Meet Monique Fares, Founder of Signature Health and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Start-Up Finalist

Monique Fares is a 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Start-Up Finalist. Building on a long-time dream of becoming a doctor, Monique’s deep passion for healthcare led her to establish Signature Health, the only proactive and preventative medical clinic in Atlantic Canada. 

My first job ever was… a YMCA Camp Counsellor for children with disabilities.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I was inspired by my family and I’ve always wanted to grow a business that fulfilled my passion and allowed me to meet my goals. 

My proudest accomplishment is… creating Signature Health and watching it grow into a successful business that is meeting its vision in helping others — while making a positive impact in their health. 

My biggest setback was… when I was not happy with how my career path was progressing. 

I overcame it by… going back to school to gain more knowledge and education to help me find new career opportunities that complimented my passion and goals. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that my dream as a little girl was to be a Pediatrician and that my favorite food is chicken nuggets and fries. 

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… surround yourself with good people who can provide valuable insights, and to work hard and never give up on your business. Watching your business succeed out-values all the challenges you might experience along the way.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is…  find a balance in life so that your business does not consume every ounce of you. 

Success to me means… progressing my business forward and providing valuable services to my clients, and making time for other important things in life, like my family.  

I stay inspired by… by the success stories of my clients and the health changes they are making.  

My next step is… to build on our current achievement and have Signature Health offer more extensive and comprehensive services such as more diagnostic testing. 

Meet Larissa Crawford, Founder and Managing Director of Future Ancestors Services

Larissa is a published Indigenous and anti-racism researcher, award-winning ribbon skirt artist, restorative circle keeper, and proudly passes on Métis and Jamaican ancestry to her daughter, Zyra. She is the Founder of Future Ancestors Services, a youth-led professional services social enterprise that advances equity and climate justice through lenses of ancestral accountability and anti-racism. Larissa is a CohortX Climate Justice Fellow, Action Canada Fellow, and a 2019 Corporate Knight’s Top 30 Under 30 in Sustainability.

I founded Future Ancestors Services because… I spent six years seeking to understand the sector, its gaps, and the opportunities to ethically create something new. One thing I was taught in my undergraduate International Development Studies program, and later in working in the non-profit granting sector, was that non-profit and humanitarian sectors are driven by a capitalist understanding of competition. There is an over saturation of organizations doing relatively the same things, thus raising the competition amongst them for sparse grant and sponsor dollars. Work may be rushed, may be done inappropriately, and the impact may be inflated in recognition of this competition. 

In being taught this, I was very conscious of not wanting to start something before I knew it addressed a need that wasn’t being addressed by another organization doing really good work. Furthermore, I wanted to find a way to contribute to a necessary shift of the influence competition has on how organizations and people working for social and environmental justice operate. 

After being offered one too many contracts that were clearly not a fit for me (and were likely being offered simply because I was the only Indigenous or Black speaker a client could find), I made the conscious decision to build my former business, Larissa Crawford Speaks, into something more. Instead of competing against other diverse service providers, who too face disproportionate barriers and are working to achieve the same goals of climate justice and equity, I saw the opportunity to shift our approach and business model from the traditional understanding of competition. Yes, we have a small team to deliver services directly under Future Ancestors Services, and yes, one of our support services, the Future Ancestors Constellation, promotes and supports service deliverers that would be our expected competitors; but, by uplifting their voices and their services, I understand this as contributing to our shared goals of creating more spaces that are equitable and that contribute to climate justice in what is currently Canada and around the world. This is social innovation in the interest of the well-being of our future generations and Mother Earth.

I knew what kind of leader I wanted to be; I knew how I wanted to treat my team. I knew that I wanted Future Ancestors Services to be a space of employment where we could feel respected, honoured, and when we didn’t feel that way, to feel like we could say something about it and it would be acted upon.

The best thing I’ve done for my business so far isnot prioritizing Western business education, and trusting in the direction I receive from my cultural communities and self. While facing ageism, racism, sexism, and ableism in most of my previous employment experiences, I got through that time by always taking note of what I appreciated and did not appreciate about how I was managed, how our teams were structured, and how the organization operated. When I left my last job in November 2019, I knew what kind of leader I wanted to be; I knew how I wanted to treat my team. I knew that I wanted Future Ancestors Services to be a space of employment where we could feel respected, honoured, and when we didn’t feel that way, to feel like we could say something about it and it would be acted upon. 

Some things we do differently stem directly from root causes that fostered undesirable workplace environments. For example, we prioritize a decolonized experience of time, where we are encouraged to set clear boundaries about our available time and capacity to meet aggressive deadlines. Like many of the ways we operate, I trusted in myself and my team to formulate a new way of doing business that we haven’t necessarily seen or experienced before. We carry wisdom through our lived experiences, and our business model is a direct result of our collective efforts to harness, act, and again, trust that wisdom.

My best advice to people starting out in business is… don’t do it alone. Group projects in school and work had me convinced I would never enjoy working in a team as much as I enjoy working independently. My first step to checking that assumption was to critically reflect on my deficit skills and personality traits, especially of ones that I could imagine being valuable and even necessary in starting a new business. The next step was looking in my network at people who are just as committed to me about the mandate I’m founding my business on; in my case, this was equity and climate justice. Finally, I sought to build relationships with my team members before approaching them to work with me, and after I did approach them I prioritized getting to know them as people. I am now working with the most phenomenal team I’ve ever had, a team that has become a support system, friend group, and a source of accountability.

We carry wisdom through our lived experiences, and our business model is a direct result of our collective efforts to harness, act, and again, trust, that wisdom.

My biggest setback was… being diagnosed with a chronic pain disability at 23 years old. My chronic pain definitely became my biggest barrier to my work, with a lack of understanding about and outright resistance to reasonable medical accommodations from my employers leading to working conditions that triggered hospitalizing pain flares and deteriorating physical health. But I also played a role in my deteriorating health… In November 2018, I delivered a Tedx Talk about being intentional about one’s impact and self-care regime. The irony of this was that I left at the staircase to the stage my cane, which I was using amid a pain flare that was brought on by my inability and outright resistance to honour my body’s need to rest. Up until my diagnosis of chronic pelvic inflammatory disease in August 2018, I was accustomed to an energy-intensive, jet-set schedule. My resentment to the perceived failure of my body only fueled my desire to prove that I could return to ‘normal.’

I overcame it by… Several hospitalizations, two surgeries, and months of recovery later, I find myself in a place of more peace and self-awareness. I put into practice what I preach with the recognition that I cannot be the best mother, daughter, sister, partner, and community member if I am not my best self, and that I too am worthy of the care and love I afford to those around me. With this understanding, I will continue to actively engage in the following practices while seeking new opportunities to grow this list. One of these practices includes land-based fitness; through therapy sessions and Elder hours I have come to understand that sharing land-based fitness activities with my family and friends is a significant determinant to my mental and physical health. I honour this need by regularly engaging in long-distance runs, walks, and hikes in the prairies and mountains, and in showing my gratitude through ceremony and meditation. 

There are better realities for future generations, and we can play a role in shaping those realities.

