Wanda Costen is leading change in business education.

Wanda Costen

A tremendous change is underway in business. Technology is altering how organizations operate. COVID-19 continues to test governments, institutions and businesses. Companies are being called upon to address racial injustice and pressing societal issues like poverty and climate change.

Business needs are changing as a result. As the Dean of Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, Wanda Costen is working to ensure that organizations have access to the talent they need to succeed. 

“At the end of the day, we’re providers of talent. As business needs change, talent must also evolve,” Wanda explains. “Business education must adapt its curricula, research and student experience to meet these changing needs.” 

Wanda is helping to lead that change in business education. She sees three key areas in which schools must adapt.

The first is recruitment. Are schools enrolling the right students to meet global talent needs? It’s an important question. The business world is diverse and graduates can expect to work with people from many different backgrounds, countries and cultures. The classroom experience should reflect that diversity—both in its students and professors.

“It’s not enough to simply graduate good corporate citizens.”

Second, schools must rethink how they teach. “We must focus on the competencies and skills that employers need going forward,” Wanda says. Core business skills are important, but students need to learn how to navigate the world, solve problems and engage with others.

Third, business schools must become leaders in making a positive difference in society. Through research and partnerships, business schools can contribute to solving the world’s biggest issues. At the same time, they must use their considerable resources—including faculty and student expertise—to improve their own communities.

“It’s not enough to simply graduate good corporate citizens,” Wanda says. “We must prepare students to be leaders who understand their role in society regardless of the sector: business, government, entrepreneurship or not-for-profit.”

The army life.

Wanda’s life and career make her well-suited to guide Smith through this evolution. 

As a child, Wanda moved every three to five years. Her dad was a U.S. soldier; her mom worked for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, the military’s retail arm. Postings took the family from Texas to Kansas to Oklahoma, and back to Texas again. The family’s first significant trek was to Germany.

“It was a very different experience for a 12-year-old with two younger brothers, but we weren’t worried because my parents—working-class people from the Northeast—were excited about it. They fell in love with Germany. They embraced the language and told us to learn the culture. I think that taught us not to be afraid of new cultures and new experiences,” she recalls.

After high school, Costen attended the United States Military Academy at West Point.

“Most people expect to hear that I grew up in a military family and followed those footsteps, but that is not what happened,” she says. It was her Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. high school elective that inspired her to join the Army.

I took [JROTC] and was good at it. By the time I moved into my senior year, I was the battalion commander for the entire school, and I realized that all the people ahead of me who had been in that role went to West Point,” Wanda says. 

The experience taught me a lot about the evolution of a historic, traditional institution, how people’s experiences can differ, and what it means to be welcomed, invited in and treated equally.”

She was in West Point’s seventh class that included women. “The first class entered in 1976. I graduated in ’86, so we were the 10-year anniversary of women just being at the academy.” Wanda recalls “a lot of backlash against us from male cadets, and we didn’t understand why that was happening.” But she adds: “The experience taught me a lot about the evolution of a historic, traditional institution, how people’s experiences can differ, and what it means to be welcomed, invited in and treated equally.”

After graduation, Wanda served as a platoon leader and military police officer. Following that, she moved into business, working at PacTel Paging, Xerox, Pepsi, Greyhound and Aramark. “I developed a background in sales, moved into operations and then human resources.”

Her pivot into academia came while visiting universities in her role as an HR director with Aramark. “One of my responsibilities was to recruit new talent. I would be invited into the classrooms at Washington State University where I would guest lecture and meet the students. The director of the program kept saying to me, ‘We need people like you in post-secondary,’” she recalls. “The next thing I knew, I had an offer to teach as an instructor and get my PhD.” 

While earning her executive MBA from Pepperdine University, Wanda read a book called The Path that changed her life. “I’ll never forget it. It helps you write a mission statement for your life. At the end of the book, it asks: Are you living your mission statement? My answer was: kind of, but not really…so I just took a leap [into academia],” she says.

With teaching, she’d found her calling. “I fully believe this is what I’m put here to do. I loved every job I had, but when I got in the classroom, it just fit,” she says. “It’s about impact. It’s about passion. It’s about love. It’s about integrity. It’s about helping people achieve their best.”

A new vision.

Wanda joined Smith in July 2021 from MacEwan University, where she was dean of the business school. She’s now leveraging her skills from a 35-year career spanning the military, private industry and academia, and her lived experience of the challenges of lack of diversity in business and education, to contribute to Queen’s University’s strategic vision.

“I wanted to be part of an organization that is ready to do things differently, that’s ready to position itself for what I believe business education is for the 21st century,” she says. 

In her first year on the job, Wanda has spent considerable time talking to business leaders locally, nationally and internationally. A common theme has emerged: the need for talent that not only possesses strong core business knowledge, but also has an understanding of the importance of a business’ societal impact. Companies want proven abilities in teamwork, communication, cultural competence and social skills. 

“We have to recognize that today raw talent looks differently, presents differently, has different experiences.”

Meeting these new organizational expectations not only requires business schools to transform how and what they teach, but also broaden who is taught and who gets to teach.

“We have to recognize that today raw talent looks differently, presents differently, has different experiences,” she says. “Business education must be accessible to people from different backgrounds. In a global business world, students benefit when they learn from professors with varied experiences from around the world,” Wanda says.

Wanda notes that Smith is working from a foundation of strength, with faculty, staff and alumni who support her commitment to providing a transformative, innovative and inclusive approach to business education.

“We can impact the global business education sector, and as such, impact global business. I intend to take us there.”

Katie Callery couldn’t find maternity clothes to wear — now she owns her own brand that constantly sells out.

Katie Callery

By Hailey Eisen

 

When Katie Callery found herself pregnant and unable to find anything nice to wear, she did what many an entrepreneur had done before her — she solved her own problem. Sonday the Label – a Toronto-based company that designs contemporary maternity and nursing wear – was born out of Katie’s frustration with maternity clothing and the desire to do better by expecting and new moms. 

“I’ve always loved fashion and been interested in it as a consumer, and when I started shopping for maternity clothing, I was kind of shocked at how hard it was to find pieces that were stylish, functional and comfortable,” she recalls. 

Katie grew up in a house with two successful business owners as parents. Sonday wasn’t her first foray into the world of entrepreneurship either — it followed a three-year stint running a bed & breakfast in Prince Edward County. 

“I started talking to a lot of pregnant women who, it turns out, felt the same way I did about the maternity category,” Katie says. “I decided that the best solution would be to design a few pieces myself.” 

Katie didn’t know how to design clothing, but that didn’t stop her. It was 2020, she was on mat leave with her son, and the COVID pandemic had hit. The timing was right for Katie to take up a new project — one that would become more successful than she’d ever imagined.

She enrolled in online fashion and sketching courses, and enlisted the support of notable Canadian designer Linda Lundström, who would go on to mentor and consult with her virtually for the better part of that year. “Linda taught me everything about fabric, sourcing, sketching and sizing, and she opened my eyes to how intricate the design process is,” Katie recalls. 

In the Spring of 2021, Katie launched a two-piece collection, a small run that included a functional black v-neck dress and T-shirt, both which could be worn while pregnant and nursing. “I wanted to find out if there was a market for these pieces which were more versatile, thoughtful, chic and affordable,” Katie says. 

Her first run sold out quickly, as did her second. “It was then that I decided to sell my B&B and put everything I had into our first collection.”

“I had always wanted to see if I could do something on my own, so I decided to look into programs that would help support that dream.”

Katie credits her success with Sonday in part to the experience and access to expertise she gained while completing the Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship (MMIE) program at Smith School of Business. 

She’d been working in marketing for nearly a decade when she felt what she describes as an ‘itch’ to go out on her own and start a business. That was 2016. “I had always wanted to see if I could do something on my own, so I decided to look into programs that would help support that dream.” 

The MMIE program at Smith was only a few years old at the time and proved to be exactly what Katie was looking for. She describes it as a crash course in everything from finance, to marketing, to operations, with a focus on corporate innovation and entrepreneurship. “I left my job with BMO and moved to Kingston to start the program,” she explains. “It was such a great year in so many ways.” 

Upon graduation, Katie went to work for a fintech start-up, gaining experience in grassroots marketing and working closely with the company’s founder. “I was taking everything I learned at Queen’s and applying it, but I still had that bug,” she recalls. 

In the MMIE program Katie says she was exposed to many entrepreneurs, most of them  Queen’s alumni of varied degrees that went on to start their own businesses. “Many of those entrepreneurs have become my network…through their stories, I came to believe that this could be done.”  

Katie became familiar with Prince Edward County during her time travelling between Toronto and Kingston for the one-year program. So, when she came across an old property for sale, she decided to take her first stab at entrepreneurship. “It was 2017 and I spent the summer renovating that property with help from friends and my folks,” she says. “We were busy from the get-go, and I also found it really interesting navigating the regulatory side of things. I got really involved in the County.” 

When she became pregnant in 2019, she recalls needing clothes that would allow her to attend meetings feeling both comfortable and confident. She was excited to go shopping for maternity clothes, but what she found were outdated styles, ill-fitting pieces and busy patterns. And the items she did find that were trendy and chic were quite expensive. The idea to launch a venture focused on re-imagining maternity and nursing wear began to percolate.  

“We are a Toronto-based, Canadian-made, female-founded company, and we continue to listen to women and moms and make decisions based on their needs and wants.” 

The name of the business came to Katie a few months prior to the arrival of her son, Sam, who was due on a Sunday. “Sunday is a nostalgic day from my childhood. It was always family day, we’d go for breakfast and long drives, and with my son being due on a Sunday, the name just came together.” 

Her clothing line is still quite small, extremely versatile, and true to Katie’s commitment of being priced as reasonably as possible. “We are a Toronto-based, Canadian-made, female-founded company, and we continue to listen to women and moms and make decisions based on their needs and wants.” 

The Sonday line is manufactured at a sister-owned studio in Scarborough and all of the fabric comes from a supplier in Vancouver. “Pricing has been one of my most interesting challenges given the price of fabric has gone up three times since last August,” Katie says. That being said, she’s committed to supporting local production and jobs and is willing to pay a little more to continue doing so. “It’s a constant balance.” 

Only a few new pieces are put out each season and Katie is intentional when choosing what to design next. “We aren’t trying to be at the forefront of trends. We want to create pieces that work for women now and extend for the long-haul, that they can wear through multiple pregnancies and after as well.” 

And when Katie isn’t sure what direction to take with a design, she taps into her community. “In designing a sweater for the winter, I wasn’t sure if we should do a crew neck or a cardigan, but hands down the cardigan was people’s favourite, so that’s what we are going with. The response we’ve had has been beyond incredible.” 

Most recently, Sonday signed on with two Toronto retailers. “Carry Maternity in Yorkville just started selling the Sonday line a few weeks ago, and already they’ve re-ordered more items,” she says. “The mother-daughter duo who run the store told me that they have women fly in to shop with them from the east coast of Canada and as far as Bermuda, all because they simply don’t have maternity options where they live. That just shows how hard it really is to find good pieces when you’re pregnant.” 

“Whether you’re going to work for yourself or just make a huge career leap, it’s a big personal decision, and while many people will step up to offer advice, you really need to take time with yourself in order to really go with your gut.”

While she says she was nervous making the pivot into fashion, and at times felt a bit like an imposter, Katie is feeling more and more comfortable and confident in her brand. “Honestly, becoming a mother is such a beautiful but difficult challenge, but it gave me a lot of confidence as well.”

For now, Katie is doing almost all of the work for Sonday on her own: packing orders, designing, marketing and sales, with help from one part-time virtual marketing assistant. Her girlfriends are her models for photoshoots, her family has been wildly supportive, and she still relies on the network she formed at Queen’s for advice and inspiration, as well as access to pitch competitions and funding opportunities. 

“Whether you’re going to work for yourself or just make a huge career leap, it’s a big personal decision, and while many people will step up to offer advice, you really need to take time with yourself in order to really go with your gut.”

