Maximizing Potential: How Cisco and BDC are opening doors for women entrepreneurs



Women entrepreneurs represent just a small segment of business owners in Canada, but their numbers and impact are growing — and their potential is even greater. Cisco and the Business Development Bank of Canada have partnered to unlock it, using a unique internship program that’s now in its third successful year.


By Marie Moore



At first glance, the data is disappointing: just 16 per cent of Canadian businesses are majority women owned. They also tend to be smaller and earn less than those owned by men, based on 2014 data from Statistics Canada.

But the trend appears to be shifting. Today, 50 per cent of all new businesses are women-led, according to Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and the gap between earnings is steadily closing.

The lag that still remains is not due to a lack of ambition. Studies have found a greater proportion of women entrepreneurs plan to expand their business as compared to their male counterparts. Unfortunately, many women struggle to access the capital, technology, networks, and knowledge that they need for a successful expansion — or even to just get their business off the ground.

It’s an issue that needs to be addressed, and not just for the benefit of entrepreneurial women.

“Women-led businesses are good for Canada. A small percent of all Canadian entrepreneurs are female, but we know that these female-led businesses not only boost Canada’s GDP, but also increase national well-being and competitiveness, improve women’s employability, empowerment, and gender equality,” says Rola Dagher, President, Cisco Canada. “Cisco is committed to helping women to become more successful entrepreneurs by addressing some of the barriers they face in building their IT capability and business resilience in this fast paced environment we live in today.”              

Having technical knowledge will not only help Canadian women entrepreneurs sustain and grow their footprint, but it can also level the playing field for entrepreneurs to compete with larger organizations. That’s why Cisco has partnered with like-minded organizations, including BDC, to work together to bridge this technology gap — using innovative and impactful initiatives.

Now in its third year, the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle champions the success of Canadian women leading high-growth businesses by providing them with increased access to technology knowledge and resources. One of the key elements of this initiative is the Circle of Innovation program, which pairs engineering students from the University of Waterloo with women entrepreneurs to help build their organization’s digital strategy, scale and impact in the marketplace. BDC has been instrumental in identifying business owners for the program, which has seen 14 successful partnerships completed so far, with 12 more getting started in 2018.


“Having technical knowledge will not only help Canadian women entrepreneurs sustain and grow their footprint, but it can also level the playing field for entrepreneurs to compete with larger organizations.”


The 16-week program enables the intern and entrepreneur pairs to address key issues, from technical deployments and challenges to application development, systems administration and help desk functionality. Interns work from the new Cisco Innovation Centre in downtown Toronto, are given access to Cisco’s DevNet developer community, and are provided with Cisco engineer mentoring opportunities throughout. Entrepreneurs benefit from the sustained access to an IT expert — an invaluable resource that enables big picture solution-finding, innovation, and significant development.

“We want to help women entrepreneurs embrace technology and that is exactly what this is all about,” says Maggy Tawil, Assistant Vice President, Partnerships, BDC. “For a third year we are partnering with Cisco to offer this program to some of our women entrepreneur clients. We find it of great value that these entrepreneurs are able to receive in-depth advice for a whole summer from knowledgeable university interns as well as Cisco’s experts.”

The 2018 cohort of twelve women business owners represent industries ranging from fashion to environmental engineering. Each of the entrepreneurs are entering the program with their own unique challenges, and they’ll be looking to technology to help solve them.

Deborah Assaly, who participated in 2017, understood the benefits technology could have for her family business, Paramount Paper. She was paired with intern Deanna Danelon, who worked on creating a website for her new consumer division, a network refresh, and implementing cloud technology — a key goal of Deborah’s.

As Deborah said, “It’s definitely a competitive advantage. As a whole our industry is not very technology advanced. I was very excited to have this opportunity and be one of the first to have improved productivity through modernizing our overall structure with the cloud for internal use. This is sure to have a positive ripple effect to our customers and increase sales.”



The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle addresses some of the obstacles female-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. In partnership with organizations including the Business Development Bank of Canada, Cisco is connecting women to the expertise and knowledge needed for their entrepreneurial ventures to thrive. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for the free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy, and kickstart your journey towards business success.



Wear it to Work: How four of Toronto’s top business leaders define their personal style


by Stephanie Ray, founder and designer, Grayes





I started Grayes because I believe you should feel like “you” in your work clothes, and love your 9-to-5 looks as much as your favourite pair of jeans. You shouldn’t have to invest in two separate wardrobes — one for work and one for the rest of your life. My solution — buy less, buy better. Invest in versatile wardrobe essentials that you can style for the office but also wear more casually off-duty or dress up for a night out. The key is to find a few thoughtfully designed everyday pieces that express your style, and empower you at the office and beyond.

Knowing how important it is for women to feel good in their workwear, we collaborated with four industry-leading Toronto women to design the Driven by Grayes capsule collection. Drawing on inspiration from their careers, each woman collaborated with our design team to create their version of the perfect piece of workwear. The result: four distinct garments designed to drive you through their day. (Best of all, the collection comes full circle, with a portion of the proceeds from the collection being donated to the charity of their choice.)




Laura McGee
Founder & CEO of Diversio

Laura McGee’s career has been remarkable, to say the least. Between her high-profile position in consulting and her latest role as Founder and CEO of Diversio, she still finds time for her charitable initiatives, Summit Leaders and #GoSponsorHer, a social media movement that champions high-potential women and unlocks female talent. Given her busy work life, Laura was craving something stylish and comfortable. She designed the Laura Dress for multi-hyphenates like her — women who need clothing to seamlessly adapt to their unpredictable days. Sales of the Laura Dress will benefit Summit Leaders, Laura’s own not-for-profit organization fostering interest in business and entrepreneurship among Canadian youth.





Michelle Khalili
Managing Director, Private Capital, Investment Banking

After 15 years of blazing her own trail in equity markets, corporate finance and investment banking, Michelle Khalili knows that success is created, not found. Her passion for helping companies look forward and grow is unstoppable. She currently sits on the board of directors for Women’s College Hospital, Ontario Brain Institute, and was honoured with the Women in Capital Markets Award. A classic staple well suited for the corporate world, the Michelle Dress can be styled in any direction, whether you keep it simple or opt to accessorize. Sales of the Michelle Dress will benefit the Canadian Cancer Society, Canada’s foremost organization devoted to those living with and affected by cancer.





Elena Mayer
Senior Manager, PwC and President & CEO, Women Who Rock

As the founder of Women Who Rock and just one of three female students in her global mining management program, Elena Mayer has made it her life’s work to support women moving into skilled trades. She works at PwC and instead of assimilating to the masculine status-quo, she embraces femininity in the workplace and expresses her own personal style. Inspired by the gem-stone hues that colour her career, the Elena Dress makes a statement Elena is not afraid of making. Sales of the Elena Dress will benefit Mining Matters, a charitable organization dedicated to bringing knowledge and awareness about Canada’s geology and mineral resources.





Kirstine Stewart
President & CRO, TribalScale

For Kirstine Stewart, no venture is off-limits. Named to Maclean’s list of powerful Canadians, Kirstine has made major career moves look simple. You may recognize Kirstine Stewart’s name from her time as a Vice President at Twitter Canada. She made her way through the highest ranks of media before diving into tech. Most recently, Kirstine is CRO & President of Canada’s top innovator, TribalScale which she hopes to transform into a globally focused, Canadian-based resource for digital strategies and product development. Kirstine designed the Kirstine Blazer to work just as well dressed up or down, comfortable in a casual tech setting or polished in the boardroom of a venture capital firm. Sales of the Kirstine Blazer will benefit Move the Dial, an organization devoted to the advancement of women in tech.



Shop the full Driven by Grayes collection and support four incredible charities at

The gut-check moment for AI: When you have imperfect information, perfection is your enemy



A professor of strategy and entrepreneurship specializing in the management of change and technology and innovation, Elspeth Murray, Associate Dean of MBA and Masters Programs at Smith School of Business, played a leading role in launching the school’s new Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence. The program, which is accepting applications for the fall term, is the first degree of its kind in North America.

by Elspeth Murray



Artificial intelligence is a fundamental enabler. It will drive most organizations into step-function or tectonic changes to everything they do, both in their core business and in new businesses they create. We see this fundamental shift in where money is to be made and in the speed of change. But existing processes in many organizations are not keeping pace — lines of approval and committees introduce lag — and confusion abounds. Does anyone know what AI will look like in five years or even next year? Therein lies the challenge in making decisions and placing bets. No one knows.

So how do you make decisions in a world of uncertainty? If your Google or Facebook or any similar firm, your response would be to fund plenty of experiments, produce scenarios, or perform probabilistic modeling. You would pay attention to which ideas were working and which ones were not. Those that were promising and linked to an identifiable business imperative would get more resources.

In the automotive industry, for example, firms in the coming years will earn more revenues and profits from things that don’t actually exist today, thanks in part to AI. But there are many versions of what the future can look like. Executives at Ford and GM are managing this transition by placing bets that, in the near term, most of the value to be extracted from AI will come from within their core business and existing processes: post-purchase cross- and up-selling, predictive service recommendations, in-line quality control, virtual prototyping, and testing. The really big moves in terms of autonomous driving mobility services will happen later. They are testing and investing accordingly.

This approach can work well. But in many organizations, just getting the license to take a risk and move forward with imperfect information is difficult. The leaders in these organizations are more comfortable commissioning a bunch of reports that would purport to reveal the future rather than turning around the question to ask what they would have to believe in order to say yes, and then trying to answer that question.


“In many organizations, just getting the licence to take a risk and move forward with imperfect information is difficult.”


The dilemma in cutting through the AI uncertainty is a question of leadership. Leaders have to gather all of the information they can possibly have at their disposal and then actually make a call. The gut check moment is when they have to take complicated viable options and distill them into actions.

When you have imperfect information, perfection is your enemy. It is an understandable impulse in organizations that are very successful in highly regulated industries, but it is a massive barrier to investing in a timely fashion and just getting moving. Plant your seeds and learn what you must. Shortlist the best options. Set firm time limits on discussions that focus peoples’ attention before making a decision.

If all else fails, put a quote on the wall in your office that says, “We will not undertake a quest for perfection because it will kill us.” Otherwise, you might as well sit in your foxhole and wait for a competitor to take you out.


Launched in February, the Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence at Smith School of Business is designed to provide business managers with the knowledge and skills to generate tangible outcomes from AI. Learn more about the new program at


Liked this? Read more articles on preparing for senior leadership.


Four ways young women can prepare for career success



Why wait until you land your first job to start preparing for success? Our Women of Influence co-op student, Elizabeth Papadopoulos, is still in high school, however, she’s already begun the work to ensure she’s well-equipped to start her future career on the right foot. Here are her tips — learned through personal experience — to prepare for your future career.



by Elizabeth Papadopoulos






As a seventeen-year-old girl in high school, I understand the immense pressure that the future can place on you. The future is unpredictable, with endless possibilities and opportunities for us to seize.

Recently I had the opportunity to do a co-op placement at Women of Influence. During my time here, I have learned so much about becoming an empowered young woman. I have also learned many valuable skills that will help me become successful in my future career, skills that I hope other young women of my generation have the opportunity to develop.

Based on everything I’ve learned over the past 8 months, here are my four tips on how to prepare for success in the workplace.


Tip #1: Don’t be afraid to adapt

Change has always been one thing that scares me — I like to be in my comfort zone and nowhere else. However, when you are working, sometimes you are put in positions that make you nervous, or that you might not be 100% comfortable with. The best thing to do is to just go with the flow! Think of these situations as experiences or lessons to be learned and seize them. If you put yourself in a position where you might not be comfortable now, adapting to new situations at work in the future will seem much easier. Change, as I have learned, can be a good thing.


Tip #2: Be Confident

You are your best advocate; no one else knows you as well as you know yourself. Having confidence is so important while on the job. Trusting yourself and your abilities will make your job easier, and prove that you probably know more than you think. So instead of second-guessing yourself, trust the skills you have and use them to convince people why you are an essential member of their team.


Tip #3: Build a Good Support System

Although self-confidence is a key part of becoming successful in your future, it is also helpful to have a group of people who support you. Whether it be a co-worker, a friend or your mom, having a person or a group of people who will support your decisions is crucial. Parents, take note: supporting your daughter in her professional career is an important factor in her success. You can help give your daughter confidence for the future by supporting her today.


Tip #4: Get Experience

My time as a co-op student at Women of Influence has been so valuable. I have learned so many things that I will be able to use in my future jobs. I recommend any young woman to get a job, volunteer at local businesses, or participate in your school’s co-op program like I did. I guarantee that you will learn something that you will use in your career. Currently, I use the skills that I have learned here to help with my school work. Getting experience is an amazing way to prepare for your future career and lead you to success.


Overall, it’s important to start early when preparing yourself for a successful career. Adapting, building confidence, having a good support system and getting experience are just some of the ways that you can prepare for your future jobs. Even though the future is unpredictable, knowing who you are and what you can do will help you become a great leader. Good luck!



