenues for accessing capital, Tech Undivided has proven to be an invaluable resource and experience for her.

“This program has been incredible,” Fatima says. “They’ve provided me with an advisor who I speak with weekly, and who has been the perfect sounding board.” Through her advisor, Fatima has not only found the connection she’d been missing since COVID began, she’s also been granted valuable advice from a fellow entrepreneur, timely introductions to other founders in the sector, and opportunities for growth. 

“It was my advisor who helped me figure out a new sales channel,” Fatima says. “For a while I was only doing direct sales and going from one company to the next, but my advisor helped me connect with agencies who have many clients in the retail sector and will help us grow faster.” 

With an eye to continued growth, Fatima is excited to see where things will go with Veer AI. She’s happy to be helping small businesses — especially in a time when they need all the support they can to compete with the big players. “Ideally we’ll continue building our product and have 100 clients by the summer,” she says. “All I want is for my clients to use this product and for it to genuinely help them.” 

She’s also eager to provide the help and support that was offered to her to other women founders. “My biggest advice is to keep asking questions and remember that a strong network is the most valuable thing a start-up can have — you can’t build a business in isolation.” 

Deborah Service, VP in Global Technology Services at Scotiabank shares advice on fostering future Black women leaders

by Shelley White

 

Deborah Service has this advice for young women looking to build their careers: Be open. Be curious.

“Don’t limit yourself and your possibilities because you’re thinking, this is what I know,” says Deborah, Vice-President, Service Management, Global Technology Services at Scotiabank. “You may not know something now, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn it and excel at it. Sometimes your career path gets rerouted inadvertently and it turns out to be the best reroute of your life.”

It’s a philosophy that has served Deborah well throughout her career. Born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Deborah says she never imagined a future in IT.

“When I was in college, if you told me that I was going to wind up working with computers, I would have laughed you out of the room,” says Deborah, who studied Psychology at the City College of New York. “As far as I thought, I hated computers and anything to do with technology.” 

That changed due to a pivotal conversation. To help pay for school, Deborah took a data entry job for a real estate company owned by Barbara Corcoran (who would go on to be a star on ABC’s Shark Tank). Beyond “putting the information on the screen,” Deborah experimented with the computer system she was using, trying out various applications — and often crashing the system through her explorations.  

“While I was at work one Saturday, the person who created the computer system came in to do an upgrade,” Deborah recalls. “And when you’re young, you have no fear. So I said, ‘Hey, is this your program?’ And he said, ‘Yes, it is.’ And I responded, ‘It doesn’t work very well.’”

Rather than being offended, the system’s developer asked Deborah to show him where the trouble spots were. She explained where the system had come up short, and he immediately recognized her potential. 

“He said, ‘You have an intuitive understanding of what systems are supposed to be able to do, and not a lot of people get that,’” Deborah says. “He took out his business card and said, ‘When you’re finished with school, give me a call and if you want a job, I will hire you.’”

After graduation, Deborah did just that. 

“Don’t hire like yourself. Think beyond the resumes, and not just based on the experience that’s on paper. Interview them, dig deep into their character and really identify what they could bring to the table for your team, your business and your customers.”

That first job opened her eyes and she saw that working in technology wasn’t just about programming. Over the next 20 years, Deborah expanded her skills, working in many different aspects of the IT industry at several organizations, including the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Thomson Reuters, and Time Warner. She went from being a “hands-on-keyboard” engineer and UNIX expert to running data centres and working in service management, a customer-focused approach to delivering information technology.

“Service management came about because there was a recognition that ‘techies’ do more than the technical work, that they are a key enabler of many business functions,” Deborah explains. “To ensure that business and technology work effectively together, the service management role evolved.”

Deborah’s career has also been a personal evolution. Back when she was starting out, she lacked confidence in her own abilities, in part because of the sexism and prejudice she encountered in a predominantly male industry. She credits an early mentor, Vincent Cohan, now Senior Vice President, Global Technology Services at Scotiabank, with pushing her out of her comfort zone and exposing her to new experiences.”

Deborah remembers working with Vincent at the Thomson Corporation in the early 2000s, meeting with technology vendors who “basically thought I was there to bring coffee or take notes because I was the only woman in the room, and the only Black woman in the room,” she says.

“Even if I called the meeting, they would only talk to Vinny. He’d let them do their thing, then would look at me and say ‘Deb, what do you think?’ He would say, ‘Gentlemen, in case you think that I’m the one you need to convince, you’re wrong. She is the one you need to convince. If she doesn’t get it, you don’t get in,’” she says. “He did that a couple of times until people got it.”

Nearly two decades later, Deborah says she is proud of the fact that more North American companies are publicly making commitments to diversity and inclusion, noting that Scotiabank has been a leader in this area. 

“Scotiabank recognizes the value of diversity and an inclusive culture at work. We put customers first — and our leadership, our people, and our products and services need to reflect those in the markets we serve,” she says. “Inclusion is more than a buzzword — it’s a commitment we make to be a winning team.”

That commitment spans everything from hiring targets — they’ve pledged to fill at least 3.5 per cent of senior executive and board positions in Canada with Black leaders by 2025 — to the celebration of Black History Month, and the mentorship and attraction of existing and new Black talent.

“It’s an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices and the contributions of those who went before us,” Deborah says. “To be honest, I wish that there wasn’t a need for Black History Month, but right now, especially with what’s going on in the world, it seems that there needs to be a reminder that people of colour have contributed significantly to the advancement of the human race as a whole.”

She lists some of the accomplishments of Black inventors and scientists, such as Frederick Jones, who invented mobile refrigeration in the 1930s, and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a scientist at the U.S.-based National Institute of Health who developed one of the mRNA vaccines now being used to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking to the future, Deborah says more work needs to be done to encourage young women, especially Black women, to see technology as a career option. 

“We don’t get as many women applying for roles as I would love to see. We have to reach out to them when they’re in school and educate them about the different trajectories their careers can take,” she says. “The perception right now is that working in technology involves programming or working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But the reality is there are so many opportunities — you can do things like service management and architecture. And we need to make sure that people understand how technology enables every single business. If you’re into music, or gardening, or farming, technology is an enabler for that. We need to evolve that vision of what the possibilities could be.” 

Deborah also has a message for the gatekeepers — executives across industries who are empowered to create real change in the world.

“Don’t hire like yourself,” she says. “Think beyond the resumes, and not just based on the experience that’s on paper. Interview them, dig deep into their character and really identify what they could bring to the table for your team, your business and your customers.”

Building your business in new markets starts with a new mindset.

Woman business owner

Have you ever asked yourself, am I ready to export? If the answer is always a ‘no’ — or you’re not even ready to consider the question of going global — you’re not alone. Only 11% of women-owned businesses in Canada are exporters.

The low participation can partially be attributed to the unique barriers that women entrepreneurs face when it comes to building a business — but there are factors you can control. And the first step is changing your mindset.

Here are four things to consider that just might change your view about taking your business international:

1. You’ve already got the mindset you need. 

After all that’s happened over the last year, it’s normal not to be feeling particularly confident or courageous. But take a moment and think back to your first step into entrepreneurship. Reflect on all the big obstacles you’ve overcome, the opportunities you’ve gone after, and the ups and downs of the daily grind in between. All of that took confidence and courage — the same mindset you need to find success abroad.  

2. You might be exporting already.

When you think about exporting, you probably picture a box being packaged and shipped around the world. That image misses all the service providers selling to an international market. Even when everything is done online, and you’re selling ideas, advice, or other intangible goods, you’re an exporter. The sooner you learn how to embrace the term, the better equipped you’ll be to manage exporting obstacles and to go after opportunities. 

3. Success isn’t about size you can export as a small business. 

Yes, large enterprises account for a lot of the goods and services leaving Canada, but if you look at the landscape as a whole, the majority of exporters employ less than 50 people, and three-quarters sell less than $1 million abroad each year. Small businesses and even micro-businesses (making under $1 million in revenue total) can find their exporting niche, and along with it, the benefits — which may include growth. Between 2009 and 2011, one out of every 10 exporters grew at an annual rate of more than 20%, and small- and medium-sized companies that export average more than double the annual revenue of non-exporting companies, according to a 2015 report by Industry Canada

4. You don’t have to go it alone.

Even if you’re feeling ready to export, or are dabbling in it already, you might have hit the  roadblock of figuring out how to do it well. The good news: you don’t have to waste resources finding those answers on your own. There are supports available for women entrepreneurs who are interested in starting or growing their exporting efforts. From resources like EDC’s Export Help Hub to programs like EDC’s Women in Trade, you can find expert knowledge, targeted advice, inspirational stories, and even financial solutions designed to help you meet your global potential.

“While attending a tradeshow in Toronto, a friend of mine suggested I go to the New York NOW Gift Show directly after the Toronto show was over. I was terrified at the prospect of going to a show in the USA as I knew nothing about export, but I went anyway. After that show, I realized the opportunities for export were greater than I imagined, because export markets are incredibly interested in Canadian made, shelf stable products.”

Dannah Davies
Founder, Sweetsmith Candy Co.

Dannah Davies Canada Sweet Shop

“My co-founder, Connie Lo, and I have always had high aspirations for Three Ships. From Day 1 we knew that exporting to the US in particular would be critical for us to grow the brand to a significant following. After going through the TAP [Trade Accelerator Program] two years ago, our eyes were truly opened to the possibilities and support that there is in Canada to export.”

Laura Burget
Co-Founder, Three Ships Beauty

Three Ships Beauty founders Connie and Laura

How The Scotiabank Women Initiative™ is helping women take control of their finances

Erin Griffiths, Senior Vice President, Client Solutions and Direct Investing at Scotia Wealth Management, shares how Scotiabank is leveraging its understanding of women’s unique wealth management needs, and leading the charge to serve women best.

By Shelley White

Erin Griffiths has long had a passion for helping people achieve better financial futures. 

“I’ve spent my entire career, over 20 years, in the wealth space,” says Erin. “For me, it’s been a passion from the start, as I was able to see the difference that it can make in people’s lives.”

Erin is particularly driven by a desire to help women take control of their finances and attain their life goals. Women have historically been underserved by the wealth industry, and Erin says that there’s a “huge opportunity” to do better for them.

She points to a PMG Intelligence report from December 2019 that found that while 94 per cent of women investors want to learn about money and finances, and 90 per cent regard advice from a wealth advisor as helpful, only 22 per cent of women have a financial plan prepared by a professional. 

“There’s such a demand for [financial advice], and there’s been progress, but I think there’s still a significant gap,” Erin continues. “I would love to see us help close the gap that we’ve seen out there.”

To that end, Erin is championing the expansion of The Scotiabank Women Initiative into Scotia Wealth Management. This successful two-year-old program has already made significant strides in supporting women entrepreneurs grow, build and sustain their businesses in Canada.  

The Scotiabank Women Initiative launched in December 2018, led by executive sponsor Gillian Riley, now President and CEO of Tangerine Bank, to support women-owned, women-led businesses in Canada through access to capital, mentorships and education. One year later, the program was expanded to women clients in Global Banking and Markets, led by Scotiabank’s Loretta Marcoccia, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Global Banking and Markets. 

In its first two years, the program has deployed two thirds of its $3-billion commitment in funding for women-led businesses and engaged more than 2500 women entrepreneurs across the country through over 100 boot camps and mentorships sessions. In celebration of its two-year anniversary, The Scotiabank Women Initiative launched a Digital Hub to deliver resources to help women entrepreneurs adapt to uncertain economic times. 

In the one year since the launch of the Global Banking and Markets initiative, Scotiabank has delivered programs that help women clients to reach the next level of their careers. The team has designed and delivered a bespoke series of training sessions facilitated by Scotiabank professionals designed for women clients to increase their knowledge about key business topics such as cyber-security and payments modernization, and to network with other women in similar industries or roles. In addition, the Bank has launched a Good Corporate Governance Program, designed and facilitated by Julie Walsh, Scotiabank’s Senior Vice President, Corporate Secretary and Chief Corporate Governance Officer to help open the boardroom doors to more women in Canada.

On December 7, 2020, The Scotiabank Women Initiative™ for Scotia Wealth Management was launched, building on Scotia Wealth Management’s Total Wealth approach to provide tailored wealth advisory services to women, just the way they want it.

Erin says the idea is to transform the way Scotia Wealth Management serves its women clients, to better understand women’s distinct wealth management needs and provide a wealth advisory program that empowers women to take charge of their financial futures.

The program includes three pillars: education, advice and access to wealth services. The education pillar provides online resources and interactive workshops to help women make informed financial decisions about areas of focus that may be of particular interest to women. 

“Information around life transitions, like dealing with aging parents, navigating divorce, retirement. All those things that really are top of mind for our [women] clients,” Erin says.

In the advice pillar, Scotiabank Wealth advisors receive dedicated training to more effectively work with women clients. “It’s about training our advisors to have better, more meaningful conversations with their women clients,” she adds.

And through the access to wealth services pillar, advisors help women create a financial plan that will serve the entirety of their lives – from selecting appropriate financial instruments to transitioning their wealth and exploring how to leave a meaningful legacy through their estate. 

Following a successful pilot in 2020, Scotia Wealth Management will be rolling out different phases of the program for their women clients this year. Erin says that Scotiabank aspires to become the wealth manager of choice for women in Canada. 

“A lot of women are time-pressed because they’re business owners or working while trying to manage and juggle a family at the same time, and I think this is where advice becomes very important.”

“We want to change the way we serve our women clients as we go forward. Not just for our current client base, but also for future generations of wealth clients.”

Erin says her passion to help people achieve better financial futures originated way back in her childhood. 

“I grew up in a family where there were stresses about finances, especially for my mother after my parents divorced, so I always wondered if there was something I could do in my career to help change that for other families,” Erin says. “It came from a view that if you can remove some financial stresses from people, you can help clients live their best lives.” 

Early on, she was inspired by a female woman mentor whose life offered her a glimpse of what she could someday achieve. 

“I love the quote, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” Erin says. “I was fortunate to know a friend’s mother who was a senior executive at one of the banks, at a time when that was not very common. I always looked up to her and I continue to learn a lot from her to this day.” 

Erin developed her career in the male-dominated advisory space, spending nearly a decade with ScotiaMcLeod as Director of Products and Services. “I was lucky to have both men and women champions at Scotiabank to support me in my own career development,” she says. 

As Vice President, Strategy, Erin was integral to the launch of the Scotia Wealth brand, then moved on to lead Scotia iTRADE®, the company’s online brokerage business. In March of 2020, she took on her current role as Senior Vice President, Client Solutions and Direct Investing at Scotia Wealth Management, which broadened her responsibilities to include the company’s financial planners and insurance consultants. 

Now, serving as Co-Chair of The Scotiabank Women Initiative for Scotia Wealth Management, Erin brings together several of her interests: helping people achieve better financial futures, driving change in the industry and championing women.

Erin says she has been very pleased about how much momentum and support there is for The Scotiabank Women Initiative across the bank, from both men and women.  

“It’s not just being championed by women, our male executives are also one hundred per cent behind this initiative, and that’s also been great to see,” she says. 

“We have trailblazers like Gillian and Loretta who’ve launched their pieces [of the program], but at the end of the day, it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that we do the very best job for our women clients and customers across the bank.”

How Patricia McLeod turned corporate governance into a full-time job — even though she didn’t fit the typical board member profile.

By Hailey Eisen 

The advice that Patricia McLeod likes to give — “Pick things you’re good at, because if you love what you’re doing enough you’ll find a path forward” — sums up her own journey over the past five years.  

Patricia spent 23 years as a lawyer and executive in Calgary and Vancouver before making an unusual career pivot. Armed with an Executive MBA, plus years of legal, privacy, compliance and corporate responsibility experience, Patricia began to expand on her volunteer experience. She took board positions with organizations focusing on community and economic development, arts, innovation, and vulnerable women and families. 

In 2015, she began to feel that her board work was more strategic than her job. The variety of challenges and opportunities was exciting. Patricia wondered if she could turn governance into her full-time career. She asked a handful of women directors for their opinions. 

Their responses were not reassuring. “I ended up with a long list of reasons why I wasn’t likely to be successful in corporate governance,” she says. “They weren’t being negative, they were just coming from a different place — C-Suite executives who’d been specifically tapped for their board positions.” 

As it was pointed out, Patricia wasn’t even 50, had never been a CEO, and wasn’t ready to retire. Plus, she had no experience in the oil and gas sector — a bit of a problem for someone wanting to serve on boards in Calgary. “I remember thinking: They’re right, but where am I in the board world? I’m the gap.”

Nevertheless, Patricia was undaunted. 

Within six months, she secured her first paid governance position and within 18 months, she was appointed as Chair of the Board of Calgary Co-op, one of the largest retail cooperatives in North America with annual revenues of around $1.2 billion and 440,000 member-owners. In two years, she resigned from her general counsel role, had a full portfolio of board positions and was making more money than she’d earned in her previous job. 

“I’m not a pioneer on boards because I’m a woman. Women on boards is now a much more well-known and supported concept. But I’m a pioneer because I treat my board work as a profession,” Patricia says. 

And following her passion has made her happy. 

“With board work, you’re doing strategy, leadership, issues management — all of which is so motivating to me,” she says. “And it’s a balancing act, like being a consultant.” 

Today, Patricia sits on a wide cross-section of boards, including Calgary Co-op, the Beverage Container Management Board, Alberta Innovates, and the Calgary Film Centre.

 “I’ve learned to describe myself not by what I do, but by how I can transfer my skills.” 

She says her prior board roles with First Air and Air Inuit proved especially satisfying. Based in Quebec and Ontario, the airlines operate passenger, charter and cargo services in Nunavik and Nunavut. “This was the first time they’d opened up the organization to non-Inuit board members, and there was a great deal of learning on both sides,” Patricia says. During her term, First Air merged with another Inuit-owned airline and Patricia brought her experience in governance, legal and relationship-building to the merger process. “It was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had.”  

But with no airline experience (or experience in many of the industries in which she now serves on boards), Patricia has had to market herself differently. “I’ve learned to describe myself not by what I do, but by how I can transfer my skills. For example, I worked in utilities, a highly regulated, high-hazard industry, which transferred nicely to the aviation industry.”

Patricia says she’s also needed a lot of self-confidence in applying for board positions — “for every ten interviews you’ll get one position” — and taking on a wide range of roles. She also needed to be willing to put her name forward for board leadership opportunities. She credits her Executive MBA with giving her the confidence to make the leap into governance and the success she’s having as a leader. 

With an undergraduate degree in business, a law degree, and years of work, Patricia went back to school in 2009 to earn her EMBA at Smith School of Business. “I knew I was a strong lawyer but felt the MBA would give me the business credibility I was lacking.” With two young daughters at home and a full-time job, Patricia joined the EMBA program from Calgary, with the strong support of her company. 