I stay inspired by…  the frontline activists and organizers advancing climate justice and ensuring that climate action is not separated from Indigenous sovereignty and racial justice. These people carry immense power in shaping the public, economic, political discourse and expectations, and they’re using this power to hold people, business, and states accountable to honouring people and Earth by any means necessary. While I participate in rallies and protests, I respect and actively support the labour of leading and organizing the frontline movement. They are required to be expert event planners, social service providers, and so much more, all while being unpaid in most instances. Witnessing and partaking in the fruits of their activism keeps me grounded in my own work, and in ensuring that my contributions to climate justice remain centered in land, community, and radical systemic change. 

The future excites me because… I find a great sense of empowerment and hope in understanding history, specifically the history of the emergence of ‘race’ and racism as we know it. It is not a universal truth that humans have always organized along racial hierarchies of superiority and inferiority; ‘race’ was not evident in ancient English texts, and its emergence coincided with the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. In understanding the colonial and capitalist interests in rationalizing groups of people as ‘less than,’ and in realizing that it is not inherent or natural for humans to divide ourselves in the way we experience now, I find power in our collective agency to imagine realities beyond what we know today. There are better realities for future generations, and we can play a role in shaping those realities.

My next step is… building out the internal infrastructure of Future Ancestors Services to meet the surge in demand we’ve experienced in our first four months of operations. We are currently managing about 100 clients and have tens of thousands in our online community, and because our team is so committed and pretty great at what we do, from the outside I think it seems like we’re working with a lot more than we actually have! My next step is to seek out more human support, like an Executive Assistant, and the financial resources to ethically compensate these administrative roles. One of my most cherished mentors, Meredith Alder from Student Energy, knows my life well and the Executive Assistant comes as her number one recommended next step!

Meet Kyla Lee, Barrister and Solicitor of Kyla Lee Law and Finalist for the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards in the WEKH Micro-Business category.

With a passion for legal education and access, Kyla Lee is a finalist for the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards in the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award category. Through her law corporation Kyla Lee Law, she provides legal services to other lawyers in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and volunteers as a mentor at the Canadian Bar Association and Women Lawyers Federation.

My first job ever was…. a part-time position over the summer at my dad’s school when I was 10 years old. I mostly did light administrative tasks like making mailout packages and stamping textbooks. But I loved the experience and the idea of being useful and having something to do. 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I always wanted to be my own boss, and to pursue my ideas. I know that my best investment possible is in myself and being an entrepreneur is investing in yourself and your future. If you believe in that and work hard for it, it pays off. 

My proudest accomplishment is… continuing to find new ways to innovate in the legal field. A lot of people feel the law is something that can’t change and adapt and I am living proof that this is not the case at all. 

My biggest setback was… letting other people’s criticism of me hold me back from my full potential. There were people who told me what I was doing was wrong or too different or unique, and that it made them look bad. For a long time I watered myself down to conform to what others wanted. 

I overcame it by… making a conscious decision to be unapologetically myself. Even when others find that weird or different or criticize me, I am going to continue to be true to who I am and push boundaries. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I not-so-secretly run a YouTube channel where I rate and review unusual chip flavours that I have obtained from all over the world. I’ve rated and reviewed crab, spicy squid, garlic, voodoo flavours and more!

My best advice for small business owners is… Don’t forget to focus as much on your actual work as you do on your marketing. If your customers cannot find you because you do not have a good web presence and active social media, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best in the world at what you do. 

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… to take time for myself. Even when I book time off for a vacation I find myself taking calls and checking my email and working on little tasks. 

When starting my business, I wish I knew…  where I would end up today. I think I would have felt a lot less stress and had far fewer moments of imposter syndrome if I knew that I would be successful and happy and having fun doing what I do every day. 

The future excites me because… I have no idea what it holds! But I know that I will have opportunities to help my clients, to market in innovative ways, and to continue to challenge myself and others every single day. 

Success to me means… living your truth and working hard.

Meet Nancy O’Halloran, Owner and CEO of BraveHeart First Aid and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Finalist in the WEKH Micro-Business Award category.

Nancy O’Halloran is a finalist for the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards in the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award category. With a focus on building confidence in individuals and strengthening her community in Nova Scotia, Nancy is the owner and CEO of BraveHeart First Aid, the largest, independent First Aid training and equipment provider in Nova Scotia. 

 

My first job ever was…keeping people safe and protected in the waters surrounding PEI, as a SurfGuard.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I felt that with my unique talents and personality, I could create a service that would make a difference in my community.

 My proudest accomplishment is… each and every time I receive a testimonial describing the impact BraveHeart has had in saving a life or helping people as a first aider. 

My biggest setback was… when I endeavored to break into a then male dominated industry.

I overcame it by… applying a strong work ethic, creating a characteristic approach, and developing a distinctive teaching style.  

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know…the depth of my pride in being a female Indigenous entrepreneur finding success in a specialized industry.

My best advice for small business owners is… approach everything with heart. Show your team respect and gratitude, and always let them know how valued they are. Strive to be the employer for whom everyone wishes to work.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… learn to be comfortable with saying “no”.

When starting my business, I wish I knew… the importance of surrounding myself with a team who shares my mission, vision, and passion for BraveHeart.

The future excites me because my passion continues to burn bright; my goals are attainable, and my heart is still strong. 

Success to me means… leaving my heart print on the lives of those I meet.

Meet Laura Burget, Co-founder of Three Ships and the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award Recipient in the WEKH Micro-Business category.

Laura Burget is the recipient of a 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award in the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award category. As a life-long supporter of businesses with high ethical standards, her journey into entrepreneurship began at the ripe age of 9 when she sold handmade crafts and jewelry at her elementary school to raise money for endangered animals. Now, as the co-founder of Three Ships, she develops natural and effective alternatives to every-day beauty products. 

My first job ever was… as a lifeguard at the local YMCA.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I love the creativity, excitement and risk that comes along with being an entrepreneur. I thrive in fast-paced environments and get bored really easily. Being an entrepreneur means that no day is ever the same!

My proudest accomplishment is… launching Three Ships with just $4,000 and zero connections. At the time, it was all that we had to work with and so we didn’t see this as making us an underdog. Looking back though, I realize how uncommon it is to build a 7 figure business from nothing, and I’m extremely proud of the brand we’ve built and the impact that we have had in just 3 short years. 

My biggest setback was… failing a semester in second year university and having to repeat it. In order to stay in the program I was in, you had to maintain an average of 60% and I just barely missed this.

I overcame it by… realizing that I was hugely over-extended. I was running two companies, leading several clubs and managing a full engineering course load at the same time. It was way too much for me to manage and my grades ended up suffering. I came back and focused on consistently doing my work each day, allowing me to double my grade in several classes. I went from being in the bottom 10% my class to being in the top 10%.

This experience taught me a valuable lesson – everyone is capable of greatness. My outcome in what I take on in life is based on the sustained effort that I put in. My 3rd and 4th year marks were stellar and I definitely learned how to better balance work and social life. In the end, I’m grateful for this experience as I learned so much from it and it’s made me a more self-assured, balanced person. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I can solve a Rubrik’s cube in under a minute. 