Do you know a young woman of influence looking for her first job experience? Send an email to and let us know! 


Restarting your career after a break – making the transition easier


by Jeannie Collins-Ardern


There are many instances where a well-trained person takes a career break, and after a period of time wishes to resume their professional life. This is far more frequently a problem for women, typically after child rearing or elder care. To help make the transition smoother, there are a few things you can do to prepare.



Whether you want to return to your old industry or seek out an entirely new career, it is vital that you continue to network. The old saying that it’s who you know, not what you know, is true more often than not. If you had strong connections with co-workers and managers before you left the workforce, make sure they do not forget about you. Also take the time to forge new connections with people of influence. Call or email people periodically, go to the occasional social or networking event, attend professional association gatherings, and have lunch or coffee with people in your firm or industry. Ensure they remember you and the great job you did before your leave, and demonstrate that you are still able to add significant value upon your return.

Communication is much easier and efficient today. You do not have to meet face-to-face — call, email, skype, and use social media to meet new people and keep in touch.

While it is possible to re-establish your network shortly before planning to return, it is far easier to maintain relationships than to revive stale ones. Make it easier on yourself and stay connected instead of having to re-establish your credentials after having been forgotten.


Keep up to date

It is often assumed that since you have been out of the workforce for a period of time, you are not up to date on relevant events and developments. While networking, show that for you, this is not true. Keep up with new trends. Stay current and aware by regularly reading, listening to and watching the news and other relevant materials such as trade publications and webinars. Demonstrate that you know what matters to your colleagues and you have kept up with developments and their implications for the future. Provide value. Be prepared to speak intelligently about both local and global events and politics.


Ensure that your skills are fresh

Today, technology is advancing rapidly across all industries. If necessary, take a refresher course, read up, enroll in a business program, or enhance your industry designations. Demonstrate that you are committed to lifelong learning and continue to invest in yourself and your career.


Establish a strong support network at home

Particularly when you first return to your career, it is important to be able to put in the required effort to show that you are serious about your new job. Having to take a few days off in your first weeks on the job because your nanny did not work out, or having to come in late due to a parent having a medical appointment, does not give a good first impression. In some firms and industries, you can work from home or negotiate flexible hours, but for many, this is not the reality. Many people still relate effort to hours in the office, and at least initially, plan to put in those required hours. Once you have proven yourself to be hard working and dependable, you may be able to negotiate more flexible arrangements. Choose your new position with awareness of the practicalities of the job and your managers’ and co-workers’ expectations.



Jeannie Collins-Ardern is a Board Member for Women in Capital Markets, the largest network of professional women in the Canadian capital markets and the voice of advocacy for women in our industry. They work with partners who include Canada’s largest financial institutions to drive change and move more women into leadership roles in the industry. If you have a background working in capital markets, be sure to look up WCM’s Return to Bay Street (RTBS) program.




Become a bullet journal pro with these three helpful hacks


If you have been searching for productivity tools recently, you may have already come across bullet journals. This new system for staying organized is designed to be quick and intuitive — and with these three helpful tips, you can make the process even simpler.

Bullet journals are finding popularity with productivity fans — from super-organized families to small business owners — because they offer a simple system for organizing your current and future tasks, upcoming events, and important notes. Once you have the basics, there are a lot of great ideas on how to maximize your bullet journal experience. These three  tips will help you take your bullet journal to the next level.


Tip #1: Colour code your bullet journal index.



The whole point of an index is to make things easier to find, and with a few coloured highlighters, you can take the guesswork out of finding things in your bullet journal completely. Start by picking four colours to represent the four main sections:

  • Future Log
  • Monthly Log
  • Weekly Log
  • Notes

In your index, highlight your pages by type, then use your highlighter to organize and label each page within the journal.


Depending on whether you are using your bullet journal for personal or professional purposes, you can personalize your four areas per family member, per employee, per month or per your different areas of business. There are no rules — so create your bullet journal to fit your life.


Tip #2: Make a fold-out bullet journal key.



Like colour-coding your index, creating a fold-out key is a great way to get an at-a-glance idea of what’s going on with any page in your journal. Simply cut a small rectangle of paper to write your key on, and use coloured highlighters to identify each type of entry. Tape the fold-out key into the back of your bullet journal, so you can pull it out for a quick reference when necessary. Now all you need to do is use your highlighters to identify pages to stay organized.


Tip #3: Add a pocket for extra storage.



Having an extra pocket to store business cards, receipts, reminders — or any other loose papers — is super-handy, and adding one to your bullet journal is easy with a few basic supplies. For this hack, take an envelope that fits completely inside a page of your bullet journal. Lay it against the page with the flap extending outside of the journal, then cut washi tape to fit the three sides of the envelope. Use glue to affix the envelope to the page, then apply the washi tape to the sides of the envelope to secure it and give your bullet journal some personal style. Be sure to let it dry before you start filling it up.

We love bullet journals and staying organized in fun, and creative ways. Check out and your local Staples store for more awesome ideas and for all of your bullet journal needs!


About Staples Canada/Bureau en Gros
Staples Canada/Bureau en Gros was founded in 1991. The company operates over 300 locations across all Canadian provinces. Through its world-class retail, eCommerce, mobile and delivery capabilities, Staples helps customers shop every day, however and whenever they want. Staples is dedicated to offering customers the latest products and expertise on everything from technology to school supplies, facility, breakroom, as well as business services and print production through Staples Print & Marketing. The company invests in a number of corporate giving programs that support environmental, educational and entrepreneurial initiatives in Canadian communities, including the Staples Start-Up Award at the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards presented by Women of Influence. As a company, Staples recognizes the important role women play as drivers of stronger communities and leaders in business, and is proud to recognize female entrepreneurs through this award. Visit for more information, or visit get social with Staples by following @StaplesCanada.

How to create a culture of inclusive innovation


By Heather Fraser


Innovation is the lifeblood of any organization that aims to create new and distinct value. It is not the job of a few inspired people; it takes an entire enterprise to create and deliver new value. To build a sustainable enterprise-wide capacity to innovate, it’s critical to create a winning culture that thrives on delivering new value on an ongoing basis.

Based on my research on organizations with a track record of innovation success, and working with leaders across a variety of organizations and sectors, here are some core principles that can help you build the conditions for a more inclusive innovation culture and collective success.


Create alignment on your purpose, vision and strategy, and align innovation efforts to your overarching mandate.

This means making sure everyone in the organization, across functions and at all levels, understands your strategic intent. Tying every innovation pursuit to your overarching strategy and articulating the potential for creating both customer and enterprise success will create stronger momentum, and keep you from pursuing ideas that will take you off on a tangent and waste time and money.


Make sure everyone appreciates how their role and what they do every day contributes to collective success.

Your enterprise strategy should be relevant to every single employee. If they understand the intent and direction, they will see value in their role and be able to proactively contribute to seizing new opportunities to create value. While top executives might set the vision and strategy, some of the most insightful opportunities and ideas often come from deep within the organization.


Avoid ‘Trophy Labs’ that don’t integrate with the organization.

Despite good intentions, Innovation Labs can sometimes be invisible to the rest of the organization, leading people to wonder: “What are they doing in there?” It is important to think about how the work in a lab connects to the larger business and how ideas will plug back into the operations.


Have an innovation ideology and embed new ways of working into your everyday practices.

Top of the list for creating a culture of inclusive innovation is putting your most important stakeholder at the center of your pursuits – your customer, patient, guest or client. Creating empathy for people gives meaning and purpose to everyone’s work. Beyond that, being explicit about other values, like good listening practices, collaboration and co-creation, exploration, and experimentation, will enhance your everyday ways of working and accelerate collective innovation success.


Emphasize learning.

Innovation naturally entails some degree of risk, on both a personal and business level. Exploration and experimentation is not about being perfect early on. If an idea is grounded in solid customer insight, the goal should not be to prove a new idea right or wrong, but rather how to make it the most valuable it can be. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and make it work better in the next iteration.


Have a broad-based engagement and communication plan.

Invite your organization to weigh in on new opportunities and ideas. Ongoing share-backs with employees that keep everyone in the loop on progress is important – leave no one behind.


Give emerging leaders an important role in catalyzing positive change.

They have fresh insights and will ultimately own the future.


Design structures, management systems and reward systems to motivate and support new ideas.

Often the biggest obstacles to change are the systems that have enabled scaled success to date. New ideas often call for new processes and management systems, or new ideas will hit the wall. When appropriate, consider new approaches to teaming and measurement.


Celebrate small (and big) victories.

Innovation isn’t about being 100% right out of the gate every time. Acknowledging setbacks is healthy. When you do break through – celebrate!


Measure your readiness.

Innovation readiness is the capacity of an enterprise to create and deliver value on an ongoing basis, based on strategic alignment, innovation practices, processes and systems, and culture at large. It’s best done when it takes into account the perceptions of people at all levels and across divisions and functions. It is something that should and can be measured as a diagnostic and improvement tool, as has been deployed with the academically fortified instrument we developed at Vuka Innovation.


When put into play in a mindful and disciplined way, these principles can bring the entire organization along on the innovation journey. An organization that makes innovation core to its ways of thinking and doing will be able to harness the insights, imagination and know-how of its people and boost the spirit of shared success.




Heather Fraser is Founder & CEO of Vuka Innovation Inc., where she consults on innovation and strategy for corporations and public entities. She is also adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto where she co-founded Rotman DesignWorks in 2005, and served as Executive Director through 2012. Prior to 2005, she held leadership positions at Procter & Gamble, Ogilvy & Mather, and TAXI Advertising & Design. More on Vuka Innovation can be found at




How to find role models



In the quest for gender parity, it’s crucial that we as women consider the ways we can truly help, rather than compete with, one another. I believe that one of the key ways to do this is to seek out inspiring role models, women who have ‘been there and done that,’ because, at the end of the day, you can’t be what you can’t see. The question is: how exactly does one find a rolemodel?

Here are several ways you can search for one — or several — female role models.   


By Melinda Garvey



Read books written by female leaders.

The best way to understand a concept or a person is to get to the root. Read books and articles on topics that interest you. If you find an individual you admire, read what they have written. Create a deeper understanding of where their ideas stem. Seek to understand their voice and their personal story. Someone’s background can shine a light on how they managed their circumstances and ended up where they are today.


Do some research on the women who inspire you.

If you see someone that you admire, parse through their internet profiles. See the material they present to the public and research their life and career story. Fortunately, many people today publish their own content on blogs and social media platforms, inviting others to take a look at their personal worldview.You can learn a lot about a person through a simple Google search.


Attend networking events for powerful women.

Quality role models are hard to come by, but with some investigating, you can find leads. One of the best ways to find role models is to put yourself in situations where those around you are successful. Leadership conferences and conventions for your industry of choice are perfect hubs to hear various powerful voices in the field and gauge your interest. Don’t just pick a role model for the sake of picking one, but rather, find someone with whom you can relate and learn from their journey.


Emulate qualities you like, but make them your own.

When you find someone that you look up to, understand which qualities you admire about them. Is it their genuine and honest approach? Is it their ability to overcome the adversities of life? Whatever the case, emulate the positive qualities. Work to achieve these goals in your own life. By no means reject your true self, but incorporate your favorite qualities of your role model into the best version of you.


Watch YouTube videos and take notes.

The best way to learn a task or quality is to watch others do it well. Take your education into your own hands the modern way. Use the Internet, namely YouTube videos, to garner visual knowledge on a topic. If your role models have their own channel, even better. If not, just research and investigate topics of interest. For example, your role model may be into public speaking. Study up on videos of the best public speakers and their tips for improvement. The more you learn the better you will get, and seeking your own educational path is a great start.


Revamp your social media.

Social media is a large component of your self-image. If you want to find role models online, seek out and follow inspiring content. Completely refine who you follow on various platforms by only following content that fuels your mission to be a better person. These digital profiles of individuals are no fewer role models than those you know in ‘real life.’ Due to the amount of time spent on social media platforms, this content influences your beliefs and habits tremendously.


Contact them directly for assistance.

If you discovered a role model on the Internet or in real life, it is never a bad idea to reach out to them. Don’t expect a response — especially if they are pretty well-known. However, you never know what kind of relationship can manifest from your effort to connect. If you contact them digitally, you may foster a relationship that starts casual and ends up amounting to an in-person friendship. It is worth the risk, and if nothing comes of your outreach, it’s still meaningful to express your gratitude for their impact on your life.



Wear it to Work: One Item, Three Ways

By Stephanie Ray, Founder, Grayes


Building a work wardrobe can be a daunting task. It is easy to lose your own sense of style as you try to conform to an office look and it can be hard to stick to a reasonable budget. Often you end up heavily investing in pieces you will only ever wear in a professional context.