“The program not only helped me rethink the language of business writing, which was really important for me coming from a law background, it also put a huge emphasis on group work and leadership,” she recalls. “I literally use the skills from that program on a daily basis, when I’m chairing boards and leading groups, public speaking, leaning into difficult decisions and facing down big issues.” 

Completing the EMBA, she says, made her courageous enough to step into governance and gave her the skills to feel comfortable doing so. But first, it gave her the confidence to put her hand up at AltaLink, where she worked, to take on different roles beyond her existing scope. 

“Sometimes in an established career you are seen in a certain way, and you have to jar people out of that. You have to raise your hand and step outside of your comfort zone.” 

And staying just beyond her comfort zone is what keeps Patricia engaged. “It reinvigorates me, this board work,” she says. “I was recently offered a prestigious role back in legal, and while I was tempted, I decided to be brave and continue on the path I’m on.”

Tamara’s short-term disability presented unique challenges — here’s how her employer enabled her to overcome them.

By Shelley White

Tamara Mungal’s life changed in the blink of an eye. 

It was December 2018, and Tamara had recently been promoted into a new role as Senior Consultant, Talent Acquisition for Retail and Small Business Banking at Scotiabank. On what was otherwise an ordinary day, things changed when Tamara fainted. Though she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, “I must have hit a doorknob or something on the way down,” Tamara says.

Her brother found her bleeding and unconscious on the floor and took her to the hospital, where tests revealed she had a concussion. After getting the diagnosis, one of Tamara’s first concerns was her new job.

“I remember contacting my director and saying, ‘The doctor said I have a concussion, so maybe I can return to work next week.’ He replied, ‘Why don’t we wait and see what the doctor has to say,’” Tamara recalls. “I thought, give it a week, I should be fine. I had no idea I would have to go on short term disability for a total of eight months.”

Although each individual’s experience is different, concussions can cause a range of symptoms that can persist for a year or more. Tamara says she experienced dizziness, nausea and vomiting, as well as pounding migraine headaches, crippling fatigue, and brain fog. 

“There was some memory loss in the beginning,” she adds. “I’d have conversations with people and I would find myself forgetting parts of the conversation. I was unable to drive long distances because that would exacerbate the nausea, dizziness and the headaches. I wasn’t able to watch screens or monitors for an extended period of time because I had sensitivity to light. I also had a loss of balance and coordination, difficulties concentrating, mood swings and sleep disturbances.”

Moreover, Tamara had a persistent feeling of guilt about missing work. 

Even though I was aware my leave was medically justified, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

“This was a drastic change for me. I’d never been on a medical leave before,” she says. “Even though I was aware my leave was medically justified, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I was also partly afraid of how my peers might respond or interpret my absence since my concussion was not visible.”

Tamara says that another contributing factor to her guilt and fear stemmed from her upbringing. Born in Trinidad, Tamara moved to Canada with her family at the age of 10. 

“Coming from an immigrant household, we’re very aware that many immigrants struggle to find employment, and it’s something not to take for granted. I was raised to feel like it was wrong to take too many sick days, because it could create a negative perception in the eyes of the employer,” she says.

Slowly, Tamara’s condition improved, with the help of physiotherapy, acupuncture, massage, counselling, mindfulness practices and meditation. Six months after her fall, Tamara got in touch with the Bank’s Workplace Accommodation (WA) team to discuss returning to work.

“I told them, ‘I’m ready to come back, I’ll just assess my progress and see how it goes,’” she says.

To ensure Tamara was cleared to return to work and would be properly accommodated in the office environment, the WA team asked for assessments from her physiotherapist and an occupational therapist to determine what her return to work should look like. 

Tamara was cleared for a gradual return to work in August 2019, with regular check points to assess her progress. One of the assessment recommendations for Tamara was to work in a private room to avoid migraines that could be caused by too many lights in an open, shared workplace. This recommendation would also help to reduce distractions that could disrupt her concentration.  In connection with this recommendation, she was advised to take frequent screen breaks throughout the day.

And though she understood these accommodations were for her benefit, they once again stirred up feelings of guilt and shame.

“My team, for the most part, sat together in an open workspace and I would be sitting alone in a private room. I sometimes felt like I needed to explain myself to avoid being perceived as antisocial because I was sitting alone,” she says. “I also felt like the accommodation was hindering my presence and visibility in the workplace.”

To help ensure she felt valued and included, Scotiabank provided opportunities for Tamara to participate in multiple special projects, such as delivering Inclusive Hiring Training across all regions and launching Talent Acquisition’s Onboarding Program. 

“I really appreciated these opportunities, because it allowed me to have the exposure I felt I was missing. It allowed me to build relationships, form connections, and build a brand for myself,” she says.

Anna Zec, Senior Vice President, Global HR Services at Scotiabank says that Scotiabank is committed to providing accommodations for employees (and prospective employees) with disabilities, so that people are able to realize their full potential in the workplace. “Aligned with this policy, the Bank has a dedicated Workplace Accommodation (WA) team who works with employees on their accommodation needs,” she says. “They work together to help recognize barriers and determine solutions.”

Zec says that when employees like Tamara return to work from a leave of absence, the WA team may work with the employee, the employee’s healthcare team, management and other parties as needed to implement accommodations to facilitate a safe and sustainable return to work. And over the past few years, Scotiabank has expanded mental health benefits to build and align with an overall philosophy of “Total Wellbeing” — an effort that has been especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The global pandemic has created not only a physical health crisis, but many are now referring to the resulting mental health crisis as the silent second wave,” Zec says. “These measures were put into place to provide support to employees so they can bring their best self to work, and to life, every day. The Bank recognizes that everyone’s needs are different, even more so during these challenging times, and offers comprehensive and flexible programs that are available to employees when they need them.”

Like many on her team, Tamara currently works from home, and while she still gets migraines and must be careful to limit her screen time, Tamara says she is following the recommendations of her healthcare providers and her condition continues to improve as she utilizes the total wellbeing benefits offered by Scotiabank.

I’m able to relate to others in different ways — as a woman, as a woman of colour, as an immigrant, and as someone who had a short-term, non-visible disability.

The theme of this year’s 2020 International Day of Persons with Disabilities — which is observed on December 3rd each year — is “Not all Disabilities are Visible.” For Tamara, this day is about removing stigma and promoting understanding and support for the rights of persons with disabilities.

“Through this experience, there’s another layer to my intersectionality. I’m able to relate to others in different ways — as a woman, as a woman of colour, as an immigrant, and as someone who had a short-term, non-visible disability. We want to be a workplace of choice for the diverse communities we serve, so having these unique lenses really help not only strengthen me as an individual, but professionally I am able to have a multi-dimensional outlook as a member of a winning team.” 

While the past two years have been challenging, Tamara says she has been surprised to recognize the positives in her experiences.

“I did have feelings of shame and guilt in the past, but looking back and reflecting on it, I see it differently. I see resilience. I see strength in my story”.

Laura Didyk explique comment les femmes entrepreneurs peuvent réussir dans l’adversité.

Laura Didyk BDC VP

Nous sommes à la mi-novembre et cela fait maintenant huit mois que la pandémie de COVID-19 bouleverse notre quotidien. Comme certaines d’entre vous, je suis toujours en télétravail et je m’emploie à trouver de nouvelles façons d’entretenir les liens avec des femmes entrepreneurs partout au pays.

Si la crise de la COVID-19 nous a toutes mises à rude épreuve, je crois qu’elle nous a aussi amenées à donner le meilleur de nous-mêmes. Le plus inspirant pour moi est de voir la persévérance et la résilience dont les femmes entrepreneurs font preuve. L’avenir de nombreux secteurs n’a jamais paru aussi incertain, et pourtant ces leaders audacieuses ne cessent de chercher de nouvelles perspectives pour leur entreprise, leurs clients et leurs employés, et de se préparer pour l’avenir. 

Comment est-ce possible? L’histoire nous a appris qu’une mauvaise économie crée parfois des occasions et, pour citer Winston Churchill, « il ne faut jamais gaspiller une bonne crise ». En fait, certaines des entreprises les plus emblématiques du monde sont issues d’une tourmente économique et de la nécessité de faire les choses autrement. Les entreprises Disney et HP ont été lancées pendant la Grande Dépression, et la récession de 2008-2009 a été le terreau fertile de la révolution numérique qui nous a donné Uber, Airbnb et Square, des entreprises désormais incontournables dans la plupart de nos vies. 

Un peu plus tôt cette année, j’ai lancé cette chronique dans le but de présenter des entretiens édifiants avec des femmes entrepreneurs qui non seulement traversent cette crise, mais trouvent le moyen de prospérer. Mon objectif? En inspirer d’autres à suivre leur exemple. Dans un monde trouble, la seule certitude que j’ai est que rien ne peut empêcher ces femmes de réaliser leurs rêves, pas même une pandémie mondiale! 

Dans le cadre de cette série, je me suis entretenue avec des propriétaires d’entreprise pour apprendre tout ce que je pouvais sur les outils nécessaires à la survie d’une entreprise, la manière d’aider ses employés en temps de crise, et les moyens d’atteindre les consommateurs et de maximiser les perspectives de ventes, entre autres choses. Dans le dernier billet de cette série, je vous présente trois conseils qui m’ont marquée et qui, selon moi, aideront chaque propriétaire d’entreprise, tous secteurs, tailles ou stades de développement confondus. 

Le pouvoir de la pensée positive

Les femmes tendent à être plus exigeantes envers elles-mêmes. Nous nous poussons à en faire plus, à nous améliorer et à ne rien laisser tomber. Cette incessante quête de l’excellence peut être accablante et miner la confiance en soi. Mais comme l’ont démontré ces femmes entrepreneurs, le doute se surmonte en persévérant, en s’acharnant et en suivant son instinct, même si c’est difficile. Pour citer Evelyne Nyairo, fondatrice de la gamme de produits de soins corporels socialement responsables Ellie Bianca, il faut garder le cap. « Avez-vous des craintes? Oui. Avez-vous des doutes? Oui. Mais foncez quand même. »

Plus les temps sont durs, plus il faut être inventive.

Pendant une pandémie mondiale, aucune recette n’étant infaillible, il faut trouver des façons créatives de s’adapter à des circonstances qui évoluent. Bobbie Racette, fondatrice de l’entreprise technologique Virtual Gurus, constatait que les propriétaires d’entreprises en démarrage et de petites entreprises en arrachaient pendant cette crise. Elle leur a donc offert une aide administrative gratuite ou à prix réduit. Ce coup de pouce semble avoir porté ses fruits, car beaucoup de ces propriétaires sont devenus des clients payants, faisant augmenter son chiffre d’affaires de 66 %. Andrea Mulligan, copropriétaire de Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, a vu ses employés se démener pour trouver une garderie afin de pouvoir revenir au travail. Voyant une occasion de leur prêter main-forte, elle a ouvert une garderie dans une partie de sa brasserie auparavant utilisée pour des événements. Elle l’a depuis rendue accessible à d’autres membres de la collectivité.   

Ne laissez pas une crise saboter la culture de votre entreprise.

Rester fidèle aux valeurs fondamentales de votre entreprise est crucial en temps de crise. Pour Maude Rondeau de Luminaire Authentik, il est important de continuer à concevoir et à fabriquer tous ses produits au Québec. De ses modestes débuts dans son garage à un atelier de production et d’entreposage de 5 000 mètres carrés (53 000 pieds carrés), elle vend désormais ses produits partout en Amérique du Nord. Demeurant fidèle à ses valeurs, elle continue de fabriquer ses produits au Québec. Pour Evelyne Nyairo, l’important c’est d’être un exemple pour sa fille et les amies de celle-ci. Pour reprendre ses propres paroles, « si elles ne voient pas nos réalisations, si elles ne nous voient pas exceller, elles continueront à tourner en rond. Rien ne me rend plus heureuse que de voir une autre femme réussir. Je veux simplement voir autant de femmes que possible créer de grandes entreprises. »

L’année a certes été difficile pour les entreprises – grandes et petites – mais, malgré les sombres perspectives, il existe de nombreux exemples inspirants de femmes entrepreneurs qui prospèrent au sein de leurs entreprises et des collectivités qu’elles servent. À BDC, nous sommes là pour fournir les outils, les conseils, les capitaux ou le soutien nécessaires non seulement pour que les entreprises survivent, mais aussi pour qu’elles soient florissantes. 

En 2018, la Banque s’est fixé l’ambitieux objectif de fournir 1,4 milliard de dollars à des femmes entrepreneurs pour qu’elles puissent lancer et développer leur entreprise. Aujourd’hui, je suis fière de dire que nous avons atteint cet objectif plus tôt que prévu et que nous continuons à investir dans les femmes parce qu’elles sont essentielles à la réussite économique du Canada et parce que nous voyons un grand potentiel dans leur capacité à développer leur entreprise et à la hisser au niveau supérieur. À toutes celles d’entre vous qui vivent de l’anxiété ou du désespoir en ces temps difficiles, je tiens à dire que nous voyons ce que vous faites et ce qui vous attend, et que nous sommes prêts à vous aider à réussir. Et nous ne sommes pas les seuls. 

Sachez que votre bond ou votre pas hésitant en avant pourrait avoir un effet d’entraînement. Comme l’a dit Evelyne Nyairo, « Lancez-vous en premier, et vous pourriez bien en inspirer d’autres à en faire autant ».

Laura Didyk on how women entrepreneurs can thrive in the face of adversity.

Laura Didyk BDC VP

It’s mid-November — eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic upended everyday life — and, like some of you, I’m still working from home, trying to find new ways to stay connected with women business owners across the country.

While COVID-19 has tested all of us, I believe it also brought out the best in us. What I’ve found most inspiring, is the steadfast persistence and resilience of women entrepreneurs. The future for many industries has never seemed so uncertain, yet these bold leaders remain focused on creating new opportunities for their companies, clients and employees, as they plan for the future. 

How is this possible? If history has taught us anything it’s that a bad economy sometimes creates opportunity (it was Winston Churchill who said “never let a good crisis go to waste”). In fact, some of the world’s most iconic companies were born out of tough economic times and the need to think differently. Disney and HP launched during the Great Depression and it was the Great Recession in 2008/2009 that ushered in the digital revolution and introduced us to Uber, Airbnb, and Square, companies that are now staples in most of our lives. 

Earlier this year, I began this column to share uplifting interviews with women entrepreneurs who are not only surviving this crisis, but also thriving through it. My aim? To inspire others to follow their lead. In a world of uncertainty, the one certainty I found is nothing can stop these women from chasing their dreams, not even a global pandemic. 

During this series, I spoke with business owners to unpack everything from the tools needed for businesses to survive and how to support your employees during a crisis, to finding new ways to reach consumers and fill the sales funnel. For my final post of this series, I’m sharing three pieces of advice that stuck with me and that I believe will help every business owner regardless of the industry, size or stage of your business: 

The power of positive thinking.

Women tend to be harder on themselves than anyone else. We push ourselves to do more and try harder, while keeping every ball in the air. This relentless pursuit of greatness can be overwhelming, opening the doors for self-doubt to creep in. But as these entrepreneurs showed us, doubt can be overcome with persistence and hard work, and trusting your gut no matter how difficult. As Evelyne Nyairo, the founder of the socially conscious Ellie Bianca skincare line said, the plan has to continue. “Are you going to be scared? Yes. Are you going to doubt? Yes. But do it anyways.”

When tough times hit, get creative. 

There is no tried-and-true way of running a business during a global pandemic so it’s important to find new, creative ways to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Bobbie Racette, founder of the tech company Virtual Gurus, saw that start-ups and small business owners were really struggling during this crisis, so she offered them free or discounted admin support. This helping hand seems to have paid off because many have since converted to paying clients and Bobbi’s business has grown 66%. Andrea Mulligan, co-owner of Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, saw her employees struggling to find childcare so they could get back to work. Seeing an opportunity to help, she opened a daycare in a part of their brewery that was previously used for events and has since opened it to other members of the community.   

Don’t let a crisis sabotage your company culture.

Staying true to your company’s core values is critical as you navigate your business through a crisis. For Maude Rondeau of Luminaire Authentik, it is important to her to design and manufacture all her products in Quebec. From humble roots in her garage to a 53,000-square-foot production and storage facility, and selling across North America today, she kept that commitment and still makes everything locally. For Evelyne Nyairo it’s being a strong role model for her daughter and her daughter’s friends. In her own words, “…If they don’t see us do it, if they don’t see us excelling, they will continue going around in circles. And there’s nothing that gives me more happiness than when I see another woman succeed. I just want to see as many women as possible build big businesses.”

It has certainly been a difficult year for businesses big and small, but amid all the gloomy headlines there have also been many inspiring examples of women entrepreneurs flourishing in their businesses and in the communities they serve. At BDC, we are here to provide the tools, advice, capital or support required to not just survive, but thrive. 

In 2018, BDC set an ambitious goal to provide $1.4 billion to women entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses. Today, I am proud to say we reached that target ahead of schedule and continue to invest in women because they are vital to Canada’s economic success and because we see so much potential in their ability to grow and take their business to the next level. So, for any of you feeling anxiety or despair during these challenging times, I want you to know we see you and are here for what’s ahead to help you succeed. And we’re not the only ones. 

Know that your leap — or tiptoe forward — could start a chain reaction. As Evelyne Nyairo said, “Be the first to jump in, and you might just be giving someone else permission to do the same.”

How Lulu Liang became CEO of Luxy Hair at 25 — and then started a side hustle.

Lulu Liang

By Hailey Eisen

 

At 25, Lulu Liang was named CEO of Luxy Hair, a global beauty brand with more than 300,000 customers in 165 countries. She had joined the company just three years earlier as an operations assistant. 

While such a quick leap up the corporate ladder may seem unusual, Lulu insists she joined the premium hair extensions e-commerce company with the intention of rising to the top. Now, just two years into her tenure as chief executive, Lulu has added a side hustle, with the launch of Evergreen Journals, an entrepreneurial collaboration with a friend and former colleague. 

She credits her drive and success to the way she was raised — though the entrepreneurial nature of her career was certainly not what her parents expected. 

“They had really high standards for me growing up,” Lulu says. “I lived in Beijing until I was seven, and in those days, my parents would quiz me on my multiplication tables every night over dinner.” 

When her family moved to Toronto, Lulu didn’t speak any English, but her math skills were beyond what was taught in the grade three class she joined. “They were multiplying four times five using apples, but I had already learned my times tables up to 12 when I was five years old.”

Not speaking English, however, made things tough for Lulu. Plus, her parents were starting over in a new country and were working constantly. “They couldn’t afford after-school programs or care, so I stayed home alone a lot,” Lulu recalls. “Those experiences helped me to become really independent.”