For Katie, the decision was quite obviously the right one, and she’s very excited to see what’s next. “In many ways, the pandemic was the perfect storm for change; it really shook things up and allowed for flexibility in new ways,” she says. “I’ve been in my basement for the past two years, and now coming out into stores and seeing the confidence others have in what we’re doing, that’s been a lovely and welcome surprise.”

Jennifer Reynolds never feared a career jump — and it led to the role of her dreams.

Jennifer Reynolds

By Hailey Eisen

 

Jennifer Reynolds’ LinkedIn banner image shows her marching in the 2019 Toronto Pride Parade. She’s wearing a T-shirt that says Hockey for Everyone, and there’s a huge rainbow Raptors banner behind her. The moment captured in the photo represents the culmination of years of hard work, risks taken, unexpected opportunities, and a commitment to making an impact while following her passions. 

“I was marching alongside 50 of my colleagues down Yonge Street right after the Raptors championship win,” Jennifer recalls. “As a Queer woman and an athlete, to see the delight in people’s eyes, and to hear the chanting and spirit, was an extremely meaningful and memorable experience.” 

Now the senior manager of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), Jennifer didn’t set out with the intention of working in the sports industry, or EDI for that matter. She’s a chartered professional accountant by trade and describes her career journey as more of a jungle gym than a ladder. “I often advise people that the education you choose, and the first job you get, doesn’t have to dictate your career direction or where you’ll end up — rather, look at each opportunity as a stepping-stone.” 

Jennifer’s first stepping-stone was a move from Calgary (where she grew up) to Kingston to complete her undergraduate degree in Commerce at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University. She focused most of her studies on accounting. 

“My experience at Queen’s was really well-rounded. I participated in extracurricular clubs and conferences with the Commerce Society, I played intramural soccer and basketball, and excelled on the varsity triathlon team. I was also able to focus on my studies alongside other really talented students. I gained international experience and got to travel around Europe on an exchange semester to London, which was truly an enriching opportunity,” she says.

After graduating, Jennifer moved to Toronto, joined KPMG and worked towards her professional accounting designation on the side. “Though I loved accounting, I came to realize that being an auditor didn’t fully align with my core strengths and so I joined Deloitte’s mergers & acquisitions group in 2015 where I had the opportunity to provide value to clients in a more dynamic environment.” 

“It can seem scary to make these kinds of career jumps early on, but it’s important to keep your own best-interests and passions in mind.”

It was then that she says she really began to think about the idea of stepping-stones. “It can seem scary to make these kinds of career jumps early on, but it’s important to keep your own best-interests and passions in mind…Your studies, plus your lived experiences in the world, can lead to so many different things. What’s most important is that you believe in yourself, advocate for your own success and take steps to plan your own journey.”

During her three years with Deloitte, Jennifer says she experienced huge learning and growth. “I became a manager, found myself within the business world and had an entrepreneurial opportunity to help develop and grow Deloitte’s mergers and acquisitions practice, defining the roles and responsibilities as I went along.”

When the opportunity at MLSE presented itself, it seemed like a dream to the self-described sports fan. While she was happy in her current role, what MLSE was looking for in a manager of corporate strategy and planning aligned quite well with her skillset and passions. “It was hard to leave Deloitte, but I was excited to apply everything I’d learned in the first years of my career to an end product I was really passionate about.”

Jennifer had the opportunity to build out the role — supporting the organization’s CFO and senior executives when it came to strategic business planning across a variety of projects. “It was quite amazing to be working on projects that I’d seen and experienced as a sports fan and getting to understand them from the business side.”

Fast forward to the summer of 2020, a time when many organizations were facing an internal reckoning of sorts, following the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. MLSE realized that they could be doing more with their strong community presence at both the local and national level. “We had so much influence in our city and such a global fanbase that we recognized we had a huge platform to take a more active stance when it came to social justice.”

That fall, MLSE brought in an SVP equity, diversity and inclusion. Jennifer recognized an opportunity for herself to pursue something she was really passionate about. “I had always been involved with different community projects, with equity work on a volunteer basis,” she says.

“Being able to make that impact at a grassroots level first to now working in the professional sports space, I’ve come to realize just how much work there is to be done and just how powerful the impact can be.”

In 2016, Jennifer became the Canadian board co-chair for the You Can Play Project, an initiative with a mission to ensure the safety and inclusion for all who participate in sports — including LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches and fans. “Being able to make that impact at a grassroots level first to now working in the professional sports space, I’ve come to realize just how much work there is to be done and just how powerful the impact can be.”

She was also a driving force behind the creation of the Queen’s Queer Alumni Chapter. “There was a gap when I was a student in supporting and providing structure for queer students, which is what propelled me forward to co-found this chapter,” she says. “As alumni, we play an important role in supporting queer students and making the Queen’s community a more inclusive place for all.”

So when Jennifer learned that MLSE was bringing Teri Dennis-Davies — an HR professional with experience leading the design, development and implementation  of EDI strategy and initiatives — she knew there would be a need for someone to support her efforts. “I wanted to be that person,” Jennifer says.

She raised her hand, and in November 2020 she stepped into her current role — senior manager of equity, diversity and inclusion — helping to build a department and set the inclusion and engagement framework and strategy for the entire organization. 

“I’ve been in this role now for just over 18 months, but it certainly feels a lot longer with everything we’ve accomplished,” Jennifer says. “We have a huge focus now on addressing racism and social justice with an emphasis on three pillars: eliminate barriers, accelerate development, and change lives.”

“Remember that no change or action is too small, and everything contributes in some way to larger shifts. The key is to begin, one step at a time.”

Part of a team of six across an organization of 4,000 employees, Jennifer says she knows that true impact comes from empowering every employee within MLSE to be an agent of change. In February 2021, MLSE made a public declaration to address systemic racism and promote social justice, both within their workplace and in their community. “For a privately held organization of our size, this was a big step for us — and internally we’ve had great success in upholding this commitment. I’m really proud.”

A recent opportunity has come up to take on an expanded portfolio focusing on inclusion for the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. “It’s been eye opening working alongside the Leafs’ front office, promoting inclusion both within the business side and community side — and seeing a tangible impact of the work we’re doing,” she says. “We acknowledge that professional hockey is typically a white male-dominated sport, and there’s a huge role the Leafs can play to break down those barriers.” One of the ultimate goals is to mirror the diversity of Toronto in the Leafs brand, employees and fanbase. 

Looking at all she’s accomplished in a short time, Jennifer is often in awe of how perfectly her passions and career are aligned. “I’m so fortunate to be in this position, to have the influence that I have and the platform that I have.”

As a mentor to young professionals, she says many look to her for guidance when it comes to following your passion and making real change. “You know, there’s always the potential for change in any field and in any organization,” she says. “Sometimes you need to step back to reflect upon how much change has actually taken place, and you’ll often see that there’s more happening than you realize. Remember that no change or action is too small, and everything contributes in some way to larger shifts. The key is to begin, one step at a time.”

Jill Nykoliation left a corporate career for advertising — now she runs one of Canada’s best (and most creative) agencies.

Jill Nykoliation

By Chris Powell

It’s human nature to want to cling to the familiar. After all, it’s comfortable and safe. But Jill Nykoliation, CEO of ad agency Juniper Park\TBWA in Toronto, is acutely aware that everything inevitably reaches a conclusion. Perhaps more importantly, she’s content to let it happen. “Don’t use up energy trying to hold onto something that maybe is done,” she says.

It’s how Jill knew when to call time on what had been a hugely successful early career with Kraft Foods and step into the unknown world of advertising—first as one of the partners of the agency Grip Limited, and then two years later as a founding partner of Juniper Park, now part of the global TBWA network, headquartered in New York City.

Nearly two decades and multiple professional and personal accolades later, her decision appears prescient. But she remembers her colleagues at Kraft being mystified. She had attained so much success, they said, and was highly regarded within the organization. She’d regret it, they warned.

But for Jill, the move into the Mad Men world of advertising after 10 highly successful years as a marketer represented an opportunity to again create her own path through what she calls the “tall grass”—the unmarked territory that presents both opportunities and maybe even the occasional pitfall.

“I spent five years in the tall grass at Kraft, and when it started to feel like it was coming over to the paved road, that’s when I knew it was time to go.” 

There was still so much she didn’t know when she first set foot into this new environment in 2005. Yet that step into the unknown brought with it the frisson of excitement that had been missing as her previous role reached its natural conclusion. “I spent five years in the tall grass at Kraft (where she helped launch and oversee the company’s data-led CRM efforts, years before such things became fashionable), and when it started to feel like it was coming over to the paved road, that’s when I knew it was time to go,” she says. “The part I was uniquely good at was wrapping up, and that’s when I went to the agency side of the business.”

The tall grass is a concept that Jill keeps circling back to when describing her professional life. It isn’t for everyone, but she delights in metaphorically hacking her way through, uncovering new insights and approaches. “I’m very much a tall grass person, and we’re a tall grass agency,” she says. “We attract people that love to carve out new spaces.” It’s not for the timorous, but Jill is convinced she’ll find her way through to the other side, usually with a breakthrough idea. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll have something to show for it,’ ” she says. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I will.”

Powerful signal

That willingness to intrepidly venture into uncharted territory has enabled Juniper Park\TBWA to thrive while creating high-profile work for major Canadian and global brands including Apple, CIBC, GoDaddy, Nissan and PepsiCo.

The agency has grown from six employees since its formation in 2007 to 150 today, while adding to its capabilities with new divisions. They include the design studio Le Parc; a precision marketing arm called Scalpel; and a content production division called Bolt Content. Most recently, it launched Trampoline, an incubator and accelerator for small BIPOC businesses and emerging creatives.

While many Canadian offices of global ad networks often find themselves relegated to repurposing work created in New York or Los Angeles, Juniper Park\TBWA prides itself on being at the forefront of its clients’ marketing plans. “A satellite office would be a paved road,” says Jill. “What’s the global standard? We’ll do the Canadian version of that. We say, ‘No, we’ll create and launch [our own ideas].’ ”

There’s perhaps no better embodiment of that approach than 2020’s “Signal For Help,” a simple yet highly effective creation developed for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. The secret communication device for abused women arose out of one of the agency’s regular Thursday staff meetings—known internally as “pirate huddles”—during the pandemic’s early days.

“I remember saying to the team, ‘I don’t know what I’m asking, but is there a way we can help, using our tools and our culture of generosity and kindness.’ ”

That day, the conversation circled around to the rise in domestic violence due to women being trapped at home with an abusive partner. “I remember saying to the team, ‘I don’t know what I’m asking, but is there a way we can help, using our tools and our culture of generosity and kindness,’ ” says Jill. The American Sign Language symbol for “help” was too obvious, and texts or phone calls could be spotted or leave a digital trail for the abuser.

Like so many of the best communications, the idea put forth by Juniper Park\TBWA’s chief creative officer Graham Lang—folding a thumb into the palm of a hand, and closing the fingers over top to silently convey the message “I’m trapped”—was simple and easy to comprehend. Buoyed by widespread sharing on social platforms like TikTok, Signal For Help eventually travelled around the world, leading to news stories such as one out of Kentucky late last year in which a missing 16-year-old girl was rescued after using the gesture to indicate to passing motorists that she was being held captive. (A 61-year-old man was arrested.)

Jill says it’s a powerful feeling to know something she had a hand in creating proved so impactful. “I woke up that morning to a message from a girlfriend that read ‘Isn’t this your work?’ and I cried,” she says. “I’m proud beyond words.” Along the way, Signal For Help joined a select few Canadian-made ad campaigns that have travelled beyond the country’s borders, joining the likes of Always’ powerful “#LikeAGirl” and “Dove Evolution.”

Unlocking potential

Two decades since taking her first steps into the agency world, Jill is a highly regarded and acclaimed agency leader and CEO, notable accomplishments in a male-dominant business such as advertising. She is fluent not only in the masculine language of business, which tends to prioritize things like performance and innovation, but has oriented her agency around softer traits like empathy, vulnerability and collaboration. “I’m really good at saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help.’ There’s no shame in that,” she says. “I can be as smart as I want, but if I show up [with an] authoritarian style, it doesn’t matter because I’m unintentionally shutting people down.”