The advice I give: buy less, buy better. Invest in a few great quality versatile pieces that can serve as building blocks in your wardrobe, straddling the divide between your on- and off-duty style. Pieces that are professional enough to carry you from Monday to Friday but that you are also excited to wear with a pair of jeans or dress up for a night out. Look for separates that can work together, and also mix and match with the rest of your wardrobe — so you can build multiple outfits with fewer pieces.

An example of a great wardrobe staple is our Blazer Dress. It’s a two-in-one piece that can be worn open as a blazer or securely fastened closed as a dress. We love that it works perfectly for all different occasions — business attire, casually with jeans, or even for a cocktail (it’s not surprising it is a signature Grayes piece and best seller).




1. On its own

We always think of the little black dress as a wardrobe staple, but even a basic doesn’t need to be boring. Add some excitement with our unique Blazer Dress cut. Similar to your little black dress, just switch up your accessories to seamlessly transition your daytime outfit into an evening cocktail look.   

The Blazer Dress Black Wool – Pinstripe  








2. Over a dress

Get an entirely new look by pairing the long Blazer Dress over a tailored dress. Go monochromatic for a modern power suit that’s perfect for that big meeting, or pair two different shades for a more relaxed office look.  

The Straight Dress Black Wool









3. Paired with pants

The Blazer Dress works for more comfortable pant looks, too! Pair the Blazer Dress with a straight-leg pant for a chic and feminine pantsuit, or elevate your casual jeans by adding the Blazer Dress on top.

The Pencil Pant Black Stretch








Stephanie Ray entered the world of fashion after being inspired by her own experience as a busy law school student applying for jobs and internships — and the frustration of finding outfits that made her look good, feel good, and that could take her from day to night. She founded Grayes clothing to create a line of professional attire for women that met their needs, with on-trend items they can wear to the office as well as brunch.  



When technology imitates life: The rise of discriminatory artificial intelligence


By Teresa Harris



Early last year, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down after several employees were ousted for their behaviour towards women, and the company was accused of fostering a toxic culture of sexism and harassment. In August 2017, James Damore, an engineer at Google, released a 10-page memo asserting women are biologically less suited to careers in tech, and criticized the company’s gender diversity efforts.

We’re familiar with these headlines, and the many others that have placed the state of gender diversity in North America’s tech industry under intense scrutiny. However, the problem goes deeper than we may realize — from the minds of employees, to the technology they’re producing — specifically in the realm of artificial intelligence. The result? Artificially intelligent technology that mimics the people and environment it was founded by and in: at best, inherently biased, and at worst, explicitly sexist.

Devices using artificial intelligence deeply affect how we live, work, and play. Voice-powered personal assistants are now with us in the car and kitchen, and suggestive search engines, which make use of machine-learning algorithms, seem to know us better than our closest companions. Since 2012, C.B. Insights reports that funding for A.I. start-ups has increased by over 850 per cent. Tech leaders including Google, Apple, and IBM have each purchased at least five companies with A.I. specialization, with Google acquiring a whopping 12 in the last six years.


“The problem goes deeper than we may realize — from the minds of employees, to the technology they’re producing.”


The consequences of the gender and racially homogeneous work environments characteristic of Silicon Valley are already being seen in the A.I. market, which comes as no surprise to many industry experts.

“When you don’t have the diversity of people designing voice-recognition software, you forget to test the technology using those people,” says Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and managing partner of Feminuity, a Toronto-based consulting firm that works with innovative companies to help them navigate through the unmapped territory of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. “Still to this day, some A.I. software doesn’t understand particular types of accents, i.e. those that deviate from the Western white male.”

University of Virginia computer science professor Vicente Ordóñez found that research-image collections supported by Microsoft and Facebook have shown “predictable gender bias in their depiction of activities such as cooking and sports,” strongly associating women with the former and men with the latter.

In 2017, news website Quartz studied how voice-powered assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana responded to different types of verbal harassment, including lewd comments about their sex, sexuality, sexual characteristics, or sexual behavior. They found that “the bots most frequently evaded harassment, occasionally responded positively with either graciousness or flirtation, and rarely responded negatively,” meaning these virtual women almost never asked the harasser to stop, or told them that what they were saying was inappropriate.

These bots haven’t been around long enough to absorb the patriarchal biases entrenched throughout our society. However, the people — or should we say, the men — programming them have. And while bias and behaviour like this can be corrected, it requires a researcher to be looking for that bias in the first place, and to specify what he or she wants to correct. If recent headlines are any indicator, many within the tech industry don’t see the issue, or the value in correcting it.


“There are a lot of women who aren’t comfortable in environments where they don’t know everything. So encouraging them to take the leap is very important.”


Angelique Mohring is the founder and CEO of GainX, a company that uses A.I. and machine learning to aid global corporations in their transformation across people and projects. While she won’t deny the current state of gender inequality in the tech workplace, she remains hopeful that women not only belong there, but can add significant value to the field.

“Because of A.I., we’re going to need a skill set that goes beyond digital talent. The broader perspective women have will be worth its weight in gold in the future economy.” Mohring describes the ‘future economy’ as one wherein companies do much more with less — something she believes women are particularly well suited for. “Throughout history, women have always done more with less. We have been continually figuring out how to survive and take care of families and communities with very little.”

So how do we derail the speeding train that is biased artificial intelligence?

The obvious answer: get more women into tech so that more women, and a more diverse set of women, are designing and programming the tech we use. But Anne Martel, co-founder and SVP of Operations at Montreal startup Element AI, doesn’t think it’s as simple as getting more women in the door.

“It’s the company’s responsibility to be a safe place to learn, fail and learn from that failure,” she says. “There are a lot of women who aren’t comfortable in environments where they don’t know everything. So encouraging them to take the leap is very important.”

Even still, Martel thinks the consequences of non-diverse tech go beyond sexist and discriminatory software — she believes biased A.I. is destined to fail in the marketplace. “To allow for the adoption of A.I. systems, they have to be relatable. And a lack of diversity will prevent us from truly benefiting from these systems, because they’re not going to represent the reality we know.”


The One-sided State of Tech

According to data from the National Science Foundation, the number of women holding computer science degrees has declined from 25 per cent in 2004, to 18 per cent in 2014. And research from Morgan Stanley revealed that just 29 per cent of employees in tech are women, and only 13 per cent are executives.

The cause of a female shortage in tech comes down to what, in 2008, the Harvard Business Review called “The Athena Factor.” At the time, a reported 63 per cent of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) experienced sexual harassment at work, the result of cultures that celebrated “hostile machismo.” The review found other antigens that deter women from workplaces, including isolating them on teams of predominantly men and using systems of risk and reward that tend to disadvantage risk-averse women. The result? A 52 per cent drop off between women who graduate with degrees in STEM fields, and those who remain in those industries.

A more recent survey conducted in 2015 by a group of female tech investors and executives, titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” revealed that “84 per cent of the participants had been told they were too aggressive in the office, 66 per cent said that they had been excluded from important events because of their gender, and 60 per cent reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.”





The Business of Uncoupling: A conversation with divorce financial consultant, Eva Sachs


As the co-owners of Earth Inc., a successful landscape design firm in Toronto, Kennedy McRae and James Dale have the opportunity to meet (and create beautiful backyards for) some powerhouse women of influence. In this Q&A, they’re introducing the WOI community to their client, Eva Sachs, a certified financial planner who specializes in separation and divorce.


By James Dale and Kennedy McRae




We met Eva Sachs while transforming her backyard. Two busy professionals with grown children, Eva and her husband wanted their yard to function as their cottage oasis in the city. We were happy to oblige. As we got to know Eva, we were impressed with her entrepreneurial journey. A certified financial planner, Eva specializes in separation and divorce. She not only runs her own business as a divorce financial consultant, but also works with a business partner, family lawyer Marion Korn, to run Mutual Solutions — a financial divorce mediation practice. What we find most interesting about Eva is that despite her great knowledge and understanding of the separation and divorce process, she’s been married to the same man for more than 40 years. We sat down with Eva to chat about business ownership, family finances, and her advice for success.


How did you come to specialize in separation and divorce? What is it you do for your clients?

Twelve years ago, I had a traditional financial planning practice and I discovered there was a specialization in separation and divorce — Certified Divorce Financial Analyst — a certification on top of financial planning. As I started working in this area I realized that this was too big and too important to contain within my traditional practice. Few financial planners specialize in this area, so it set me apart. I established a company, a consulting practice, and have been doing this work exclusively for the past 10 years. I consult with clients who are contemplating separation and divorce, providing them with the clarity and confidence to move forward, educating them on what they should know about their family finances, and guiding them through the process from a financial perspective. Once they’re in negotiations, I help them determine what adjustments they may have to make, in terms of lifestyle and retirement planning, and look at the impact of settlement options in order to account for what will become their new financial situation.


You also wrote a book about divorce, but targeted to older men and women. How did that come about?

Beyond my financial planning practice, I have a financial mediation business, Mutual Solutions, which I run with my business partner Marion, a family lawyer. We work with couples interested in getting to settlement through mediation, looking at the financial side of things like property and debt. One area of divorce that we’re seeing growth in is ‘grey divorce’ — couples divorcing after long-term marriages. These separations often require creative solutions when it comes to dividing finances and property. In 2014, we wrote a book on the subject entitled When Harry Left Sally – Finding your way through Grey Divorce.


We’re always interested in how other small business partnerships work. How have you made it work with Marion over the years, while also running your own business?

As with all partnerships there have been ups and downs, but Marion and I bring our two skill sets and perspectives together and create better strategies that work for our clients. Having worked for myself for so long, it’s actually really nice to be working with someone else, to have someone to bounce ideas off and develop strategies with. Some of our most satisfying times are when we’re working together.

But you have to have mutual respect, you have to have that greater understanding, you have to have empathy and compassion. And you have to communicate. Sometimes it means being locked in a room and hashing stuff out. But a lot of it is just appreciating where the other person is coming from, and being able to work together as a team.


We’ve found, working closely with our wives over the years, that a partnership takes a lot of openness and honesty. How do you advise couples when it comes to finances?

Breakdowns often come from financial infidelity — finding out things aren’t always as they seem. This happens when one spouse lets the other manage finances completely. It’s essential that both spouses are aware of the family finances; you must go beyond trusting that the other person can handle it all. Many women come in to see me who are smart business women, executives, and there’s one small gap in their knowledge and that’s the family finances and investments. And they feel guilty about this lack of information. If one of the spouses owns a business, there are more layers of complexity. Even if your spouse isn’t involved in your business, he or she should know what’s going on and have access to the financial statements.


Have you ever had trouble balancing both businesses, a full roster of clients, and family life?

My husband and I both come from entrepreneurial families and their businesses (retail and food services) required much more challenging hours than mine ever has. I’ve always felt fortunate that I’ve been able to keep more regular hours. I’m a pretty easy-going person and I don’t get too stressed. I have two grown sons who are now 32 and 36, but they’ve always been very supportive. Fortunately, I’ve also been able to attract the kind of clients who are great to work with, who are looking for mutual solutions, and cause us very little, if any, stress.

In terms of downtime, we’ve never had a cottage, but our backyard is really important to us. As you know, when we did our renovation we wanted to create an oasis in the city, with water, green space, and lighting. A space my husband and I can use to unwind and entertain. And, while we didn’t set it up this way, it’s turned out our backyard is perfect for hosting outdoor movie nights with friends.


Speaking of your husband, we know you’ve been happily married for a long time. How does that impact your line of work?

Yes, our 42nd wedding anniversary was February 14. People often ask me what’s my divorce story that brought me to this line of work — but that’s not the case. I think not having gone through divorce keeps me neutral. I can relate to my female clients in that I’ve been married for so long, I’m a mom, and a business woman, and part of the sandwich generation. I can empathize with what they’re going through and remain neutral in terms of what divorce looks and feels like. And at the end of the day when I come home and vent, my husband is hugely supportive.








How to start making more money as an entrepreneur



If you’re an entrepreneur, the question of how to make more money is one you probably ask yourself every week. It’s common, and I highly suggest this type of self-talk, because it means that you’re on route to helping more people and growing your business as a result. The problem is, most entrepreneurs get lost trying to “do” and “be” everything at once in order to increase their revenue, which is unsustainable. Instead, here are some actionable strategies for you to make more money as an entrepreneur — without burning out.


By Shaylene Cameron



Know your numbers
The goal of running your own business is to create a life you love and profit while doing it. This starts with being clear on the cost of operating your business. Consider your basic overhead: office rent, internet, phone, website, online platforms, conferences, payroll, etc. Also factor in other, more variable expenses, such as education, personal coaching, advertising etc.


Be clear on what you do
Have you ever asked an entrepreneur what they do for a living and their response takes three minutes to explain? We always want to avoid confusing a potential client when talking about our business. So let’s create a clear elevator pitch to talk about what it is that you do.

Here’s a short template I use with some clients:

I help____(your niche) who wrestle/struggle with ______(niche’s problem) have ______(desired solution) and (desired solution).