My best advice for small business owners is… surround yourself with great partners and advocates of you and your business. These connections will serve you far more than you could imagine and will help to keep you sane.

The once piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… 

Don’t compare yourself and where you are to others and where they are! So much easier said than done. Especially in business, no team or company ever has things as “under control” or “figured out” as you think.

When starting my business, I wish I knew… more about how the venture capital space worked. Being properly funded is so important for all start-ups and it’s a space that we had to learn from scratch. Knowing more about how to raise money and structure a round would have saved us a lot of time. 

The future excites me because… we’re only just getting started with our mission at Three Ships! The world is so connected now that I truly believe that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

Success to me means… knowing that even if you were to die tomorrow, you would have lived your life without regrets. No “shoulds”, “coulds” or “woulds”. We only have one life!

Meet Eno Eka, Founder and CEO of Eny Consulting and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Eno Eka is a recipient of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. She is the Founder and CEO of Eny Consulting — a boutique consulting company — where she provides coaching and professional development services to help immigrants kick-start their careers in Canada. 

My first job ever was… an accounting intern after high school.

I decided to be an entrepreneur… because I always had that entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to own my business. I was the president of the Junior Achievement Club in my high school and we had to start several businesses as projects, and I enjoyed it. I then went on to start my little bookstore business at the age of 15, reselling my old books to my classmates.

My proudest accomplishment is… winning the Women of Inspiration Award for Mentorship in 2019 after 18 months of relocation to Canada.

My boldest move to date was… moving to Canada all by myself!

I surprise people when I tell them that… I have no family in Canada, have lived here for just 2 years now and I am under 30.

I knew it was time to launch my business when I… was approached with an opportunity and had to render my services as a business and not an employee.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… to just start, take imperfect actions because done is better than perfect.

My best advice from a mentor was… to focus on impact and the income will follow.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… nothing good comes easy and I do the work no matter how I feel.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… sleep in for another hour!!!

I stay inspired by… my mother, my mentors and the amazing students I get to coach in my programs.

The future excites me because… I know it is just the beginning— I am on a global mission to educate people all over the world.

My next step is… to expand my business into new countries and keep learning from the best business mentors globally

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

By Shelley White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi, Founder of Divity Group Inc. and Accelerate Her Future

Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi (she/her) is a facilitator, educator, researcher, published author, social entrepreneur and an advocate for gender and racial equality. With a combined 15 years in corporate marketing with large multinationals and 14 years spent designing and delivering transformative learning experiences focused on youth, women and early career leaders, Golnaz is Founder of Divity Group Inc., through which she provides facilitation, learning and program design, as well as leadership development and equity and inclusion education. She launched her legacy project,  Accelerate Her Future in 2019, a career accelerator for early career racialized women pursuing careers in business and tech. She holds an MBA from the University of British Columbia and a Doctor of Business Administration from Athabasca University.  

 

My first job ever was … at my mom’s women’s clothing store, which she shortly opened after we immigrated to Canada out of necessity and to financially support me and my brother through school. With little English, zero business background and limited understanding of Canadian practices, witnessing her struggles and triumphs taught me the power of persistence, agency, and resistance in the face of circumstances which were less than ideal at times. Working in the family business, I received first-hand experience into operations, marketing and sales and the day-to-day challenges of running a small business. My mom role modeled what it means to be strong, resourceful, and resilient especially during a time when there were no communities and support for women in business like we have today. 

I founded ‘Accelerate Her Future’ because… I recognized the gaps in career and professional development programming tailored to the unique experiences of racialized women in college and university and in their early careers, especially at a pivotal time in their lives. As a leadership educator and feminist scholar, I have dedicated my research, teaching, and mentoring to better understand the experiences and needs of early career racialized women. I decided to take this work into the community because we need programs that are tailored and that apply an intersectional lens. I launched Accelerate Her Future in 2019 as a career accelerator that seeks to do just that through network building, skill and career advocacy development, and mentorship while fostering cultures of allyship and advocacy to affect transformative change.

Leaders should prioritize diversity at all levels of their organization because… diversity is our strength and representation matters. Early career talent can’t be what they can’t see. Although I will say that a focus on diversity is not enough. We also need organizations that prioritize inclusion, equity, and justice. Racialized women are highly educated yet are missing from decision making tables. What’s more they experience a labyrinth of barriers within workplaces from the very first promotion opportunity. They also don’t typically have the same access to influential networks, mentorship, and sponsorship in our workplaces. While white women have made advances into leadership roles, this is not the case for racialized women, especially Black and Indigenous women. We need to do more. We need to do better. Representation matters.

 

Be clear about your values, what you stand for and the impact of your decisions. Your values and your integrity are your compass. 

 

My proudest accomplishment is … completing my doctorate in my 40’s while working full time and raising a young child. During my first doctoral course, I was introduced to critical theoretical perspectives including intersectional and postcolonial feminist theory by my professor who later became my supervisor. As I delved deeper into understanding how our history informs our modern day, the impact and legacies of colonization, I felt compelled to take action.

I surprise people when I tell them… I am a certified meditation instructor. I began on my meditation and mindfulness journey during a particularly tough year when I felt stuck with my doctoral dissertation research and after a car accident left me in a lot of pain. I found grounding, focus and calm in this practice as well as greater self-compassion and connection to my whole self. We need to bring our whole selves into different facets of our lives, especially work —– head, heart/emotions, and body. Over time, I’ve begun integrating mind-body connection and energy leadership into my teaching, facilitation, and learning design.  

My best advice to people starting out in business is…  to be clear about your values, what you stand for and the impact of your decisions. Your values and your integrity are your compass. Lead with ethics and moral character. Beyond scandals like Enron and the 2008 financial crisis, we’re also seeing growing inequalities, climate change and other complex global challenges. While business plays an important role in the economy, leaders have a moral imperative to contribute more toward the betterment of society placing greater focus on people, planet and profit. 

 

Embrace who you are, especially the things that make you different. Only you get to define you.

 

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… trust in your own abilities, decisions, ideas, and voice. This is especially difficult when you find yourself in spaces where you’re one of few or the only racialized woman. I’ll never forget years ago being invited to present a new program I had led to design and launch at a departmental committee. Immediately after my presentation two male peers went on the attack in a demeaning and inappropriate way. My team and I had invested a year in research, consultations, iterative pilots, and had launched the program successfully. To have me and my work minimized and marginalized was hard and the imposter syndrome aftermath was real. I promised myself to never allow anyone to speak to me or other women, especially racialized women, that way again.

I would tell my 20-year old self… this powerful quote by Audre Lorde that embodies what I’d tell my 20-year old self who felt her differences acutely:  “If I didn’t define myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.” Embrace who you are, especially the things that make you different. Only you get to define you.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be…  my relationships. While life has taught me to be resilient and never give up in the face of challenge, my community and relationships have been essential to my success. These relationships started in my youth with a few notable teachers and professors who invested in my potential, provided mentorship, and connected me to their networks. Their impact on my life was significant and transformative, especially as a racialized immigrant youth. These early experiences are what inspire me to do everything I do focused on early career women.