She describes her leadership approach as “leading from the feminine.” Shifting the business to be more supportive and collaborative unlocked the dormant potential within the agency. “I’ve learned that you can be a high-performance and forward-leaning organization, and do it with kindness, generosity and gratitude,” she says. “Performance doesn’t have to be cutthroat, and kindness doesn’t have to be at the expense of performance.” That’s borne out by the fact that, during what has been an incredibly difficult two-year period for the advertising industry, Juniper Park\TBWA had its best years from both a revenue and an output perspective in 2020 and 2021.

Ken Wong, marketing professor at Smith, says Jill has consistently demonstrated that profitability and moral integrity aren’t mutually exclusive. And she’s done it while never losing sight of the fundamental role agencies play in furthering their clients’ business objectives. “She is constantly inventing new services and refining old ones to keep her clients on the leading edge of marketing practice,” says Wong. “It should come as no surprise that her agency has been performing at record-breaking levels.”

Last year, Jill was named one of Canada’s three most powerful CEOs by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN). The annual award recognizes three women leaders considered “trailblazers in their field, [who] advocate for workplace equality and display vision, strong foundational character, a sense of integrity and the ability to elicit public trust.” Jill calls the accolade “humbling,” but is quick to share credit with her staff and the people who influenced her. “It’s a team award for me because nobody does anything alone,” she says. “It’s an amalgamation of all the people who have been brave and generous and kind enough to work alongside me.”

Jill Nykoliation

A Queen’s family

While there was no specific moment that Jill decided to pursue a career in marketing and advertising, the roadmap was in place from an early age. She learned about business from her father, Dennis, a successful executive who came up through the marketing side and held president and/or CEO roles with companies including Black & Decker Canada and Cambridge Towel.

“It was almost like I was doing classes at the dinner table,” she says. “I learned about branding in service to business all through my childhood. It was all very natural.” The Jills are a Queen’s family, with all four children attending the university. Jill’s twin brothers Brent and Bryan earned Commerce degrees in 1992, followed by Jill in 1993. Her other brother Michael graduated with a degree in life sciences in 1994.

“My parents always said ‘Jill, you can be anything a boy can be,’ and I believed them,” she says now. “I did well [coming up] through masculine industries and organizations, but now I look back and say, ‘How come nobody says to a guy that he can be anything a girl can be?’ ” Jill says that leading from the feminine has unlocked so much untapped potential within the agency—from elevating the calibre of the work and the insights that fuel it, to the makeup of the agency’s staff.

“How come nobody says to a guy that he can be anything a girl can be?”

When agencies looked to achieve greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Juniper Park was already well ahead. “We’ve been ahead of the curve so many times,” says Jill with a hint of pride. Today, more than half (54 per cent) of Juniper Park\TBWA’s staff is made up of women, while 32 per cent are BIPOC and 47 per cent come from outside of Canada. Lang and executive creative director Jenny Glover both hail from South Africa, for example, while president David Toto is from France.

“We want the sharpest talent possible. Who cares where they come from?” says Jill. “Our culture is borderless, which brings the freshest minds and most creative ideas. It is borderless in hiring international talent and how we assemble our teams.”

As a CEO, Jill is acutely aware of the power she wields in inspiring the next generation of female leaders. Early in her career, she was granted weekly access to famed Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld. It would shape her approach to strategic thinking. “I remember thinking, I am going to learn so much in her presence,” says Jill. “This is going to be a transformative project, and I can’t believe nobody’s fighting me for this. It will change me and rocket forward my learning.”

Working alongside Rosenfeld shifted Jill’s opinion of what a mentor should be. Today, she urges staff to sign up for projects that she’s involved with and simply watch how she works. “I could sit down with you for half an hour, or, like with Irene, I just decided she was going to be my mentor,” she says. “I thought, I’m going to do this work, but I’m also going to study her.”

Tall grass

When Jill was a young girl, her mother taught her how to sew. Fabric was her first creative canvas, and the more she learned, the more curious she became about how things were put together.

In many ways, that curiosity became a guiding principle of her career. “You dismantle brands, and you say ‘Oh, we can get rid of this and that, and this new piece comes in and then we’re going to build it back,’ ” she says. “And that’s what we do for every brand that comes in.”

It’s an approach that has helped distinguish both Jill and Juniper Park\TBWA in a highly competitive and occasionally cutthroat industry. Even the best runs eventually come to an end, of course. By then, Jill will likely have already recognized and accepted that it’s ending, and grabbed her metaphorical machete in preparation for the tall grass of whatever comes next.

This Smith graduate’s non-linear career path led to her becoming a Deloitte consultant — with a ‘human-first’ approach.

Chloe O’Brien

By Hailey Eisen

 

Chloe O’Brien’s career path has been anything but ordinary. But her varied experiences have prepared her well for her current role as a senior consultant at Deloitte, where she is fusing business acumen with her art and design background to deliver human-centric solutions for complex problems in our post-pandemic world.

It’s a far cry from her original career dream of being a pilot. 

“I grew up in Amherst, Nova Scotia, a town with 9,000 people, in a very conservative religious home,” Chloe recalls. “I was homeschooled until Grade 10, and one of the only experiences we had outside of the church was going to the local air show with our parents.” 

When funding fell through the week before she was to start flight school, Chloe was forced to re-evaluate. She took a year and a half off and worked at a local clothing store while she reconsidered her path for post-secondary education. 

“In the two years I’d been in high school, I had become really interested in the arts. I loved ceramics, I was obsessed with architecture, and I could draw really well,” she recalls. The decision to attend NSCAD University made a lot of sense.

“While I was a generalist in terms of my focus, I became really interested in conceptual photography, how the photographer can make an impact on the way people perceive a topic or issue based on the art they create,” she says. 

With student loans to pay off, Chloe took a job with CIBC out of university and simultaneously started her own business as a wedding photographer. “I did feel conflicted leaving an incredible degree with a focus on conceptual art to take up work in commercial art — but wedding photography was highly lucrative and I was good at it.” 

“Travel made me a more independent person — it sparked my curiosity and taught me to lean into my fear.”

A few years later, she circled back to her desire to travel and decided to seek out opportunities that would give her the opportunity to see more of the world. “I had never had the means to leave North America, so I decided to look to the travel industry for work.” For the next six years, Chloe worked in the field in a number of roles, including marketing, sales and business development, and travelled to more than 30 countries. 

“Travel made me a more independent person — it sparked my curiosity and taught me to lean into my fear. Those lessons really helped when it came time to make my next pivot,” she says. 

Ready for more of a challenge, a friend – who happened to be an alumni of Smith School of Business at Queen’s University – posed the idea of an MBA and put her in touch with the school.

For Chloe, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) was the most challenging part of the MBA process. “Being a more creative-minded, less numbers-focused person, I found the quantitative portion of the test really hard.” 

Chloe wrote the GMAT four times, in hopes of getting a score high enough to earn her a significant scholarship for the one-year Smith MBA. When that didn’t pan out, she wrote the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and was accepted into the program for a January 2019 start.

“I quit my job two weeks before starting the MBA and moved to Kingston from Toronto where I’d been working up until then,” she recalls. “I loved the small city, student-focused feeling of Kingston and the team-based focus of the Smith MBA.” 

Being one of only two students with a Fine Arts degree made Chloe an anomaly in the program, but also worked to her advantage. “I would say I was able to bring more innovation and design thinking to my team and was able to bring a unique perspective to our projects.” 

While she did find the quantitative side of the program challenging and had to dedicate extra time and effort to economics and finance, it certainly didn’t stop her from being successful. The program’s teaching style also helped a great deal. “Queen’s has many exceptional faculty members who draw upon experiential learning and other best practices to create engaging classes,” she says. 

“We are looking at re-skilling, up-skilling, and re-evaluating the employee experience — in order to attract and retain top talent in a post-pandemic world.”

Even today, Chloe is drawing upon some of those lessons in her current role with Deloitte working as a human capital and workforce transformation professional.

Her international exchange experience at Copenhagen Business School during her MBA has also yielded transferable knowledge and skills. “I loved studying in a country where environmental sustainability is an objective at all levels of community, business, and government — and the human-first approach to work is built into the culture,” she says. 

Chloe began her new job with Deloitte from home in the middle of the pandemic, in an area that would prove to be needed more than ever. Workforce transformation was a growing service within the company, and the team has nearly doubled since Chloe came on board. 

“We are looking at re-skilling, up-skilling, and re-evaluating the employee experience — in order to attract and retain top talent in a post-pandemic world. I’ve been helping clients strategize and think through enormous problems that have surfaced because of the pandemic, especially in remote learning,” she says. 

With Deloitte’s new hybrid work model, Chloe – an employee of Deloitte’s Toronto office – has been able to move to Ottawa with her partner and work remotely. “I don’t know what consulting was like before, but since I’ve started, it’s been the best experience and there’s been a focus on wellness and balance which really excites me.” 

Flexibility, well-being and a human-centred focus is not only something Chloe helps her clients achieve, but something she’s experiencing first-hand as an employee of Deloitte. “I have this meaningful career, complex and challenging problems to work on, a team I absolutely love, and the support from the organization to focus on personal well-being.” This is something she witnessed first-hand in the Scandinavian countries she lived and studied in, and quite likely, is one of the positives that has come about as a result of the pandemic.

“COVID is certainly pushing workforce transformation, and advancing a human-centred approach to solving complex challenges for Canadian organizations,” she says. “It’s a future I’m really excited about.”

Meet Dr. Wanda Costen, new Dean of the Smith School of Business.

Dr Wanda Costen

Dr. Wanda Costen began her term as Dean of Smith School of Business in July 2021. An academic leader who champions inclusive excellence, she brings a unique combination of experience in academia — as a Dean, senior administrator, researcher, and professor — as well as a private and public sector management career. Dr. Costen’s research interests include managing diversity, racial and gender inequality in organizations, women and leadership, and strategic human resources. In addition to building on Smith’s reputation as a top business school, she’s focused on creating an environment where everyone feels welcome. 

 

My first job ever was… working at McDonald’s.

I decided to enter academia because… a program director I guest lectured for said, “We need people like you in post-secondary.” By that he meant a passionate, business-savvy African-American woman, of which there are very few in business education.

I’m passionate about business education because… by developing the kind of leaders that recognize business for good, we can have a positive impact on global society.

My proudest accomplishment is… raising my wonderful adoptive son, Darren.

My biggest setback was…  leaving the military. 

I overcame it by… recognizing I had more to offer, and focusing on doing my absolute best in every role I had. I committed to maintaining high ethical principles and values, and ensuring people were treated fairly, with dignity and respect.     

“By developing the kind of leaders that recognize business for good, we can have a positive impact on global society.”

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… don’t focus on the short-term outcomes; focus on the journey. I always tell students not to obsess about grades and instead focus on learning, but I know that’s hard to do.

The thing I love most about what I do is… the students! They energize and inspire me, and I love hearing their stories about how they are creating positive change in the world.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be…  my deep faith developed from my relationship with my incredible maternal grandmother who had the courage to emigrate to New York to escape the Jim Crow laws of the South.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I was a NCAA volleyball player at the United States Military Academy (West Point) in the 80s.

I stay inspired by… voraciously reading books across genres — business, history, self-improvement, sports, faith & spirituality — and being open-minded to finding new worlds to discover through reading.

The future excites me because… I get to lead a top business school where we are preparing future leaders to have a positive social impact on the world.

My next step is… to create a collaborative academic learning community, where everyone feels welcome to be their authentic selves. 

Divya Tulapurkar mastered analytics — and it accelerated her corporate career.

Divya Tulapurkar

By Hailey Eisen

 

Divya Tulapurkar was 25 years old when she came to Kingston, Ont. from Bangalore, India in the middle of a cold winter, and enrolled, nearly simultaneously, in two master’s degrees. Five years later, she’s one of the youngest directors at Scotiabank in Toronto. 