Here’s an example:

I help female entrepreneurs who struggle with enrolling clients have 10k months and still time for themselves.


Treat yourself like an employee
This is huge! I want you to start viewing yourself as an employee in your own company. Imagine you work for a CEO and she asks you to finish a deadline by 6:00 pm. What do you do? Finish that deadline! Hold yourself to the same expectations you would any other employee or contractor.


Schedule “me” time
Scheduling alone time is the most powerful thing you can do for your business. The top 1% of high-performers place as much emphasis on their personal life as they do on their business.
Take time to grab a cup of tea, snuggle up with a book, call a friend, take a trip. I suggest scheduling (yes, scheduling) something for yourself once a week to nurture your soul. This is where creativity flows and financial attitudes shift.


Train your mind for positivity
Entrepreneurs have a higher risk-threshold than most. We’ve got the tendency to jump and open the parachute on the way down. Given this nature, you’ll likely have more mental and emotional ‘ups and downs’ than someone in a 9-5 role. So, creating a sense and feeling of mental/emotional security is vital to long-term gain. A simple strategy you can use: choose an affirmation that is positive and about you and say it as often as possible.

Some simple affirmations could be:

I approve of myself, I’m an amazing money manager, I always pay myself first, Money flows to me easily.


Develop a referral system
Most people think getting a referral is the product of luck or chance. But, you can create an organized referral system and make it a win-win for everyone.

First steps to set up a referral program:
1) Create an agreement with specific guidelines on what your role is and what the referrer’s role is. Be sure to see legal representation to ensure you have everything you need.
2) Established some sort of value-exchange. For example, if you get a client, they receive coaching or money in return.


Joint Venture Partners
Partnerships with people in similar industries to you are going to be your biggest asset. When you’re searching for partners, think “community” instead of competition. Joining forces and resources is a powerful way to leverage your business.

Start with these steps:

1) Make a list of and research 10 potential partners that you’d like to partner with

2) Contact them and share your interest in becoming a joint venture partner. Be sure to mention why you think you’re a good match.

3) Arrange a date to speak and schedule it in your calendar.


Use these tools as the foundation of your business before adding any more work to your to-do list.



Shaylene Cameron is the CEO and Founder at Shaylene Cameron Mentoring. After driving over $1 million in B2C sales, managing a team of 12, and teaching everything from prospecting to client sales, Shaylene quit at the top of her game. Now, she helps coaches and service-based entrepreneurs have a positive impact AND create more wealth in their businesses. You can reach her at






Learning and Leaning In: How an EMBA gave Darielle Corsaro the confidence to take her career to new heights



Darielle Corsaro was looking for a new challenge. On the advice of a mentor, she enrolled in an MBA program — and returned to work not only with added knowledge, but also a newfound confidence. The former controller is now VP of finance and operations, and embracing big-picture thinking.


By Kristen Sears



Darielle Corsaro never once thought about getting her MBA. Ever. The 33-year-old, who grew up in Irma, Alberta, spent her twenties working full-time in Edmonton — first as an accounting assistant at a car dealership, then as a controller with the Summit Group of Companies, a manufacturer and distributor of valves and control systems.

Along the way she got a degree in accounting from the University of Lethbridge and also completed her CGA.But after revamping Summit’s accounting department, by 2015, Darielle felt she was ready for a new challenge. She just wasn’t sure what to pursue.

Fortunately, her mentor had an idea: He suggested she get her MBA.

“He told me that I was pigeonholing myself into accounting, that I had so much more to offer,” she recalls. “I thought I was done with school at that point. But I love learning. That’s always been one of my strengths.”

Three years ago, Darielle enrolled in the Queen’s Executive MBA Americas program and was the recipient of a tuition-based scholarship awarded by the business school in partnership with the 30% Club, a global organization dedicated to accelerating the representation of women at senior levels in business.

“The whole experience was life changing,” she says. “It was mentally and intellectually stimulating — and when I finished the program I’d evolved into someone completely different.”

During the program, Darielle realized that her heart and soul was no longer solely in accounting; she wanted more.

I really realized that I could bring value and make an impact in a lot of different ways, over and above just the financial side of the business. It’s almost like I needed the encouragement or permission that it was okay to offer my input in areas that weren’t 100 per cent in my wheelhouse,” she explains.

Prior to entering the EMBA Americas program, a dual-degree program offered jointly by Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business and Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Darielle says if she was in a meeting she shied away from engaging in discussion outside of her field of expertise.

“As I progressed in my EMBA, I found myself giving my opinion and input more and more outside of the accounting department, and it was very much welcomed.”


“It was mentally and intellectually stimulating — and when I finished the program I’d evolved into someone completely different.”


With newfound confidence, Darielle set to work with a colleague and developed a plan to restructure Summit and create a VP position for herself. She then presented the plan to the company’s owner. “If it wasn’t for the MBA, I would never have had the moxie to do that — not in a million years.”

Darielle says her new position as VP of finance and operations goes beyond financial statements, cash flow, KPI’s, metrics and reports. It involves big-picture thinking and strategic decision-making.   

“As a controller, my job was always very transactional. I did love the black and white of accounting, but now I’m in a much more transformational role,” she says. “Questions I would have before would be, ‘how can we get the financial statements completed faster?’ But now, questions I have are, ‘how can we structure ourselves so that we can achieve double growth?’”

Outside of the office, Darielle has more free time than she’s had in years — having graduated with her MBA this past spring — which she is taking full advantage of.  She’s taken up meditation, reconnected with friends, and is catching up on some reading. She’s also found a new way to satisfy her desire to learn by volunteering on a board of directors for Northern Light Theatre, an Edmonton-based theatre company.

“I’m really focused on giving back, I want to pay it forward in any way I can,” she says.


Are you looking for your next challenge? Each year, Smith School of Business, in partnership with the 30% Club, offers two scholarships to highly-qualified women entering its Executive MBA programs. Here, you’ll find more information about the scholarship and Smith’s other initiatives in support of the advancement of women in the workplace.


Liked this? Read more articles on preparing for senior leadership.


How to go from Good Writer to a Good Communicator



When sitting in an interview chair, we often rely on our resumes and glossy portfolios to demonstrate our writing, our expertise and capabilities. But once we land the role, can we be certain that our strong writing skills will translate into an ability to communicate and work effectively with our peers and our senior colleagues? What is it about the way we communicate that could be holding us back from being seen as a leader, or even preventing us from getting ahead?


By Amanda Sutton



There are countless opportunities in the workplace where we can take a step back and reevaluate our communications skill set, whether it be in the boardroom, the breakroom or your outbox. When it comes to writing, we’d be better off learning how to gain confidence and inspire action in others rather than delivering flowery prose.


The difference between ‘writing’ and ‘communicating’ at work.

There is a distinct difference between knowing how to form and craft a letter or article, and how to effectively communicate your goals, wants, and desires across other channels.

While some have the ability to write prose and long form thought, the need for short form thought is at a peak. Now more than ever, the ability to form persuasive thought into concise statements is a business requirement.

But first, it’s important to know the difference between writing and communicating.

Writing can be seen as composing or telling a story, and is most often subjective to the reader. It can often inspire, and is typically focused on sharing one viewpoint or approach, but leaving the reader to make up their own mind.

Communicating can be seen as sharing or exchanging pertinent news or information. The goal of communicating is usually to elicit action, and the purpose is often to interact, liaise, and coordinate towards a larger project or goal.

In the office environment, these two approaches can have very different results.


It’s more important to be smart than sound smart.

An easy exercise prior to sitting down at a board meeting or drafting an email is to organize your thoughts around the goals you want to achieve, considering your role within scope of the project.

Sounding smart can not be your end goal. You aren’t trying to wow anyone with eloquent words or descriptive analysis of the current situation, but more with your ability to provide insight and clarity.

Identify the purpose. Identify all parties involved/affected. Provide actionable items or options, and demonstrate that you are thinking two steps ahead. Be clear, direct, and concise. This approach shows knowledge, perspective and leadership in one fell swoop.

TIP: Bullet points or email subheads work well to organize content and streamline thoughts.


Get answers, not silence.

Two of the most frustrating parts of communicating in the workplace are unresponsiveness and delayed approvals. The cause of these can often be boiled down to communication cliffs; responses like “Sure, sounds good” and “Contact me later” are fine, but now you have to craft a whole other email outlining the HOW and WHEN. In business, there are times for casual conversations, and there are times when you just need a firm response because of a deadline.

This can be avoided by valuing your time upfront. Rather than squishing your request in among a long explanation about how and why it is important, be direct and highlight what you need and when you need it.

Giving people options — i.e. A) This item – delivered by this date B) This item – delivered by this date — is another great way to get closer to a definitive answer or confirmation, all while keeping the lines of communication open. Setting firm expectations requires the person you’re communicating with to take more decisive action to meet your request.

TIP: If a clear answer is what you need, avoid words like ‘following up’ and ‘checking in’ — these don’t elicit action and might get brushed aside in an overcrowded inbox.


Keep things moving.

As a communicator, my job usually involves keeping a project, interview, or deadline on task, so the art of project management comes naturally.

People’s time is valuable, especially yours. You don’t have time to go back and forth, send multiple emails on the same topic, or worse, risk losing time on a project with a pending deadline. Getting to the end goal is the key for any project or team, and most often can come down to a simple sign off.

Leave people with an understanding of your timing and your expectations on their delivery so they have a picture of how they will schedule you into their work week. i.e. I will be working on the Jones case until Tuesday afternoon, but will be free Wednesday morning to discuss Project X. Does 10am work for you?

TIP: Reminding people of your other responsibilities is never a bad idea to reiterate not only your value to the company, but that you value their time as a priority.

With these simple but monumental skill sets, not only will you deliver beyond senior-level expectations, but your newfound ability to take ownership and steer the ship will establish your position as a leader, potentially opening opportunities for advancement down the road.




Amanda Sutton is a seasoned communications pro and has offered strategic counsel to dozens of businesses on the subjects of communications, PR, branding, media and crisis management. She has run her own PR agency, Catalyst Communications Choreography, for the last decade. Her team sets themselves apart as PR choreographers with a big picture mindset, a talent for value-driven messaging and a journalistic approach to content writing, driven by a natural curiosity about why you do what you do. Building on a strong foundation in sales and business leadership, Amanda’s background includes working on both agency and corporate sides of PR and now includes working alongside startups and educational programs that are producing the next generation of communicators.




What’s Needed: how one talented tech innovator — turned bank VP — sees female founders getting ahead



As a veteran of the tech start-up world, Nicole German understands what’s needed to help female founders get ahead. Now, as vice-president, enterprise digital marketing, at Scotiabank, she’s helping to get those resources into the right hands.


By Shelley White



Every day, talented female entrepreneurs across Canada are innovating — pushing the boundaries of their creativity. But what needs to be done to help women-founded startups survive, thrive and take their businesses global?

“Women have amazing ideas and concepts. We need to bring them to fruition,” says Nicole German, a woman who knows a thing or two about success in the startup world.

A global brand-builder and digital marketing guru — and current vice-president, enterprise digital marketing, at Scotiabank — Nicole has spent more than 20 years helping companies scale and grow, from scrappy tech startups to powerhouse players like SAP and LinkedIn.

To build successful companies, women founders need courage and resilience, she says. They also need a strong network of support. “The most important thing is supporting and advocating for each other,” says Nicole. “Leveraging our networks, mentoring, making introductions, to carve paths and support each other.”


“The most important thing is supporting and advocating for each other.”


That’s why Scotiabank and its direct banking subsidiary, Tangerine, have partnered to support the DMZ at Ryerson University’s Women Founders Accelerator, a national program to help early-stage tech companies get to the next level. Selected companies will benefit from connections with seasoned mentors, hands-on support in areas like hiring and pricing, networking sessions with peers and advisors, a dedicated workspace, and the opportunity to pitch for funding prizes up to $50,000.

Nicole says the DMZ’s Women Founders Accelerator was a natural fit for Scotiabank and Tangerine because of their shared mandate to promote diversity and inclusion in Canada. “We want to help female founders launch and grow their businesses, and provide much-needed access to capital for female entrepreneurs,” she says. “We believe strongly in the startup ecosystem in Canada and want to support that, but we see the need for females to have access to capital as much as their male counterparts.”

Research shows that investing in women founders is good for business. U.S. venture capital firm First Round Capital found that companies with at least one female founder outperformed all-male founding teams by 63 percent over the last 10 years.

But at the same time, women entrepreneurs aren’t getting the funding they need. A 2016/2017 Crunchbase report looking at global rates of investment in women-founded businesses found that only 10 percent of venture dollars between 2010-2017 were invested in businesses with at least one woman founder.

The time is right for initiatives like the Women Founders Accelerator to even the playing field in the Canadian startup ecosystem, says Nicole. It’s a world she knows well — she spent much of her career immersed in it.