I stay inspired by… the brilliant, talented young women that I have the privilege to get to know through Accelerate Her Future, get to teach and mentor, and get to work with every day. I was recently asked by a young leader what solutions I see in response to the systemic barriers racialized women face in our workplaces. My response, the very same young women that I see every day stepping into their leadership and potential who are responding to these complex issues with solutions, projects, volunteerism, activism, and entrepreneurial ideas.

The future excites me because… I see so many people, especially young people, stepping into their leadership potential and working in solidarity to challenge the status quo. A little while ago I was approached by a women’s facing student club at a large University that wanted to do more meaningful anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism work. After a mentorship conversation with the student executive, I have been excited by the bold and courageous work they have done in solidarity with other clubs on campus. These brilliant courageous young talented minds are our future and I feel we are in good hands.

My next step is… My next step is to continue to build Accelerate Her Future into a sustainable national online career accelerator. My team and I are gearing up to re-launch our website and new flagship program and looking to engage corporate/business sponsors and partners who believe in our mission of accelerating Black, Indigenous and racialized women in their careers and have a genuine commitment to equity and justice.

Maryam and Nivaal interview director and writer, Erica Milsom.

In our third interview for our Perspectives column, we interviewed the amazing Erica Milsom. We first met Erica during training we had when we were filmmakers in Disney’s Dream Big Princess Project, and have loved watching her journey ever since. Erica is a Film Director and Writer at Pixar, who has worked on films such as Loop (2020), So Much Yellow (2017) and Academy Award-winning Inside Out (2015). In her role as Pixar’s Director of Behind-The-Scenes Documentary Content, Erica has worked on short films that accompany the release of Pixar Animation Studios Films, such as Ratatouille, Brave, and many more. Her short film Loop was part of Pixar’s SparkShorts series, and features the story of how two kids on a canoe with different ways of communicating (including a girl with autism) attempt to connect.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

When I was eighteen, I took a documentary filmmaking class — and it’s weird because I don’t think any other class in my whole life took as much of my brain space and kind of made my other grades suffer quite as much as that one class. 

We worked like crazy on these small documentaries, and I learned quite a lot about storytelling, about the character in front of you, the potential form of telling your story, the technical end of capturing it and making sure that it looks as good as possible, that it sounds as good as possible, that it has an eloquence to its flow. And then, twelve years later, I thought, “Oh, maybe you should do that for a job.” 

And the funny thing is, I would have never imagined that as my job. I think it was partially a failure of imagination on my part, but maybe it was also that I had never seen anybody like me having that job. I just didn’t know that would be possible. 

So I spent the rest of my twenties doing work internationally and in multiple communities in the Bay Area in non-formal education, meeting people, and I’m super happy that I did. Because I feel like the stories that I gathered during that time and the kinds of people I met were so varied, exciting and different from my own. I got a broader sense of what the human experience is from a village in Nepal, to the back streets of Oakland, to mental health facilities in San Fransisco. All of those places are not places that I would have had access to just as a filmmaker necessarily, but as the person that I was and the hopes that I had for helping in non-formal education, I got a lot of new stories. 

And then, when I was 29, I started a graduate program in vocational education, and I realized that I don’t like graduate school. It’s kind of weird when you get to a point in your career where you’re like, the next step isn’t interesting. You have to go back and say, “What have you loved? What do you want to do?” and that thing that I had loved, was that documentary class. So I got an internship and started from the bottom as an assistant editor in this really small educational documentary place, and that feeling I had in college, that there’s so much to learn, has never stopped since then. I started when I was 30 and just turned 50 this year, so I’ve had 20 years of unbelievable learning, and I think that’s the thing I find wonderful about this career. 

In filmmaking, there’s a huge community of people who are looking for solutions together and that’s part of why it’s such a transforming technical and creative field. People are talking to each other, and building things together, across the platforms and across the nations. It’s really exciting. 

That’s amazing, what a great answer. That brings us to our next question, which is what was the biggest challenge that you came across when you were starting your career in filmmaking, and how did you overcome it?

My first challenge was seeing myself in it, and saying, you should try, you might be really good at this. At the beginning I wasn’t maybe great at it, but I think the part of me that is curious and engaging, and can connect with a person in front of the camera, is the part of me that has stayed with me the whole time and makes me a really great director, a good writer, and a good editor, because I have a sense of compassion for the person in front of me. Despite not seeing anyone like myself, despite not knowing a lot about films (it wasn’t like I was obsessed with watching films and deconstructing how they worked), I knew how to connect with a person and bring in an authentic and vulnerable voice to the screen. I think that was important to see. 

The second thing was, when you start out, you’re in these roles that are very low on the totem pole. I started out at this very boutique place (boutique meaning the basement of a guy’s house) being an assistant editor, and there were all these technical things that were really hard to solve, and I learned how to solve them. Things would blow up or there’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong in post-production, and you feel so scared that you ruined it. And there are resources, and I think it’s important to learn how to relax and say that nothing is permanent in the world of digital, but, solutions take a methodical approach to solving, and you need to be able to go out, look for resources and not be afraid to ask for help. 

Even the most confident and educated people in the realm of technology, sometimes have a challenge that they don’t know how to address, and they ask for help. So that was a huge challenge in the beginning, and it taught me this massive lesson about not only thinking that I had to solve everything. In filmmaking, there’s a huge community of people who are looking for solutions together and that’s part of why it’s such a transforming technical and creative field. People are talking to each other, and building things together, across the platforms and across the nations. It’s really exciting. 

That’s definitely a really great point, and a useful point too. Because I think it was in 2015, we went on a trip to Pakistan and we made this whole documentary, but we lost all the footage while editing. It was so devastating, and we were so young at the time. It wasn’t like we wanted to stop filmmaking, but we wanted to go back right then and just do it again. And so I think that point about looking to others for help and asking for support is really important. 

Yes! Well, I feel you. I’m so sorry that happened. The fact that it did not deter you!  

It’s okay! Last year we actually made our documentary about girls’ education in Pakistan and it was like a grown-up version of that one, and it was so much better, so it worked out in the end. 

That’s awesome!

Every human being has something that connects them to another human being. I just believe that if we spend enough time together, we’ll find a way to see value in each other’s experience. Because we’re story-driven people. We’re curious. At our core, we humans are curious and interested in the story of life. And the different stories of life are powerful. They’re ways we connect, and ways that we’re different.

What has the experience of working at Pixar been like for you, and how would you describe your journey with the company?

I’ve been at Pixar for about fifteen years. I started on Finding Nemo, on a documentary called Making Nemo. It was very funny going from this very small studio where there were two of us who were full-time employees, to a studio full of people who were collaborating together, and giving each other notes, and making things better. Before that, I had always been in small places and risen to the top kind of fast, and that was not going to happen at Pixar. There’s a lot of top to get through! And I actually grew to really appreciate that. The hierarchy of experience and insight, and how you could come in and learn your slice of the pie, and be appreciated for it. You also got to sit next to someone who was doing either the thing above you or two things above you, and watch them, and they would critique you and give you feedback. 