She attributes her success to her education and expertise in the field of data analytics. “So many people still find analytics to be intimidating,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be. The need for this skill set in the corporate world is great, and there are tools and courses available to help simplify things.” 

Besides, intimidating isn’t something that has ever phased Divya. 

Having studied engineering and worked in technology solutions as a performance engineer in India, Divya says she knew early on she wanted to complement her technical skills with a business education. Interested in studying abroad, she chose the Full-time MBA program at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University, because she liked the idea of a team-based learning model and felt it would offer a safe space to immerse herself in a new country and culture.  

Despite the bitter weather that greeted her in Kingston, and the experience of living alone for the first time, Divya says she quickly overcame the culture shock and found her groove in the MBA. She also realized early on that it was her technical expertise that really differentiated her from the other business students. She was eager to find a way to hold onto this skill set and expand upon it.

“That’s when I decided to enrol in Smith’s Master of Management Analytics program simultaneously,” she says, which made her the only woman at Smith to pursue two master’s degrees in different cities at the same time. “In order to complete both I had to travel back and forth between Kingston and Toronto every week. It was a challenge, but totally worth it.”  

“Analytics was required in every industry I explored, but I found that the financial services sector in Canada was doing really interesting work, and that stood out to me.”

In just over a year Divya completed both degrees, and upon graduating started her career with Scotiabank. “Analytics was required in every industry I explored, but I found that the financial services sector in Canada was doing really interesting work, and that stood out to me,” she recalls. “I met with a Smith alumnus from Scotiabank who introduced me to the right people, and I got my first job as a manager.” 

Within her first year, leading a small team of data scientists, she worked to build the analytics practice from the ground up for the small business banking vertical. The experience not only delivered value to the bank — it was also personally satisfying. 

“My first job in India was in coding — which meant sitting at a computer, day in and day out — but at some point, I realized I wasn’t able to see firsthand the value of what I was bringing to the table. In my first job with Scotiabank, I was able to make a difference by applying the technology to enable the discovery of key insights and strategies that would improve the customer experience.” 

Divya’s combination skill set has allowed her to rise quickly within the bank, moving into the area of global risk management. “There aren’t a lot of people who can translate the technical into business understanding, and what they’re looking for at the bank is how the tech will drive better decisions and value.” Every decision you see in banking comes from data analytics, she explains, because it can help highlight what’s working and what’s not, point out pain areas and act as an early warning indicator. 

And it doesn’t have to be complicated. “The easiest way to get started with analytics is through data visualization,” says Divya. “Just like the best presenters are storytellers, the best way to present data is also through stories. It helps you connect with your audience and explain a rather complicated analysis in a way people can understand. And the best part is you don’t need any coding experience to get started. Be it 10 rows of data or millions of them, you can easily visualize that data into charts and graphs to provide insights for decision making.”

Divya’s passion for the subject is contagious. And given all of her early successes, it’s hard to imagine her struggling with self-confidence. But as with many young professionals, she says it’s her inner voice that’s the hardest to contend with. “Back in India I had a lot of confidence, but that shattered when I arrived in Canada,” she recalls. “As a young, brown, immigrant woman working in the field of tech and analytics, it hasn’t always been easy. It has taken a village to get me to where I am today.” 

“I’ve learned that speaking up for yourself and bringing your diverse perspective to the table is a work in progress, and the more you do it the easier it gets.”

From mentors to family members, and especially her husband, Divya says she’s had a huge amount of support. She also credits the Smith MBA program with giving her an opportunity to build herself back up. “I spent that year learning to understand my value, and I can’t imagine being where I am today without that experience,” she explains. “I’ve learned that speaking up for yourself and bringing your diverse perspective to the table is a work in progress, and the more you do it the easier it gets.”

Divya is now passionate about mentoring young women in STEM, and encourages them to follow in her footsteps. Even today, there aren’t that many women in analytics — and for many, Divya explains, the journey starts with seeing someone like yourself in the field. “Every single time a woman gets to a leadership role within an organization, all women benefit.” 

She often shares the advice that she’s taken to heart over the years: “Don’t be afraid to take on something more, even if you think you’re only 30 or 40 per cent ready for it. Do it now, because if you’re 100 per cent ready, you should already be in that role. Take a chance, bet on yourself and go for it.” 

It’s this advice that helped her move into the director role at the bank after having only been a senior manager for a short time. “In my head I assumed I hadn’t been in the role long enough to apply for the director position, but my husband pushed me to go for it,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t opt yourself out before you even try, what’s the worst that can happen?’” 

To her surprise, after a fabulous interview, Divya was offered the role. “You want to work with people who can see not just what you’ve done, but what you’re capable of doing. My boss took a chance on me and it worked out really well.” 

Looking ahead, she’s excited for what’s to come. “I hope I get an opportunity to make an even broader impact,” she says. “We are just scratching the surface with what’s possible in data analytics, and it’s going to grow in so many ways.”

What makes an innovative small business? Dr. Nuša Fain explains.

Nusa Fain

By Hailey Eisen 

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new hurdles and challenges for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Many are still reeling from the impacts experienced over the past 18 months, but there are also those that have made great strides in these unprecedented times, through innovation and reinvention. 

What can we learn from the businesses that thrived during the pandemic, and how can we leverage those learnings to help other SMEs post-COVID? 

According to Dr Nuša Fain, Director of the Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MMIE) program at Smith School of Business, the opportunities coming out of the pandemic will benefit the small business ecosystem for years to come. She has been eagerly tracking COVID success stories, looking for clues as to what other businesses can learn from these experiences. 

“Never have changemakers been needed more than they are now,” she says. “Our goal through the MMIE program is to build the changemakers of the future.” 

With business consulting experience in the areas of product development and innovation management in both Europe and Canada, Nuša has seen ‘innovation’ become a buzzword that people love to use — but often don’t understand well. “We define innovation as creating something new that generates value,” she explains. “That value can be profit, but it can also be social impact or operational value.” 

At their core, Nuša says successful entrepreneurs have the very skills required for innovation. And creating a culture of innovation can improve productivity, reduce costs, increase competitiveness, build value and boost employee engagement.  

“Creating a culture of innovation within a team means everyone is encouraged to think outside the box, improve processes and generate value,” she explains. “Those companies that really did well during the pandemic had flexibility and a culture of innovation already in place, meaning employees were engaged, incentivized and rewarded for providing new potential solutions to a particular problem.” 

Some of the questions these companies likely asked themselves were: What are our customers’ needs? What are things we can no longer do because of COVID? How can we better serve our customers in this new environment? What can we do to change? 

“Not everything needs to be a breakthrough innovation, but those companies that succeeded took time — but not too much time — to reassess and determine what they could do differently in order to continue to thrive and meet the needs of their customers, or potential customers.” 

“Take the example of breweries and distilleries that started to produce hand sanitizer in the early days of COVID,” Nuša says. “They understood the capabilities of their manufacturing processes and they had the flexibility to change. Instead of just continuing to do what they had always done, they pivoted to add value, creating something new that was needed at the time.” 

The same was true of manufacturers in other fields who quickly shifted to create PPE and ventilators. “Not everything needs to be a breakthrough innovation, but those companies that succeeded took time — but not too much time — to reassess and determine what they could do differently in order to continue to thrive and meet the needs of their customers, or potential customers.” 

The ability to identify and create additional revenue streams is another trait that allowed some businesses to stay competitive in this new environment. “Many businesses suffered during COVID when the fixed income they were used to from their loyal customers dried up and they didn’t have an additional stream of revenue to keep them afloat,” Nuša explains.

To counter this, they had to adopt new models. One model that performed really well during the pandemic was the subscription model, taken up by many small businesses in various industries. Many restaurants and food retailers, for example, offered meal subscription services on a weekly or monthly basis, rather than just relying on one-off purchases. “This type of model builds loyalty, is often cheaper for the consumer and ensures consistency in terms of revenue generation for the small business,” Nuša says. 

Paramount during the pandemic, and essential for success moving forward, was digital transformation — for sales and customer engagement. 

“It used to be that having a website with a contact button or a phone number was enough for many businesses — but that has changed dramatically in the era of social media,” Nuša says. When it comes to communicating with customers and potential customers, social media offers a two-way communication flow that’s proved essential for many SMEs. “Not only do brands need social media to connect with customers, many customers are also engaging in conversations about brands online; if you don’t have a presence in social you’re really missing out.” 

“We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how technology will help shape entrepreneurship and business in the future, which is why all of our MMIE students complete a certificate in disruptive technology which includes everything from engaging in branding on social media to blockchain and AI as future options.”

Some small businesses took their social media presence to new levels during the pandemic, expanding beyond bricks and mortar stores to social auctions and marketplaces. Small retailers held live auctions via Instagram or Facebook when their stores were closed, allowing them to engage with customers, keep them interested in their products and conduct sales in a more personal way without the need for in-person interaction. 

“We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how technology will help shape entrepreneurship and business in the future, which is why all of our MMIE students complete a certificate in disruptive technology which includes everything from engaging in branding on social media to blockchain and AI as future options,” Nuša says. “With the data and analytics available, online businesses can understand their customers better than ever and cater to them in new and innovative ways.”

The shift to a more online-focused presence also opened many businesses up to audiences and customers they didn’t previously have access to. “Yes, the focus during COVID was how to support local businesses, but inadvertently many businesses gained exposure to a much wider audience base.” The key beyond COVID, then, is to stay relevant and find ways to stand out online in an even more global marketplace. While competition may be fiercer, so too is the potential to really grow. 

The best ways for any small business to move forward beyond the pandemic is to learn from the efforts that did and didn’t work, and to get comfortable with failure and the idea that risk will always be present going forward. “We know that everything will continue to speed up and the most successful businesses will be those that can innovate quickly and efficiently,” Nuša says. “This time it was a pandemic, next it could be global warming. It’s how you plan, adjust and adapt that will determine your success in these uncertain times.” 

Roots CEO Meghan Roach leaned into the challenges of the pandemic — and transformed the lifestyle brand.

Meghan Roach

By Hailey Eisen 

 

In January 2020, Meghan Roach was appointed interim CEO of Roots. The nearly-50-year-old Canadian outdoor lifestyle brand, known for its iconic salt-and-pepper sweats and beaver emblem, was underperforming. Meghan’s job? To improve operational efficiency and execute on profitable growth opportunities, while honouring the brand’s heritage.

A mandate that would have proved challenging under normal circumstances, Meghan’s task was compounded when the COVID-19 pandemic hit just months into her tenure. But for someone who admittedly thrives in chaos, the pandemic played to the 38-year-old’s strengths. “Honestly, it was one of the most invigorating experiences of my career,” she recalls. 

The obstacles facing the retail industry were unprecedented: store closures and layoffs, a pivot to e-commerce, upended work schedules, sweeping lockdowns, increased demand for safety protocols, and the repurposing of resources to provide PPE to those in need. 

The way things were always done would no longer serve. Meghan embraced a company-wide shift that included a focus on outcomes versus ‘face time’ or hours worked. She put trust in her large team — from head office to factories, distribution centres, and retails outlets — to do what needed to be done in a much more flexible format. 

With two small children at home, Meghan also had to adapt. “When COVID hit, we were living in a condo and my husband was also working from home,” she says. “My kids were literally running in and out of my meetings all day.” 

Developing the skill set and mindset needed to thrive in these unsettling times started at a young age for Meghan. She credits her family with teaching her the value of hard work and perseverance. It was her grandfather who sparked her interest in finance and investing when he gave her BCE shares as a child. An undergraduate degree in Commerce from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University allowed her to expand upon those interests and solidified what she wanted to do beyond school. 

“I am not the smartest person in the room and never want to be. If I am, then I’ve failed at my job. Working with others who are smarter or more experienced creates a better business — together.”

“It was unique at the time to have a four-year program in Commerce which focused on finance, investing, and marketing, among other things,” she says. “We focused on case studies, group work, and leadership skills, and learned to think on our feet, collaborate with others, and work to our own strengths.” 