As she grew up, Lulu found her footing, working extra hard in school. “I once got an 88 per cent on a math test, and my mom told me I was hopeless,” Lulu recalls, laughing. Thankfully, her mom was wrong. And, while Lulu thought about becoming an optometrist, she found herself stronger in math than sciences and enrolled in the Commerce program at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. 

In her first year, Lulu went to a recruiting event for consulting firms and decided that she too wanted to be a consultant. “I was sold,” she recalls. “My goal was to launch my career in consulting for a few years, then do an MBA at an Ivy League school before working in leadership in the beauty or fashion industry.” 

Her love of fashion came from the movies. “As a kid growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, and I’d wear the same outfit five days in a row. But I watched The Devil Wears Prada and fell in love with that lifestyle,” she says.  

“Maybe I was thinking of becoming a math professor in another life. The math building at Queen’s was where I truly felt at home.”

At Queen’s, Lulu co-chaired the Queen’s Business Forum on the Fashion Industry (now the Queen’s Retail Forum), a student-run conference that explored the multifaceted world of fashion and retail from a business perspective. This hands-on experience, coupled with a summer internship at L’Oréal in Montreal, solidified her love of the industry. 

When Lulu secured a consulting job with Accenture at the beginning of her fourth year, it took the pressure off finding a job upon graduation. With that peace of mind, she decided to take on a more extensive course load. A year later, Lulu graduated with two bachelor’s degrees — the commerce degree and another full degree in math. “Maybe I was thinking of becoming a math professor in another life,” she says. “The math building at Queen’s was where I truly felt at home.” 

After a summer of travelling in Asia and Europe, Lulu started at Accenture, expecting to thrive in her role. “I had always done well in school and I wasn’t used to failure,” she recalls. “I guess I had a big ego back then, but consulting certainly humbled me. And to be honest, I hated it.”

In the midst of what she referred to as a “quarter-life crisis,” Lulu realized that she’d been working so hard toward this one particular goal that she hadn’t stopped to consider what would happen if it didn’t work out.   

It was around this time, while watching “morning routine” videos on YouTube, that she discovered Luxy Hair. “I had been following Luxy’s co-founder, Mimi Ikonn, on her YouTube channel,” Lulu recalls. She watched all of Ikonn’s videos in two weeks, then reached out to learn more about the companies that Ikonn and her husband, Alex, had founded. 

“They were hiring for a social media position with their other company, Intelligent Change,” Lulu recalls. “But, as I got to know them, they decided they wanted to bring me on to Luxy Hair and train me for a GM role they needed to fill.” 

Leaving consulting for the new venture world was risky — but Lulu was ready for the change. Luxy had grown from a startup created to fill a gap in the market for quality hair extensions to a scale-up with a million dollars in sales in its first year. In 2017, Time.com named Luxy’s YouTube channel as one of the 15 best to watch. Today, with over three million subscribers, the company’s videos have accumulated nearly half a billion views. The Luxy Hair channel has become a go-to source for tutorials, hairstyles, hair hacks, extension tips and more. 

“When I started with Luxy, we were a small group working from a co-work space,” Lulu recalls. “Now we have a beautiful office and an amazing team and we’re world class in what we do in terms of people and culture.” The company was named one of the Top 50 Best Places to work in Canada, something Lulu is especially proud of. 

“While there may be a stigma attached to hair extensions, and it’s still a niche industry, I know that lipstick was once taboo, too,” Lulu says. “Our goal is to empower women to lift each other up and make it okay for any girl or woman to change up their hair, make it longer, fix a bad haircut, create a natural balayage look without dye, or do something special for an event.” 

In 2018, Luxy Hair was acquired by the American beauty conglomerate Beauty Industry Group, and Lulu, then the GM, led the company through the entire sale process. One stipulation of the sale was that she’d stay on as CEO, while the Ikonns left to start another business. “Overall, we run the business autonomously, but the owners are really supportive and helpful when we need it,” she explains. 

“I had that moment of realization that there was no point of achieving huge successes if you weren’t going to feel happy day-to-day — the moments you work so hard toward aren’t you or your life, in fact your life is everything that happens in between.”

While 2018 was certainly a milestone year for Lulu (selling the business, becoming CEO, getting engaged and travelling a great deal), she says it was actually one of the most anxious years of her life. “I had that moment of realization that there was no point of achieving huge successes if you weren’t going to feel happy day-to-day. The moments you work so hard toward aren’t you or your life. In fact, your life is everything that happens in between.” 

Lulu began to think critically about her own habits, and what she did have control over in her life. Then she and her best friend created a tool they could use to build better habits. With the entrepreneurial drive lit within her, Lulu decided to take this tool and create a product she could share with others. 

Together Lulu and her friend launched Evergreen Journals and their first product, The Habit Journal, in May 2020. “Our journal is available online and will be in the Goop holiday gift guide,” Lulu says. “It feels really good to have created something of my own, and we have more products and ideas in the pipeline as well.” 

Looking back on her career to date, Lulu is proud of her successes and excited for what the future holds. “I’m so grateful I hated consulting, because I don’t think that if I’d been successful I would have had the courage to take the leap,” she says. “My greatest lesson in all of that was, sometimes you have to let go in life. It’s important to have goals and work toward your dreams, but you also have to let go of expectations and focus on what you can control. And don’t take anything for granted.”

Engine for Change: How Sandra Odendahl is mobilizing social impact and inclusion for every future.

Scotiabank Vice President reflects on intersecting experiences as leader, professional engineer and woman of colour.

 

By Shelley White

 

During these challenging times, many in the corporate world are asking: are we doing enough to make things better? 

As Scotiabank’s Vice President of Social Impact and Sustainability, Sandra Odendahl thinks about that question a lot. She is constantly evaluating how the bank is embedding good environmental and community practices into its business and operations. 

“The biggest positive impact we can have on society is through our business: the people we employ; the way we provide products, services and advice to customers; and how we help the economy,” she says. “But our community investment activities also contribute to positive benefits to society, and our business thrives when communities thrive.”  

Sandra and her team divide their work between four key pillars: donations to not-for-profits and charities, academic partnerships, corporate sustainability, and overall corporate responsibility strategy. The pillars are part of an overarching goal to make a positive impact on the communities where we work and live.

“If we’re providing grants or creating charitable partnerships, we’re evaluating them by asking: what is the social impact of this partnership? But we also consider, is there an opportunity for a positive alignment to our business? Is there an opportunity for employee engagement and employee involvement in that partnership?“ Sandra says.

The events of 2020 have made Sandra’s team more important than ever. For example, after the killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd, widespread protests were spurred across the U.S. and Canada and the focus on anti-Black racism gained momentum at the bank, Sandra says. Employees across different areas of the business wanted to do more to address racism and discrimination. 

“Some businesses were looking at renewed product or service offerings, while other areas of the bank were more interested in enabling our people by deepening learning to help them confront bias,” Sandra says. “There was so much great work going on, but it needed to have a shared direction, so I was tasked with leading the charge to pull it all together.”

Sandra was asked to lead the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) Inclusion Task Force at Scotiabank, a project that is nearing completion. 

“At the beginning, we looked at the results of employee surveys and executive listening sessions with employees on the topic of racism, and then studied best practices across different companies in addressing diversity and inclusion to determine where the gaps were in how we are dealing with racism. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we best honour our commitment to anti-racism when it comes to our employees, customers and business partners? How can we demonstrate it within our community?’” she says. 

Following the assessment and recommendations of the Task Force, Scotiabank’s Inclusion Council will determine an appropriate framework for the bank’s anti-racism actions, in order to “sustain thoughtful and strategic activity over time,” Sandra says. “We don’t want to lose momentum once it’s no longer front-page news. It’s something that we’re permanently building into the existing D&I framework.”  

As the child of a West Indian mother and a German father, Sandra says that her life growing up in Ottawa was a “typical child of immigrant parents experience.” She was one of very few women in her chemical engineering classes at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto, and as a result, she formed strong relationships with her small cohort of fellow women students, some of which have lasted for 30 years. 

Sandra began her career performing environmental impact assessments for pulp mills, mines and hydroelectric projects in Indonesia and across Canada. She eventually found her way into the financial sector, where she was a resource sector analyst for one of Canada’s top five banks and then led one of the first environmental risk management teams on Bay Street. Her passion for environmental sustainability issues runs deep — she recently completed a five-year term as Chair of the Board for the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and is a Board Member of the Ontario Clean Water Agency and the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.

But while her workplaces were mostly male-dominated, Sandra says she feels fortunate that she didn’t encounter many barriers as a woman working in science and engineering.

“I know that I am really fortunate to have had many positive experiences as a woman of colour, and I realize that’s not always the case for people who struggle or feel alienated because of their race or gender.”

Having said that, there were moments “where I wanted to roll my eyes when someone said or did something ignorant,” she says. She remembers working at a petrochemical plant where an older male colleague put up a magazine centrefold of a nude woman in their shared workspace. (She moved it so she wouldn’t have to look at it.) And then there was the time as a grad student when a visiting international professor rudely asked her: “What’s with the hair?” 

“I don’t remember the exact words, but my hair was a little bit wild and unkempt — compared to someone with straight hair,” Sandra recalls. “I always wore my curly hair pretty much natural back then. So, I just laughed and said, ‘What’s with my hair? Well, it grows out of my head this way, just like your hair grows out the way it grows out.’ He didn’t pursue the conversation!”

Sandra thinks her pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude has served her well over the years in dealing with tone-deaf comments. 

When confronted with an uncomfortable comment or action in the workplace, Sandra’s advice is to assume positive intent, but to also stand up for yourself, “as politely and concisely as possible,” she says. 

“You can ask a question like, ‘I’m not sure what you mean by that — can you please elaborate?’ Sometimes you realize they didn’t mean anything by it. I think that’s really important.”

And when someone really does mean something by it? That’s when it’s time to speak up for yourself, speak out and raise your concern, Sandra says. “Sadly, there are ignorant people in the world, and you’ve just got to figure out how to go around them.” 

One of most effective ways to make a positive impact on diversity and inclusion in the Canadian workplace is to set a good example for the next generation, Sandra says. “As a successful woman engineer and professional, who is also a person of colour, I feel that it’s important to support and mentor young people.”

That’s why she volunteers with the University of Toronto’s engineering school and has also served as an advisor to Ryerson University’s Social Ventures Zone, where she mentored engineering students and advised student-founded startup companies. 

Representation matters, Sandra says. 

“It matters to see somebody who you can identify with doing something you may never have thought of doing,” she says. “I hope I am inspiring other women and people of colour to think, ‘Of course, there is a place for me in all this.’”

Meet Lissa Ricci, VP of Small Business Solutions at Cisco Canada

Lissa Ricci has always been a sales leader — managing her first sales team when she was only 23 years old. Now the Vice President of Small Business Solutions at Cisco Canada, she understands that these entrepreneurs have different needs than enterprise companies, and is excited to be leading the charge to support them with tailored solutions. Lissa is passionate about technology and how it can help businesses grow, transform, and achieve their goals.

My first job ever was… A Youth Coordinator at our local Youth Centre in the very small town I grew up in. It was a not-for-profit called T.Y.P.S. (Take Young People Seriously). I was 14, and responsible for supervision during drop-in hours and helping to set up activities that appealed to 12-17 year olds. I worked with the board as the “voice” of the youth, providing feedback on improving opportunities for adolescents in the town, and helping to promote healthy extra curricular activities.

I decided on a career in sales because… I grew up observing my Dad building his career in sales and transforming our lifestyle. When I was 17, and it was time to choose my post secondary education, I remember telling my Dad I didn’t know what the job was called that I wanted to do, but described to him how I saw myself. He said, “Lissa, everything you are saying, you are in sales.” He then went on to explain the concept of earning a commission, and I was convinced that was the path for me. I took Business Sales at College and never looked back.

My proudest accomplishment is… Anytime someone shares with me that I had a positive impact on their career or life in some way. It’s a gift that keeps on giving and I am addicted!

My boldest move to date was… Quitting my career that I absolutely adored to be a stay-at-home Mom with my two kids — then re-entering the workforce almost five years later, completely vulnerable and terrified, yet genuinely ready and excited.

My best advice to people starting out in sales is… Don’t overthink it. The first step is just having the confidence to keep a general conversation flowing. When you think about it, we mostly do this all day, every day, in so many different ways! The rest will come with time and training. And you need to be motivated by making money.

The once piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Don’t overthink it! This is especially true for me when it comes to presenting.

My biggest setback was… “Judgy McJudgersons” — Sarah Knight has a great and quick read, You Do You, that devotes a chapter to this.

I overcame it by… Staying focused on what was within my control and what I was striving to accomplish.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Read more! I always swap between having a business book or a personal book on the go. It takes me way longer than I would like to get through a book!

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I took a year off before I graduated College and lived abroad in Australia. To earn money I was a telemarketer and sold 25L barrels of cleaning chemical to janitors and mechanics. It was an amazing year in the most beautiful country. I kept my commitment, came back and graduated college, and began my career right away.

The best part of my job is… The super smart and commendable individuals I get to learn from every day.

I stay inspired by… Knowing who I want to be in this world and how that represents my family, my team, and my organization. The more remarkable role models I meet, work with or read about, it allows me to continue to shape and mold the vision of ambitions I have. When you think you’ve achieved your wildest dream, that just means it’s time to create a new dream to go after.

The future excites me because… I have so much I still want to do personally and professionally. There are so many people out there I still need to meet and learn about and obtain knowledge from. Finally, watching my kids grow up and see how they will show up in the world and the great things they will choose to want to accomplish in their lives.

How Sleeping Giant Brewing Company has planned (and pulled back on) their growth.

As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month it’s with Drea Mulligan, co-founder and CEO of Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, based out of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

 

When Drea and Kyle Mulligan founded Sleeping Giant Brewing Company in 2012, she was working as a kindergarten teacher, and he was a family physician with a home brewing hobby. Armed with a business plan, a talent for brewing, and a shared passion for beer, the husband and wife team started with two taps and a hand-painted sign, and steadily grew their business into a multi-million dollar craft brewing company — and all without letting go of their original professions. 

Based in Thunder Bay, the brewery is named after the nearby Sleeping Giant, a large mountainous formation on the North shore of Lake Superior — the first of many nods to a city and region that they love. Now in a 12,000+ square-foot production facility, tap room, and event space (that has recently been transformed into a daycare) their distribution network stretches across much of Ontario and into Manitoba.  

In the five years that they have been BDC clients, we have seen them through strategic growth, a major move, ownership restructuring, and more. I caught up with Drea to find out more about her unique entrepreneurial journey, navigating the challenges of 2020, and her advice for other business owners.

 

Laura: I love your story, because it’s the quintessential entrepreneurial tale of turning your passion into a business. This all started because you and your husband were craft beer enthusiasts, right?

Andrea: Yes, we were those people who’d sit at the local bar and talk with strangers about beer, and how diverse it was, and how interesting. That’s where it started. 

Then my husband Kyle began home brewing, and things kept progressing with his passion and talent for brewing. Seeing people try Kyle’s beer, and the great feedback we got — we knew we wanted to eventually open a brewery. We were thinking, maybe we’ll do it when we retire, but we decided to take that first step of writing a business plan. Of course, the beauty of a business plan is it tricks you into saying, “Hey, I’ve got this whole plan, let’s open a business.”

Laura: So you decided to take the plunge. How quickly did it all come together?

Drea: We finished our business plan in the spring/summer of 2011. We incorporated our company in September, moved into our first location by the end of December, and sold our first growler of beer in June 2012. 

To be able to flip that in six months, and have our business up and running — some people will say you’re lucky, but I say, maybe it’s a bit of luck, but it was also a bit of common sense, focus, and a lot of hard work. We paced ourselves and were responsible. We followed our instincts. I’ll never forget when I talked to an owner of a larger craft brewery in Ontario before we opened, and he said, “Whatever your budget is, double it.” We said, “No way.” Our focus was to brew good beer, pay the bills, and make a bit of money. That was our little mantra when we were getting started. 

But people make that mistake. They want it all, and they want it all now. Our success came from being methodical while taking risks, being reserved and in control. It’s been a lot of us digging in our heels because we weren’t ready to grow faster than what we could control. We know the capacity to grow is still there — and it’s easy to get there if you’re following the growth somewhat organically, versus trying to be ahead of it. 

Laura: What I’ve noticed is that you take risks like any other entrepreneur, but you’re very strategic and intentional. Even though you knew it could and will be big, you started with the thinking that you were going to get there at your own pace.

Drea: Yes, we always had the plan to grow our business from the start. I was never afraid of failing. What made me nervous was I knew we were going to be successful. That’s not arrogance — it’s just I knew the supportive city, I knew what we were doing to bring a craft beer culture to Thunder Bay just as the resurgence of craft beer was taking off. I trusted our instincts and there was no option for failure. 

Laura: The city has always been a big part of your brand and business — from your beer names, to the local ingredients you use, to all the product collaborations you do, to giving back with Craft Cares. Was that focus very intentionally done or did it evolve organically?

Drea: In the beginning it was definitely intentional, because we love our city so much. It’s a beautiful place to live, great people — and even before we opened we knew we wanted to make Thunder Bay proud. So it started out intentional, became part of the fabric of our business right away, and it has developed organically after that. We’re now an anomaly in the brewery industry — unlike a lot of other breweries in Ontario, we sell so much of our beer out of our front door to our local community.

Laura: And you’re still active in the community in other ways, in that you’re still teaching, and your husband is still practicing. What has it been like trying to navigate two worlds?

Drea: That’s one thing I never thought about when we first opened. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to work our jobs. I’ve had to take leaves to be at the business, but I’m always torn because I love teaching. It’s not easy to manage, but Kyle and I are a good team and support each other. Our staff are also crucial to us being able to manage and grow our business while maintaining careers

I try to organize myself as best that I can. I also allow myself to not be perfect, because you can’t be when you’ve got a lot of balls in the air. I’m very open about that to my staff, I’ll let them know, I’m sorry, I can’t do this, or I didn’t get back to that specific email because I just opened a classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic. We cut each other some slack.

Our SGBC team is strong, which is really important. They understand our situation and support us, not just the brewery, but also as a couple, and as working members of the brewery. This is what everyone signed up for — to have Kyle be a physician, and he’s not there every day. He’s in contact all the time. I’m teaching, and I’m still available. Normally, I’m there right after school, or I go in on the weekends. It’s not easy, and it’s definitely not perfect, but we’re still doing it at this point in time. 

Laura: And what about with the added dimension of a global pandemic?