Being a documentary filmmaker at a studio means that any question you have at any point over your entire existence there, you can ask anybody. People are really warm, and they’re inviting, and I think everyone in the studio is passionate about the work and curious. And they’re always trying to improve. And each new film is its own new problem, so they’re trying to address those problems, and grow and transform. 

I’ve had this lucky role, where I just spin around and ask everybody about every stage of it. So like, how does the rendering equation work? I kind of know that now, which is a very weird thing to know! But it’s also, how does writing for Toy Story work? What is a challenge that a new director might face when they’re working on a franchise film that has all these rules and all this underpinning, but you have to open up the next story? What is the importance of specularity on a skin? What is the difference between transforming our human representation from the old days when it was mostly white characters, to now trying to transform just even the skin tone of our characters, and let’s make sure that that feels right and honest. I feel really grateful for that studio, because I’ve gotten to listen to so many brilliant people talk about the thing that they love. 

I’ve taken one filmmaking class in my life really, and then, I’ve been at Pixar for 15 years, taking this never-ending, beautiful class with the people there. So I love this studio, I think it’s an amazing place and it feels like a campus to me. It feels like a place where everyone is learning constantly, and in the best way, we’re making something together all the time, and then evaluating that and thinking, “Okay what can we take from that to the next thing?” 

That’s so amazing, and that brings us to our questions about your film Loop! It was so awesome to see and we loved watching it. Would you be able to tell us, what was the process of creating the film like, and what inspired you to create the film?

It was definitely inspired by the time I had spent when I was taking this year of part-time work (I’d just been working really hard for a while and I thought, I’m going to try and get my head back together). I immediately found out that working part-time made me miss my friends at work. So I needed to make some new friends, and I went and did this volunteer gig over at a centre for artists with disabilities called NIAD near me. And that year I did this thing on acting for the screen, and eventually taught a class on performance. But in the beginning, I was just volunteering and there were a lot of people in that studio who didn’t communicate through speaking. And I didn’t know what to do, so I would just fill up the empty space with Erica chatter and that didn’t get me closer to them. It took a while to kind of figure out how to connect with those folks. And it was really important to me. They were cool artists. They were really interesting people. I wanted to connect. And a lot of it turned out to be just hanging out and waiting, and opening up the space, and listening with that part of me that’s not listening for language. Like watching body movements, and watching the way that they responded, the small moves that they made, that kind of stuff.

So that was formulating in my head, and that experience made me think about this idea of a character like me, who is very chatty and didn’t know what to do, and a character who didn’t speak. And then as I came back to Pixar with that idea. I also wanted to put it on a canoe, because I really wanted it to be a happy story, and weirdly, canoeing makes me happier than almost anything in the world. And it’s a good trap for two characters, to make a small, fast movie. 

The SparkShorts are made in six months, and for Pixar time, that’s lightning fast. From the moment you write it, you feel like you’re just on this, “Go! Go! Go!” I just wanted it to be two characters and have them trapped, kind of like that buddy movie thing with these two people in opposition and how they find their way to a connection. So that was the inspiration. 

I hope that having more women in film means that we’re all looking a little deeper into our experiences and saying, “Oh! I’m going to look at another side of what I’ve always done and see what I haven’t said there or what I haven’t tried there.”

 

That’s awesome! What is the main message that you would like viewers to take away from the film, and why do you think it’s important for films to feature characters with diverse backgrounds and abilities?

That’s a great question! Well, the main message is just that you might not quite understand how to connect with someone, you might be afraid and judge someone because they feel different than you, and some element of their behaviour frightens you because it’s different. But if you relax, and let yourself be unguarded, you will find connection. 

Every human being has something that connects them to another human being. I just believe that if we spend enough time together, we’ll find a way to see value in each other’s experience. Because we’re story-driven people. We’re curious. At our core, we humans are curious and interested in the story of life. And the different stories of life are powerful. They’re ways we connect, and ways that we’re different. 

For me, the message was that there is a way to connect even if you think there’s not. You just have to look for it. You just have to let yourself find it.

And I’m unbelievably excited about more voices coming to the screen, about more authentic representations of people’s identity, of their experience, of their point of view. It’s fun storytelling. We’re not going to listen where there will be some elements of the same story over and over again, because there are some elements of life that are pretty profound, and themes that are resonant across any identity, but the nuance and the power of our difference, and the excitement of that, to me is just really rich and I’m super stoked to see that on-screen. 

Definitely. What are the ways in which women filmmakers can contribute to the film industry, and how can companies create spaces to celebrate their voices and their work?

It’s not like we speak a different language as women, but we have maybe a different way of expressing ourselves, and maybe have different aesthetics and style that we want to bring to the screen. Things that have been important to us in our childhood or our lives. If we’re portraying kids, it’s like, “I remember this girl being my very best friend.” For Pixar, it excites people to have that new, powerful, excited voice. . 

I hope that having more women in film means that we’re all looking a little deeper into our experiences and saying, “Oh! I’m going to look at another side of what I’ve always done and see what I haven’t said there or what I haven’t tried there.” And I hope that women, who are all walking into this role feel that sort of confidence. I think it’s hard to feel confident in a new place. A lot of times you come in with a sense of uncertainty and worry. You want to do a great job, and I think it’s good to have that drive in any career. But you should have confidence that what you have has value, and it’s going to be exciting for the people around you, and that relationship of finding something new together is going to push everyone forward. You should know that in yourself when you walk into that role, and feel like you’re here to give something new to our community. I feel like that is something that I’m going to always take with me.

Announcing the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Finalists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2020 Recipients of the Ones to Watch Award are:

The 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award Finalists are:

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

Meet Janét Aizenstros, the Chairwoman & CEO of A 9-Figure Company, Ahava Group Global (AGG)

Dr. Janét Aizenstros is the Chairwoman and CEO of Ahava Group Global (AGG) — a women-led modern media parent company that serves Fortune and multinational media companies in fifteen locations globally. This year, she reached a new height in her career when she scaled Ahava Group Global to nine-figures. She is an internationally recognized leader and is the creator of the first impact fund in Canada led by an Afro-Canadian woman that focuses on women entrepreneurs creating social impact through technology. 

 

My first job ever was… helping my mom clean houses and offices when I was a kid for secondary income. Then eventually when I was old enough to get a real job, I worked for Zellers as a cashier.

My proudest accomplishment is… being a mom of two little people who are two of the brightest people I’ve met.  My proudest professional accomplishment is having the fastest-growing, women-led digital consultancy globally founded by a black woman.  

Being the Chairwoman & CEO of Ahava Group Global is… exciting. It is such a tremendous honour to serve people who just love helping others. The women and men who are employed by AGG globally have been some of the most amazing people I have ever met. They want to help, learn and support the vision of our clients who I’m proud to serve. Many of my employees have worked for Ahava Group Global since it’s launch in 2011, and we just keep growing!

My boldest move to date was… becoming a lead investor in a data center in the United States which led to me working with other Sovereigns, Monarchs and world governments including billionaire investors and Fortune companies. 