Born in Toronto and raised in Brazil, Nicole traveled extensively at a young age with her family and was exposed to many different cultures and languages. Those early years would have a big influence on her future pursuits and her interest in international business and marketing. “While it took me awhile to figure this out, a lot of my fascination was around culture, whether that was business or pleasure,” she says.

After attending Queen’s University back in Canada, Nicole knew she wanted to leverage her international experience and languages. So she went to work for a Canadian startup that had just landed some large customers in South America. “They really needed someone who was able to step in, understand the cultures and speak the languages, so that’s really how I fell into tech,” she says.

Nicole says working in the male-dominated tech environment did sometimes present career roadblocks, but she learned to take risks. She took a new job every two or three years — whenever a new growth opportunity presented itself. “I really just recognized that there are multiple routes to get to a destination, so you often have to take unexpected turns to get to that destination,” she says.


“I really just recognized that there are multiple routes to get to a destination, so you often have to take unexpected turns to get to that destination.”


In fact, Nicole says she never imagined she would work for a bank because of her tech background. But after six months, “I’m incredibly inspired,” she says. At Scotiabank, Nicole is responsible for leading the evolution of the digital marketing function globally, as well as contributing to the bank’s overall digital transformation.

“As any business goes through a digital transformation, they are transforming the way they work,” she says. “The goal is about: How do we be more nimble? How do we collaborate more? How do we break down silos and traditional walls?”

Her advice for women founders aiming to succeed is to surround themselves with the best, at work and at home — building a “powerhouse network of personal and professional people, so you’re always learning and growing,” she says. “Know what you’re good at and where you need to find support in other areas.”

Another crucial element in helping women founders reach their goals is sharing their stories, says Nicole. Talking about successful female-led organizations educates the industry that there are great success stories to be celebrated, and also shows younger women that it is possible.

She hopes that accessible programs like the DMZ’s Women Founders Accelerator will help women push their ideas forward, taking them from the home office to the global marketplace.

“Hopefully, this is just the beginning.”


Scotiabank is Canada’s international bank and a leading financial services provider in North America, Latin America, the Caribbean and Central America, and Asia-Pacific. Our culture of inclusion is the heart of our global community of Scotiabankers. It is a big part of the Bank’s success and what makes us a global employer of choice.

Learn more about Scotiabank’s commitment to inclusion and Say hello to a career with Scotiabank.


Dressed for Success: How Stephanie Ray is redefining the work wardrobe for women



As a law student, Stephanie Ray couldn’t find work-appropriate clothing that was comfortable, affordable, and stylish enough to carry her from day to night. So she started her own fashion line, Grayes, to fill the gap.


By Sarah Kelsey



Stephanie Ray, the founder of Grayes clothing, had an inkling she was onto a great business idea when she was a busy law school student applying for jobs and internships. Like many people who want to dress to impress, she went on a bit of a pre-interview shopping spree. Her clothing checklist was simple: the items she bought had to look good, make her feel good, and had to take her from day to night, and into the weekend.

“I always felt forced into awkward suits that didn’t give me the confidence that I was putting my best foot forward going into interviews or jobs. I always struggled to find professional attire that I loved and felt like myself in,” says Stephanie. “I wanted outfits that reflected me and my personal style, and that I could mix and match to wear outside of a professional context. I just couldn’t find anything that met my needs at an accessible price point.”

That gap between supply and demand became even more apparent when she spoke to her brother, an investment banker, about what he wore to work. He found shopping easy.

“He had so many options for suits that were modern and stylish, but still appropriate for an office or meeting. His clothes fit his personality and worked with other aspects of his life, too. His suits gave him that extra boost of self-confidence walking into the office every day,” she says. “There was nothing like that at an accessible price point for women.”

It became clear that someone had to take on the task of creating a line of professional attire for women that met their needs. Still in law school at the time, Stephanie says she never considered dropping out to pursue the idea. “It wasn’t until I started thinking about what I wanted to do after law school, that I realized I was much more passionate about the idea of starting a clothing line than about a career in law.”

She began researching what it would take to start a business focused on work wear for women. She read a lot, met with a lot of people and tried to figure out what tools she’d need to bring her idea to life. She spoke with friends and female colleagues who all excitedly shared ideas about what they wanted in professional attire, and she eventually convinced her brother to quit his day job to help her launch the line.

“I have an amazing team who taught me everything that they know about the industry,” Stephanie says. “In the beginning, I spent time learning since it was all totally new to me. It was an industry I knew nothing about and had no prior experience in, so I was really lucky to find a design team early on that could guide me through that process.”


“It wasn’t until I started thinking about what I wanted to do after law school, that I realized I was much more passionate about the idea of starting a clothing line than about a career in law.”


Just over a year after she graduated, in 2016, the first garments from Grayes made their debut at pop-up shops and customer events. The clothing line was everything Stephanie had envisioned — and more — and consumers raved about the quality of the garments and the need for a brand focused solely on women’s work wear. The instantly iconic blazer dress was a particular hit.

Today, the brand offers women on-trend items they can wear to the office as well as brunch, including their popular pencil pant, notch blazer and tunic dress. Even though all of the garments are made locally (with material sourced from international mills), everything is reasonably priced — nothing costs more than $400. What’s more, everything can be purchased online at the company’s recently launched website. “Knowing the Grayes customer is very busy, my goal was to create an easy shopping experience with features like free shipping and returns, and online experts on hand to offer tailoring and styling advice,” says Stephanie.

“Seeing my vision for Grayes come to life and customers wearing our clothing in their day-to-day lives motivates me to keep evolving Grayes — developing new products and growing the brand,” Stephanie notes. “I love when customers tell me how great the clothing makes them feel going to work everyday and that they can’t wait to see what we have planned next. That customer affirmation has been so encouraging.”

And what’s next is really a push to grow Grayes into the go-to destination for women looking for high-quality, modern work wear. Stephanie wants to continue to evolve the company’s offerings and to expand to the U.S. (in the near future). But she’s also learning to relish and celebrate the success she’s seen over the past few years.

“In the beginning I didn’t know what I was getting myself into! When you’re starting a business you are so excited and passionate about it. You really do everything and anything in your power to make it work,” she notes. “But nothing’s a straight path to success, there are always ups and downs along the way. So learning not to get discouraged, to persevere and to keep on pushing forward is key. It’s so important to find a business you love and will be just as excited about on those days when it feels like nothing is going your way.  It’s an amazing feeling to bring an idea from conception to fruition.”



 Could your work wardrobe use an upgrade? Shop the collection at


Study Reveals: Canada Country with 5th Highest % of Women in Tech



With gender disparity a topic at the forefront of modern discourse, leading technology career platform Honeypot, has released the 2018 Women in Tech Index. The results offer a view on gender-based employment inequalities both at large and in the technology sector. In an effort to position themselves as industry experts, the developer-focused career platform decided to research the role that gender parity plays in the technology landscape by comparing the proportion of female employees, gender wage gap and opportunities for women in the IT field, among other criteria. In sharing the results of this study, Honeypot aims to highlight which countries offer the best opportunities for women in tech and to encourage the industry at large to take further positive steps towards gender parity.

The study focuses on 41 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU), and offers comparable data relating to both the tech industry and the wage gap. The data covers areas such as:

Gender in the Overall Economy: factors such as percentage of women in work and the overall gender income parity.
Women in Tech: as measured by the number of women in IT positions compared to the overall numbers of people in tech.
Opportunities for Women in Tech: calculated by comparing the difference between the percentage share of women in the general workforce, and the percentage of women in the technology sector. In addition, the study took into account the percentage of female STEM graduates.
Tech Wage Gap: difference in gender wage gap between women working in the tech industry and the overall workforce at large.
Female Career Progression: as judged by the percentage of women in managerial and ministerial positions.

In order to pinpoint any potential barriers which might hinder a woman’s progression and to highlight the best opportunities for women, Honeypot also looked at the Gender Inequality Index. This analyses women’s reproductive health, empowerment and labour market participation to conclude overall parity. To de

termine if equality has increased or decreased in recent history, they then calculated the difference between the current available wage gap data, as compared to five years previous.



“Gender parity in the workplace is not just an ethical or moral issue, but also an economic one: McKinsey found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. As tech recruitment specialists, we are often confronted with the gender imbalances of the industry, which are fully exposed in this study.” says Emma Tracey, Co-Founder at Honeypot. “With the proportion of female tech workers remaining under 30% across the board, we hope that this study will enrich the conversation concerning equality in this industry and inspire more women to seek out opportunities in tech.”


View Honeypot’s interactive table to see how each country compares across a number of other measures, including percentage of female STEM graduates, Gender Inequality Index, and more.





Enough Excuses: It’s time for positive change towards workplace gender equality




In the move towards workplace gender equality, progress is moving glacially slow on many key measures. Is that the way it has to be — or are we just making excuses?  


By Stephania Varalli



In 2017, the World Economic Forum predicted we’d be closing the economic gender gap in 217 years — 37 years longer than the estimate they provided in 2016. It wasn’t, unfortunately, that surprising; in many key measures, from workforce participation to the gender wage gap, we haven’t moved the needle significantly in two decades.

Which leads to the question: Why is our progress towards workplace gender parity so slow?

We could argue that there are a lot of reasons. Or we could recognize that these are just excuses, and start moving towards change.


Excuse #1: The issue is embedded in our culture, and we can’t change culture that quickly it takes generations.

Let’s step away from gender equality for a moment and look back at the technological developments of the last two decades. Google officially launched in 1998, revolutionising our ability to access information — and having a measurable impact on how our memory functions as well as our reliance on each other for storing knowledge. The integration of social media into our daily life, from Facebook (2004) to Twitter (2006) to Instagram (2010), has transformed how we interact with each other and the world around us, how we create and maintain relationships, and how we view and document our personal experiences. The adoption of the smartphone, coupled with the ubiquity of an internet connection, has changed how, when, and where we work and play — as well as our balance between the two.

Yet, in the same 10 years that I transitioned from a rarely-charged flip phone kept in my glove compartment to a smartphone that I treat like an appendage and use like a mobile office, the World Economic Forum’s global economic gender gap narrowed by just 3%. In 1994, when Netscape Navigator began fighting for browser dominance with Internet Explorer, full-year, full-time female workers in Canada were making 73 cents for every dollar a man made. In 2014, that number had only reached 74 cents — despite women surpassing men in education achieved. And starting in 2017, the #MeToo movement has not only shown us that workplace harassment is still pervasive and damaging,  it has also highlighted how we’ve spent the last twenty years punishing victims for coming forward, rather than their perpetrators.

How are we capable of effortlessly evolving so rapidly in some aspects of our culture, and stall so spectacularly in another? It is apparent we can handle massive change in 20 years, rather than 217. The question becomes how we make it happen.


Excuse #2: The problem is huge and complex — solving it will take a long time.

Yes, the problem is huge. It encompasses a multitude of issues, from the gender wage gap to the lack of women on boards to how we value care-giving. And while some countries are better off than others in a few of these areas, economic inequality remains a global phenomenon. Yes, the problem is complex. There are a number of interwoven factors that feed into it, from a lack of sponsorship to limited visible role models to unconscious bias. We may not have a simple solution to address the whole problem, but we have proven strategies to focus on its parts.


“How are we capable of effortlessly evolving so rapidly in some aspects of our culture, and stall so spectacularly in another?”


Take Women of Influence, for example. Not enough female role models are given the opportunity to share their insights, so we give them the podium, and write about their stories of success. And you don’t need to be an organization dedicated to women’s workplace equality to follow the same principle.  

In January we partnered with Catalyst Canada on the first annual Radical Change Summit, which brought together business leaders who had taken a leap forward in gender equality, rather than a small step. They discussed not only their successes, but also how they achieved them — with the goal of inspiring others to take similar action. There were many valuable insights shared, and a notable theme tying them together: a planned and determined focus addressing specific issues. 

As our keynote speaker, Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, put it: “We don’t need three silver bullets, we need a thousand flowers blooming.”


Excuse #3 – We can’t get people on board for progress.

Convincing one person to join the cause is doable, right? From the business case to the moral imperative to personal life experiences (men get less sexist when they have daughters, for example) — there are countless ways that skeptical or reluctant individuals become supporters and advocates.

Now here’s the connection we don’t always make: one individual can be a catalyst for broad change. If a husband is willing to take on more of the home chores, his wife has more time to focus on her career advancement. An enlightened hiring manager can build a diverse and inclusive team. And when senior executives are on board, they can guide their entire organization towards greater parity — a power we need to encourage them to recognize. When we asked Mike Henry, executive vice president and chief data officer for Scotiabank, how he became an internal champion at the bank for gender equality, he responded: “We kept making comments about the Bank needing to do more and then we stopped and looked at ourselves and said, ‘Wait a minute, we are the Bank, and we are the people that should take some action here’.”