After graduation, Meghan explored a variety of career paths, including accounting, investments, and private equity. She served on a number of boards, including a stint on the Roots board from 2015 to 2017. In the summer of 2019, she was brought on as Roots’ interim CFO, and come the New Year was promoted to interim CEO. The CEO title became permanent in May 2020 after she had proved herself in the early days of the pandemic. 

Meghan says there were times she felt like an “imposter,” being a young woman in her CEO role. But she’s held on to an important lesson from her business school days that proved helpful on her C-suite journey. “I am not the smartest person in the room and never want to be,” she says. “If I am, then I’ve failed at my job. Working with others who are smarter or more experienced creates a better business — together. That’s how we succeed.” 

Bringing in a variety of perspectives, deeply understanding Roots’ customers, and collaborating with local and grassroots partners have all been part of Meghan’s strategy over the past year. “Roots has done a great job creating high-quality, long-lasting, comfortable products, and we wanted to expand upon that legacy with a focus on diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and global impact, among other things. This includes looking at our corporate culture, suppliers, and marketing.” 

Meghan’s current focus is diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion in terms of campaigns, product development, and partnerships. “Being a well-known brand in Canada and internationally, I want to use our platform to amplify different voices and talk about issues going on today in a way that’s aligned with our values,” she says.  

“Having gone through a pandemic and come out stronger, we know that muscle is in us and we have the capacity to deal with challenges, whatever they may be.”

Under Meghan’s leadership, Roots has partnered with Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in support of its “Dear Everybody” campaign to include more people with disabilities in ad campaigns; signed the BlackNorth agreement with the Canadian Council of Business Leaders; donated to Indigenous communities; and launched a limited-edition collaboration collection in honour of International Women’s Day, which saw a portion of proceeds go to Girls E-Mentorship (GEM), a program that helps high school girls overcome barriers in their transition to adulthood. 

Meghan has also embraced the idea of storytelling, ensuring a variety of voices are heard and represented within Roots — as part of the Diversity and Inclusion Council she leads — and through partnerships and campaigns aimed at developing unique products and spotlighting existing favourites. 

A self-proclaimed small-town girl, Meghan says her love of nature and connection to the Roots brand began as a child in Pembroke, Ont. Like many, she recalls getting new Roots clothing for back-to-school. She also developed an appreciation for outdoor sports while attending the 315-acre natural campus of Lakefield College School during her high-school years. These experiences shaped her into the ideal Roots customer and helped form connections she draws upon in her role as the brand’s CEO. 

“I am so grateful for the connection I have with the Roots founders, Michael Budman and Don Green, who met at Camp Tamakwa. Michael even recalls traveling through Pembroke on one occasion during his camp canoe trips,” Meghan says. “Michael and Don have lived the Roots lifestyle since its inception and their support has been invaluable as we move forward during these exciting times.” 

A strong connection to the past with forward momentum is what’s propelling Meghan these days. “Having gone through a pandemic and come out stronger, we know that muscle is in us and we have the capacity to deal with challenges, whatever they may be,” she says. “I have a lot of optimism for the future.”  

Gold medalist Erica Wiebe turned a postponed Olympics into an opportunity to get her MBA.

Erica Wiebe

By Hailey Eisen 

It’s easy to imagine how disappointing it would be to spend years preparing for the Olympic Games, only to have them postponed. While Canadian wrestler Erica Wiebe was set to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games last summer, the global COVID pandemic upended her plans, along with those of thousands of other Olympic athletes. 

The reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 75kg wrestling event had qualified for the Games at the Pan American Olympic Qualification tournament in March 2020 — just a week prior to the announcement that the Games would be postponed for a year.

Faced with disappointment and uncertainty, Erica decided to use the opportunity to do something completely different. 

“The week before the qualifying event, I actually interviewed for the Executive MBA program, something I had wanted to do since I came home from the 2016 Olympics in Rio,” Erica recalls. “My plan had been that, if I got into the program, I would defer acceptance and start in 2021.” 

But with the Olympics postponed and a year of unknowns ahead, Erica was thankful when the Smith School of Business program director called and asked if she’d consider starting the MBA that year. “I saw it as an opportunity to bring some structure to my days, something to focus on other than sport — and a huge challenge amidst the uncertainty of everything else,” she says. 

In June 2020, Erica joined the first-ever virtual opening residential session of the 17-month, team-based Executive MBA Americas program, a partnership between Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business and Cornell University’s SC Johnson Graduate School of Management. For the past twelve months, she has been studying business from the comfort of her home in Calgary — while also competing in wrestling tournaments internationally and preparing for the rescheduled Games, which begin on July 23.  

“When I won the gold medal in Rio I knew that I was just scratching the surface of what I was capable of.”

Earning two MBA degrees from two of the world’s top business schools while preparing to represent Canada at the Olympics has been physically and psychologically demanding, but Erica has always thrived in the face of a challenge. 

Erica loved sports — all of them — starting at an early age. She first tried wrestling in her Grade 7 gym class, and joined the co-ed team in Grade 9. While she’d primarily been a soccer player, and once imagined herself playing soccer through university, she fell in love with wrestling. “It was technical, tactical, physical, mental, and I loved every aspect of it,” she says. 

At 18, Erica moved across the country – from her home in Stittsville, Ont. to Calgary – to train as a member of the Dinos Wrestling Club at the University of Calgary. “It was the best wrestling program in the country and I wanted to put myself in the position to be my best,” she says. “In fact, that’s exactly what I’m doing with the MBA, participating in one of the best programs in Canada to help pave the way for goals outside of sport.” 

Eight years and two degrees later, Erica made her Olympic debut at Rio 2016. “When I won the gold medal in Rio I knew that I was just scratching the surface of what I was capable of,” Erica says. While she knew she wanted to compete in the next Summer Olympic Games, she also wanted to challenge herself in other ways. So, in 2018, she accepted a flexible work position with Deloitte. The opportunity allowed her to apply and bolster her skills in strategy and high-stakes decision-making — skills that translate well from wrestling to the business world. 

With consulting experience and a Bachelor of Kinesiology and Honours Bachelor of Arts in Sociology under her belt, earning her MBA made a lot of sense to Erica. Plus, she was eager to be part of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s (COC) partnership with Smith School of Business. As part of this partnership, up to 1200 scholarships are available to eligible national team athletes through Game Plan, Canada’s total athlete wellness program designed to help athletes thrive on and off the field of play. 

“I took all the things I use to structure my training and I applied them to these MBA sessions.”

Typically a blended program, with interactive online classes every other weekend and three in-person residential sessions interspersed throughout the program, the Executive MBA Americas was forced completely online due to COVID-19. “So far we’ve done the whole thing online, including the residential sessions, which meant we were on Zoom for eight hours a day for two week stretches,” Erica explains. 

For someone who is used to being on the move, it took great stamina to get through these virtual sessions. “I took all the things I use to structure my training and I applied them to these MBA sessions,” Erica explains. “I prepared like I would for a training camp, ensuring I got quality sleep, used the 15-minute breaks to do yoga or walk, drank three liters of water a day, and optimized my performance in every way I could.” 

She also bought herself a road bike and has taken up cycling. “Being able to get on my bike and feel the wind on my face has been the biggest thing that protected my mental health over the past 12 months,” she says. “There’s great power in getting outside and moving your body.” 

With so much uncertainty in the world due to COVID-19 – restrictions, facility closures, travel bans – impacting her ability to train and compete, Erica is thankful for the distraction the MBA has provided. “What an amazing time to be stuck in class for 14 hours over a weekend,” she says. “These classes have given me the structure and focus to help make sense of what’s going on around me.”

“I’m not done with sport and I’m just getting started on my business journey. There is a whole realm of possibilities.” 

Erica has deferred three courses between now and August 8 to focus on final preparations to compete in Tokyo. “I’ve been so lucky that teachers and staff at Smith have been incredibly flexible throughout this journey, ensuring I have everything I need to excel.” 

After the Summer Olympic Games, she will return to her studies. “Beyond all of this,” she says, “the short answer is I’m not done with sport and I’m just getting started on my business journey. There is a whole realm of possibilities.” 

Asked if she has advice for other athletes considering the MBA program, Erica says: “Whether you’re an athlete or a woman in business considering this program, if you’re worried you can’t handle it or it’s going to be too much, or maybe you won’t belong, those are all the right fears to have and it means it’s exactly the right program for you.”

While this whole year has pushed her to uncomfortable places, she says she’s definitely coming out stronger — and more prepared to compete in the Olympic Games this summer. “Today I am feeling better, stronger, and so much more ready to compete than I could have imagined.”

Four industry leaders weigh in on the future of work post-pandemic.

woman walking to work

On March 11, we passed the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic. One year of isolation, rolling lockdowns, and, for many, working from home. One year in which the resilience of businesses, communities, individuals and families was tested.

Stepping into the pandemic’s Year Two, however, there’s light on the horizon. Every day more people get vaccinated. Though COVID variants remain a problem, we can finally see a day, sometime in the fall perhaps, or slightly beyond, when normal life starts to return.

But will it ever be the same? It’s hard to imagine that it will. Seismic events like a once-in-a-hundred years pandemic tend to leave their mark. It seems fitting that as we head into the post-pandemic future, we look back and reflect. What have we learned? And how can we do better?

When it comes to business and the workplace, there is no question the events of 2020 have had a dramatic effect. It wasn’t just the pandemic — the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have permanently altered the conversation around race, diversity and inclusion.

So, where do we go from here? One thing is for sure: The benefits and challenges of the massive shift to remote work has businesses now considering what a return to normal might look like. And on a larger scale, firms are grappling with their role to drive social change in areas of sustainability and equity, diversity and inclusion.

Here, Smith School of Business alumni leaders weigh in with their thoughts on the future of work in four key areas: leadership, teamwork, diversity and inclusion, and technology and office. We hope you find inspiration in their ideas. 

The fact is, we can build back better. Let’s start right now.

Leadership: Explore new avenues for employee bonding

Michele Romanow

Michele Romanow

Co-founder and president, Clearco (formerly Clearbanc)

During the pandemic, companies were forced to become fully remote. Then, they realized that their employees were equally, if not more, productive. Take my company, Clearco for example. We had an in-the-office-all-the-time kind of culture. We didn’t believe in a remote environment. As a fast-growing startup, it was important to have everyone together in the same place, problem-solving and brainstorming. The pandemic proved us wrong. Turns out, we can be a successful remote team.

But now the new challenge is, how do companies help their teams build the bonds that were previously created from casual conversations and interactions in the office? At Clearco, we practise “Radical Candor”—bestselling author Kim Scott’s management philosophy on caring personally while challenging directly. The truth is, it’s hard to give difficult feedback if you haven’t made a personal connection.

Organizations working remotely will need to find a new way to simulate the more social conversations that naturally occurred in the office. I predict that global offices will spend more time doing internal retreats and conferences a couple of times a year so employees can build those bonds. Just as we used to travel to conferences to network with people outside the company, now we will travel to meet the colleagues we speak to every day — but have never met in person.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Create a future-forward talent management strategy

Randeep Purewal

Randeep Purewal

Founder and CEO of Divercial Group

A year after the world went virtual, it’s no surprise that most employees prefer working remotely (or at least having the option to do so). There are obvious benefits, but remote work presents challenges for talent management and equity.

Equity is created by establishing a diverse, equal, and inclusive workplace. While each organization has different starting points, companies that want to be future-forward ready should consider these questions when re-imagining what their workplace will look like:

How diverse is your organization? Diversity goes beyond standard characteristics such as ethnicity and gender. Companies should focus on how to make their employee base more diverse in ideology, education, geography and socio-economic backgrounds, for instance. Research has proven that truly diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams. Hence, the first step is to avoid groupthink culture.