Drea: The pandemic was not in our business plan! I laid off 24 people immediately. The 10 people who were left, we put our heads down and we worked so hard for months and months. Kyle and I tried to put our needs after the needs of our staff, because we had to be there to support them. They supported each other, too. They didn’t argue, they didn’t complain. They did whatever needed to be done. It was a wild time, and has already made for some unique reminiscing with staff.

Now we have staff that are returning. How does the staff that lived and worked through that cope with returning staff with a different COVID experience of being at home, or being laid off? We’re still navigating those waters. I think the important thing is communication. We do our best to talk through it, to talk about what’s going on, to try to check in with each other. We try.

Laura: That’s a great segue into how you ended up opening a daycare on site. How did that new venture start? 

Drea: By the beginning of July, I was hearing grumblings from our staff about the lack of childcare options they had due to Covid-19. I’m a mom, I know how important childcare is, and what an impact it has on your family and your own ability of what you can do, and also how it impacts the development  of your children. 

Over a coffee one night I was telling Kyle about these grumblings and said, “I wish we could open a daycare.” He looked at me and replied, “Why can’t we?”   

It came together quickly from there. I held a meeting with all our employees with families, and said, “Here’s the plan. We’re going to open a childcare facility. We’re going to be unlicensed and you are going to have the priority to have your children here. I just need to know who’s in or who’s out.” 

We had already thought about how many people had to be in for us to do this, and made the decision that we only needed one. Kyle and I, our thought process was, If we can do this, we should do this. So now the Barrel House, which is our new, private event space, is also the Sleeping Giant Childcare Centre. We plan on getting it licensed, so we can have space for more children from the community. 

Laura: Outside of COVID, what have been your biggest challenges you’ve faced while navigating your growth?

Drea: To become more ‘corporate’ and to become a CEO, and what that role truly means. I’ve struggled to make an org chart; there is a hierarchy, but to put it on paper, it’s an interesting process when we are trying to maintain the grassroots of the brewery. Going from ground zero to a now multi-million dollar business with still a lot of room to grow, it’s a big responsibility and it can be overwhelming. 

That’s why it’s so great to talk with other women in business who are further ahead of me and have created large, successful businesses. And just before COVID hit, we had begun working with BDC to create a 3 year Strategic Action Plan. This alone is helping us all speak the same language and reach and strive for the same goals. Planning, organization, and follow through are essential tools for any growing business.

Laura: What advice would you give to others who are following their passion and becoming an entrepreneur?

Drea: We’ve learned after eight years that we trust our instincts. That’s my best advice: You have to trust yourself. Also, failure shouldn’t be an option. Mistakes are welcome, but when you hit a roadblock, there’s always a solution — you just have to find it. You can’t be ego-driven.

Lastly, try to take care of yourself. Every single time I drive by Sleeping Giant, with that view of Lake Superior — it’s just a little bit of a centering spot for me. As an entrepreneur, you need to find those little moments in your day where you breathe. Every time I look at it, and I look at it a lot, I’m reminded about my company and our city, and how awesome things are going and how lucky we are.  The future continues to be bright!

 

How Luan Tolosa went from commercial real estate professional to fashion entrepreneur.

By Hailey Eisen 

 

Luan Tolosa’s entrepreneurial journey was set in motion during the first few weeks of her MBA at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. Standing in the halls before their next class, Luan and her female classmates, all of whom were preparing for the next phase of their careers as the next generation of business leaders, lamented that corporate clothing had not changed much since their undergraduate degrees. What would begin as a school project would go on to reignite an old passion and prove to meet a real need in women’s fashion.

“I had always assumed that as we progressed in our careers, we would have more corporate clothing options,” says Luan Tolosa, CEO and Founder of SEWT — Suits Especially for Women Tailored — a women-led business based out of Vancouver and Toronto. “But as I started to have more conversations with women that I admired, I realized that we were still all struggling with the same lack of choices and lack of well-fitting, accessible, tailored clothing.” 

Having started her career in commercial real estate straight out of undergrad, Luan hadn’t had much time to explore entrepreneurial ventures, but always had an entrepreneurial desire. Born and raised in Winnipeg to first generation immigrants, Luan often had thoughts about creating her own clothing, having grown up around sewing machines and even having visited a garment factory during Take Our Kids to Work Day. 

When she enrolled in the Accelerated MBA program at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business in 2018, she had the opportunity to put her ideas on paper and have her peers vet her business idea.  While Luan had gone into the program with the intent of continuing her career in the corporate world, she fell in love with entrepreneurship and finally got the courage to pursue something of her very own – a tailored suiting business especially for women. 

“It was in January 2018 that the idea popped into my head, it was May when we started the Entrepreneurship and Innovation class, and by October I had a full business plan with the vetting and input of my classmates. The hardest part is always getting started and my MBA put my idea on a rocket ship,” she recalls.  

By the time Luan finished her MBA classes in December 2018, she had a business plan, funding, and the support to launch. 

“I gave myself a goal to launch the business before convocation, which was in May 2019,” she says. “I knew if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it.” 

Over the course of five months between finishing classes and convocation, she followed almost exactly the business plan she’d created in school. Ten days before graduation, Luan launched SEWT. She went to Kingston to walk across the stage as an MBA grad and a business founder.  

“Everything from my MBA was strategic, and the last piece to launch was the practical, nitty-gritty stuff that I had to figure out,” she says, recalling that first part of the journey. “There were the many moving pieces all the way from legal, bookkeeping, tax structure and shares to how to setup an e-commerce store. It was literally a five-month crash course in taking theory and strategy and executing.” 

Establishing and maintaining corporate values was of the utmost importance to Luan, who also completed her Certificate in Social Impact while at Smith. “My mission is bigger than suiting; it’s about how I can help and what impact I can have when it comes to building women up to the next level of their careers.”  

She’s also woven sustainability into all of her practices, from the overall belief in “slow fashion” to sourcing materials, producing products on a made-to-order basis to avoid waste, and committing to donating or reusing all returns. 

Collaboration and support are a big part of Luan’s success. While she started SEWT on her own, she credits the people who have helped along the way. “There were classmates, professors, fashion industry heavy-weights, among others, that were so giving of their time and expertise in helping me. What I learned was that everyone wants to help if you are willing to share your idea and vision,” Luan says. 

With COVID hitting Canada in March, things have changed a bit for Luan, but she says the pandemic has given her the opportunity to look at her company in more creative ways.  

“We moved our head office to Toronto and I’m excited to have two new partners in Toronto, which will allow us to serve the market more broadly.” With a ready-to-wear line of suits launching soon, pop-up locations in cities across the country and a new e-commerce strategy that will open SEWT’s platform to support other women entrepreneurs, Luan hopes to scale her business while remaining true to her core values. 

Luan’s personal mission is to also inspire others to explore entrepreneurship. “I didn’t grow up in an entrepreneurial family – it was the get a good education and get a good job story – but I want others to have the courage to explore entrepreneurship and take risks. I think everyone should try becoming an entrepreneur at least once – it’s the most difficult, scary and rewarding thing I have ever done.”

To support other entrepreneurs, Luan also works as a consultant in the entrepreneurial ecosystem with Spring Activator, a global incubator, accelerator and advisory firm in B.C., sharing the knowledge she’s gained along the way. “I love helping others launch and scale their businesses, and it’s always a symbiotic relationship because I’m still growing and learning too.” 

Her advice for women looking to start their own business? Take the first step. “So many people have great ideas and ambitions but are scared to get started,” she says. “For me, if a goal or vision seems unattainable, I do the smallest most achievable things first. Small actions turn into big moves. And I’m always reminding myself that it’s a marathon not a race.” 

 

How Tanya Wick is fostering inclusion at Tolko Industries — and across the forestry industry.

By Shelley White

How do you foster diversity and inclusion in an industry that’s not known for attracting women, youth, or Indigenous people? 

“It’s about doing what’s right before worrying about the politics,” says Tanya Wick.

She has been described as someone who is not afraid to stand up for others and lead the change, even if it means creating some discomfort. That fearless, outspoken leadership style is just one reason that Tanya, as Vice President, People and Services for Tolko Industries, is transforming diversity and inclusion efforts not only at her company but across the forestry industry as well. The first woman executive in Tolko’s 64-year history, Tanya puts her high level of energy to work championing equality and making space for others to find their voice.   

“I believe being frank about an issue is how you will solve it,” she says. “Change won’t happen if we are not honest about what the problem is and how it is manifesting.”

Since joining Tolko, a leading forest products company based in Vernon, B.C., ten years ago, Tanya has partnered with the company’s executive leadership and board of directors to shape and execute the organization’s strategic direction. She started the journey by looking at workforce planning numbers. “Before jumping into solutions, we wanted to understand our current environment,” says Tanya. “The metrics showed us that we needed to focus on some key groups: youth, Indigenous peoples, and women.” 

She’s since led the creation of targeted initiatives to address the unique needs and barriers of each group, touching on everything from talent acquisition to management practices to creating and promoting a respectful work environment — one that fosters engagement and differing viewpoints. 

“At Tolko, diversity and inclusion isn’t a side project, it’s embedded in our values-based culture,” explains Tanya, “meaning that each existing company value speaks to our D&I strategy — resulting in a workplace where all of our employees feel safe and respected.”

Her efforts to increase diversity in the company have had a measurable impact, significantly increasing generational, cultural and gender diversity among employees. In 2018, an independent audit noted that Tolko is “leading the charge within the forest sector” on gender equality; within their own company, there’s been a 30 per cent increase in female employees since 2016, and in 2019, 35 per cent of promotions were female.

“We have become known as leaders and as advocates for women in forestry and it has improved our culture,” Tanya says. “When we are hiring, candidates often say they applied and want to work for us because of our work in this area.”

 

To me, silence meant acceptance and there are so many things I didn’t want to accept. I believe in being an ally, and in fighting for the right for all of us to be treated equally.

 

Born and raised in Saskatchewan and with a degree in business, Tanya became passionate about human resources early in her career. With over 20 years of experience in HR under her belt, she says companies’ view of that role has changed over the years. 

“When I started, people were not even on the agenda at business meetings — it was uptime, production, new capital spend.” Now, companies have embraced the idea that people are their most important assets, Tanya says, with the war for talent and movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter forcing companies to take meaningful action on diversity and inclusion mandates.

Tanya says that when she first joined Tolko, it could be challenging to find her voice in a mostly male environment. “It’s not that the other members of the leadership team made it purposely difficult for me, but there certainly was some adjusting to do.”

She recalls a round table that was meant to allow everyone to speak, and “as the only woman in the room, they skipped right over me.” At business meetings, Tanya says she was sometimes assumed to be a spouse of one of the executives, and was often spoken over or interrupted.

Over time, Tanya says she found her voice and gained her male colleagues’ support. It was then that she decided it was time to pave the way for other women in the industry. 

“To me, silence meant acceptance and there are so many things I didn’t want to accept. I believe in being an ally, and in fighting for the right for all of us to be treated equally,” she says. “This is a big part of why I’ve chosen HR as a career — I want to support systems and structures where everyone is treated equitably and respectfully.” 

To recruit more women, Tolko began by building awareness, Tanya says. One important key has been removing unconscious bias, which meant changing processes and behaviours to be more inclusive. 

That started with the company making a statement of their intent when President and CEO, Brad Thorlakson, publicly signed the B.C. Minerva pledge, a commitment to gender parity. As well, a Women’s Steering Committee was created at Tolko to support the development and advancement of women.  

There were also basic areas to address when it came to “people practices,” Tanya says. There were still locations throughout the company without women’s washrooms. A zero tolerance for harassment and bullying was reinforced, a pay review was conducted to ensure equity, and more flexible benefits were introduced for employees.

As well, a robust Leadership Impact for Women program was designed, for which Tolko won the 2019 Employer Initiative of the Year award from Canadian Centre for Diversity & Inclusion (CCDI). In addition to providing training and coaching for female Tolko employees, the program includes a mentorship component — an undertaking close to Tanya’s heart. Coaching and empowering women to build full, rewarding careers has been a key priority throughout her work life. “I get energy from it,” she says. 

Tanya is a big proponent of personal accessibility, connecting with colleagues and staff through blog posts, articles, speaking events and personal emails. Most recently, she has been exploring how to further encourage industry leaders in driving diversity and inclusion.

While she is proud of the impact she has had on Tolko and the forestry industry in general, Tanya says she’s not nearly done yet.

“I want to ensure leaders understand the value proposition for diversity and inclusion in their companies and communities,” she says. “I know what it feels like to have no one stand up for you, and I want to make it easier for women and other marginalized groups in the industry.”

Announcing the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Finalists!

We are proud to announce the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards finalists. In what has been an unprecedented year, this program continues to shine the light on the Canadian women entrepreneurs whose accomplishments are worthy of recognition and celebration. 

At Women of Influence, we are familiar with the challenges and opportunities that accompany entrepreneurship and innovation, and are honoured to celebrate the accomplishments of a diverse group of women  in a wide range of industries including healthcare services, engineering, beauty, technology, hospitality, law and beyond.

With over 8,600 nominations from across the country, we had the incredible task of selecting 18 finalists across six legacy award categories. In addition to that, five recipients were chosen to receive the Ones to Watch Award, which recognizes entrepreneurs who have launched businesses that have made an incredible impact in fewer than three years.

We are grateful to all of our partners whose contributions make this celebration of women’s entrepreneurship possible, especially the dedication and commitment of our Title Sponsor, RBC. 

“The unwavering resilience, creativity and passion of Canadian entrepreneurs has, and continues to be the hallmark of our economic strength as a country and business community,” says Greg Grice, Executive Vice President, Business Financial Services, RBC. “Many of these businesses are led by inspiring women leaders who are important role models for the next generation of aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs. RBC is proud to work with Women of Influence to bring their stories to light, and celebrate their achievements and contributions to the Canadian business community through the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.”

We are honoured to celebrate the accomplishments of our 2020 award finalists. These entrepreneurs have displayed remarkable resilience over the course of the year, demonstrating exciting growth and innovation as they adapted their businesses to a new environment.

The winners will be announced and celebrated at the 28th Annual Awards Gala, on Wednesday, November 18, where all attendees will be digitally transported into the first ever Virtual Awards Gala. This immersive experience, which will be live streamed around the world, will shine a spotlight on all the amazing Canadian women entrepreneurs. Keynote remarks will be shared by Demetra Streda, Vice President, Commercial Financial Services Strategy, RBC.

For more information, view the press release.  |  Pour plus d’information, visitez le communiqué de presse.

The 2020 Recipients of the Ones to Watch Award are:

The 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award Finalists are:

Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award
Start-Up Award
RBC Momentum Award
Social Change Award
Innovation Award
Excellence Award

En pleine pandémie, Luminaire Authentik a repensé son modèle d’affaires en mettant l’accent sur l’expérience client.

En tant que vice-présidente et leader nationale, Entrepreneuriat au féminin à BDC, Laura Didyk passait beaucoup de temps avant le confinement à parcourir le pays pour échanger avec des femmes entrepreneurs. Poursuivant ces conversations de manière virtuelle, elle s’est entretenue ce mois-ci avec Maude Rondeau, fondatrice et présidente de Luminaire Authentik, une entreprise québécoise de création et de fabrication de luminaires.

 

Après l’obtention de son diplôme en administration des affaires, Maude Rondeau a évolué pendant 13 ans dans le monde de la mode, mais elle rêvait depuis toujours d’être à son compte. Lassée des voyages d’affaires et du peu d’occasions d’exprimer sa créativité, Maude décide, en 2015, de démissionner pour se consacrer à sa passion : la conception de luminaires.  

Depuis son domicile, Maude fonde l’entreprise Luminaire Authentik dans le but de combler une demande pour des produits stylés et originaux à prix abordable. Soucieuse des besoins de ses clients, elle a vu son entreprise croître au cours des cinq années suivantes.

Si tous ses produits sont toujours conçus et fabriqués au Québec, Maude a déménagé ses pénates du sous-sol de sa maison à un atelier de production et d’entreposage de 5 000 mètres carrés. Aujourd’hui, ses produits sont vendus partout en Amérique du Nord à des particuliers et à des entreprises, en ligne et dans trois salles de démonstration exclusives.  

J’ai demandé à Maude comment elle a réussi à développer son entreprise tout en l’adaptant efficacement pendant la pandémie afin de garder le cap.   

 

Laura : J’aime toujours parler des débuts. Comment avez-vous eu l’idée de Luminaire Authentik et comment l’avez-vous concrétisée?

Maude : J’ai travaillé pendant 13 ans dans le monde de la mode, où j’ai acquis beaucoup d’expérience en vente, en marketing et en distribution de marques. Je devais toutefois beaucoup voyager et, à 33 ans, j’en ai eu assez des déplacements d’affaires et des salons professionnels. J’étais également lasse de devoir faire les choses en me conformant à un moule. La tête pleine d’idées, j’avais toujours rêvé d’avoir ma propre entreprise. 

D’un autre côté, tous ces voyages ont nourri mon amour pour l’architecture et l’éclairage et ma passion pour le design. Forte de cette sensibilité et de mon expérience en commerce, j’ai vu une occasion d’affaires. Il y a cinq ans, le choix de luminaires abordables ayant du style était limité. Les produits étaient soit très coûteux soit très bon marché; il n’y avait pas de juste milieu. 

J’ai décidé de quitter mon emploi et commencé à fabriquer des luminaires dans mon sous-sol. J’ai rencontré quelqu’un qui m’a aidée à comprendre les éléments de la construction, et une fois bien établie sur cette assise, j’y ai ajouté une touche personnelle. 

Laura : Cette touche personnelle fait aujourd’hui partie intégrante de votre modèle d’affaires, n’est-ce pas? 

Maude : L’important, c’est l’expérience du client. Les gens sont heureux de participer à la conception de leur propre produit – qu’ils soient des architectes travaillant sur un projet spécifique ou des clients qui veulent créer leur propre éclairage de maison (avec l’aide de nos experts, bien entendu). En nous occupant de la conception, de la fabrication et de la distribution des produits, nous avons pu obtenir le bon prix et vivre cette expérience avec les clients. 

Laura : À en juger par l’état actuel de votre entreprise, cette formule a été très fructueuse. Pouvez-vous m’en dire plus sur votre parcours au cours des cinq dernières années?

Maude : Nous avons fait nos débuts dans mon garage de 65 mètres carrés et, deux ans plus tard, nous avons emménagé dans un atelier de près de 300 mètres carrés. Nous aurions pu rester là, mais je voulais ajouter un circuit de distribution, celui des hôtels et des entreprises, ce qui exigeait une accélération de la production et plus d’espace d’entreposage des produits finis. Il y a un an, nous nous sommes installés dans des locaux de 5 000 mètres carrés, dont près de 1 500 servent d’atelier. Cela a créé beaucoup de nouvelles perspectives et de l’espace pour croître.