“We stopped and looked at ourselves and said, ‘Wait a minute, we are the Bank, and we are the people that should take some action here.'”


If we can get organizations to change, what about an entire industry? We have a very recent example that shows how possible it can be: The impact of the #MeToo movement has only just begun, and it has already pushed the conversation into the mainstream, taken down high-profile perpetrators, forced organizations to rethink policies, and men to rethink their actions. Yes, there has been backlash, but that doesn’t mean we should be halting progress.


Excuse #4 – Change is painfully hard, so we need to go slow.

Our opening keynote speaker from the Radical Change Summit — Blake Irving, director and former CEO of GoDaddy — informed the crowd that “The status quo does not go down easy.” He should know: When he took the helm, GoDaddy was best known for an advertising strategy that many viewed as sexist, if not misogynistic, and the company culture was just as in need of an overhaul. He led the transformation of the organization — inside and out — into one of the most inclusive in tech. And he did it in five years.

Not all men recognize that there’s even an issue, so it’s not surprising that they’re resistant to change. I think it’s about time we accept the fact that this isn’t going to be comfortable — at least not for the currently advantaged groups — and that’s okay. 

We can move forward, and we can move forward quickly, if we stop using the challenge of change to keep us from making it happen. Let’s make 2018 the year we forget the excuses, and get the job done.


How female CEOs are finding themselves on the edge of a cliff


Have you heard of the ‘glass cliff?’ Have you ever experienced it?

Have you ever fallen off it?

Yesterday, Freakonomics Radio, the podcast spin-off of the eponymous, best-selling book, continued their series called “The Secret Life of C.E.O.’s” by examining the evidence for the glass cliff phenomenon, the ramifications of it, and some possible solutions.

While the concept of the glass ceiling has been widely recognized for some time, the idea of the glass cliff was introduced in the early 2000s by Michelle Ryan, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Exeter.

“The Times in London printed an article that was looking at how women were performing in the top companies on the London Stock Exchange,” Ryan explains. “Their conclusion was that women were wreaking havoc on company performance.”

The article reported that companies with more women on their boards tended to have a lower average annual share price than those companies that had fewer or no women at all. To Ryan and her colleague Alex Haslam, this didn’t make sense. So, they dug deeper.

“What we found was when companies had been doing poorly, when their share price had been declining, they then appointed women to their boards of directors.” So it seems a different problem was revealed — rather than women being the cause of poor performance, instead they were being selected because of the company’s poor performance.

Ryan’s analysis suggests that women are being set up to fail. And although the reason women are chosen under these circumstances is disputable — is it because no man will take these jobs? Or is it perhaps due to women being viewed as mothers, the ones we turn to in times of crisis? — the result is almost inevitably damaging to not only those that fall, but also the reputations of all female leaders.

Christy Glass, a professor of sociology at Utah State University, points to another potential explanation.

“We termed this the ‘savior effect,’” says Glass, referring to the fact that white women and people of color are significantly more likely than white men to be promoted C.E.O. to weakly performing firms. “In other words, the firm experimented with this nontraditional leader, perhaps trying to signal it was headed in a bold new direction, that it was aggressively going to address performance declines. And if that doesn’t happen, these leaders tend to be blamed and replaced…bringing in the white male, typical leader to then navigate the firm out of crisis.”


“White women and people of color are significantly more likely than white men to be promoted C.E.O. to weakly performing firms.”


For 14 years, Carol Bartz ran the software firm Autodesk. In 2009, she became C.E.O. of Yahoo!, which at one point was the world’s most popular web destination, with a market cap north of $110 billion. But by 2009, it was in rapid decline, losing search business, display-ad business, and faltering in the wake of a controversially rejected buyout offer from Microsoft. Yet, despite the bleak outlook, Bartz accepted the challenge of turning things around.

“The company was just beaten to the ground,” says Bartz. “And I really felt that I could help with that, and give us some air time to get back together.”

But in the wake of continued revenue plummets and a general lack of morale, after just two years, the Yahoo! board unceremoniously let Carol go — over the phone.

The highly competent and proven successful business leader was pushed off the glass cliff.

And the problem exists outside of the corporate world. In the U.S., women are more likely to have leadership positions in failing school districts, and are more likely to run in unwinnable political elections, as well as become leaders during times of political instability.

The empirical and anecdotal evidence is there. The question is: why is it happening? And what can we do to course-correct?


Hear more on episode 319 of Freakonomics Radio, “After the Glass Ceiling, a Glass Cliff”.

Five Tips for Managing Business Growth


It is exciting to see your business grow, but a surge in sales presents both opportunities and challenges. The big question for many entrepreneurs is how do you successfully manage growth? Here are five tips for handling your business growing pains.


By Lynda Sydney

It’s rewarding to see your business grow from a simple idea to a viable company that delivers value to your customers. When there is a surge in sales, it presents both opportunities and challenges.

Aggressive growth is good, but you also need to stay in control of your business. The key is to remain focused on the fundamental reasons your customers choose your products or services and your brand, maintain high quality, and always deliver an outstanding customer experience while you are expanding.

The big question for many entrepreneurs is how do you do this successfully while managing growth?

1. Maintaining a manageable pace of growth

The most important step in any growth strategy is to build a plan. Determine how much you want to grow, the timeline and the resources required to reach your goal, and then develop a business plan to support these objectives. The plan should include how day-to-day operations will be impacted, the people and roles that need to be put in place, any changes to your sales & marketing efforts needed and most importantly, how you will track progress in achieving the plan and reaching your goals.

In order to build an effective business plan it is also important to reach out to others for feedback and advice, such as peers, your network or advisors such as your accountant, banker or lawyer. If you can connect with another business owner that has faced similar growth challenges, or has been successful leveraging a business plan, they can be helpful to get ideas or validate that you’re on the right track.

You will also want to identify risks that may impede your expansion. For example, are there any departments having difficulties today? If an area of your business is struggling now, rapid growth will only make it worse, so resolve any issues before launching your growth strategy.

2. Hiring employees

If you’re like many other business owners, you probably agree that the most important attribute when hiring is attitude. If a person has a good attitude, is hard working and willing to help out, but may not have a specific skill set, you can always train them. When you trust the people you work with and give them the authority to make decisions, they become an important part of your company’s growth.

As your business is growing you may not initially have the resources to hire full-time employees. Consider different hiring options — contract, part-time or freelance. You may not need a full-time bookkeeper, but can hire someone to come in one day a week to do your invoicing and receivables.

3. Deciding to delegate

When starting a new business, most entrepreneurs do everything themselves — from developing or sourcing products, or delivering services, to marketing, sales, accounting and more. To help you grow successfully you should consider hiring people to delegate some of the workload. This is not always easy for an entrepreneur who has a vision of how to run his or her business.

To sustain growth, you have to relinquish control to the competent people you’ve hired. Recognize that you don’t have all the skill sets — nor the time — to continue to be the expert in everything. When you are ready to hire, look for individuals who are better than you in certain areas of your business operations. For example, if you are the face of the business, hire someone to work on the administrative tasks so you can continue to meet with clients and ensure they are happy. As a business owner, your job is to provide these talented individuals you’ve selected with everything they need to do their jobs. Know that not everyone is going to perform tasks exactly as you do, and that’s okay.

4. Managing changes in demand

Every business has a different sales cycle. Some products are seasonal, some are timeless. Others such as food and drink have a limited shelf life. Where you manufacture your product will also impact your business cycles — if you source products overseas, you will need a longer lead time to ensure inventory is available to meet demand. No business owner ever wants to miss a sale due to lack of inventory, so be prepared for an increase in demand and stock a little more product.

To manage regular sales cycles it is important to watch and analyze your data. Look at year over year numbers to spot growth trends and opportunities. Know your timing for manufacturing or product delivery. If you have a peak period, have a back-up plan with alternate suppliers and producers, and short-term labour you can bring in quickly to meet demand during your busy times.

5. Reinvesting in your business

You know that your business is in a constant state of evolution, and you may be thinking what’s next? Consider your goals. Do you want to expand your product offerings? Do you want to reach new markets?

When you’ve decided on your next steps, review your strategic business plan, make any updates to reflect these changes, and determine what it will take to accomplish it. For example, if you want to grow your market, it may be necessary to open a new storefront. You’ll need to research the best location, negotiate the lease, plan renovations and hire staff. All of this will require capital. Examine the numbers before making any reinvestment decisions.

As a small business owner, it is exciting to see your hard work pay off as your business continues to grow. A little planning will go a long way to ensuring sustainable, manageable growth and ultimately, business success.


Lynda Sydney is a Toronto-based freelance writer and content creator with over ten years of experience in financial, telecommunications and technology writing.


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The business of creativity: A conversation with design firm owner, Susan McIntee

As the co-owners of Earth Inc., a successful landscape design firm in Toronto, Kennedy McRae and James Dale have the opportunity to meet (and create beautiful backyards for) some powerhouse women of influence. In this Q&A, they’re introducing the WOI community to their client, Susan McIntee, Principal and Creative Director of Toronto design firm 52 Pick-up Inc.


By James Dale and Kennedy McRae




Like us, Susan McIntee has been in business for 20 years, and is in a highly creative industry where her own ideas and passion shape the work she does. While working with Susan on her midtown Toronto backyard, we came to learn about her experience as an entrepreneur. Her story is inspiring — and needs to be shared. So we sat down to chat with her about business ownership, balance, and the art of keeping creativity alive amidst all the hard work.   


How did you get your start in the design industry?

My parents left for the United States when I was finishing high school — but I decided to stay here. I took time off schooling and got a job opening and running retail stores for a Canadian designer. A few years in I found out that I had a brain tumor. There’s nothing like that sort of epiphany to help you make a life decision. I had the tumor removed, and decided to go back to school. I was a mature student at George Brown College where I met my business partner, Nick Monteleone. We always shared ideas and thought that maybe someday we’d do something together. But first, I worked for an amazing design agency in Toronto — probably the best in North America, if not internationally — and gratefully won many awards and got a lot of experience. In 1998, 52 Pick-up was born.


We were both working at a successful landscaping firm when we quit to start Earth Inc. so we know it can be tough to make that leap. How did you find the courage to leave a good job and start out on your own?

I had a lot of weird health issues throughout my life. When I was 11 I had big problems with one of my kidneys. I’d always had a survivor mentality. And I was a bit fearless. There’s nothing like being faced with health concerns to help you realize that you either pick up and carry on, or shrink in a corner — and that’s not me. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it on my own terms.


Like us, you’ve always been in business with a partner. How do you guys keep things running smoothly? Have there been any major challenges you’ve come across?

With the challenges, comes a greater understanding and strength in the business. This is our 20th year in business and sure, there have been lots of challenges. But, we’ve always done well with our clients. Nick is a very calm, patient, amazingly creative talent. I’m a little bit more on the business side. But like Nick, I too am an award winning creative designer and I’ve got lots of great ideas — and, I fear, far too many opinions.

But you have to have mutual respect, you have to have that greater understanding, you have to have empathy and compassion. And you have to communicate. Sometimes it means being locked in a room and hashing stuff out. But a lot of it is just appreciating where the other person is coming from, and being able to work together as a team.


We always give credit to how supportive our wives have been in helping us grow our business. Who do you guys turn to for support?

We’ve always surrounded ourselves with people who are equally passionate about their work. One of the first things we did was hire a really awesome accountant who helped us a lot. We continue to bring people forward to help inspire us and keep us on the right track. My best friend is our lawyer, so she’s someone I lean on quite a bit to help negotiate things like HR that I’m not qualified for. You can’t be an expert in everything.


We have to ask you about balance. As creative types, it’s something we all struggle with. What do you do to keep the creativity high and the stress low?

I’m single right now and I don’t have kids, so I can’t even begin to know what women with kids go through. But you know, it’s hard. You can’t always leave work at work. It’s always in the back of your mind. Even when I come home, I’m researching, I’m reviewing things, getting to the emails I didn’t get to. I walk my dog a few times a day. I have great friends around me and great family.

Also, I must say… thank god you guys put a Jacuzzi in my backyard! Before I met you, I had never used my backyard space properly. It was essentially an overgrown orchard. Now it’s a beautiful, serene extension of my home and I can go out there to relax and recharge.


What’s it like as a female business owner in your industry?

I see the way some clients relate to Nick versus the way they relate to me. I could be saying the same thing, but he’ll come out and say it and they’ll say “oh yeah” — sometimes they want to hear it from a man. Women can be tough on one another. This is why I feel organizations like Women of Influence are so important. With the “Me Too” movement, women should appreciate and mentor one another and grow together. It’s a very interesting time.


Who has been your greatest mentor and what’s the best advice they gave you?

That’s easy. It has to be my father. He was in advertising and passed away in 2014. I like to think that I have some of his talent and have conducted myself in a most honourable way, as he did. The advice: work hard and feel passionate about what you do. That’s how my dad lived.