I surprise people when I tell them… I wanted to be a singer. Actually, in my high school yearbook, I was voted most likely to be famous. Everyone thought it would be for singing, however, entrepreneurship is the blessing that gave me a life with purpose and a life worth living. I am happier to have travelled this path than the path of fame. I don’t know if I would have created the same impact or changed the lives I have in a tangible way. 

I would tell my 21-year old self… slow down. There is no rush. Just be intentional. Intentionality is an art that is fueled by feeling and being present for the experience. 

 

The future of entrepreneurship is intentional, soul-driven leadership that focuses on business that is resourceful to create sustainability.

 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… be honest about why you want to be an entrepreneur. The future of entrepreneurship is intentional, soul-driven leadership that focuses on business that is resourceful to create sustainability. Don’t become an entrepreneur just because it is a trending fad. You won’t make it. Like Steve Jobs said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Entrepreneurship is the survival of the fittest. It’s hard as hell but those that can endure will reap the rewards of it.

My biggest professional influences have been… I have many amazing people around me, there are too many people in my network to choose from. I would say, Michelle Obama. It’s amazing seeing and meeting a black woman that reminds me of me. I love everything about her. Her mindset is what I strongly resonate with in terms of never letting anyone define who you are or allowing society to make you believe that you are less than. I grew up in a community that strongly supported my growth and vision for the person I became today.

My biggest setback was… I have had a few. I would say divorce and everything divorce entailed. Even ending a marriage on amicable terms is still heart-wrenching combined with financial setbacks around a divorce. It can be derailing to most people to the point they can’t get back up again.

I overcame it by… I put in the work to become a better person mentally and emotionally. Through podcasting, I connected with many world-renowned leaders who became mentors and friends who aided and supported me on my journey. I transformed because it was my choice to become better. I desired change for me and my children. I was relentless in my pursuit of joy and peace for my family. I already had a core foundation of discipline, consistency and focus.

The most challenging thing about what I do is… in business you can’t please everyone. I focus on ensuring I can look at myself everyday in the mirror — knowing I gave it my best and did the best I could possibly do. 

Work/life balance is… I don’t believe in balance, but harmony. I stay harmonious by ensuring all my personal wells of capacity are filled daily. I have a great team of people around me personally and professionally to ensure my success. I prioritize my life by putting me first, family second, and business third. I relax when on vacation. I take self-care time when I am travelling for business, too.

I stay inspired by… doing everything that is fueled by my soul. I believe in soul leadership. I am inspired by my community, the women I mentor, my friends, my family, my children and my life partner. I believe God gives us the ability to see the Source’s presence in everything. 

The future excites me because… there is complete uncertainty. The possibilities are endless for me professionally and personally. 

My next step is… I am currently completing another book, film and album. COVID-19 may have dampened the world but I see it as a wonderful opportunity to get reconnected to our passions, redefining our missions, and clarifying our visions. 

 

Q&A: How Monika Jaroszonek is adapting to a new normal.

Monika has always been fascinated by dynamic cities. She believes that technology can be used to build more liveable cities through increased density, affordable housing, well-designed municipalities, and better access to urban information. After 15 years in the architecture industry, Monika co-founded Ratio.City, a proptech company that helps city builders make data-driven decisions for urban transformation. Since launching in 2018, Ratio.City has become a trusted source of information for some of Canada’s largest real estate developers and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). Monika is frequently asked to speak about the future of city building and the intersection of real estate and technology. She shares how she plans further for her business, what areas are getting the bulk of her attention, and advice for other entrepreneurs.

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus? 

I’m focused on reframing these unusual times to see the unique opportunities. It is of critical importance to not only keep moving our business forward but be able to contribute meaningfully to the greater discussions about how our cities and urban areas can thrive in the coming months and years.

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?

For my entire career, I have been focused on answering the hard questions about cities: how can we house a growing urban population sustainably with limited resources? How can we build better, more liveable and equitable cities? How can we empower professionals to access critical information more easily in order to allow them to focus on solving complex problems about our built environment?

What has been your most successful solution so far? 

Our platform allows professionals in the City Building space to access, visualize and analyze urban data. We take fragmented and siloed information and make it accessible and searchable, and allow anyone doing any kind of business in cities to derive complex, geospatial insights. 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees? 

Like everyone else these days, we are using video conferencing to the extreme. We are in a fairly traditional industry where in-person meetings were the norm and we have been able to develop relationships over time as a result. It is much harder to read a room or react dynamically to an audience via video conferencing so we have to be very conscious to actively listen and give space to others to react. We have a number of weekly team meetings where we can share information and make collective decisions, and I have also started having regular one on one meetings with employees to be able to check in informally.  

What financial resources are you tapping into?

In times of uncertainty, we have been looking at the financial implications of the extreme scenarios and modelling them up. Once we have a game plan in place for both the worst case and best case, we can get back to work confident that reality will fall somewhere between the two extremes and we can adjust accordingly as more information becomes available. 

 

“It is of critical importance to not only keep moving our business forward but be able to contribute meaningfully to the greater discussions about how our cities and urban areas can thrive in the coming months and years.” 

 

What has surprised you? 

We expanded our team significantly less than a year ago – we have an incredible group of diverse and talented people with a wide range of professional experiences. What has been amazing for me to watch is how they have all contributed towards a very ambitious product launch under remarkably challenging circumstances. Everyone has adjusted to new roles and responsibilities and been remarkably successful at pulling together.  

How far ahead are you planning? 

I am always looking at next week, next month, 6 months & 12 months out. As a start-up, we always need to manage immediate short term concerns but I want to always be looking to the horizon to make sure we are heading towards our larger vision. I tend to spend most of my time thinking about how to best spend my time to get us into an ideal position half a year from now.  

What keeps you positive?

I get energy from talking to customers, listening to their daily challenges, and seeing their initial reactions when they see how our platform can help them. I have also really enjoyed the creative aspect of designing a business around a complex problem.  

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now? 

Entrepreneurship has been incredibly challenging and also personally satisfying. My advice is to make sure you have a strong personal and professional support system.

Meet Canada’s role models — introducing our 2020 Top 25

Meet Canada’s most accomplished women role models.

From notable firsts to victories on the world stage, 2019 was a momentous year for Canadian women. It also saw grassroots initiatives grow, corporate cultures change, and businesses boom — all thanks to an extraordinary group of women.

This year’s Top 25 recipients represent a variety of sectors, career stages, and contributions — from athletes to activists, corporate leaders to up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Their unique achievements are impossible to compare against each other, which is why we’ve designed these awards as a celebration, rather than a ranking. 

 

“Our goal at Women of Influence is to recognize and celebrate the diverse accomplishments of role models across Canada by bringing them into the spotlight.”

 

So, what do these women have in common?  They have all left their mark over the past year: contributing to the greater good through their initiatives; using their influence to drive positive change; or reaching inspiring heights on a global stage.

To our 2020 Top 25 Women of Influence, and all the other incredible Canadian women of influence having an impact across the country, we see you, we salute you, and we thank you.

 

Who are we honouring? See the full Women of Influence Top 25 2020 list.