Does everyone have equal access to opportunities? Unfortunately (and regardless of physical versus remote environments), talent management tends to invoke biases and subjectivity. Therefore, it is critical to implement an unbiased and data-driven process for promotions and hires. Remote work has influenced organizations to favour internal hires over external hires. It is therefore more important than ever to remove obstacles and systemic barriers for existing employees.

Do employees feel they truly belong? And, can they bring their best and whole selves “to work”? It’s leadership 101 to customize your management style to each employee and understand their behaviours, preferences and drivers. Consequently, employers should offer employees flexibility and create a level playing field despite one’s personal commitments. Further, creating a safe zone with policies on inclusion and mental health — as well as procedures for handling incidents in these areas — will allow employees to feel more comfortable being their authentic selves.

Teams: Hardwire your culture for the “new normal”

Jennifer Wenzel

Jennifer Wenzel

Senior director, people services strategy and organizational effectiveness at the Canadian Red Cross Society

What can we expect to outlast the pandemic in the workplace? A few things come to mind: The remote and in-office workforce; flexible schedules; and personalized work experiences. Yes, all that and delivering work faster than ever are here to stay. As we move ahead, the lessons from the last year must be hardwired into company culture. How? Through the design of work, organizational policies and the reinforcement of new management capabilities.

At the Canadian Red Cross, we are doing that. We’re strengthening our employee and volunteer communications through the use of pulse surveys, webinars, and task forces. We are learning that we can unleash capacity by making work easier — evaluating workflows, providing technology, and ensuring role and decision-making clarity.

But there’s more. One workplace capability that I see gaining prominence is organizational network analysis. It can help businesses understand how employees interact with one another and how work gets done. By identifying important connections and barriers in information flow, organizations can be deliberate in building social ties amongst their workforce and increase operational effectiveness.

Additionally, the onboarding experience will need to be redesigned to build team cohesion and create an understanding of cultural norms in a remote workplace. Equity in how opportunities are given and performance is evaluated will also be critical, though challenging for managers. After all, managers may find themselves overseeing both remote and in-person teams. To respond effectively they will need to be intentional in how, when, and with whom they communicate, and how they evaluate performance based on outcomes. Becoming attuned to unconscious bias will help them navigate the challenge.

Tech & Office: Explore how tech can make remote work more human

Eva Wong

Eva Wong

Co-founder and chief operating officer at Borrowell

Prior to the pandemic, the company I co-founded, Borrowell, had a definite in-person culture. People worked from home occasionally. But most meetings, collaboration and socials were in person.

As a tech company, the move to remote work last year was technically easy. Everyone had a laptop. More challenging, however, was replicating all those unplanned interactions that being in the office afforded. For example: learning through osmosis from colleagues’ conversations; quickly pulling people into a huddle to solve a problem; or getting to know someone over lunch or a walk to the coffee shop.

As we move forward, it’s my belief there will be new and better technology solutions that enable these unplanned interactions, as well as creative collaboration, to happen virtually. At the onset of the pandemic, many organizations had to quickly adopt new communications platforms to maintain organizational efficiency. Moving forward, I encourage leaders to explore ways to use technology to foster a sense of connectedness.

In many ways, working virtually has been great for us at Borrowell. During the pandemic, we acquired a company on the West Coast, so being remote levelled the playing field between us. There isn’t a divide based on whether someone is working in the same office or across screens. But there is still something missing. And while technology might not be able to completely replace in-person interactions, I know we’d all benefit from remote work feeling more personal, more connected and more human.

Roxane Ducasse went from working in government to Walmart’s leadership program.

Roxane Ducasse

By Hailey Eisen 

Having a behind-the-scenes view of the frenzied buying patterns of Canadians during the early days of the COVID pandemic would have been interesting for anyone — but especially so for someone with a statistics background, and who likens supply-chain logistics to a puzzle ready to be solved. 

For Roxane Ducasse, whose career with Walmart Canada has spanned nearly five years, the pandemic provided indelible lessons in resilience and the ability to pivot on a dime. 

And, while she says she’s had great opportunities to learn over the past year, Roxane actually began to hone these skills earlier in her career — when she pivoted from a five-year job with the federal government, to a full-time MBA, to Walmart’s D.A.R.E. leadership development program.

“I completed my undergraduate degree in statistics in Ottawa and, like many in that city, I got a part-time job with the government,” she recalls. “Once I graduated, I was offered a permanent role with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, in operations performance management.”

Part of Roxane’s role was the development of an operational forecasting model aimed at reducing processing times for citizenship applications — work she felt was rewarding. Still, a few years in, she began to think about her career goals and long-term plans. “Being so young, I didn’t want to stay in the public service forever,” she recalls. “As much as I loved it, I didn’t want to be boxed in.” 

It was around this time that she began to research MBA programs, thinking the degree might be a good way out of government and into the private sector. She attended a few information sessions and was quickly sold on Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. “I go for that gut feeling when making decisions, and I didn’t get that feeling from any other school,” Roxane recalls. 

“Being so young, I didn’t want to stay in the public service forever. As much as I loved it, I didn’t want to be boxed in.”

It wasn’t an easy decision to leave a permanent position and a pension. Roxane says many colleagues tried to convince her to take a leave of absence rather than quit her job to go back to school. But she knew leaving her job would propel her forward to finding her next career move. She resigned from the government and began the MBA in January 2015. “I didn’t want to have one foot out the door; I decided to pivot, and knew I would land somewhere else in the end.” 

During the year of her MBA, Roxane felt that she was at her physical and mental peak. One reason for that is she joined Smith’s Fit To Lead™ program — which emphasizes goal setting, fitness, healthy eating and balance. She came to realize just how many usable hours there were in a day. “From 7 a.m. boot-camp, to a day full of classes and team meetings, followed by running club, and social outings at 10 p.m., the program really pushed me and I experienced a tremendous amount of growth that year.” 

It was through an on-campus recruiting event that she discovered Walmart’s D.A.R.E. program. “What appealed to me about the program was that you learned from the experts on the ground floor — spending two years in the stores before going to work in the head office,” Roxane explains. 

When choosing between the Walmart program and a senior consulting role she was offered, Roxane says it came down to Walmart offering her the biggest personal growth opportunity — a people leadership role which both scared and excited her — and the fact that working in retail was nothing like any job she’d held to date. 

In her first year with Walmart, Roxane joined a store in Oshawa and learned everything from cashing out customers, to slicing deli meats, to unloading a truck. In her second year she co-managed a store in Whitby, her hometown. “I led an incredible team of 200 associates alongside my seasoned store manager and oversaw the operations of a $75M Supercentre — it was truly a life changing experience.”

Not only did she learn a lot about herself as a leader, but she also gained a tremendous amount of respect for associates at the store level in the retail industry. “Working alongside people who had been with Walmart for years, gaining their respect, and working as a manager for them to make sure they had the resources they needed to do their jobs effectively, that was a really important part of the job,” Roxane recalls.  

“Your reputation is your legacy — people will not always remember the numbers you put out or the details of the projects you worked on, but they will remember how you treated them and the impact you had.”

After two years in stores, Roxane moved to Walmart’s head office in Mississauga, Ont., where she did a few more rotations as part of the D.A.R.E. program. “I worked in pricing analytics, logistics, and supply chain. During that time, I took on a project analyzing Amazon’s pricing strategy and how Walmart’s online prices compared,” she explains. 

Roxane decided to pursue a permanent position in supply chain management, a role she’s held since July 2019. This landed her right in the middle of product shortages, out-of-stock suppliers, and empty shelves when COVID hit in early 2020. “There was a lot of pressure on the supply chain both in terms of keeping up with customer demand and readjusting to increase supply.”

Roxane says the pandemic taught her that you can never really take for granted what’s going to happen next. “We’ve all learned to think outside the box, push the envelope, and work in ways we once thought unimaginable,” she says.  

As a mentor to other young women within Walmart and as a member of the Smith School of Business alumni network, Roxane has lots of advice to share. “When you’re young, starting out in your career, you may be brought into a meeting and feel hesitant to speak up. What I was told 10 years ago, and what I tell other young women in the workplace is, ‘You were invited for a reason.’ Establish your credentials and your background, tell them why you’re an expert in the topic at hand, and then speak up,” she says. “Also remember, your reputation is your legacy — people will not always remember the numbers you put out or the details of the projects you worked on, but they will remember how you treated them and the impact you had. Always strive to have a positive impact wherever you go.” 

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.”

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.”

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 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. 

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 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.”

Sarah Jordan on how she became CEO of Mastermind Toys in January — and how she has transformed and inspired the retailer since.

By Hailey Eisen 

 

Within the first 100 days of becoming CEO of Mastermind Toys — Canada’s largest speciality toy and children’s book retailer, with 69 stores across the country and online — Sarah Jordan faced store closures, work-from-home protocols and other unprecedented ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It was certainly an untraditional way of starting out as a CEO of a retailer,” says Sarah, who stepped into the role in January. “This is going to be an experience that will be a defining one for leadership, at least in my lifetime.”

While Sarah says her first priority was (and still is) the wellbeing of her employees and customers, she’s embraced the opportunity to lead the company through the transformation that she committed to deliver. She passionately believes that employee experience drives customer experience — and has empowered her team to keep Mastermind special, to be bold and scrappy and to come out of this stronger together.

Digital transformation is among Sarah’s top priorities. From increasing Mastermind Toys’ social media presence (hosting daily storytime readings and weekly virtual birthday parties), to improving digital capabilities and online shopping, to expanding upon the sense of wonder for shoppers online and in-store, Sarah is taking the Canadian retailer to the next level.  

There’s no doubt Sarah is taking things in stride. “This experience has lent itself to my strengths, giving me the chance to rally the organization to get behind and believe in my vision for the future.” One of her strengths is building a diverse, powerhouse team. She has proudly reshaped the leadership team to include balanced gender representation.

In order to ensure success in the best of circumstances, but especially in trying times, Sarah says a clear vision and strategy with constant communication is critical. With Mastermind’s signature wrapping paper adorning her Zoom background, Sarah is hosting virtual coffee chats, company-wide town hall meetings, and more intimate conversations with employees, all with the intention of building momentum, celebrating successes, and managing with a clear focus. She is also passionate about bringing the philosophy of Mastermind Toys to life — Play Is Kids’ Work — and has been leaning on that founding principle in making decisions. “I’m reminded through this time that play plants a tiny seed of curiosity in a child’s mind that grows into knowledge that lasts a lifetime,” she says in one of her emails to Mastermind customers as they navigated closures, curbside pick-up, and reopenings.

“At Mastermind Toys, we know that play is a central and critical part of kids’ lives. We want to inspire imagination, wonder, education and development, and empower Canadian families to help their kids become lifelong learners,” she says. That mandate couldn’t be more timely given that, due to COVID-19, schools closed early this year and children have had to learn in new and different ways at home.

With her own two kids taking on the unofficial role of Mastermind toy testers, Sarah is able to bring work home in a way she couldn’t in previous roles. She’s also aware that as a 38-year-old mom, she’s in the minority among retail industry leaders — very few store chains in Canada are run by women. “I’m motivated and excited to show that leadership comes in a variety of forms.” 

Sarah has always felt comfortable doing things her own way — she affectionately credits her parents for instilling that “can-do” attitude. In university, she studied engineering chemistry. Growing up she loved math and science. Upon graduation, she took a job in consulting with Accenture. At 24, she enrolled in the MBA program at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. “Yes, I was the youngest in my MBA class, but I never focused on that,” she recalls. “I really liked the business world and wanted to build that foundational skillset — to up my game.” 

Through the MBA program, Sarah was able to successfully transition to a business management career. A key element was learning different leadership styles through the school’s team-based approach. “It gave me a chance to reflect upon what type of leader I wanted to be and to learn from others in a safe space.” 

 

“Be unapologetically authentic; don’t feel the need to adopt a classic or traditional style of leadership. Leading through difficult times is certainly easier when you’re doing what you love.” 

 

Sarah’s academic journey came full circle when she started as a lecturer with the Smith MBA program last year. “I’m passionate about making sure more young women see leaders that they can see themselves in, both in educational and business settings.” 