Building workplaces that work for women: How to make your organization more inclusive



Tanya van Biesen left her 21-year career in the corporate world of executive search to take on a leading role with a global non-profit supporting one of her passions: advancing inclusive workplaces.


By Kristen Sears



For Tanya van Biesen, it was kinda, sorta déjà vu. Two summers ago, she left her two-decade career as a recruiter to become Executive Director of Catalyst Canada, the Canadian arm of the global nonprofit dedicated to building workplaces that work for women. But even before her first day at Catalyst, the job felt familiar. And for good reason.

A decade earlier, Tanya, who graduated from the Queen’s Commerce program at Smith School of Business, was a partner in the executive search firm Spencer Stuart. There, she’d been put in charge of finding an executive director for Catalyst Canada. Tanya was impressed with Catalyst but never figured she’d one day hold the job she was recruiting for.

But in 2016, fate intervened. The executive director position came open again, and Tanya seemed like the perfect fit for it. At Spencer Stuart, she led the company’s diversity practice and was keenly aware that there was a vast pool of talented women out there to fill leadership roles in corporate Canada. She was eager to move the needle and make a difference.

One can see how the executive director opening at Catalyst piqued Tanya’s interest. Catalyst’s core mission is to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion. Women have come a long way since Catalyst’s inception in 1962 — today, the organization operates around the world and is supported by more than 800 companies — but in the upper echelons of business, it’s still a man’s world.

We recently caught up with Tanya and asked what organizations can do to move towards a more inclusive workplace. This is what she had to say:


    • Incentivize inclusive leadership: reward inclusive behaviours and have a zero-tolerance policy for exclusionary ones.
    • Shine a light on visible minority women: develop specific goals for advancing women of colour and make leaders accountable for achieving them.
    • Engage men as champions: since men run about 95 per cent of the most powerful companies, things will only change if we engage powerful male sponsors.
    • Unlock “hot jobs” to help accelerate women’s careers: make sure women have access to P&L positions and the high visibility, mission-critical roles and international experiences that are critical to advance.
    • Shake up your board: review recruiting policies and go outside your regular network of contacts to find diverse candidates so your board truly reflects the consumers and communities it serves.
    • Unmask unconscious bias: it exists everywhere. Tackle it head-on and organization-wide with mandatory training.
    • Get real about gender, race and ethnicity: communicating openly and authentically across differences is critical to creating a powerful culture of inclusion.
    • Close the wage gap. Immediately: women work 100 per cent. On average, they make about 82 per cent what men earn. Do an audit to see if you have a wage gap. Then implement policies and processes to close it and keep it closed.
    • Prioritize productivity over physical presence: Flexible work environments are good for people and organizations, plus they can help attract top talent and reduce turnover.


Last November, Catalyst Canada launched the Catalyst Accord 2022, which calls on Canadian businesses to pledge to have 30 per cent of executive and board positions, on average, staffed by women by 2022. For its part, Catalyst is amplifying signatories’ chances of success by helping them address and execute actions like those noted above.

While Tanya and the rest of the team at Catalyst have their work cut out for them, they are energized by the momentum. In the last three months alone, they have engaged 38 companies in the signing of the Catalyst Accord, they have convened the country’s leading CEOs and Board Directors to discuss the importance of gender-balanced leadership, and they have joined forces with six national governance and gender advocacy organizations in the development of the Canadian Gender & Good Governance Alliance.

In recognition of her work at Catalyst, Tanya was profiled in Canada 150 Women in December, 2017. What’s next? “My biggest priority” Tanya says “is to change the conversation around gender equality in Canada from ‘why?’ to ‘how?’ Rather than why should we do it, how do we get there?”


This spring, Smith’s Centre for Social Impact will launch a series of new Professional Leadership Programs that seek to address the diversity gap in senior leadership roles. The Diversity and Inclusion Professional Series will include programs focused on LGBTQ+ leadership, Indigenous leadership, women in leadership, and programs for newcomer Canadians. To learn more, visit:


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My True North: Authentic Leadership


by Andrea Lekushoff


Andrea Lekushoff is the Founder and President of Broad Reach Communications. She’s not only a leader in the Canadian public relations industry, she also committed to supporting the efforts of women in business.



Earlier this year, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a leadership program at Harvard Business School. It was an amazing experience to be back in the classroom and learning from the school’s distinguished faculty was one of the highlights of my career. It was a packed and challenging schedule but I threw myself into it and savoured every moment.

Of all the concepts we discussed, the one that resonated most strongly with me was “authentic leadership.” Authentic leaders aim to be genuine, vulnerable and sensitive to the needs of others. They are not perfect, nor do they try to be.

Bill George, Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School and a well-known business leader, has described five key qualities of an authentic leader. These align in many ways to the standards that I’ve set for myself as well as for our team.


Pursuing purpose with great passion

My team and I have a strong sense of purpose: to become Canada’s leading corporate communications PR agency. We work hard to maintain a culture of inclusion, recognition and gratitude. Our hiring practices also help ensure that our personalities complement one another, so that we work well together and enjoy each other’s company. And we hire for passion: seeking people who love their craft and who can’t wait to do great work. This passion ignites and galvanizes everything we do.


Creating a high-performance culture based on strong core values

Last year, we developed a set of five values that make up our “Always Better” charter. They form the moral, ethical and philosophical compass that governs everything we do:

  • We’re All In: We dive in and stay in and deliver our best work every time.
  • We Own Our Jobs: We take the lead, keep our promises and take pride in our work.
  • We Pull Together: We champion our clients and each other and we do what is right without hesitation.
  • We Stretch Ourselves: We challenge ourselves to create work that dazzles and reaches new heights.
  • We Deliver Awesome: We are trusted individuals who deliver the best quality work, care, service and results.

Put simply, “Always Better” means doing better than we did yesterday and better than what others do every day. These values align our beliefs and behaviour as individuals and as a team and have ultimately resulted in a high-performance culture.


Leading with head and heart

I firmly believe that you bring your whole self to work every day. For me, I lead with my heart as well as my head. It’s who I am and I am not afraid to show my emotions, my vulnerability and my compassion for everyone on my team.


Establishing connected relationships

Beyond being able to do the job, I hire for fit and for fun, recruiting people I genuinely want to spend time with. I look for individuals who, like me, show up to work as the people they really are – without drama, attitude or pretense. This allows us to speak sincerely, listen compassionately and create meaningful relationships built on open communication and mutual trust.


Learning, growing and cultivating self-awareness

I’m on a lifelong journey to discover who I truly am as a leader. I do this by regularly asking my team and my clients for direct and honest feedback. I have embraced this process of learning, growing and recognizing my strengths and limitations, so I can identify clear areas of personal development. I also pride myself in showing who I really am to my team, not hiding my mistakes or weaknesses. In fact, showing up to work as myself has given me tremendous strength, confidence and resilience at work and in life.


Practicing self-discipline to achieve short and long-term goals

Driving company, team and personal growth takes a tremendous and consistent commitment to self-discipline. To me, it comes down to grit, being able to focus on clearly-defined goals, and continuing to move towards them even in the face of setbacks. I focus equally on the long and the short-term, and I work to nurture and coach my team so they can continue their own journeys of personal and professional growth to be ‘Always Better’. Driving company, team and personal growth takes a tremendous and consistent commitment to self-discipline. To me, it comes down to grit, being able to focus on clearly-defined goals, and continuing to move towards them even in the face of setbacks. I focus equally on the long and the short-term, and I work to nurture and coach my team so they can continue their own journeys of personal and professional growth to be ‘Always Better’.

Nothing I have done previously in my career equals the satisfaction I get from leading such a committed and capable team. And in the last few years, I have learned that, to create a culture of high-performance, inclusion, recognition and gratitude, there’s no better place to start than with your authentic self.



Good Question: How can I create a strong relationship with a potential sponsor?

Christine Laperriere

Christine Laperriere is a seasoned expert on helping leaders and teams reduce internal conflict, improve employee engagement, and more effectively engage with customers and prospects. Working with the Women of Influence Advancement Centre and through her own consultancy, Leader in Motion, she has spent the past ten years teaching hundreds of leaders how to be more effective through her “Leadership through Conflict & Change” course, and helped many with specific challenges through private executive coaching. Her background includes an undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, certifications in psychotherapy and executive coaching, along with years in management consulting focused on implementation, change management and culture change initiatives.



Q: I have been invited into a “coffee talk” with my boss’ boss. I know it’s a great opportunity for future sponsorship, but I’m not sure how to take advantage of it. This isn’t part of any sort of formal program, just a casual invite without a specific agenda. How can I create a positive impact in this conversation and start a strong relationship with a potential sponsor?


Even though it’s just a chat over coffee, this is definitely a meeting you should be preparing for. Many highly talented professionals get invited into these casual skip-level meetings, but they often don’t think through a strategy to leverage this opportunity to build a stronger relationship — and potentially create a sponsor. Follow these tips to get yourself prepared and make a positive impression.


1. Be intentional.

Set a clear intention for this conversation and how you’d like this person to feel after the conversation. An example might be: “I want Jane to feel that I admire her work within the organization, and I want her to know my strengths so she considers me for new opportunities in the future.”


2. Show your admiration.

Everyone appreciates being valued and recognized, even top executives in your organization. If there is an aspect of this executive’s work that you admire, it never hurts to share this as you get to know them better. Show them that you don’t just respect them for their title but more for the great work and leadership they bring to the organization.


3. Question their views.

Take the opportunity to ask them to share their perspective about how they see various business issues, projects or opportunities. Given their role in the organization, they often have a different perspective and vantage point. By being curious about their perspective, you can learn a lot about a leader. The more you know about how they view things, the more value you can bring to your relationship with them.


4. Share your personal brand.

Be sure to think through a quick sound bite that highlights a few recent accomplishments you are proud of or a few unique strengths you bring to the team. Remember that your work alone can’t actually speak for itself, so you’ll need to help highlight these accomplishments and your strengths in an authentic way.


5. Invite them to walk in your shoes.

Once you’ve shared your personal brand, it’s a powerful question to ask your potential sponsor what opportunities they would be thinking about if they were in your shoes. There is specific magic in this question as it encourages that executive to really comprehend the strengths and highlights you’ve shared, and connect those to future opportunities they see in the organization. The best part is, if you position this as a question, it encourages them to do the thinking — making them more likely to remember your conversation moving forward.


6. Think “mutually beneficial.”

The best relationships in business and in life are beneficial for both parties involved. Many times, professionals assume that executives have everything they need or they only focus on what’s in the relationship that could benefit them personally. Asking this potential sponsor what you could do to help them demonstrates that you aren’t looking to build a one-sided relationship for your own benefit alone, but that you are also looking out for their interests as well. This simple step will help you build the respect and trust that will act as the foundation for a long-term strong working relationship.


7. Send a mindful follow up.

After your coffee, follow up with an email that specifically points out why you appreciated the conversation, including the insights and suggestions you found valuable. Watch for future opportunities to connect, and if you’re unsure when or how to approach them — each sponsor and each situation is different — this could be a good conversation to have with a mentor or trusted colleague.



What’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?

It is often said that a mentor talks with you, and a sponsor talks about you. What does that mean? While a mentoring relationship focuses on discussion, advice, and guidance, a sponsor actively connects you to career opportunities. You may not even know that an individual is your sponsor — but that doesn’t stop them from suggesting your name when a stretch assignment or promotion comes up. That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of “casual coffees” that enable you to cultivate these valuable relationships. It can have a major impact on how quickly you are able to move up in your career.



To learn more about how you or your organization can advance talented female professionals and leaders more effectively, contact Christine directly at


Facing down backlash: What would it take to make real progress on gender equality?



Despite the business case for diversity, or perhaps because of it, organizations are facing backlash in efforts to achieve greater equality. Alyson Colón along with Sarah Kaplan, keynote speaker of the upcoming Radical Change Summit, explain why they believe that the solution will be innovation.


By Sarah Kaplan and Alyson Colón



It has become quite common for business leaders and even non-profit organizations and politicians to make the business case for diversity. There are many bases for this argument: whether highlighting the promise of better financial performance when boards of directors are more gender balanced, or arguing that firms will miss out in the war for talent, or worrying about the reputational and financial costs of sexual harassment and discrimination.

At face value, the business case for diversity has promise. If an organization can argue that an intervention will bring both social and monetary benefit, all the better. But equity initiatives predicated on the business case argument may place the fight for equality on tenuous ground. That is, if the benefits of diversity are couched in economic terms, then diversity initiatives will face resistance if these benefits are perceived to have not been realized.

When diversity initiatives are thus grounded in a business case, it may not be surprising that backlash movements respond in kind, arguing that prioritizing diversity is bad for business. Take for example, a Board Director’s comment to me recently. He said, “Well, we added a woman to our board last year and haven’t seen any improvement in our financials.” Or, look at the now famous memo by Google’s James Damore that circulated widely through social media this past summer. In it, he claimed that Google had discriminated against its (white male) employees by implementing diversity-friendly protocols. Damore argued that biological differences were to blame for gendered disparities in employment and pay, and that women were biologically predisposed to weaknesses like “neuroticism” that made them poorly suited to the challenging work environment. While Google’s response was swift – Damore was subsequently fired for violating the company’s code of conduct – we can understand Damore’s memo as representing a form of resistance to the business case for diversity.