 

 

Meet Bobbie Racette: a woman on a mission to revolutionize the personal assistant industry

Bobbie is the Founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus, a Talent as a Service Solution platform that matches its users with the perfect North American Remote Assistant/Freelancer by using matchmaking algorithms.  Recently named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Prairies Region at the Startup Canada Awards, Bobbie is a Cree-Metis woman committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. She is a natural leader, sharing her passion by mentoring First Nations Youth who have expressed interest in Tech and Business.  

 

My first job ever was… At the age of 16, I got my first job at a Recreation Centre in Regina, Sask as a Youth Coordinator for the after school program.  I remember at the time all my friends were working in fast food chains while I was working 25 hours a week after school with Inner City Youth and Youth At Risk.  

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… Well, that’s the thing, I didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur – it chose me.  Seriously! As silly as that sounds I never in a million years would have thought that I would be an entrepreneur. I was working in Oil & Gas when I started coming up with the idea of Virtual Gurus.  I was laid off in the recession that hit Alberta and decided to just go for it. Here I am today, CEO of a fast-growing marketplace startup. 

My proudest accomplishment is… Just going for it with Virtual Gurus even when I  had no idea what would become of it. I thought it’s either going to work or not work and that I wouldn’t know unless I tried.  I feel most proud when I know that I had absolutely no experience but I did it anyway. I work as a mentor to Indigenous youth and I tell them my story all the time and if I can do it – so can they! 

My boldest move to date was… Moving someone out of their role as we did not have the same vision for the business. It’s easy for visions to go astray when working on a startup and it was important to me to keep as close to the vision as much as possible. I think it was when I did that, that I realized I CAN be a leader! 

I surprise people when I tell them… That I founded Virtual Gurus with $300 to my name and at the time needed to borrow money from my parents just to make rent.  It was a very scary yet humbling experience to pull myself through that. 

My best advice to people starting out in business is… Believe in yourself and the rest will follow.  

My best advice from a mentor was… Do what you do best and rely on others to do their best on the rest.

Do what you do best and rely on others to do their best on the rest.

I would tell my 20-year old self… You did the best with what you had, thank you for staying true to yourself and being YOU! 

My biggest setback was… Trusting the wrong people when I first launched my business.

I overcame it by… Believing in myself and the vision of the company followed by surrounding myself with people who have a passion for what we do.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is… Going home, spending time with family and feeling good about what you’ve created. 

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Take time to know each and every one of our Remote Workers, what makes them tick?  What are their inspirations? We have far too many amazing remote assistants now, I hardly know any of them.  

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I have my degree in American Sign Language,  my dream since I was young was to work with people who are hearing impaired in more of a creative way such as coming up with different sound communication tools.  

The one thing I wish I knew when starting Virtual Gurus is… Being a Founder is lonely and somewhat depressing. If I could do it all over again, I would definitely surround myself with the amazing support I have now. It’s not something you can or want to do alone, we’re humans we need support. But the satisfaction of when it all comes together definitely makes the emotional rollercoaster worth it. 

I stay inspired by… Knowing that I’m creating jobs, especially when the economy is in a downturn.  

The future excites me because… I’m just getting started!  

My next step is… To keep the focus on the Virtual Gurus’ Technology Roadmap and to keep inspiring people to pursue happiness. 

How Sally Armstrong went from phys-ed teacher to war correspondent

By Stephania Varalli

We are honouring Sally Armstrong with the 2020 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award for her decades-long dedication to sharing the stories of women and girls in conflict zones. Her work is easy to admire — providing an outlet to victims who want to have a voice, shining a light on struggles around the globe, driving change — and her journey is even more inspiring when you go back to the beginning. How did a high school phys-ed teacher with no aspirations of writing become “the war correspondent for the world’s women,” as she’s often called? How did a mom of three living in Oakville end up in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Sudan, to name a few? This is the origin story of Sally Armstrong — multi-award winning journalist, bestselling author, and human rights activist. 


 

It was 11 at night, because when there’s a war going on, it’s better to move around in the dark. Sally Armstrong had already spoken to many other women — confirming the rumours that systemic mass rape was being used as a weapon of war in the Balkans. The estimates put the number as high as 20,000 women and girls, aged 8 to 80; most of them terrified to be found out, most from families who would disown them. “I don’t want to walk away with a statistic,” Sally had said, in an interview with a local psychiatrist. “I want to tell someone’s story, but I’m very worried about exposing someone who is terrified.” 

“I know who you should meet,” he responded. And that’s how Sally ended up sitting across from Eva Penovic, in the fall of 1992.

“She began to tell her story, and honest to God, I will never in my life forget it. You could hear the bombs in the distance, and the room would light up — there is no power, just candles — but the room would light up with the explosion. And here’s this woman, she’s a peasant, a country woman, and she started to tell her story. And the crescendo of her words would rise, and she would get to her feet, and she would be punching in the air and yelling and sitting down and sweating and sort of erasing the invisible wrinkles in her apron.”

And Eva told her, “Until someone says, ‘This is my name, this is my face, this is what you did to me,’ we won’t be able to have justice.”

If I were trying to sum up Sally Armstrong’s work as a journalist, Eva’s words would do a good job of it. She has dedicated herself to sharing the accounts of women and girls, giving a face and a name to conflicts and injustices the world over. 

“The thread is always the same,” Sally says, reflecting on her decades-long career. “There’s this extraordinary attitude that women should be second-class, put down, punished, not included. It is absolutely extraordinary to me. It doesn’t matter whether you are in South Sudan or Iraq, Afghanistan or China — it’s the same thing.” 

Her narrative style immerses you in the story. She captures the facts alongside the raw emotions, and doesn’t spare you from the hard-to-read details — her allegiance is clearly to her subjects. “I feel strongly that my job is not to protect you, it is to highlight them,” says Sally, “so I don’t shy away from the horror. People will say, ‘Don’t tell that story, people can’t bear to read that.’ Then skip over the page. My job is to tell what happened.” 

And often, her job doesn’t end there. One of the valuable things about her journalism, she says, is that she “gets to go back and find out where these people ended up.” Like Eva’s children, who contacted Sally on Facebook two years ago. They were 0 to 9 years old when she met them, in the middle of a war, in desperate days. She recalls them telling her that they associated her with darkness, explosions, fear — and games. 

“Because I was a phys-ed teacher,” she explains, “so I was teaching them how to do roundoff back handsprings off the couch while the bombs were going off two kilometres away.” 

To understand the juxtaposition — bombs and back handsprings, war correspondent and phys-ed teacher — you have to go back to the beginning. 

Born and raised in Montreal, Sally stayed in her hometown to attend McGill University, where she earned a Bachelor of Education degree in 1966. She met her husband, Ross, in the first week of school, and the pair were married a year after graduating. By 1975, they were settled in Oakville, Sally was not far beyond her milestone thirtieth birthday, and pregnant with her third child. An athlete from a young age, she worked as a phys-ed teacher — content in seeing the boost in self-esteem that physical fitness could provide to girls. 

“There were people in the magazine business that thought, what is Armstrong doing over there? I didn’t listen to them — I listened to the readers.”