Even without having that advantage herself, Sarah stepped into the role of CEO at Mastermind with confidence — succeeding the company’s co-founder, Jon Levy, who’d been at the company’s helm since 1984. That self-assurance came in part from the years of experience she had tackling retail and banking transformation as a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where she worked with Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, boards, and a host of stakeholders, driving change from the outside. She left BCG in 2017 to join Scotiabank with the desire to focus on transformation from the inside. “I transitioned from a consultant to an operator and leader with an agenda for innovation and value creation,” she recalls. 

Ready for another career leap and excited to get back into the retail space, where her true passion lies, she joined Mastermind Toys. She credits what she calls her “personal board of directors” for helping her step up. “Mentorship and sponsorship from my personal board have provided the compass for my success,” she says.

When advising others on how to create their own personal boards, Sarah suggests recruiting people who will cheer you on, provide advice, give tough love when needed, hold you accountable and remind you to celebrate along your journey. Ideally, your board will have a variety of perspectives and will include managers, coaches, professors, sponsors, mentors and peers who have grown up alongside you in your career. Sarah’s board also happens to include her spouse, whom she met while doing her MBA. 

When asked to share other tips for young leaders, Sarah says “be unapologetically authentic; don’t feel the need to adopt a classic or traditional style of leadership.” And play to your passions. “Leading through difficult times is certainly easier when you’re doing what you love.” 

Looking ahead to the next few months, Sarah is optimistic that Mastermind will come out of the pandemic crisis stronger and ready to embrace “the next normal.”

“As a retailer that focuses on multi-generational customers — grandparents, expecting mothers, kids and kids at heart — we plan to lead the way in terms of providing innovative experiences that have wonder and delight around every corner while keeping health and safety paramount,” she says. “We have reimagined our experiences. Our customers can now choose their own adventure — in-store, online and curbside — and we will continue to provide new and flexible ways of shopping while managing the complexity that lies ahead.”  

How a global pandemic might change businesses for the better.

By Hailey Eisen 

 

As COVID-19 upends economies and alters how business gets conducted, organizations must think beyond the bottom line – especially when dealing with customers and employees. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to consider the ways in which their values are reflected through their business practices,” explains Kate Rowbotham, professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business. 

Kate says that businesses should focus their efforts on these three areas: communication, compassion, and flexibility. 

 

Communication is more important than ever. 

“Communication is extremely important because of the uncertainty we’re all facing,” Kate explains. “As everyone tries to make sense of this situation and understand the impact it will have on our lives, organizations must be completely transparent with employees and customers.” 

In the absence of talking face-to-face, communications can come in the form of emails, phone calls and virtual meetings. “I think some companies are doing better at this than others, and that relates to how good companies are at communicating in normal times,” Kate says.

So, what does good communication look like in a crisis? The keys are openness, honesty, and clarity on things such as compensation, work-from-home expectations, and what support an organization can offer. 

“Employees will be looking to leaders to model the behaviours they’re expecting from others,” she says. When leaders don’t know the answers, it’s better that they say so. “It actually makes me happy to see a leader say ‘I don’t know,’ to admit that they’re as unsettled as the rest of us, and to seek out answers rather than pretending they have them all.” 

 

“It actually makes me happy to see a leader say ‘I don’t know,’ to admit that they’re as unsettled as the rest of us, and to seek out answers rather than pretending they have them all.” 

 

Compassion is the only acceptable response. 

“This virus is affecting people in different ways, and many will be touched directly or indirectly by its impact.” With so much suffering happening around the globe, there’s really no way to respond but with compassion, Kate says.

That means tampering expectations — especially workloads. “With friends, social supports, exercise, and other things that we typically advise employees to turn to in times of stress inaccessible to many of us, companies have to carefully consider the impact of stress on productivity.” 

If we can’t expect ‘business as usual’ then what is the ‘good enough’ option for these unprecedented times? It’s a question Kate would like to see organizations ask themselves. Developing and working within ‘good enough’ standards will help reduce stress, and may even boost productivity.

 

Flexibility means rethinking how work should be done. 

As we move further into what has now become a ‘new normal,’ we know that everyone’s responsibilities at home, stress levels, and availability will differ. Thus, flexibility is important. 

Allowing employees to control their day and determine when and where they can get work done, will help increase productivity. “We’re all beginning to think about what productivity means, where it happens, what tools are needed to support it — and this could lead to lasting changes in the traditional workday.” 

Employees should be included in decision making and given autonomy to determine what works best for them. “In times of uncertainty, many people feel more comfortable with direction and guidance, so the key is balance,” Kate says.

Many are watching to see how organizations align their behaviour with their values. As an example, Kate recalls a story of a hotel in British Columbia that had to lay off all its employees, but found each of them another job first. “We are also hearing stories of CEOs taking pay cuts or dropping their salaries to zero in order to continue paying their employees,” says Kate. “We’ve seen grocery store chains go above and beyond to take care of their employees and communicate with their customers transparently. As an example, Loblaws was one of the first to raise employees’ salaries.”

With so many changes rolling out so quickly, Kate believes a lasting impact is inevitable. “I’ve always drawn on Management Professor Linda Hill’s work in my teaching, and one thing she talks a lot about is managers really getting to know their employees and who they are,” Kate explains. 

Interestingly, social distancing may give leaders and teams the opportunity to really get to know one another and develop new techniques to work together. Even when they’re apart.

How Rola Amer went from pharmaceutical marketing to children’s fashion.

When Rola Amer enrolled in the Executive MBA program at Smith School of Business, she intended to return to her career in pharmaceuticals. But she soon realized she was an entrepreneur at heart — and as a working mother of two struggling to keep up with clothes shopping for her kids, she saw a problem she could solve for many other parents. The founder of Choulala Box shares her story.

 

By Hailey Eisen 

 

Every entrepreneur has a story of how they started their own company. Rola Amer’s leap from the corporate world was fuelled by a combination of gut instinct, confidence earned during an Executive MBA program, and her struggles shopping for kids’ clothes. 

Rola was well into a career with Hospira, an American pharmaceutical company (now part of Pfizer). Having been pegged as “top talent” within the company, she was climbing the ladder at an impressive speed. She’d gone from sales to regulatory affairs and clinical research. Eventually, she found her niche in marketing. 

“I was focused on goals and metrics. If they dangled the carrot, I would jump for it. I loved and thrived in that environment,” Rola explains, from her home office in Montreal. 

“While I was still in my 20s,” she recalls, “I had ownership of profit and loss statements, had my own business unit and a national sales team and manager working under me, and I travelled a lot. I was fully living the corporate lifestyle.”  

Today, Rola’s professional life looks much different. 

She’s at the helm of Choulala Box, a sustainability-focused company that encourages kids to learn about clothes and the art of self-dressing, while providing parents access to curated pieces of clothing from a number of brands. 

Her entrepreneurial journey came after a challenging first maternity leave, during which Rola found herself feeling lonely and unstimulated. She headed back to work eagerly. But three years later, when she got pregnant with her second child, an idea began to take shape. “Pfizer was buying our company, and while I wasn’t worried about job security, I began to think about what I could do to bring more value to myself and my career.” 

Having grown up in a family that empowered women to educate themselves, Rola says she had always considered post-graduate education. Knowing she’d be heading into another maternity leave, the idea of doing an Executive MBA while she was “off work” started to feel exciting. 

And so, seven months pregnant, Rola began an 18-month Executive MBA through Smith School of Business. The school’s national program enabled her to take part from Montreal, while connecting her to participants from across Canada. She intended to go back to her job, armed with more business expertise. Unexpectedly, one of her biggest takeaways from the program was a level of self-confidence she’d never had before. 

 

“As a working mom of two, I had really found it impossible to shop for my kids’ clothing. Shopping in a mall with babies and small children was a huge challenge, and I didn’t want to spend my weekends running around.” 

 

“I thought I was super-confident. But I was really driven by other people’s validation and approval,” she says. “The MBA really changed that. The level of thinking was way up, I excelled in the program, and thrived as a member of my team. This was all the validation I needed.” 

The program also gave her a new understanding of her own capabilities. “Interestingly,” she recalls, “prior to starting the MBA, I was connected with an industrial psychologist for a series of interviews and testing. He said to me, ‘You’re one of the most unique people I’ve met in the corporate structure. You’re an entrepreneur, and while you’ll continue to thrive in your career, you’ll get to a point where you’ll find something lacking — and ultimately, you’ll be unhappy. That’s when you’ll pivot.’”

Rola kept that advice in mind, but she still had no intention of leaving the corporate world. After heading back to her job, however, she says her body began to revolt. “I was experiencing extreme anxiety, and I started to hate going to work.”

The time had come to step out on her own. Enter her adventures in buying children’s clothing. 

“As a working mom of two, I had really found it impossible to shop for my kids’ clothing,” Rola explains. “Shopping in a mall with babies and small children was a huge challenge, and I didn’t want to spend my weekends running around.” 

Shopping online wasn’t much better. She found herself buying items she didn’t really like, and her purchases weren’t sensible. Dressing her kids every day, she struggled finding pieces that worked together. “There were always clothes in their closets with tags on them that they’d never wear. I knew there had to be a simpler way for all of this.” 

In 2017, clothing subscription boxes weren’t really a thing yet. Montreal-based Frank and Oak had done it for men’s fashions, but nothing existed for kids. Rola’s original plan for Choulala Box was to deliver capsule wardrobes for kids (sizes 2 to 6), which she would curate. Her goal was to simplify the shopping process, giving parents 10 pieces of clothing to mix and match in a far more sustainable way. The clothes would always be high quality and versatile. 

Rola quickly came to realize that her customers loved the concept but wanted to customize. They wanted to choose pieces for their children, personalizing their orders. More online services such as hers were beginning to come to market in the U.S., and Rola aimed to set herself and her business apart. 

During a brainstorming session, she came up with the term BLAST™ (which she soon after trademarked). The acronym stands for “bottoms, layering, accessories, socks/shoes, and tops” — all elements of a basic wardrobe. The Blast™ method makes it easier for kids to dress themselves, having items that all work well together to choose from, and empowers them to feel more confident and independent while having fun with their daily dressing. Rola also created a 49-card deck of cards to teach kids wardrobe basics.

The concept has earned her a lot of press, including stories in Goop, Motherly, and L.A. Parent. “We now have a subscriber base in the thousands and our conversion rate is 125%,” Rola says. “But it’s been a huge amount of work — way more work than doing an MBA with a newborn.” 

Despite sleepless nights and huge learning curves, Rola says she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her pivot came at the perfect time and the result keeps her learning and growing. She’s excited for the next ideas she’s working on to further transform Choulala Box.  

Five Minutes with an MBA recruiter on how the ‘ideal candidate’ has changed.

Teresa Pires is Associate Director of Recruitment and Admissions for the full-time MBA program at Smith School of Business. She travels the globe, finding and recruiting the most promising business leaders of tomorrow. Teresa has helped hundreds of women take the next step in their careers by helping them see what they can be with an MBA. Teresa can often be found at Women of Influence events and she always has her eye out for the next MBA recruit.  

 

By Hailey Eisen

 

What would you say has changed the most since you began recruiting for the MBA program? 

When I started 10 years ago, we had more traditional candidates with practical skill sets and engineering backgrounds. Now, we have many unique applicant profiles; people who have done a lot more before entering the MBA program and are looking to pivot or transition their career. We see more focus on making an impact today, not just on earning six figures. We see a big focus on individuals wanting to find and follow their passion — and that’s been a big shift. We especially see this among women. 

What’s an example of a non-traditional candidate? Any standout students who came to the MBA with a background you don’t often see to make a career pivot? 

For sure, there are many. Nicole Magda, for example, graduated with the class of 2018 and came to Smith with an undergraduate degree in Biology and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Having worked as an RN for a few years, Nicole was looking to pivot her career into healthcare consulting. The applicants we get with medical backgrounds tell us they’re lacking the business fundamental skills and looking to obtain those through an MBA. Interestingly, Nicole got into consulting upon graduation, working with Deloitte in healthcare transformation, but decided to make a second pivot, and now works as an Associate in Portfolio Management with Imperial Capital Group. 