 

« Suivez votre instinct, n’ayez pas peur et soyez épaulé par les bonnes personnes. »

 

Laura : Une telle croissance en cinq ans, c’est très rapide, non? Comment avez-vous réussi à gérer tout cela et quels enseignements en avez-vous tirés?

Maude : Il est difficile de répondre à cette question, car je dois encore aujourd’hui gérer la croissance. Mon conseil est de toujours suivre son instinct. Je l’applique tous les jours. De plus, il ne faut pas craindre de passer à l’action, car l’inaction empêche de croître. 

En début de croissance, le principal défi d’un entrepreneur est toujours l’embauche de personnel. Il n’est pas facile de trouver les bonnes personnes, au bon moment. Je suis entourée d’une équipe formidable, mais certains postes semblaient impossibles à pourvoir. Une fois que c’est fait, cependant, l’atteinte de vos objectifs est possible. C’est impossible de tout faire par soi-même. Je n’y suis pas arrivée toute seule. Mon équipe m’épaule, et je dirais que c’est le facteur le plus complexe et le plus important dans la croissance de l’entreprise.

Laura : La pandémie a-t-elle eu une incidence sur vos projets de croissance? Vous avez mentionné que vous commenciez à exploiter le marché hôtelier, mais ce secteur a été l’un des plus durement touchés par la pandémie. 

Maude : La pandémie de COVID-19 a indéniablement freiné nos projets de croissance. De grands projets avec des hôtels ont été annulés. Si je compare les projections budgétaires pour l’année et la situation réelle, c’est un désastre. Mais la comparaison ne doit pas se limiter aux chiffres. Nous vivons une situation anormale.

Les ventes interentreprises, avec les hôtels et les restaurants, par exemple, sont sur pause, mais elles reprendront – on ignore seulement à quel moment. Il s’agit donc maintenant de trouver de nouvelles façons de composer avec le changement et de nouvelles pistes d’exécution de notre plan d’affaires. J’ai vite compris que la seule façon de traverser cette crise était d’être le plus proche possible des clients. Le volet des ventes commerciales étant fermé, nous avons misé sur l’approche résidentielle.

Tous ces gens confinés à la maison ont commencé à investir dans leur espace, parce qu’ils s’y retrouvaient « coincés ». Cela nous donnait une formidable occasion d’offrir un service à la clientèle plus personnalisé et plus accessible, et de concevoir et de fabriquer de nouvelles collections de produits aptes à susciter l’enthousiasme. Nous voulions être perçus comme une entreprise locale novatrice et dynamique.

Laura : Comment y êtes-vous arrivés? Pouvez-vous nous donner des exemples de mesures que vous avez prises pour stimuler vos ventes dans le secteur résidentiel?

Nous avons toujours eu un volet de commerce électronique, mais nous avons investi beaucoup de temps et d’énergie pour améliorer grandement l’expérience des clients en ligne.

Une semaine après le début de la pandémie, j’ai compris que nous ne pouvions pas recevoir de clients, mais que nous pouvions leur proposer des visites virtuelles de la boutique. Nous pouvons maintenant joindre des clients partout au Canada par rencontre virtuelle privée avec un conseiller en éclairage, ce qui est même mieux, car nous pouvons voir leur espace de vie et leur faire des suggestions. Cela a débouché sur un modèle d’affaires auquel je n’aurais jamais pensé auparavant. 

Nous avons également créé une plateforme 3D, axée sur un outil que nous avions développé à l’origine pour que les architectes et les concepteurs puissent comprendre toutes les possibilités d’intégration de nos composants. Nous l’avons rendu plus convivial à l’intention des consommateurs. De leur domicile, nos clients peuvent à présent voir toutes les formes, couleurs et fonctions qui s’offrent à eux. Nous leur offrons 2 800 possibilités! Ils auraient la même expérience de personnalisation en boutique, mais nous l’avons recréée virtuellement, en leur donnant les outils pour concevoir leur propre éclairage et l’accès à des conseillers.

Le mariage de ces deux éléments a été la clé du succès. Cela nous a aidés non seulement à traverser la crise, mais aussi à éclipser des entreprises n’offrant pas de tels outils ou services. L’adaptation et la rapide mise en marché de ces outils et services ont demandé beaucoup d’énergie, mais cela nous donne aujourd’hui accès à de nouveaux clients au Canada et aux États-Unis.

Laura : Comment se porte votre entreprise physique? Vous avez toujours des salles de démonstration à Montréal et à Cowansville, et un nouvel emplacement ouvrira ses portes à Toronto en septembre prochain, à un moment où de nombreux détaillants réduisent leurs activités. 

Maude : Comme je le disais plus tôt, il faut se montrer stratégique et ne pas craindre de passer à l’action. Les gens travaillent à domicile, et cela deviendra la norme pour beaucoup d’entre eux. Ne voyageant pas et ne fréquentant pas les restaurants autant qu’avant, les gens ont de l’argent à investir dans leur milieu de vie. Notre avenir est dans le résidentiel. Nous devons avoir pignon sur rue à Toronto pour exploiter davantage ce marché très porteur. Les outils virtuels sont efficaces, ils nous aident à traverser cette crise, mais rien n’est comparable à l’expérience complète, qui s’est améliorée à cause de la pandémie.

À la réouverture de notre boutique de Montréal, les clients pouvaient venir sur rendez-vous seulement, et même si tout revient à la normale, nous allons conserver ces rencontres privées. L’expérience du client est bien meilleure lorsqu’il bénéficie d’un accès exclusif à toute la boutique et de l’attention complète d’un conseiller en éclairage. L’ouverture sur rendez-vous seulement signifie que nous avons besoin de moins d’espace et qu’il est plus facile d’y assurer l’hygiène.

Laura : Il semble que vous ayez réussi à créer l’expérience client que vous recherchiez, et qu’ironiquement, la pandémie vous ait montré un moyen plus efficace d’y parvenir.

Maude : Absolument. Je n’aurais jamais pensé qu’il serait plus efficace d’ouvrir la boutique sur rendez-vous seulement. Si nous regardons la conversion des ventes en boutique, c’est comme le jour et la nuit. C’est tellement bien que ce n’est pas comparable. Nous investissons le temps qu’il faut avec un client motivé, et cela porte ses fruits.

Laura : Je suis heureuse de l’entendre. Forte de vos succès jusqu’à présent, quels conseils donneriez-vous à d’autres entrepreneurs qui peinent à traverser la pandémie?

Maude : C’est simple : suivez votre instinct, n’ayez pas peur et soyez épaulé par les bonnes personnes. Entourez-vous bien et regardez droit devant.

How Luminaire Authentik made a pandemic pivot with customer experience in mind — and found better ways to do business

As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month it’s with Maude Rondeau, founder and president of Luminaire Authentik, a Quebec-based lighting designer and manufacturer.

 

After earning her business degree, Maude Rondeau spent 13 years working in fashion — but she had always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. By 2015, she’d had enough of business travel and the lack of an outlet for her creative ideas, and so she quit to pursue an opportunity that aligned with her passions: lighting design.  

Working out of her house, Maude created Luminaire Authentik, filling in a gap in the market for mid-priced products featuring creative designs. By understanding and catering to her customers, her business continued to grow over the next five years.
Everything is still designed and manufactured in Quebec, though they’ve transitioned from Maude’s basement into a 53,000-square-foot production and storage facility, and now sell across North America, both to consumers and businesses, through a combination of eCommerce and three exclusive showrooms.  

I caught up with Maude to talk about how she was not only able to scale her business quickly, but also successfully pivot during the pandemic to keep her company on the right track.   
 
Laura: I always like to start with the origin story. How did you get the idea for Luminaire Authentik, and get it launched?

Maude: I worked in the fashion industry for 13 years, and I got a lot of experience with sales, marketing, and branding. But I had to travel a lot, and by 33 years old, I was fed up with traveling and doing trade shows. I was also fed up with doing things that had to fit in a box — I had so many ideas, and it was always my dream to have my own project. 

At the same time, all that traveling brought me a love for architecture and lighting, and a passion for design. Having that sensibility, plus my business background, I saw an opportunity in the market. Five years ago, we didn’t have really creative, accessible lighting design. It was either very high-end or super cheap, and right in the middle, there was nothing. 
I decided to just quit my job and started making lamps in my basement. I eventually met someone who helped me really understand the elements of the construction, and once I had that base, I was able to add in personalization. 

Laura: And that personalization is a big part of your business model now, right? 

Maude: It’s all about the customer experience. People get emotional about being a part of their own design. Whether that’s architects designing for a specific project, or customers that want to have the experience of creating their own lighting for their homes (with our experts to help of course). And by handling the design, manufacturing, and distribution, we were able to have the right price, as well as this experience with the clients. 

Laura: Looking at how your business is doing now, that formula worked really well. Can you tell me a bit about that trajectory of the last five years?

Maude: We started with just 700 square feet in my garage, and two years later we moved into a 3,000 square foot workshop. We could have stayed there, but I wanted to be able to reach out to a new channel of distribution, working with hotels and businesses — which not only required a higher volume of production, but also more room to stock the finished product. One year ago, we moved into our 53,000 square foot facility, and we’re taking 16,000 of it for the workshop. It opened the doors to lots of new possibilities, and there’s room to grow. 

 

“Follow your gut, don’t be scared, and have the right people supporting you.”

 

Laura: Doing all of that in five years is, from a business perspective, a rapid timeline for growth. How have you managed it successfully, and what lessons have you learned from it?

Maude: That’s a hard question, because even today the growth is something I have to manage. My first piece of advice is to always follow your gut. That’s something that I apply every day. Also, don’t be scared of taking action, because without taking action you’re not able to grow. 

Once you start to grow, human resources is always the first challenge for an entrepreneur. It’s not easy to find the right people, at the right time. I have an amazing team, but it was a challenge — some positions seemed impossible to fill. But once you do, that’s the key to reaching your objectives. You’re not able to do anything by yourself. I didn’t do this by myself. I have my team with me, and I would say, it’s the most challenging and the most important thing that has affected the growth of the business.

Laura: Has the pandemic affected your growth plans? You mentioned you were starting to tap into the hotel market, but this sector has been one of the worst hit. 

Maude: COVID has definitely put a pause on our growth plans! We had some massive cancellations from hotels. If I look at what the budget was for the year and what the actual situation is, it’s a disaster. You just can’t compare with numbers. It’s not a normal situation we are in.

The B2B sales, like hotels and restaurants, these I see as taking a pause — it will come back eventually, we just don’t know when. So now, it’s a matter of finding new ways to embrace the change, and finding new ways or new channels to keep up with the plan. I quickly realized that the only way to survive this crisis was to be as close as possible to our clients. On the commercial side everything was closed, so the key to our approach has been residential.

All these people at home started to invest in their own space — because they were stuck in it. For us, it was a great opportunity to be much more present than ever in terms of customer service, in terms of accessibility, and in terms of designing and creating new collections to generate excitement. We wanted to be seen as a local, fresh, and driven company.

Laura: And how did you manage that? Can you share some of the specific actions you took to foster your residential business?  

Maude: We’ve always had an eCommerce business, but we invested a lot of time and energy making big improvements to the customer experience online.

Just a week after the pandemic, I realized, ‘We’re not able to receive customers, but we can offer them virtual visits inside the store.’ Now we can reach clients all over the country through private virtual meetings with a lighting expert — which is actually better, because we’re able to see their living area and make suggestions. It opened up a business model that I would never have thought of before. 

We also created a 3D platform, based on a tool we were originally developing for architects and designers to understand all the mixing and matching they could do with our components. We tweaked it to make it more user-friendly for consumers, and now our clients can be at home, see all the different categories they can play with, change the colors — we have 2,800 possibilities! It’s the same experience they would have in store, building and personalizing, but we’ve recreated it virtually, giving them the tools to design their own lighting as well as access to expert advice.

Having these two mixed together has been a real success. It has helped us to not only survive, but also to outshine other companies that didn’t have these tools or services. It took a lot of energy to adapt and get to market so quickly, but now we’re accessing new customers across Canada and the US.

Laura: And what about your brick-and-mortar business? You still have showrooms in Montreal and Cowansville, plus a new location opening in Toronto this September, at a time when many retailers are scaling back. 

Maude: It goes back to not being scared, and being strategic. People are working from home, and a lot of that is going to stay. They aren’t traveling or eating out as much as normal, so they have money to invest in their space. Our future is in residential. Toronto is a big market opportunity, and we need to have a presence on the street to tap into it more. The virtual tools work, they are helping us to get through this, but nothing compares to the full experience — which has improved because of the pandemic.
When our Montreal store reopened it was by appointment only, and even if everything goes back to normal, we’re going to stick with these private VIP meetings. The customer experience is so much better when they have the whole store to themselves, and the undivided attention of an expert. On our end, opening by appointment only means we don’t need as big a space, and it’s easier to keep things sanitary.

Laura: So it sounds like you’ve really nailed what you want the client experience to be, and the pandemic inadvertently showed you a way to do it better.

Maude: Absolutely. I never would have thought that it would actually be more impactful to only have appointments. If we look at the conversion of the sales for the stores, it’s like night and day. It’s so good it’s not comparable. The right time is invested with the right clients, and that is paying off.

Laura: That’s great to hear. Based on your success so far, what advice would you give to other business owners trying to navigate the pandemic?

Maude: Super simple: follow your gut, don’t be scared, and have the right people supporting you. Build your team and just look forward!

How Olympic captain Martha McCabe transitioned from a swimming career to entrepreneurial success.

By Hailey Eisen

Finding purpose after retirement can be one of the greatest challenges an Olympic athlete will face — but for Canadian swimmer Martha McCabe, the lessons learned through a career in sport proved to be just what she needed to embark on an entrepreneurial journey. 

By age 27, Martha had earned a bronze medal at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai and a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto. She had been named Top Canadian Female Swimmer after placing fifth at the London Olympics in 2012 and was captain of the Canadian swim team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But she was ready for something new.

After years of focusing all of her energy and attention on swimming, Martha founded Head to Head Canada, an organization that provides Olympic athletes with a platform to mentor youth, promoting resilience and mental well-being. She attributes her success to her family’s support, unique education opportunities, and a healthy dose of resilience built from the failures and obstacles she encountered throughout her sporting career.   

Born and raised in Toronto, Martha moved to Vancouver for university with the sole focus of training with a breaststroke specialist who’d recently joined the school. Her first year of university coincided with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  

“It was my first year in Vancouver, my first year truly focusing on my swimming, and my whole life revolved around the sport,” she recalls. “I had set a personal goal of qualifying for those Olympic games.” When she fell short, Martha says she was devastated. 

“At 18, I had a lot to learn, and that first heartbreak was an important part of my journey,” the 31-year-old recalls. In fact, that first failure is something she still draws upon today when mentoring youth. “From that moment I realized that nothing is certain, and the only way to be successful is to focus on the day to day.”

 

I had never had a real job before, I’d never used a calendar to set up a meeting — and while it may sound wild, most Olympic athletes don’t have the opportunity to experience that kind of work.

 

In the four years between 2008 and 2012, Martha says she grew as a person and an athlete. “I think being an athlete provides you with many accelerated life lessons. By the time I graduated UBC and qualified for the 2012 London Games, I was extremely focused and not afraid to fail.” 

Although she didn’t make it to the podium, Martha did finish fifth and beat her own personal best time. “I wasn’t nearly as devastated as I had been in 2008, and I focused my energy on meeting other athletes and enjoying that Olympic experience.”  

She then moved back to Ontario to reflect on what would come next. “I knew then that I needed a balance; I was done university and I wanted to do something outside of swimming while also continuing to train.” 

Though she’d studied kinesiology at UBC, Martha says she was more interested in business and considered doing her MBA upon graduation. “I felt that the business environment was more similar to the sporting world.” Synchronistically, Martha came across the RBC Olympians program and was hired to work as a marketing co-ordinator for the bank in a flexible role that gave her the opportunity to continue swimming.  

“I had never had a real job before, I’d never used a calendar to set up a meeting — and while it may sound wild, most Olympic athletes don’t have the opportunity to experience that kind of work.”

In 2015, Martha won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto and as the 2016 Rio Olympics approached, she knew she was nearing the end of her career. As co-captain of the Canadian swim team, Martha went to Rio but her personal performance was not as good as she’d hoped. “Watching the young athletes perform at those games was by far the most memorable experience,” she says. “It was incredible leading that team.” 

For Martha, the next logical step was to support other athletes and young people in their own journeys — but the key to success would be finding a way to build a business around her aspirations.    

“It started with a 60-day drive across Canada,” Martha recalls. “There’s a small window after you’ve been to the Olympics when you’re relevant, and I knew I had to maximize that demand and do something with it.”

Having secured sponsorship, Martha travelled from Victoria, B.C. to St John’s, Nfld., sharing her experiences and expertise with young athletes both in and out of the water. “I did 55 presentations and clinics, and it was the perfect way to test the market and see if my idea for a business was viable.” 

From that journey, Head to Head was born. What started as presentations delivered by Martha and a few teammates has grown to include a roster of more than 30 Canadian Olympians, including hockey medalist Jayna Hefford, four-time canoe-kayak-sprint medalist Adam van Koeverden, and bobsleigh competitor Neville Wright. 

To launch Head to Head, Martha turned to her dad’s experience as an entrepreneur and relied on his support as she navigated new waters. “As with my swimming career, I had assumed starting a business would be easier than it was — and from every rejection I learned and evolved.” 

Martha wanted to give other Olympians the experience she’d had. “Retirement can be challenging, and I wanted to extend the opportunity to other athletes to share their stories and influence the lives of kids.” She began to develop a training program to streamline the content Head to Head would deliver. “Just because you’re fast doesn’t mean you can speak or work with kids, so from the beginning I was very selective in who I chose to join the program.” 

After running the business for nearly two years, Martha says she was suffering, like many entrepreneurs, from imposter syndrome. “I had a lot of self-doubt, like who was I to be running this business? I didn’t have any formal training or education and I felt it would be useful to get some.” 

Another synchronistic opportunity presented itself to Martha, this time in the form of a Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Thanks to a partnership between the Canadian Olympic Committee and Smith School of Business, Martha was one of many national team athletes given the chance to go back to school after a career in competitive sport. Martha continued to work on her business while in the program, grateful for the opportunity to garner advice and support from Smith’s coaches and professors. “I received a formal education, really valuable business strategies, and above all I got a huge boost in confidence.” 

Shortly after starting the master’s program, Martha worked up the confidence to hire someone to help run Head to Head. She sought support from the faculty and coaches at Smith to go through this process and choose the right candidate — something she feels she wouldn’t have been able to do on her own. 