Damore’s brand of backlash relies on the fallacy of gender essentialism: the idea that rigid gender differences exist between men and women and, in Damore’s case, that these essential differences make women inferior candidates to men for certain jobs. Arguments that use gender essentialism to justify the differences we see between men’s and women’s work and careers often fail to account for the role of bias – as it is embedded in our brains and also in organizational processes and practices.

We know from a massive body of research that we nearly all carry gender bias, and that this bias can lead to the devaluation of women’s contributions in masculinized contexts (such as the workplace). We know that this plays out in the evaluation of entrepreneurial ventures founded by women relative to those founded by men: study after study shows that women are less likely to receive venture capital funding. It is also true in career trajectories: women are less likely to receive interview call-backs, less likely to be promoted and often receive lower raises and bonuses. For example, a study showed that women need to perform at the top 10% of their peer group to be evaluated comparably to men, while average-performing men are 33% more likely to be preferred over similarly performing women.


“A study showed that women need to perform at the top 10% of their peer group to be evaluated comparably to men, while average-performing men are 33% more likely to be preferred over similarly performing women.”


Now, if you were to listen to people like James Damore, you could argue that this is because of some kind of essential difference between men and women. But, we also know from research that this bias plays out even when controlling for these biological differences. Take, for example, a study that asked a group of people to perform tasks on a computer; one group completed tasks on a computer named James, and the other group on a computer named Julie. The computers were otherwise identical. After the tasks were completed, participants were asked to evaluate the computer’s performance. Participants reported that the computers performed equally, but when asked how much they thought the computers were worth, participants thought that James was worth 35% more than Julie.

These studies poke holes in the myth of meritocracy: the widely held belief that the most qualified will rise to the top. The myth of meritocracy persists, not only because it absolves organizations from addressing discrimination concerns, but also because those who are in positions of power and authority want to believe that they arrived there on their merit alone. We all want to believe that our accomplishments are the results of our hard work, and therefore it is difficult for people to admit that some form of privilege has come into play in their own careers. The irony of the business case for diversity is that those in positions of privilege will want to double down on the status quo in order to protect their own jobs or own sense of accomplishment. Backlash may actually be exacerbated by the business case.

This evidence suggests that the best way to confront inequality may not necessarily be through a business case, but rather through a better understanding of the bias embedded in our processes and practices and how to change it. But how do we confront bias and undertake the seemingly insurmountable challenge of changing its impact on our work and decisions?

At the Institute for Gender and the Economy, we think the answer lies in innovation. Think about it. All organizations allocate resources – money and top talent – to innovation and expect it to result in disruptions and organizational change. Why not do the same with questions of diversity? This is the new conversation we could be having – turning diversity challenges into innovation challenges.

We are just at the beginning of seeing the potential of innovation for inclusion. The startup Textio is using machine learning to eliminate bias from job ads – where masculine words dissuade women from applying to postings. GapJumpers, replicating the results of blind symphony auditions that led to a radical increase in the percentage of female musicians in orchestras, innovates in hiring processes by disguising the gender identity of job applicants before they perform a job relevant test. Firms are experimenting with “neutralizing” their promotion criteria. Others are changing the job definitions, even for Boards of Directors, so that they include a broader range of candidates for positions. Amazon has recently announced an innovative new parental leave policy that includes the second parent, and using the Leave Share program, even when that parent doesn’t work at Amazon.


“Think about it. All organizations allocate resources – money and top talent – to innovation and expect it to result in disruptions and organizational change. Why not do the same with questions of diversity? This is the new conversation we could be having – turning diversity challenges into innovation challenges.”


As with any form of innovation, these innovations will require organizational change. And, one thing we know about change is that it can be uncomfortable. Research shows that working with people that are different than you can lead to problems like greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, and less cohesion. If we want to confront bias and create change, it will inevitably involve some discomfort. But research has shown that discomfort is an integral element of the creative process. As Professor Katherine Phillips, writes in her article for Scientific American “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” “This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives…The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain.”

Making the business case for diversity implies to some that achieving equality has only upsides and that there won’t necessarily be any conflict or struggle in getting there. But, experience shows that to get where we want to go, we will have to become comfortable with discomfort, comfortable with innovation, comfortable with change. We will need to see how we are all embedded in systems that reproduce bias, and how we all benefit from privilege in some form or another. And, having the often-difficult conversations about these issues will open up all sorts of innovative ideas for achieving equality.




Sarah Kaplan is Director, Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE), and a Distinguished Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Previously, she was a consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York for nearly a decade. Author of the business best seller, Creative Destruction and more recently, Survive and Thrive, her research focuses on how organizations manage change. She tweets at @sarah_kaplan and @GenderEconomy.

Alyson Colón is Associate Director at the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE), and has a Masters in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto.

GATE’s resources can be found at:


Good Question: Is it worth it to pursue a lateral career move?



Q: I’ve been offered a new role that I think is more of a lateral move than a promotion, and my current position is a good one. Since it’s not a big step up, I’m having trouble evaluating whether or not to pursue the opportunity. It’s within the organization I work for now, so that’s not a factor. Any tips on how to decide if I should change positions, or stay in my existing role?


Christine Laperriere, Executive Director of the Women of Influence Advancement Centre, gives her advice:


Many accomplished professionals have dealt with this same conundrum at some point during their career, whether it’s an offer of a new role within their current organization, or an outside opportunity to shift gears. And although there are numerous things to consider, it’s useful to consider four common areas that make up a great position:


1. Your boss.

As we all know, people often quit their boss, not their job. Having a great boss is the central theme over and over again in why people stay in a role versus leave a role. As you are evaluating whether or not to stay or go, ask yourself how much you enjoy working for your existing boss and think about who your future boss might be if you change roles. And to go a step further, many people today are choosing to start small businesses and forgo a boss all together. This can be a great option if you prefer this style of work — but for some professionals, having your end customers as your “team of bosses” can pose a different set of challenges.


2. Your skills.

Another area to consider in a role is what type of skill this role requires to be excellent at the position. As human beings, we love to do work we feel we are competent in and that we have room to excel in. As you evaluate this position, does it leverage your best skills? Is there room for you to grow new skills that will be valuable in the future? If you don’t know, this is a great time to create a list of some of the skills you bring to the table.


3. Your Instincts.

Thinking about your natural working instincts can really lead to a few ah-ha moments about why you love or don’t love a specific role. Many years feeling very frustrated in my role as an engineer, I took a Kolbe assessment that helped me see that my personality type was improvising and creative while engineers were typically very data driven. Finally, I understood why even when working for a great boss, I often found I didn’t enjoy my engineering work enough to stay in that role for the long run.


4. Your Engagement.

Sometimes people can have the “perfect job,” but for some reason it doesn’t feel rewarding. Work you love comes from being interested in what’s going to happen in that role, with that company, and/or within that industry and customer base. A great job strokes our curiosity in a way in which we feel engaged in what we are doing for long stretches of time — like turning pages in a suspenseful novel, we want to know what happens next. Sometimes, when we’ve been in a job too long, we just lose that “spark.” If this sounds like you, give yourself permission to explore new opportunities; that’s a sign that you might be ready to learn something new.



So, if you are considering a change in position, I heavily encourage you to compare your existing position in each of these areas to what you know about the prospective position.  That can act as a great starting point to thinking through your decision. Furthermore, consider using this list of categories to help you research new roles and create questions to ask as you are investigating new positions. If you find a role that ranks high in each area for you, it might be worth taking a risk and trying something new.



To learn more about how you or your company can engage the Women of Influence Advancement Centre, you can reach out to Christine directly at

Christine Laperriere is a seasoned expert on helping leaders and teams reduce internal conflict, improve employee engagement, and more effectively engage with customers and prospects. Working with the Women of Influence Advancement Centre and through her own consultancy, Leader in Motion, she has spent the past ten years teaching hundreds of leaders how to be more effective through her “Leadership through Conflict & Change” course, and helped many with specific challenges through private executive coaching. Her background includes an undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, certifications in psychotherapy and executive coaching, along with years in management consulting focused on implementation, change management and culture change initiatives.


The Sweet Payoff: How I battled a trademark bully, and won back my brand

Paola Girotti is the founder and owner of Sugarmoon, a sugaring business with three salons, take-home sugaring and organic body care product lines, and the Sugarmoon training academy. She spent ten years growing her successful brand — and then four years fighting a trademark battle that almost robbed her of the Sugarmoon name. She’s sharing the lessons she’s learned from the experience, and her big plans for the future.


By Paola Girotti


It felt like extortion. I wasn’t able to use the name Sugarmoon in the United States. I couldn’t open a store. I couldn’t sell our products. Another business had locked up the trademark, and it wasn’t because they had happened upon the same made-up moniker for their own brand. This was a calculated and strategic move: a competitor had trademarked Sugarmoon with the singular goal of stopping our U.S. expansion.

I spent four years fighting to get back what was rightfully mine.  

How The Battle Began

When I realized what had happened, my first reaction was one of shock. Who would trademark my made-up name in the States? The shock didn’t wear off when I found out the culprit was a former supplier of mine.

She had gone to extensive lengths to make sure I wasn’t going to be able to have any movement south of the border. The way that trademark law works, a business must prove that they have first use in the market to secure the rights of ownership. She had labeled some bottles with Sugarmoon, took a picture, and sent it to the trademark office. It was enough for her to lock in the name as her own, and block me from ever using it in the United States.

I have always thought that competition is good for the marketplace, but certainly she and I didn’t have the same objectives or strategies when it came to running a business. And so my four year battle began.

Winning Back my Brand

I had spent ten years building Sugarmoon, and I believed strongly in the importance of a brand — I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. After a year of deliberating on how to move forward, I hired a lawyer in Ottawa and one in the United States, and we entered negotiations. I couldn’t predict the final outcome, and so at the same time we began to prepare for the possibility of having to come up with a new name that we could own both in Canada and the U.S., enabling my goals of expansion.


“I believed strongly in the importance of a brand — I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.”


By 2016, after nearly four years of frustrating negotiations, I had little faith that we were ever going to reach an agreement that was reasonable. It felt like I was losing more than my brand name — I was losing my clear vision. We stopped all our marketing efforts, as it made no sense to push anything with Sugarmoon while the future was so uncertain. And while we kept fighting to keep our old brand, at the same time I had to come up with a plan to launch an entirely new one. We settled on a name, but I still had to figure out how to transfer over all my loyal customers, and rebuild the equity from over a decade in business.

As soon as we had a new name, I realized I had a new advantage. I phoned my competitor without my lawyers, and said: “I have a new registered trademark. I surrender.” I didn’t think we could ever agree on a price, so instead I told her she could have it — effectively stripping her of her power position. Not long after, we came to a settlement.

A New Beginning

We rightfully won our brand trademarks in the United States on December 19, 2016. And in the year that followed, we made up for lost time.

We went through the full trademark process in the US, protecting our brand name in all the different classes we hoped to operate in, from beauty products to salons. We updated our Sugarmoon logo and the look of our brand. We launched Sweetmoon, a product line for teens, and Babymoon, a line designed for babies — with forty new products between them.

It has been a very busy year, but I have 24 dedicated women on my team who are all as determined as I am to make the Sugarmoon experience the best it can be for our customers. And now that we have our trademark debacle behind us, we can focus on doing just that.

Lessons Learned

My trademark experience was a financial strain, an emotional burden, and a tactical nightmare — but it wasn’t a waste of time. I learned valuable lessons that I know will help to guide my business towards future success.

Looking back, I would have hired an experienced coach sooner to review my long-term vision. We had a comprehensive business plan and vision board for the company, but we didn’t have that experienced voice in the room to ask the question: “Hey, did you trademark that?” It was a bit of ignorance on our part. I now recognize the importance of detailed strategic planning around how to achieve a business vision, as well as the need to bring in outside help to fill in any experience or knowledge gaps that you and your team may have.

That includes seeking qualified legal counsel (in fact I suggest you do this on everything — from your brand trademarks to your HR practices). I never believed I would be in this situation with my business, but the reality is, I’m not even the only company our former supplier has targeted in her efforts to block her competition. Trademarking my brand name would have been a fraction of what it cost me to win it back, so I urge you not to make the same mistake. Legally protect whatever you use to differentiate yourself and create your own authentic voice.

At Sugarmoon, our authentic voice is continuing to pioneer eco-friendly alternatives to the beauty market. We remain committed to bringing responsible and effective products to women, men, teens, and babies. With this vision and our passion, I like to think of us as more than a brand — we are a movement. And now nothing stands in our way.