Which other candidates stand out to you for their non-traditional backgrounds? 

In 2017, Divya Tulapurkar graduated with a dual degree MBA and MMA (Master of Management Analytics). She came to Smith with an engineering background, which is great because the market is looking for more women with technical skills. Divya had been working as a performance engineer with an American multinational IT services provider and had a wealth of professional expertise. But she also had volunteer and other experience that differentiated her in the application process. For example, Divya was a professional dancer and volunteered with non-profit organizations as a dance trainer. She was smart, personable, and had technical skills — I remember thinking, she’s the whole package. Like many women, Divya hit the ground running, becoming the VP of the analytics club at Smith, completing both degrees, and landing a job upon graduation with Scotiabank. Today Divya is the Director of Advanced Analytics with the bank. 

 

“What has always surprised me is how many women self-select out of the program before even beginning the application process. When they do take the time to have conversations with me, and others at Smith, they realize the value they’ll bring to the program, and often find the MBA is exactly where they belong.”

 

Do you find most women come to the MBA program knowing exactly what they want to get out of it, or are many surprised by the opportunities available to them upon graduation? 

I often speak to women who know 100 per cent what they want to do with their careers. But you don’t have to have your whole career mapped out in order to be successful. In fact, you may not be aware of the opportunities available to you until you start the program. Chloe O’Brien came to us with a background in photography, art history, and travel — not a typical path to business school. She didn’t know if the MBA would be the right fit for her because she didn’t have the technical skills people often assume they need. 

Chloe took advantage of every single opportunity that presented itself during the program. She went on two exchanges, she was named a Forté Fellow, and she served as President of the Women in Leadership Club (WIL). I use Chloe as an example of how the MBA really helps women become more well-rounded professionals, gain leadership, management, and networking experience, and realize skills and abilities they may not even have known they had. We create a safe space for students to grow and develop. The MBA is the only transferable degree that can really help someone pivot careers in such a short time frame. Upon graduation Chloe is heading to Deloitte where she’s secured a job in human-centric design and design thinking on a Human Capital team. 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found over the past 10 years working in recruiting for the Smith MBA program?

I would say what has always surprised me is how many women self-select out of the program before even beginning the application process. When they do take the time to have conversations with me, and others at Smith, they realize the value they’ll bring to the program, and often find the MBA is exactly where they belong. I’m blown away by what women are able to manage once they’re in the program. Every year there are incredibly impressive success stories.  

What do you look for when evaluating MBA candidates? 

We consider the whole person and what they’ll bring to the program and the team they’re assigned to. This includes their work ethic, resiliency, and interpersonal skills, in addition to their academic and work experience. We’re also looking for what else they’ve done, beyond work, that makes them stand out — whether that’s volunteer work, a side hustle, or something else. We call this their “spike factor.”

We also look at what we call their “coachability” to understand how they’ll work in our team-based program. We evaluate the experience they’ve had working as parts of a team through work, sports, and volunteer roles. We also speak to their managers to see how they’ve been working as part of a team and how they’ve responded to feedback and coaching.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

We should all strive for ambivalence in making decisions. 

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

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

 

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

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

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

How Nazaneen Qauomi went from struggling immigrant to social entrepreneur

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

 

by Hailey Eisen

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Better living through agriculture

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Striking red gold

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

How Lori Sroujian transitioned from marketing exec to vegan cheese entrepreneur

Lori Sroujian first started experimenting with faux-cheese recipes after a family health scare led her to reconsider what she was eating. What started as a personal quest to find a nutritious but delicious replacement for cheese eventually evolved into a side hustle — and about a year ago, VegCheese became Lori’s full-time enterprise.

 

by Julia Lefebvre

 

 

Lori Sroujian never intended to leave the corporate world to start her own company — let alone a vegan cheese company. But that’s what she did.

Three years ago, Lori’s father had a stroke. That caused her tight-knit family to reconsider what they ate. Lori stopped eating animal products — including dairy. No easy feat for a self-professed cheese aficionado.

Thus began her search for the perfect non-dairy cheese. Lori wanted to find a faux-cheese that could hold its own on a cheeseboard and melt into dishes. But her hunt came up short. “I couldn’t find a product with the taste, texture and ‘melty-ness’ that I expect from my cheese. I decided to start experimenting in my condo kitchen… to find a recipe that would work.”

At the time, Lori was director of digital and multichannel marketing at Janssen Pharmaceutical in Toronto. On evenings and weekends, she made batch after batch of vegan cheese. After many failed attempts, she finally landed on a recipe that made her no longer miss the real thing. 

Soon, Lori was sharing her creation with family and friends. They all loved it. Even the meat-eaters. Then someone asked Lori whether she was willing to sell some of her cheese. “I didn’t know how to respond,” Lori says. “I was like… maybe I need to start a company.”

A brainstorming session with her family led to the name VegCheese (her brother’s idea). To build on her original mozzarella, Lori created new flavours, including Italian Black Truffle.

 

“If I can’t feed it to my family, I will not feed it to my customers. I want to stand behind the quality of what we’re creating.”

 

Then she took a chance. She signed up to exhibit at Mississauga VegFest, a vegan consumer show near her home in Toronto. Trouble was, Lori had nowhere to make the hundreds of cheeses she’d need for the show. She hadn’t even finalized the packaging for VegCheese yet. Quickly, she rented a commercial kitchen, got her food handling certificate and got busy making cheese. The response at VegFest was overwhelming. “We sold almost 300 cheeses in a day. It was crazy,” she recalls. Social media started talking, too. People wanted to know where they could buy VegCheese.

Lori has long had an entrepreneurial spirit. Her thirst for the next challenge is what drew her from traditional marketing to digital, and led her to earn her MBA at Smith School of Business. So when Janssen restructured her department last October, she took it as a sign to pursue VegCheese full time. 

Her timing couldn’t have been better. A recent Nielsen survey found that, in North America, consumers are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets (39 per cent of Americans and 43 per cent of Canadians). Nearly half of Canadians (46 per cent) and more than a third of Americans (38 per cent) associate plant-based protein with good health effects.

VegCheese’s line of artisanal vegan cheese is dairy-free, nut-free and gluten-free. It’s handcrafted in Toronto in small batches, with a base of organic soy milk and organic coconut oil.

Last December, Lori pitched VegCheese to a jury of experienced businesspeople at UPstart. The competition, led by Queen’s Venture Network, offers funding to budding entrepreneurs — and Lori walked away with $15,000. She’s using the money for kitchen equipment and packaging. She also hired a consultant to help extend the fridge life of VegCheese and streamline manufacturing.

VegCheese is now available in 10 specialty food stores in Ontario, and Lori has recently begun working with restaurants as well. The newest VegCheese product, vegan cheese curds, are now featured in the plant-based poutine at New York-based vegan restaurant By CHLOE’s first Canadian location (in the Yorkdale mall). 

As VegCheese grows, Lori says she will insist on maintaining the high product standards that she started with. “If I can’t feed it to my family, I will not feed it to my customers. I want to stand behind the quality of what we’re creating.”

 

The Accelerated MBA at Smith School of Business allows professionals with an undergraduate business degree to earn Canada’s most respected MBA degree in 12 months while continuing to advance their career or grow their own venture. Learn more here. 

How Shannon Kot fast-tracked her path to partner at Deloitte


A co-op placement while earning a math and computer science degree introduced Shannon Kot to the consulting world. A few years later, at the urging of her mentor, she chose to complement her skills with an MBA from Smith School of Business. In just seven years, Shannon had made partner at Deloitte — a feat she attributes not only to the knowledge she gained, but also to the leadership skills and confidence earned along the way.

 

By Hailey Eisen

 

 


 

Shannon Kot’s career path has taken her from an undergraduate degree in computer science, in 2008, to becoming a partner at Deloitte this past summer. Looking back, she attributes much of her success to mentors who helped her along the way.

The first was her mom. As Shannon explains: “[My mother] had been a computer science major in the 1980s, and I watched her career — from working in IT for an oil company, to working for the province of British Columbia in IT services, and finally to being named deputy minister in 2017.” (Shannon’s mom is Jill Kot, deputy minister at B.C.’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services.)

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Shannon took a computer science class in her first year at university. To her surprise, she loved it, and by her second year had started a co-op math and computer science degree. “I would say most of the professors knew my name,” Shannon recalls. “Perhaps that’s because I was really keen — but I also happened to be one of the few girls in the program.”

She did her final co-op placement at Deloitte in Toronto. There, she decided to pursue a career in consulting. She leapt at the chance to join Deloitte’s Technology Strategy and Architectures practice in Ottawa — a city, she notes, that is more comparable in size to her hometown of Victoria than Toronto.

It was in Ottawa where Shannon met her next mentor, Nousha Ram. Nousha would come to have an immeasurable impact on her career. “Within Deloitte, everyone is assigned a coach, and I was lucky to have Nousha, who provided a great deal of support and guidance,” Shannon recalls.

Critically, Nousha looked at Shannon’s background in computer science and technology and suggested that what Shannon needed was a stronger understanding of business. “She gave me a swift kick and said, ‘If you’re going to go back to school, now is the time.’ ”

Knowing she had Deloitte’s support, Shannon began to search for an MBA program that would be a good fit and allow her to get the most out of her investment. “I started applying to a few schools. But after visiting Queen’s and meeting the Smith administrative team, sitting in on classes and connecting with other students, I realized it was a perfect program for me. I didn’t bother finishing any of the other applications.”

 

“Looking back, I realize that the impact she had on me as a person and a professional was phenomenal. When you’re lucky enough to find a coach, or mentor, or sponsor who thinks you can take on the world — it’s a beautiful gift.”

 

Going back to school gave Shannon the opportunity to develop her business knowledge and leadership skills. “It was also an opportunity to step back and look at who I was as a professional, who I wanted to be as a leader and coach, and how to develop the confidence required to get to where I wanted to be professionally.”

At Smith, Shannon had the opportunity to work with people from a variety of backgrounds, including a number of mentors and coaches. And she garnered the skills and confidence to coach others on her team. “I learned to provide candid feedback when necessary, something I had always struggled with,” she recalls.

Here, a fellow student and member of her team was especially helpful. “He had been a high school teacher prior to doing his MBA, and was far more experienced navigating conflict and confrontation than I was,” she says. “These skills came naturally to him, so he would coach me on how to handle different situations, which helped me as a leader a great deal.”

Shannon says the MBA program and the year away from work did wonders for her confidence. It helped her solidify plans to return to Deloitte upon graduation, in 2012, and to work toward making partner.

Now that she’s achieved that goal, Shannon is happy to enjoy the moment — at least for the time being. “When I made partner, I felt very proud that I had reached something I knew I wanted to achieve. I also felt, and still feel, a great responsibility to those who helped me get here. I want to make Nousha proud and I’m eager to help develop the next generation of leaders.”

Her advice for others is simple. “The earlier you can start to know yourself better, the better off you’ll be,” she says. “Begin by asking yourself questions, such as: Do you understand the value you can contribute? Do you understand your own values? Finding clarity in those areas helps improve decision making and helps you solidify your ‘North Star.’ ”

Sadly, Shanon’s mentor at Deloitte, Nousha, passed away a few years ago. Says Shannon, “Looking back, I realize that the impact she had on me as a person and a professional was phenomenal. When you’re lucky enough to find a coach, or mentor, or sponsor who thinks you can take on the world — it’s a beautiful gift.”

 

MBA students at Smith School of Business build their leadership capacities through the school’s innovative team-based learning model and are supported by dedicated team, life, and executive coaches. Learn more here.

 

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

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

 

By Hailey Eisen

 

 


 

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

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

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

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

 

 

1. Insights on human dynamics 

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

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

 

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

 

2. Self-awareness and resilience 

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

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

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

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

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

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


3. Experience and exploration

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

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

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

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

 

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