With education and experience under her belt, Martha continues to inspire youth with a focus on managing anxiety and nerves while achieving one’s goals and full potential. This summer, Martha decided it was time to come out publicly — realizing there was more of her story that could help others. “I had been so focused on swimming when I was younger and there were no female athletes in swimming who were gay, so I dated guys without realizing something was always missing.” 

While Martha hopes that soon stories like hers won’t be a big deal, until then she wants to provide the type of strong and proud LGBTQ+ role model she never had growing up. 

“Kids tend to look up at Olympians as superheroes, which is why I share my story,” Martha says. Her ultimate goal is to let kids know that they too can achieve their dreams. That the key to a better life is to remain open to possibilities and perspectives. And that taking care of yourself, staying active, and writing down your feelings and tracking your well-being can all contribute to improved mental and physical health. 

COVID has amplified existing disparities — but can it also play a role in addressing them?


In the nearly-six months since COVID has been declared a pandemic, one thing has been made clear: we are not all in this together.

Since June, we’ve been interviewing advocates, community leaders, and experts to shine a spotlight on how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting marginalized groups, from Indigenous communities and Black communities, to people living with disabilities. Even with as broad a lens as gender, the disparities are apparent and unsurprising; on every measure, women are faring worse than men.

The common thread in these conversations? The disparities existed already, COVID has just made them worse. 

It has also made them impossible to ignore — and that in itself could provide an opportunity for positive change. 

As Sané Dube pointed out in our conversation on the two health crises facing Black people in Canada — COVID and Racism — the devastating and unequal effect of the pandemic helped build the case for race-based data collection in health, which advocates had long been lobbying for. 

We’ve asked nine experts to share their thoughts on how the pandemic might be used to move us forward towards equality, rather than push us back. It’s not meant to be an exercise in chasing silver linings, but instead a starting point for change.

Highlighting the systems failing people  and where we need investment.

Maya Roy

CEO, YWCA Canada

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on what was broken in our society. It showed us what parts of the social safety net are fraying, what systems are failing the people we serve, and how the social contract isn’t working for our most essential workers. This work is often done by Black, Indigenous, racialized and migrant women. 

This moment has politicized many and pushed them to think about what we need to prioritize as a country. It has highlighted exactly what we need to invest in as a society: the social determinants of health. Public health measures advise us to wash our hands, and stay at home, especially if we’re sick. If that’s the case, we need bold investments and systemic change to ensure everyone has access to clean water, a safe and affordable place to live and paid sick leave. There is no turning back now. We’ve seen what the lack of investment in these public goods means for all of us. Now is the time to act. 

We are also seeing a diverse range of employers finally embrace flexible work options. Gender equity and disability justice movements have been advocating for more just work arrangements for decades. Work shouldn’t make you sick and it should cater to your diverse needs, including flexibility to address the multiple roles you play in your life. That may mean accommodating your care responsibilities such as child care and elder care. It also means being an active member of your community. The increased civic engagement and interest in how our government works and for whom has been one of the most humbling aspects of this crisis. 

Exposing systemic racism in the corporate world  and the need to move from diversity to human equity.

Karlyn Percil

CEO, KDPM Consulting

I believe that COVID showed us or exposed three things:

Leadership Complacency: The various ways leaders in all industries have been complacent and complicit in anti-Black racism. Inaction, reading off carefully crafted messages, and lack of accountability exposed the multiple ways organizations and leaders uphold systems of racism (many still believe that having an ERG or doing unconscious bias training is the answer). The lack of accountability on what it means to be an equitable and inclusive leader is evident through ‘one workshop’ requests or a rush to do something.

Dehumanization of Black lives at work: The lack of empathy extended to Black lives (several organizations I’ve spoken to have not created or prioritized psychological safety for Black employees or Indigenous or POC ). The dehumanization of Black lives in the workplace continues silently because many leaders have not registered or thought of the impact of racial trauma on the lives of Black employees. What will it take to humanize Black lives?

Emotional Fragility: Many organizations and leaders are on the lower spectrum of the Emotional Fragility – Resilience Continuum. White fragility shows explicitly up as fear of not saying something wrong has taken priority over doing the right thing (i.e. taking action) 

We need organizations and leaders to shift to understanding that to create a workplace culture where Black and other racialized lives really matter — we need to move from diversity to human equity.

Human equity is a term coined by my friend and mentor, equity strategist Trevor Wilson. In his book, The Human Equity Advantage, Trevor defines Human Equity as: ‘talent differentiation and maximizing on the unique talents of every employee’s innate strength, unique abilities, personality, attitude, life experiences and virtues.’

Unfortunately, many organizations for decades have been creating policies and procedures rooted in inequitable systems that generally benefit or favour whiteness.

If we are to do the moral and ethical thing, leaders must upgrade not only the behavioural economics of their leadership competencies,; they must also do the work through action to understand what it means to be an equitable and inclusive leader. 

Systems don’t dismantle themselves, people do. So to build back better, we need leaders who understand that a considerable part of building better, means that the power — be it position power, pay power or privilege power — must be shared with those who have not been seen, heard or given a decision making seat in the organization. It means that the dominant group’s culture — white culture and whiteness — must be examined, and the systems, processes, policies and procedures need to be dismantled and rebuilt through the lens of human equity.

Making space for new conversations  that don’t always get the coverage they deserve.

Photo Credit: George Joseph

Faiza Amin

Faiza Amin, Journalist with CityNews

COVID-19 has touched everyone, but this is still very much an unequal pandemic. For decades, Black health leaders and advocates had been calling for the collection of race-based data, to better understand the experiences of Black people and racialized communities who are and aren’t navigating the healthcare system. Prior to COVID, many raised the alarm over how social determinants of health were impacting these communities, but during the pandemic, there were fears that those same factors would put marginalized groups at greater risk. That fear was confirmed when Public Health Units slowly began releasing data that showed Black and racialized communities were disproportionately impacted by the virus. Not that we needed the data to tell us the obvious, but now, the numbers show the scary realities of systemic racism in a way that can’t be ignored.

This is what health leaders and advocates spent months fighting for during the pandemic. But what if we listened to these voices right away? And we collected the data at the start of the pandemic? These questions are important, and they shed light on the need to make space for these conversations, that don’t always get the coverage they deserve.

It is my hope that this will change how we speak about systemic racism. It’s a reminder for all of us to take a step back, and continue to reassess the conversations we’re having surrounding issues and communities. Who has a seat at the table? Who aren’t we giving a voice to? Does this represent the community we serve? Whose stories are we not telling?

And what gives me hope, is the relentless work of leaders and advocates in our communities, who continue to push for what’s right and despite being told ‘no’ time and time again. They help to fuel much needed conversations in a way that creates the changes our communities need.

Showing men the importance of flexible work  and the value of equity and inclusion.

Ludo Gabriele

Senior Director, MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) Branding, Catalyst and Founder, Woke Daddy

I think a positive change is that the superficial line that exists between professional lives and personal lives is going to disappear — because right now, everything lives together. I think the pandemic is blurring this imaginary line, and when you personalize each second of your work, this is where inclusion and psychological safety are very critical. We won’t be able to completely go back, because I think so many people have made very meaningful connections with one another. 

I also think that men are witnessing the importance of flexible work and flexible workplaces. Men who are living with a woman at home, they’re seeing how much they’re handling during the pandemic, especially if they’re working at the same time. I think many men, especially those who go out to work, may not have the awareness of what is involved in running a household when they’re away. The fact that many of us have had an immersion in what it takes, this is something that won’t necessarily go back to normal, because we cannot unsee what we have been witnessing for the past few months.

We’re also being shown the importance of embedding flexibility, equity and inclusion as a culture, because what we see is that the more robust and sustainable organizations that have equity, inclusion, and flexibility are the ones that are navigating the pandemic the best. They’re embedding those values along with psychological safety, instead of just checking a box. Having this cultural shift, this new cultural mindset, is something that will hopefully live on. 

Creating new opportunities with remote work  especially for those living with disabilities.

Darby Young

Founder and Principal Accessibility Strategist, Level Playing Field

The biggest lesson we’ve all learned is that people can work remotely — and that does give people with disabilities the ability to work. It overcomes what always seems to be the biggest issue, which is that the majority of workplaces aren’t accessible. It can also help with prejudice. A lot of the time, when people see persons with disabilities, they don’t give us a chance. 

That’s not to say it’s without issues. In stakeholder discussions we’ve conducted, we’ve seen how remote work presents challenges for individuals with hearing loss or vision loss. Organizations still need to figure out how to manage remote work well, to address these and other issues.

But they will have to find a way to adapt. With COVID, companies are learning how to shift — because they’ve been forced to do it. 

Making innovation necessary,  which could lead to greater inclusion.

Sarah Kaplan

Founder and Director, Institute for Gender and the Economy

A few things give me hope, including this broader conversation about care work. We’ve known for 30 years that childcare is the secret to women’s advancement in their jobs, and now we’re talking about how the secret to economic recovery is going to be childcare — it gives me some hope that we might actually get a universal child care solution. That would be great. 

The second thing that gives me hope is that we all got thrown into a period of experimentation. We had been talking for years and years at the Rotman School about doing some online education, and there was resistance to that change — and then from March 13 to March 16, we transferred the entire in-person experience to online. We’re seeing similar things in all sorts of companies; between experiments with collaborative work, and different tools, we may come up with a better way of working. 

We’re also able to include so many more people at work than we were ever able to include before. For example, people in smaller communities — for example in the Canadian north — can now get a remote job at a big corporate in Toronto, get the advantage of that salary, and the advantage of staying in their communities. And many of the things that we have ended up doing because of the pandemic have been things that people with disabilities have been requesting for years. We can still do a better job of including people with disabilities — virtual meetings can be harder for people who have a vision impairment, or people who have a hearing impairment if they can’t read people’s lips — so it’s not perfect, but I see all kinds of experimentation leading us to think about ways of work that could actually be much more inclusive, and that gives me hope.

Opening up the lines of communication  and including more voices.

Candies Kotchapaw

Founder & Executive Director, Developing Young Leaders of Tomorrow, Today (DYLOTT)

Even in all this horribleness, all the terrible, tragic impact that COVID has brought with it, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that COVID has brought many opportunities for people who are Black and for people to collaborate. I think the biggest positive that I can take from COVID is that it has opened up the lines of communication, where I think they were locked or non-existent before. Even through social media, there’s access to people that I think before as a Black person I would have never had the opportunity to engage with.

The other major thing that gives me hope is that people are recognizing the value of contribution from Black communities. They are recognizing that there is capacity for agency within Black communities. And they are recognizing that there are a plethora of experiences that are valuable. 

Now, the spotlight is being shone on our communities, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, there’s an opportunity for self-governance. There’s an opportunity for economic independence. There’s an opportunity for collaboration on a level that there has never been.’ I’m certainly very happy for that.

Connecting more authentically  and growing empathy for others.

Mayaan Ziv

Founder and CEO, AccessNow

I honestly think that it boils down to empathy. I think when there is a sense of empathy we react differently, and we’re kinder to each other, and we are more thoughtful about our actions. I think we’ve been given the opportunity to empathize with another person’s fear, another person’s reality. People start meetings with a meaningful ‘how are you?’ — it is not necessarily something we would have seen in the past, but is a chance to connect with another person, authentically.

Having that kind of human element, we have a unique opportunity to now grow from this experience, and I hope that we do. Human tendency is to get these new paths and then eventually forget about them and go back to the old ways. I hope that that’s not going to be the case. I think we have an opportunity to learn from this, and to invest in a future that is welcoming and inclusive.

Showing Canadians Indigenous strength, resilience, and leadership and an added call to support sovereignty

Pam Palmater

Mi'kmaq Lawyer, Professor, and Activist

The hope that I see is the ways in which specifically First Nations and Indigenous women have addressed murdered and missing women and girls, land-based protests and land-based defense, and even this pandemic — by asserting their own sovereignty. And we may be doing so in an underfunded capacity, in a marginalized, oppressed capacity, in a context of ongoing genocide and pandemic risk — but we continue to show our strength, and our resilience, and our leadership, and our commitment to our sovereignty as nations, to continue to do this for our people. 

There are literally a thousand stories of Indigenous women and girls serving their communities. They’re the most underserved, but they’re out there volunteering for elders, they’re cleaning, they’re bringing supplies, they’re advocating. They’re literally on the front line. And there are still women out there on the front lines of land defense and that’s where I find my hope. In the assertion and defense of our sovereignty and our territory, despite the overwhelming and monumental barriers, and the risk to our lives.

It’s really important that we get these stories out, and show Canadians that this is where hope is, supporting Native people in asserting and defending their sovereignty and territory, and the right to make decisions for themselves, that’s what will get us out of this. Canadians are starting to see that the things that we were advocating for and protesting against were the very same things that were going to benefit Canadians. So when we’re trying to defend clean water for First Nations, that’s actually a benefit to all Canadians, because we’re not going to live very long without clean water or farmable land. And similarly, when we’re defending human rights and civil liberties, that’s for everybody. And it’s a very slippery slope to say it’s okay to breach those rights for Native people, now it’s okay to breach those rights for Black people, now it’s okay to breach those rights for immigrants, now it’s okay to breach those rights for poor people — it never ends, and so we have to have an absolute stop against the breach of human rights, and that benefits all Canadians.

What do all these opportunities have in common? That they are no more than opportunities, which can be wasted without determined action. Unless we are willing to address systemic inequality, and innovate and rebuild with inclusion in mind, our ‘new normal’ won’t be any better — and possibly far worse — than where we started six months ago.  

What will it take? A commitment that goes beyond public statements or check-the-box inclusion practices. Working with marginalized communities to address systemic issues, rather than prescribing band aid solutions to mitigate the effects of inequality. There needs to be listening and learning, and we must overcome the fear — and eradicate the backlash — of uncomfortable conversations. We must approach this with all the effort, resources, thought, and care that building a new system demands.   

It will be hard to do it right, and easy to get discouraged. So we cannot forget this: we’ve never before had so many opportunities presented that can help us on the road ahead. Let’s not waste our chance for change.

The TELUS VP of Consumer Health has had a busy pandemic — but it’s not the first time in her career she’s had to be resilient.

When Juggy Sihota enrolled in the Executive MBA program at Smith School of Business back in 2004, she had just been promoted to director. It was a significant challenge in her career, but certainly not the only one she’s had to overcome. The Vice President of Consumer Health at TELUS shares her story.

 

By Hailey Eisen


As a child, Juggy Sihota wanted to be “everything” when she grew up — from a doctor, to a foreign service officer, to a world leader, and a business person. She was raised to believe the sky’s the limit. But growing up in a suburb of Vancouver in the early 80’s, Juggy’s childhood wasn’t without challenges. 

“Being one of the only minorities in our community was not easy,” she says. Still, she credits childhood disappointments for much of the grit, resiliency, and personality she has now. 

For example, she remembers a childhood audition for a district production of the musical Annie. “What I wanted more than anything in the early years was to be an actress and a singer,” she recalls. “And my music teacher, Donna Otto, was one of the most incredible allies I’ve ever had.” While Juggy aced the audition for the lead role, it was instead given to another girl who ‘looked the part.’ 

“I’ll never forget how furious my teacher was when she said to me, ‘The only reason you didn’t get that part is because you’re brown,’” Juggy recalls. “I was just happy to have been in the final two, but my music teacher was helping me see something more important.”

That wasn’t the last time Juggy experienced racism. But it certainly strengthened her resolve. “With everything going on in the world today, I look back on that moment and the impact it had on my life.” While she talked herself out of a career in acting, she went on to study political science with the goal of making the world a better place.  

She got her first job with TELUS (BC Telecom at the time) as a way to pay off her university tuition. It marked the beginning of what would be a decades-long career with the Canadian telco, during which she’s led several emerging technology businesses and operations spanning service development, operations, strategy and marketing. In late 2016, she took on her current role of vice-president, consumer health. 

“My love of technology comes from my father who, as an immigrant working in a lumber mill, never got to realize his dreams in terms of his career, but whose hobbies always revolved around tech,” Juggy says. Today, she looks back on her career with a fond view but knows there is much more to do yet. 

That’s not to say she hasn’t experienced her own professional challenges. The first big one came when she decided to go back to school. “I’d always wanted to do my MBA, and while I didn’t want to stop working and move to Kingston, Queen’s was my number one choice.”

Juggy chose a pivotal time in her career to begin the Executive MBA program, having just taken on a new role as director, technology and operations, managing a team of 200 field managers, leaders and technicians and launching the new TV service for TELUS. “There were many who told me not to do an MBA with a new role starting and a lot on my plate professionally, but I remember thinking, if you believe in me, let me make this decision for myself. ”  

With her family’s support, Juggy set out to tackle the new position and the MBA simultaneously. “The last five months of the MBA were the hardest in my career,” Juggy recalls. At the time, TELUS experienced the largest labour disruption in its history. “It was culturally challenging and hugely emotional and I was writing exams, flying back and forth to Kingston, working 14- to-16-hour days and trying to support hundreds of team members who were out of work and on the picket lines.” 

While Juggy says she felt like she’d reached her “breaking point” many times during those five months, she discovered new reservoirs of grit she had, and the experience taught her a lot about perseverance.

 

There have been times, on occasion, where my age, gender or my ethnicity have been called out in some way. Those moments can teach you what you may be up against, and so I’ve taken the responsibility of being a strong role model for other young women, minorities even more seriously.

 

Upon completing her MBA, she stayed in that director role for a few years, and despite the challenges it presented, she says it has been her favourite job at Telus to date, primarily because it taught her so much about people. The teams she led taught her a lot and helped shape her leadership view well into the future. 

“One of the most important things I learned during the MBA was in Dr. Julian Barling’s leadership class, where we talked about employee engagement and studied Gallup’s elements of a great workplace,” Juggy recalls. “This is something I’ve applied to every leadership role I’ve had since.”

Juggy has also had to tap into the lessons she learned as a child. As a young, female director, Juggy said she was prepared for challenges she’d face but still had much to encounter. 

“There have been times, on occasion, where my age, gender or my ethnicity have been called out in some way.”  Juggy says that while she only saw herself as a leader, some of those experiences helped her see how others may see her, rightly or wrongly. “Those moments can teach you what you may be up against,” she says, “and so I’ve taken the responsibility of being a strong role model for other young women, minorities even more seriously.”

Juggy’s move into healthcare was inspired by a personal experience and motivated by her original career objective to make the world a better place. “My mom, who had otherwise always been healthy, had a heart attack and required surgery. She’s fine now but it was quite an ordeal to get timely access to care,” Juggy recalls. “After that whole experience, I decided I wanted to spend my time doing something more meaningful — something that would help others facing similar challenges my mom had gone through in the health-care system.” 

Wanting to make access to health care better for Canadians, Juggy says she had a number of choices. “I could go back to school to become a doctor, find a job that would influence healthcare policy, or look to TELUS Health, a new division of the organization at the time.” 

In 2013, Juggy joined the TELUS Health team as vice president, shortly after expressing her interest to people within the organization. “I’ll give this advice to anyone who asks,” she says. “You’ve got to tell people what you want to do and why you want to do it — because that puts people in a position to be able to help and I think people generally want to help if they can.”  

In 2016, she became the vice president of consumer health. The digital health practice became even more interesting when the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year. “The demand for digital health, particularly virtual care, has skyrocketed in 2020, and it stunned us in March when we didn’t have enough supply to support the demand,” she says. Very quickly her team expanded across Canada and took digital healthcare to a whole new level. They worked tirelessly to onboard more doctors and clinical staff to meet the demand spike. “There were several weeks this year when the pandemic hit that my team and I were working 24/7 non stop,” she recalls. 

This all proved to be just another challenge and another learning opportunity for Juggy, whose commitment to civic good extends well beyond her career. Despite the busy work schedule, she still finds time to volunteer as Vice Chair of Vancouver General Hospital and is a member of a number of boards including the Vancouver International Airport, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation. She also advises the City of Vancouver on race and social justice issues. She’s also a mentor and role model, committed to showing other young women in particular what’s possible. 

“I am a glutton for having a lot on my plate,” she says with a laugh, “but I feel I am spending my time on what is most meaningful to me so it doesn’t feel like too much. It’s purposeful for me.”

Seven years into her career in health and months into the pandemic, Juggy feels as though she’s living what she set out to do as a child — but she’s nowhere near done. 

“My advice for young leaders, especially women and people of colour, is that the time is now,” Juggy says. “Be ambitious, bring the power of both your intellect and compassion to bear — this is an important time for diverse leaders to emerge and to step into meaningful leadership roles in communities, in government and certainly in business. The time is now.” 

How to build a multi-million dollar, inclusivity-first tech business out of an economic crisis.

As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month, it’s with another Calgary-based leader with a passion for inclusion, Virtual Gurus founder, Bobbie Racette.

When Bobbie Racette first founded Virtual Gurus — a business offering remote administrative assistant services on a contract basis — she didn’t even have a website.   

Four years later, and Virtual Gurus is a thriving tech company, matching businesses with virtual assistants and freelancers using a proprietary matchmaking algorithm. The Virtual Gurus Academy trains new assistants, helping to fill their own pipeline with diverse talent. And they just launched the beta version of Ask Betty, a new by-the-task virtual service that’s integrated with the Slack app. 

A Cree-Metis woman who prides herself on building an inclusivity-first company, Bobbie says her most important goal is to create more jobs — and she’s already leading a team of about 250, with 6000 ‘Virtual Gurus’ in their database. 

I caught up with Bobbie to talk about building and scaling her business, putting her values first, and being a role model. 


Laura: I want to start by asking about your origin story. You launched Virtual Gurus in 2016 — at a time when Alberta was in its worst recession in decades — and you still managed to build a seven-figure business. Can you share a bit more about that journey?

Bobbie: Virtual Gurus was really built because of that economic crisis. The first people to get laid off in a recession are always the administrators — so when the recession hit, the administration departments of all these companies in Alberta got laid off. There were thousands and thousands of administration people running around trying to find work, and at the same time, all these businesses still needed admin people, but they couldn’t afford a full-time admin person.  

I had been laid off from my oil and gas job, my EI was running out — I really was borderline homeless at the time. I literally had $300 in my pocket when I officially started it.

In the beginning, I was the virtual assistant. I was charging pretty low rates, but I was able to pay my rent from that. Then I built the website myself. When I got to 19 clients I brought in another virtual assistant — she’s still with the company today — and we went from there, bringing on more and more. 

We only hire Canadians right now, and we hire a lot of marginalized folks. People who are often forgotten. People who want to learn how to work from home, like single stay-at-home moms who can’t afford childcare, or trans women, who felt in their previous office jobs they couldn’t be themselves. We have a mandate with hiring freelancers — the onboarding team knows it, and the freelancers applying know, because they see it on the website — that we will always be 95% self-identified women, 65% are people of color, and 45% are part of the LGBTQ+ community.


Laura: Have you had challenges scaling while also maintaining those values? 

I had to toggle a lot with the fact that we’re not offshore, so we can’t pay our workers $2 an hour, which isn’t uncommon with services like this. But that’s the whole point of me starting — I wanted to be able to figure out a way to pay a fair wage while still making good margins for Virtual Gurus. It took a couple years of playing with the pricing. 

A lot of people didn’t think that Virtual Gurus would be scalable, because how can you scale the human aspect of it? We didn’t have the matchmaking algorithm, until about a year ago. But I was determined to just keep pushing and proving that we were able to do this. I started realizing what people really needed. We built it into a two-sided marketplace, where not only are we trying to make sure we’re bringing in the clients and taking care of that, but we also recruit and take care of the virtual assistants, the freelancers, and the remote workers that manage the back end. It’s a whole community. 


Laura: And how are things going with the business lately? Has the pandemic had an impact? 

Bobbie: I just had my board of directors meeting for my Q2 update — I bootstrapped up to a million, then closed my first funding round right before COVID hit — and all my investors are extremely happy. Looking at our numbers, we’re not hockey sticking, but we’re going up nicely. With COVID, what’s happened to a lot of businesses wasn’t the case for us. 

Obviously, we took a hit too — because April was ‘hardcore panic month,’ I’ll call it. While I’m panicking, my CSM team had to deal with all of the clients panicking, quitting or needing to pause. We came up with solutions that we could provide them and said, “Try not to panic” — because once the panic mode is over, pivot mode is going to kick in. And then when pivot mode kicks in for your business, at the end of the day you’re still going to need our services. 

At the same time, we’d realized that a lot of our startup friends were taking major hits and their staff have been laid off, so we gave 110 startups free services and then we gave all SMBs 40% off for a month — which worked out, because now most of them have turned into paying clients. Our clientele went up 66%.

The main point was to help these people, so that they can keep their companies afloat. I knew we were going to take a hit — but we’re a monthly subscription service, and the thinking was that they could potentially turn into paying clients. If not, they’d fall off, and that’s fine — because in the future they’d remember when Virtual Gurus came in and helped them. 

 

It felt good to be the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year. It felt good to have them there to witness it. I think it was a very proud moment for my family. A very proud moment for me, of realizing my resilience. I stuck to this, I kept going, I didn’t give up. I didn’t believe the naysayers and I proved them wrong. 

 

Laura: That’s really a win-win strategy. I think it takes a savvy entrepreneur to see the value in giving their product away for free, at a time when most businesses are thinking about preserving revenue. Which is a great segue into what I’d like to ask you about next: last year you were named the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year and Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Prairies Region, by Startup Canada. What was it like getting that recognition for what you’ve accomplished?  

Bobbie: I actually took my moms to Toronto for it, and they didn’t know that I’d won. It was more of a trip of giving back to my moms, thanking them for everything that they’d pushed me through. 

They would fly to Calgary for a family talk, and it wasn’t, ‘You’ve got to do this for the family, because you’re making money,’ it was, ‘This is your baby. You’ve got this.’ They knew that it was something I was passionate about. No mom wants their kid to give up on something they’re passionate about.

Taking them to the awards was my way of thanking them. It felt good to be the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year. It felt good to have them there to witness it. I think it was a very proud moment for my family. A very proud moment for me, of realizing my resilience. I stuck to this, I kept going, I didn’t give up. I didn’t believe the naysayers and I proved them wrong. 


Laura: You’ve talked openly about coming up against discrimination as an Indigenous, LGBTQ+, woman entrepreneur. Has it always been important to you to share that part of your story? 

Bobbie: For the first two or three years that I started, I didn’t want to share that story at all. I was very quiet about being lesbian, raised by two lesbian moms. I was very quiet about being Indigenous. If you look at any of the articles from before 2018, they don’t really discuss me being Indigenous — I just focused on being a woman in tech more than anything.

In the beginning of 2018, I started getting asked to be a mentor for Indigenous youth in business. That changed it all for me. I would do a speech in an auditorium, and they were all wanting to take pictures with me, saying, “Oh my God, it’s Bobbie Racette!” That made me realize I can’t shy away from this anymore. I have got to be loud and proud about my Indigenous culture. 

Then the same thing happened with the LGBT part of it. I got asked to speak at Venture Out. That’s where it really started. So many people said, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, trifecta!’


Laura: It’s wonderful that you’re embracing being a mentor and a role model. Thinking back to when you started, that few hundred dollars in your pocket, did you ever picture yourself where you are now? 

Bobbie: Honestly, five years ago, if you would have asked me if I would be where I am right now — no, absolutely not. I didn’t have a career directive. I didn’t know what I was going for. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was working as an administrator, worked in oil and gas as a safety technician. I don’t think I knew that I had it in me to be an entrepreneur. Now, when I think of it, I’m like, ‘Oh, yes, this is what I should have been doing 10, 15, or 20 years ago.’


Laura: And looking ahead, where do you hope to be? 

Bobbie: Providing work to 10 times more people than I’m providing work to now. That’s the most important part for me. 

A conversation with Sané Dube on the two health crises facing Black people in Canada: COVID and Racism

By early April, just a few weeks after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, the headlines started appearing: Black people were experiencing an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, and death from the virus. 

The stats were coming from the US and the UK, because we weren’t collecting race-based COVID data in Canada — despite awareness of the risks for Black communities, community members sounding the alarm, and supporting evidence by way of overlapping COVID and census data. 

As Black Lives Matter protests erupted globally at the end of May in response to the killing of George Floyd, accelerating calls from Black community health leaders in Canada to have anti-Black racism declared a health crisis — mainstream discussions were still asking, “Is Canada racist?” 

Sané Dube has been advocating for greater visibility and action with respect to the connection between race and health. Currently the Policy and Government Relations Lead, with a focus on Black health, at the Alliance for Healthier Communities, she has worked in community development, health promotion, research, and strategic policy development. 

I spoke with Sané about the link between anti-Blackness and the severity of COVID among Black people in Canada, the distinctly Canadian blind spot that serves to halt progress on the issue, and what we could be doing differently to dismantle systemic racism in healthcare. 

This interview has been edited for length. 


Statistics are showing that Black people are more likely to die from COVID — but while the numbers are making the headlines, not everyone is gaining an understanding of
why this is happening. Can we start there? 

Health is about a lot more than being able to walk into a doctor’s office or being able to walk into a healthcare facility. Health is really influenced by a range of factors and the environments we live in. Social determinants of health can be understood as the conditions that you live, work, and play in — it’s really a combination of the social and economic factors that impact your health.

Housing, for example, impacts health in very significant ways in terms of stability. We know that people who are unhoused or are experiencing homelessness tend to have worse health outcomes than people who have stability and don’t have to worry about housing. These social determinants of health are really looking at health with a much broader view than just through the ability to see a doctor, nurse or healthcare provider. They’re looking at the everyday things in someone’s life that can either help their health or lead to deterioration of their health.

 

Early on in the pandemic, when first called upon to collect race-based data with respect to COVID, Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario, responded that statistics based on race aren’t collected in Canada unless certain groups are found to have risk factors — which seems to completely ignore the existence of social determinants of health. 

That moment was really shocking. At the same time that Ontario was saying we won’t collect the data, we were seeing really striking statistics coming out of the United States and also the United Kingdom. We now know that in the US, Black people are five times more likely to be hospitalized and more than twice as likely to face fatal outcomes from COVID, compared to white Americans. 

We know that in Ontario it’s the same story. At the time when Dr.Williams made this comment, we were already seeing the impact of COVID on some communities. It was really disappointing to hear.

There was a lot of rallying, there was a lot of mobilization — I think people were pushing back against this thing that often happens in Canada, where we try and make invisible the way that systemic racism and structural inequality impact the most marginalized and vulnerable in our communities. We often get, ‘We’re not the same as the US,’ which invisibilizes the harm that Black, racialized and Indigenous people experience in this country. 


The efforts made by advocacy groups eventually led to the Ontario government changing course on the collection of race-based data for COVID, which is certainly a win. But to put that in perspective — this can’t be the first time this conversation was happening, right? 

You’re right. This is not new. People have been calling for this for literally decades. I was looking at something today — someone showed me a committee that had been put together in 1998, asking for the collection of this data. I think that this happened to be a window of opportunity because of the devastation that we have seen with COVID.

Data is collected in Ontario for other sectors. Education collects data by race. Justice also does. And there was a discussion, around 2017, to collect the data for health, but at the time the ministry said that there are lots of privacy concerns. I don’t think in calling for more data collection now, people are saying we should not be mindful of privacy. It’s also important to say that the collection of the data is not the end goal — but having the data means we have better tools to dismantle what causes harm.

 

This call was partly pushback saying, no, things are really awful, and this is not an issue just in the US. Even in Canada, Black people are dying, Indigenous people are dying, because of what happens with policing, because there isn’t a recognition of the ways that racism leads to death, or racism leads to us getting less services than other people, or getting care that just isn’t good enough.

 

You were a signatory on the joint statement calling for anti-Black racism to be declared a public health crisis. Can you share what led to its release on June 1, and what were the main goals of this joint effort?

You’ll remember that in the same week in the US, we had just seen the killing of George Floyd and Tony McDade, and we were talking about the killing of Breonna Taylor. Then in Canada, that same week, we had seen Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman, fall to her death in police presence. There have been two other deaths in Ontario under similar circumstances. In New Brunswick, we had just seen Rodney Levi, an Indigenous man, killed by an RCMP officer, and Chantel Moore, who was also Indigenous, killed by police who were called in to respond to a mental health and wellness check.

All these things were happening in Canada, and our Premier was asked about systemic racism, and his response at that time was that ‘we’re not as bad as the US’ — the premier did later reverse this, but in that moment it had the effect of minimizing the violence Black and Indigenous communities were facing.  

This call was partly pushback saying, no, things are really awful, and this is not an issue just in the US. Even in Canada, Black people are dying, Indigenous people are dying, because of what happens with policing, because there isn’t a recognition of the ways that racism leads to death, or racism leads to us getting less services than other people, or getting care that just isn’t good enough. Racism leads to our communities being underfunded, so that in the social sector, the health sector, our communities receive less. That ends up influencing our health.

With the declaration of anti-Black racism as a public health crisis, we were calling for it to be seen that racism was impacting people’s lives. It was a push to make things visible, and to then have the system be accountable for the ways that people are harmed. Declaring something a public health crisis shows urgency, that this is a critical issue that demands a response. It ensures health resources are designated, and there’s planning for the appropriate resources to be put in place, as well as accountability, infrastructure, and mechanisms for the system. 


A lot of the mainstream media stories have focused on the mortality rate of COVID being higher for Black people. What’s not making the headlines that should be, with respect to Black communities and health? What about mental health? 

When that question comes up, my first thought is always, how do you talk about this in a way that doesn’t pathologize Black people? Anti-Black racism, anti-Indigeneity has done so much harm and continues to do so much harm. White supremacy does so much harm to our people, and yet we often talk about mental health in a way that somehow again places the harms of these huge, unrelenting systems at the feet of Black people, without holding the system accountable for the distress that it causes to our people. What I would really like us to ask is, ‘What does this system do to Black people and in what way is it not accountable?’ 

I’ll give the example of healthcare workers who are dying in Ontario. Most have been personal support workers, many of them Black and racialized. It’s caused tremendous distress to their families, especially the circumstances under which they have died. I think that even the system has not held itself accountable for the way that it’s contributed to those deaths.

Earlier on in the pandemic, Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, was asked about personal protective equipment for personal support workers. He initially did not name them as essential workers, or prioritize access to equipment for them. Then personal support workers started dying, and there’s no apology for the way that they have been treated, there is no acknowledgement of the way that the system has failed them. Instead, when you read about their death, it’s almost framed like they are responsible for what systemic and structural issues have done to them.

 

Is there a way we can tell these stories differently, so that they are contributing to positive change?

We need to be able to tell these stories in a way that also holds the system and these structures accountable for the harm that they do to people.

With Regis Korchinski-Paquet, for example, I think we have to ask, as a 29-year-old young woman, what other support had she received to that point? Had she been able to find care that was culturally appropriate and that understood her very specific cultural issues that she was bringing? If she hadn’t, then why isn’t there more of an effort, even as we discuss her case, to talk about funding for mental health programs that are designed by and for marginalized communities, so that people can get the care that they need?

Even with Chantel Moore, I think that there just hasn’t been as much useful conversation talking about the way that policing continues to be part of the colonial project in Canada. It again goes back to that accountability. So much of the media coverage in Canada has been focused on the question, is there systemic racism? — which is just a distraction, and it takes away from what people are going through. 

And while we’re wasting time asking if there’s systemic racism, people’s lives are still being negatively impacted. People are still not getting the care that they need in Toronto’s  North West to deal with a deadly pandemic. While we’re asking, ‘Is there systemic racism in prisons?’, people who are Black and Indigenous — who are also overrepresented in prison populations — are not getting all the supplies that they need to deal with COVID, even though they are at some of the highest risk because of the condition that people in prisons live under.


Has the conversation around racism and health evolved at all, as a result of the pandemic?

I think that we are having conversations right now in 2020 under COVID that we weren’t having in 2018, which is great. But it would be naive not to look at the ways that already white supremacy is mutating and working to keep the status quo in place. I think there’s a lot of words that are being put out, but I don’t know that most of them are turning into actual work.

 

You have written about how anti-Blackness is a health crisis that deserves more than lip-service. Is there anything that gives you hope for change in what’s happening now? 

This is a question that we also see a lot in Canadian media. I think that hope is a critical part of resistance; hope is a critical part of being able to remake a world where we can live better. I think that often what happens when people are asked to be hopeful, is minimization of the very real pain that people are in and the difficulty of this moment. So I don’t usually answer that question, ‘what gives you hope?’ But what I do say is that I recognize hope is a critical part of resistance.

 

A conversation with Sarah Kaplan on COVID’s greater impact on women — and how we can rebuild equitably

At this point in the pandemic, we should no longer be asking if COVID is affecting women to a greater degree than men.  

The evidence shows it is, and in many ways; a primer on the gendered impacts of COVID-19 released in April by the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) pointed to higher participation in risky front-line work, greater susceptibility to economic uncertainty, increased domestic and caregiving responsibilities, increased vulnerability to domestic violence, and barriers to sexual and reproductive healthcare — with Indigenous, racialized, low-income, LGBTQ+ and other vulnerable groups worse affected.

Even as social distancing rules are relaxing, the situation has not improved. The latest statistics show women suffered a greater loss of jobs and are experiencing a slower recovery, have higher reported mental health issues, and a higher COVID mortality rate in Canada — and relatively speaking, this is still just the immediate impact. We don’t have a clear view of the long-term effects of the pandemic for women. 

I spoke with Sarah Kaplan, Founder and Director of GATE, to get her take on why it’s important to look at COVID with an intersectional gendered lens, where we are headed with respect to gender equality, and what we can be doing to build a more inclusive future. 

The interview has been edited for length. 

 

From the very beginning, you’ve been looking at the pandemic with an intersectional gender lens. Why is this so important? 

When we first put out our primer on the gendered impacts of COVID, I had a colleague reach out to me irate that at a time when people were getting sick and dying, and the economy is in the tank, that I would dare be talking about gender issues — as if gender were something on the side, a nice-to-have, but it has nothing to do with the core economic or health impacts. 

And of course, when you actually do look with a gender lens, you see how much it does have to do with gender, and you see the very unequal economic and health impacts. Gender, or women’s issues, or issues of masculinity, are not just something you focus on when times are stable — this moment of crisis is when we should be spending the most time looking at these kinds of issues. 

 

Some people might argue we should take a ‘neutral’ approach to these issues, rather than a gendered approach. Is that even possible? What do you think could be the impact of that kind of thinking? 

There is evidence from previous economic downturns and previous corporate layoffs that often diversity suffers, because if you approach it with rules like ‘we’ll furlough all the part-time workers’ or ‘we’ll furlough the people with the lowest evaluations’ or ‘we’ll furlough the people who are most recently hired’ — all of those are gendered. Women are more likely to be part-time, we know that performance evaluations are often gender-biased, and because companies have historically been bad at diversity, women are less likely to have seniority. 

These supposedly gender-neutral rules have really gendered outcomes. We need to have an explicit diversity lens on these decisions, or you’re going to kill off whatever diversity we’ve been fighting to get in the last decade or so, including in corporate Canada. 

 

That’s a very bleak thought — but not unsurprising, considering how many ways women are being affected from an economic standpoint. Are there any repercussions that you are particularly concerned about? What’s the worst case scenario here? 

I think we could end up quite far back. Take a situation like yours, with young kids at home — if there has historically been a gender division of labor in the household, then it’s much more likely that the woman is going to drop out of the labour force, because it’s too hard for her to manage small children and perform in her job. 

Among heterosexual couples, we know that we don’t have equal sharing of responsibilities in Canadian households — there is an incredibly gendered division of labour. The likelihood that we are going to see a whole generation of women with pre-teen children dropping out of the workforce is extremely high. It’s just not manageable. And until we get a vaccine, I think we’re going to see a whole slew of people leaving the workforce, and that will undo a lot of the progress. 

 

“We’ve known for 30 years that childcare is the secret to women’s advancement in their jobs, and now we’re talking about how the secret to economic recovery is going to be childcare — it gives me some hope that we might actually get a universal child care solution.”

 

What about the argument that men are now seeing how much work is involved in care responsibilities?

Yes, on the positive side, and again talking about heterosexual couples, there are situations where the male partner is seeing exactly how much care work is required at home, and actually participating more and becoming more committed to getting corporate policies adjusted to adapt. 

This may be a wake up call for many male leaders about what exactly has been happening behind the curtains. Some people predict that maybe we’ll get a wave of more equal households going forward, but I’m not sure about that. I think it remains to be seen exactly what social changes are going to be wrought from this. 

I think one thing is true: we are never going to go back to everyone always working in their offices, now that people are set up to work from home. The future of work is going to change because of this, or accelerate at least, and I don’t think we have a good way to predict which way it’s going to pull — whether it’s going towards more gender equality because men have gotten more involved in care work, or it’s going to uphold inequality because women will have to give up their work in order to deal with the additional care work. 

 

In the face of losing ground in the push for gender equality, what gives you the most hope? 

A few things give me hope, including this broader conversation about care work. We’ve known for 30 years that childcare is the secret to women’s advancement in their jobs, and now we’re talking about how the secret to economic recovery is going to be childcare — it gives me some hope that we might actually get a universal child care solution. That would be great. 

The second thing that gives me hope is that we all got thrown into a period of experimentation. We had been talking for years and years at the Rotman School about doing some online education, and there was resistance to that change — and then from March 13 to March 16, the entire in-person experience got transferred to online. We’re seeing similar things in all sorts of companies; between experiments with collaborative work, and different tools, we may come up with a better way of working. 

We’re also able to include so many more people at work than we were ever able to include before. For example, people in smaller communities can now get a remote job at a big corporate in Toronto, get the advantage of that salary, and the advantage of staying in their communities. And many of the things that we have ended up doing because of the pandemic have been things that people with disabilities have been asking for for years. We can still do a better job of including people with disabilities — virtual meetings can be harder for people who have a vision impairment, or people who have a hearing impairment if they can’t read people’s lips — so it’s not perfect, but I see all kinds of experimentation leading us to think about ways of work that could actually be much more inclusive, and that gives me hope.  

 

These are all examples of positive side effects of the pandemic, which are great, but what do you think we could be doing to intentionally rebuild in an equitable way

GATE has actually partnered with the YWCA to develop a feminist recovery plan — because we definitely need to be intentional about what is included. From a more narrow focus, corporate recovery plan, to a broader focus, like where governments should invest in infrastructure. These kinds of big projects have major feminist dimensions to them. 

As an example, investing in caregiving pays huge dividends — it basically pays for itself in a very short period of time — but it seems really expensive and so people don’t want to do it because it’s just caregiving, it’s not a highway. Investing in social infrastructure as opposed to physical infrastructure is a way of reconceptualizing the major government spending that will happen to help recover the economy.  

It would be very different from how countries typically spend to recover the economy, and without some more very serious conversations, it’s unclear we’re going to get the feminist solution that we need.

A conversation with Maayan Ziv on COVID and people living with disabilities

Maayan Ziv is an award-winning tech entrepreneur and disability advocate. Frustrated by the barriers she was experiencing living with muscular dystrophy, nearly five years ago she founded AccessNow — an app that uses crowdsourcing to pin-point the accessibility status of locations on an interactive map. 

A few days before our conversation, the federal government announced new funding: $15 million to enable community organizations to help Canadians with disabilities adapt to the realities of COVID-19, and up to $600 for individuals who qualify for the Disability Tax Credit (DTC). 

While that measure would have reached about 1.2 million eligible Canadians, one study estimates it would only cover roughly 40% of working-aged adults with a severe disability. What’s worse, on June 11 the bill that included these benefits failed to pass, as opposition parties withheld support. Party leaders blamed one another for the impasse, and so far, no new initiatives have been announced.

Maayan Ziv spoke candidly on the challenges COVID presents for people with disabilities — and the opportunities.

 

I’d like to start by asking, how are you doing?

I’ve been okay. At first there was a lot of fear that I was experiencing — especially being someone who fits into the category of being immunocompromised. Whenever I listen to stories about how this is really, really dire for people who fit my criteria, there’s a lot of fear around that. And that is a shared experience. Pretty much everyone that is in a similar situation as me, we have had to take a lot of precautions. 

It was difficult at first. Before there was even a lockdown, I was starting to self-isolate. I used to live in Toronto and I just moved out to the country to be in a less dense population. I’m not going to the grocery store or anywhere really, and basically everyone who’s living in the same house is in the same boat. It’s pretty extreme. 

It can be frustrating or difficult, especially now when things are starting to open — it’s really not the case for me. I’ve gone through cycles, from fear, to a sense of grieving for what life was like pre-COVID. Now, I’m in a state of acceptance and really working on leveraging the silver lining that comes along with this new reality. I think that there’s a lot of change and it’s not all bad.

 

One of those silver linings, from what I’ve been reading, is that some of the ways we’ve adapted because of COVID are actually beneficial to people living with disabilities. Would you agree with that?

A lot of the things that we were seeing in the very beginning — like people writing about what it means to work from home, to access services online or remotely, and people having this panic of, how do I do life if I haven’t done this before? — that was general across the board, every person we talked to said the same thing. 

And for our community of people with disabilities, it was a very interesting experience, because the things that people started realizing that they needed are things that people with disabilities have been advocating for years. The flexibility, working from home or having different work hours, the ability to use online tools as opposed to meeting in person.

Specifically, if you just look at employment, it’s been a huge conversation that has been happening within the disability community for a very long time. Part of it has actually resulted in barriers where people don’t get the job, or they’re not given a fair chance to pursue an opportunity because people will say, ‘Well, if you can’t come into the office every day or if you can’t work in this way, you can’t work for us at all.’

Now, there’s a bigger sense of advocacy for the disability community, that’s been demanding these types of accommodations, you might call it, for years — from home delivery to telehealth. There are so many different aspects of how we’re revolutionizing the world to be post-COVID that have been part of the DNA of how people with disabilities have been wanting to live their lives, and not always been granted access to.

There’s a sense of, welcome to my world, and a real opportunity to develop a sense of empathy and work towards a greater understanding of inclusion because things that were considered accommodations, or things that are accessible specifically for people with disabilities, are now things that every person needs. That is a really unique opportunity to capitalize on and keep working towards inclusive progress.

We’re in a really important moment in time where we hope that things will continue in this direction. We hope that restaurants will continue to offer options, and that offices will continue to embrace a remote work style, and that we won’t just go back to a one-size-fits-all model without the flexibility to be there for every person. That’s something we’re advocating for within the disability community.

 

“There’s a sense of, welcome to my world, and a real opportunity to develop a sense of empathy and work towards a greater understanding of inclusion because things that were considered accommodations, or things that are accessible specifically for people with disabilities, are now things that every person needs.”

 

Is there a degree of frustration that you’ve been advocating for this for years and people have been saying, ‘We can’t do it’ — and now all of a sudden, en masse, the world has started doing it?

It’s a good question. For sure, I think that there is some frustration there, but the frustration has always been there. The fact that people with disabilities haven’t been given the same rights and opportunities, that’s a systemic issue, and it’s global. 

That’s why the largest minority group in the world has been advocating for that for so long. But rather than just leaning on that anger and that frustration, having the opportunity to then use that frustration as fuel to capitalize on this chance for change, I think is really the approach that I’m taking personally and I see a lot of people in the community doing as well. 

So knowledge-sharing, improving access with our Access From Home product, and we’ve launched a campaign that’s focused on storytelling, so that people with disabilities can share their own lived experiences about what access from home looks like, so that it becomes more personal and it becomes real for people, rather than this blob of immunocompromised people. 

 

You mention your Access From Home product — which seems to be the opposite of what you were offering with AccessNow. How did that come about?

At AccessNow we were originally focused on connecting people to the physical world, the built environment, and encouraging and empowering people to get out and do things and be independent. With COVID, we had to quickly start thinking about what our role is now, in a world where people can’t really go out. 

That’s really where Access From Home became part of the solution. We’ve been hearing a lot of people in our community saying, ‘I’m having a difficult time finding access to groceries,’ or ‘What opportunities do I have for online employment? What tools can I use?’ or ‘What sources of education or entertainment do I have access to from home?’

We started building this directory of different companies and services, where people can look for the things that they need in their life, and so have that sense of accessibility and empowerment at home. So we’re contributing in the same way that we’ve always done, connecting people to an accessible world — even if our world is now digital, and accessed through devices at home.

And we continue to invest in our main platform, the AccessNow app. We know that accessibility in the built environment is still, and will always be, critical to achieving independence and equity

 

What about other supports — like group programs and at-home care? I’ve read they’ve had to change how they’re delivered, or they’ve just gone away. How is this being managed?

Many people are really struggling. I’ve heard nightmare stories from people who are without enough support, because their caregivers have had to pick only one place of employment or don’t feel safe coming to work. I’ve heard from people who have had to isolate from loved ones in order to limit the risk of exposure, or those unable to get basic needs met due to new financial constraints or gaps in care. It’s just hard, it’s hard on everyone, with or without the disability. 

But for those with disabilities, it can be really trying right now and that story is not widely known. We still have a lot of people hanging out in big groups or not practicing proper social distancing or not wearing masks. Many people I feel are not thinking about how those actions, although they might not actually hurt them personally, are hurting other people. 

 

Do you feel like, as we’re all figuring out this new normal, that your voice is being heard?

Early on Minister Qualtrough put together an advisory committee of people that were focused on disability and COVID-19, and that now there is also a new effort from Stats Canada to collect survey data on the impact of COVID on Canadians with disabilities.

But is it too little too late? I think the $15 million for programs, that’s a significant number but when we talk about funding on the personal level, there’s a lot of people who fall through the cracks. The important thing to realize, and I don’t think people do, is that people with disabilities have a lot of expenses, especially now, and many are without the support they need.

Here’s one tiny example: a caregiver that’s coming and going daily — you need PPE not just for you, but for all the people who come in and out of your life every day to support you. There are all these microtransactions that people don’t really think about, and there’s a whole body of work that talks about the cost of disability — and during this time, it’s even more significant. I’m glad that some funding is there, but I’m not sure it will be enough.

 

Is there a lesson you hope that we learn out of this? If there was one thing you wish we could hold on to that will lead us towards a better future, what would that be?

I honestly think that it boils down to empathy. I think when there is a sense of empathy we react differently, and we’re kinder to each other, and we are more thoughtful about our actions. I think we’ve been given the opportunity to empathize with another person’s fear, another person’s reality. People start meetings with a meaningful ‘how are you?’ — it is not necessarily something we would have seen in the past, but is a chance to connect with another person, authentically.

Having that kind of human element, we have a unique opportunity to now grow from this experience, and I hope that we do. Human tendency is to get these new paths and then eventually forget about them and go back to the old ways. I hope that that’s not going to be the case. I think we have an opportunity to learn from this, and to invest in a future that is welcoming and inclusive.

How does COVID affect gender dynamics at home? This researcher is finding out.

By Hailey Eisen
(Photo Credit: Rich Blenkinsopp/Memorial University) 

 

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the way we work—from massive layoffs to millions suddenly working from home. When the pandemic hit, many also faced the pressure of added responsibilities in the home and beyond. Early research into the way we work during COVID has unveiled notable gender discrepancies in the balance of responsibility and burden of care. 

“It’s been a fascinating time to look at gender roles in the home and workplace,” says Dr. Alyson Byrne, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. “Despite the terrible and tragic things going on—and we must not make light of these—this pandemic has exposed cracks in the foundation in terms of gender and the burden of child care, elder care, and domestic care.”

According to Alyson, whose research has focused primarily on leadership, status, gender and relational outcomes, anecdotal evidence gathered during this time reveals an imbalance in women’s roles and responsibilities. “With the burden of care falling more on women, who are often simultaneously working full time, there will be potential long-term impacts of this time period which I’m not sure will disappear quickly, even with a vaccine.” 

With that in mind, Alyson has begun a research project with her mentor and former academic supervisor, Professor Julian Barling of Smith School of Business. Alyson and Julian published a paper in 2017 in the journal Organization Science about the impact women’s high-status careers have on their marriage and family lives. Their new research will focus on couples in a different context.

“For the time being, we are taking a snapshot of couples, trying to capture the dynamic of life as it is now during the pandemic,” Alyson explains. “We will plan to study the same couples during two more time periods: when regulations are lifted and again when the pandemic is over.” The research will focus on the roles of each partner, how COVID impacted work and the family interface, and what changes, if any, were long-lasting. “We don’t have clearly defined ideas yet as to what we’ll find, but we do have some ideas.” 

Working from her home and sharing responsibilities for their two small children with her accountant husband, Alyson says she doesn’t usually incorporate her personal experience into her research, but it’s hard not to see the connection in this case. “We’ve always been egalitarian parents,” she says. “We each took six months of parental leave for both of our babies, and continue to negotiate all aspects of domestic life, including who makes dinner, who gets up in the night with the kids, cleans up, etcetera.” 

While it’s been a challenge to manage child-care responsibilities while working from home, and many women seem to be facing an increasing burden of responsibility — it hasn’t all been negative. The pandemic may also have a few outcomes that improve couples’ work and relationship dynamics, according to Alyson’s early observations. 

For one, the pandemic has blurred the divide between work and home. “Suddenly your boss has his kids popping up on a Zoom call, and it’s completely OK,” Alyson says. “When you see others going through the same thing you are, you don’t feel so bad.” 

The pandemic has also increased the amount of time that families spend together. “Even if it’s not quality family time, there has been a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’, which is really nice.” 

It has also provided an unprecedented opportunity to see what each partner’s work really looks like. In fact, the pandemic has forced many couples to have important conversations about their careers, about who gets to work when, who gets the home office, if there is one, and who is responsible for groceries and the kids’ online learning, among other things. “It may lead to increased respect and a greater understanding of the types of demands each partner faces.” 

Alyson’s own upbringing was decidedly egalitarian. Her parents, both teachers, had no difference in the status of their jobs, and she was “raised to believe it was normal for women to want to work, and be expected to work.” But after a few years in her first job out of university — a role with Export and Development Canada in Ottawa — she realized she wanted to study work and teach about work, rather than be in the workplace. 

Alyson reached out to a professor from her undergraduate studies, a PhD graduate from Smith, who connected her with Julian. “While I knew little about academic research, I had passion and questions I wanted to explore, and Julian decided to take a chance on me,” Alyson recalls. 

“When we first met, I didn’t know about his credentials or the level of publications he had accumulated over his career, only that he was a nice guy who was willing to meet with me and let me explore the MSc/PhD program at Smith.” 

Looking back, Alyson sees Julian as her greatest champion, and his lab group formed an incredible network that was instrumental in her success. “The people in our lab group became collaborators and best friends, and over the years we have celebrated our publications, weddings, and the births of our children together.” 

While at Smith, Alyson says the support staff was also instrumental in ensuring she secured funding, got participants for her studies, submitted ethics, and was supported throughout the duration of her PhD. While she certainly struggled with imposter syndrome at times, wondering if she would get published (she did, many times) or if she would get a job (she did, her dream job in fact), she found the entire experience to be overwhelmingly positive. 

Having been interested in leadership since she was young, Alyson began her research in this field. “I was one of those young, extroverted children who took on leadership roles from student council to sports teams,” she says. “And when I started in the workplace, I was fascinated by the impact various leaders could have on my own motivation based on their behaviours.” 

Her work with Julian began by focusing on the small attributes of leaders, such as humour, and their impacts on employee outcomes, and then shifted to women’s careers and when women are the higher-earning partner in the family. The changes she’s studying now around COVID and couples’ work dynamics may, she hopes, lead to some bigger shifts in corporate culture, especially around family-friendly policies, the ideal scenario being true equality in the workplace that spills over into the family. 

“Wouldn’t that be a silver lining?” she says. “If more men came to respect the roles of their wives, to see more clearly the heavy lifting that’s being done on the home front every day that they weren’t aware of before? Truthfully, if this doesn’t transform the way we think about gender and work, I don’t know what will.”