The first fork in the road happened almost by chance. Her husband’s boss’ wife knew she was passionate about fitness, and so gave her name to Clem Compton-Smith, an entrepreneur getting set to launch a new lifestyle magazine. Sally had no writing experience, and didn’t expect to get the job at the yet unnamed publication, but when Canadian Living made its debut in December of 1975, Sally was on the masthead.  

With no formal training her work was unpolished, but she had an ability to deliver what was captivating in a story — authenticity, vulnerability — and worked hard to hone her craft. For a decade she wrote about exercise and family life. Then, in 1986, she heard about Theresa Hicks, a Canadian nurse working with impoverished people in Liberia. Sally successfully petitioned her editor-in-chief to send her to the West African nation to cover her story. It was her first foreign assignment, and her first exposure to a country in conflict. 

Sally was hooked, and readers were enthralled. But it wasn’t the kind of story Canadian Living was used to running, and it was clear the magazine had no intentions of moving in that direction. So in 1988, when Sally was offered the role of editor-in-chief at sister publication, Homemakers, she took the job — despite having little experience with editing.

“Homemakers was always known as a thinking woman’s magazine,” says Sally. “That’s the magazine that took on loads of issues for women — and society.” 

Tasked with figuring out how to compete with Chatelaine and Canadian Living, she thought there might be an opportunity to expand the scope of what Homemakers was offering, with international stories like those of Theresa Hicks. 

“It occurred to me that women reading my magazine would want more meat on the bones of the stories we were giving them,” says Sally. “And I thought we were the magazine that should go out there and take on what was happening to women and girls around the world.” 

There was no budget to test her theory with research, so she wrote to about 300 readers to see what they thought about the idea. Astonishingly, most of them wrote back, with enough support for Sally to take a chance. As part of her hiring, she had agreed to write two to three major features each year, and “it was a lot cheaper to send me than somebody else. It really began that way.” 

It wasn’t an easy road. “When I began, by myself, doing something that most editors at women’s magazines were not doing — and I felt the pressure of getting that story, I mean, imagine if you didn’t get the story? — I was very alone. No one knew me, and it was difficult. I knew what I had to do, but was I going to be able to do it?”  

If you asked the readers, the answer was yes. “They were coming through the doors and windows to get these stories,” says Sally. It was during this time that she recounted Eva Penovic’s tragic experience. She interviewed the first Canadian women troops on the front lines in the Persian Gulf. She reported on female genital mutilation in Senegal. She profiled two teenage prostitutes — a 15-year-old from Toronto and a 13-year-old from Bangladesh — sharing their story with 1.3 million readers. She visited Afghanistan months after the Taliban seized power, becoming the first journalist to report on the lives of women under the misogynistic regime. After the story ran, more than 9000 letters poured in from concerned readers. 

“It was a very new road for women, and we travelled it with energy and passion,” says Sally. “And our readers returned the passion to us.” 

“Over the toilet in my kids’ bathroom, I had a big poster. And it was Marilyn Monroe, and she was on a motorcycle, and she was leaning over the handlebars, and grinning into the camera. And the caption was, you can do anything. There were people who questioned whether I should have that poster over the toilet of my kids’ bathroom, but that’s what I wanted them to grow up with. And that’s what I would say to anybody today: You can do anything.”

Still, there were many — including her publisher at Homemakers — who didn’t think stories of international war crimes should be next to recipes for lasagna. Sally says she had to fight to see each one in print. 

“There were people in the magazine business that thought, what is Armstrong doing over there?” she recalls. “I didn’t listen to them — I listened to the readers.” 

After an 11-year run, Sally was ready for her next chapter. She left Homemakers to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, writing a thesis on human rights, women, and health. After graduating in 2001, she continued to focus her energy on the world’s women, but her platforms grew. She was a contributing editor at Maclean’s and an editor-at-large for Chatelaine. She worked on documentaries, authored five books, and got on the speaking circuit. She was named UNICEF’s special representative to Afghanistan, and served on the International Women’s Commission, a UN body whose mandate was assisting with the path to peace in the Middle East.

Her latest project is Power Shift: The Longest Revolution, researched and written in a gruelling seven months for the 2019 CBC Massey Lectures. Going as far back as the palaeolithic era, it examines the origin and evolution of the oppression of women, with a lens on history, sex, culture, religion, and politics. Sally draws from many of the stories she has reported on over the years, with new research and new perspectives added in — creating a thorough timeline with the hopeful conclusion that we are closer to gaining equality than ever before. 

It’s a fitting opus for someone who has dedicated her career to women’s struggles. At least, most of her career. I can’t help but ask, as we finish our interview, what would Sally-of-today say to Sally-forty-five-years-ago — mom of three, living in Oakville, teaching high school phys-ed?

Sally answers, of course, with a story:

“Over the toilet in my kids’ bathroom, I had a big poster. And it was Marilyn Monroe, and she was on a motorcycle, and she was leaning over the handlebars, and grinning into the camera. And the caption was, you can do anything. There were people who questioned whether I should have that poster over the toilet of my kids’ bathroom, but that’s what I wanted them to grow up with. And that’s what I would say to anybody today: You can do anything.”

After breaking barriers, Swanzy Quarshie is pulling others along with her

As a Director in energy sales at Scotiabank in Toronto, Swanzy Quarshie guides institutional investors in the landscape of energy. As a member of the bank’s Black Employee Network, she’s helping to mentor and inspire a whole new generation of rising financial stars.

 

By Shelley White

 

When Swanzy Quarshie first moved from Newfoundland to Toronto, she knew two things for sure: she wanted to be a portfolio manager one day and she wanted to work on Bay Street. 

A Bachelor of Commerce graduate of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Swanzy had completed a co-op program as an analyst with an East Coast telecommunications company. During the program, her co-op supervisor encouraged her to pursue her dreams of working in the capital markets. 

“He knew that I was really passionate about finance and he told me he thought I could do really well in it. He got me excited about my potential,” says Swanzy, now Director, Energy Sales Specialist, at Scotiabank in Toronto. 

Swanzy flew to Toronto, stayed with family friends in Mississauga, and set out to get a job. 

“But I knew so little about Bay Street. All I knew was that Bay Street was where you went if you were looking for a capital markets job. Unfortunately, I certainly didn’t know any of the right people to guide me,” she says. “And so I got on the subway and got off at Bay station.”

Finding herself in swanky Yorkville — more about high fashion boutiques than high finance — Swanzy asked someone on the street where the office towers were. 

“They said, ‘You mean like the financial district?’ And pointed me south. I headed that direction on foot, entered office towers and handed in my resume to anyone who would take it.” 

That first bold move was the beginning of an auspicious 20-year career in capital markets. Now, as a Director at Scotiabank and a member of the bank’s Black Employee Network, Swanzy is helping to mentor and inspire a whole new generation of rising financial stars.

Originally from Ghana, West Africa, Swanzy’s first experience with Canada was at eight years old when her family moved to Edmonton. Her father, a lifelong academic, had received a Canadian International Development Agency scholarship to do his PhD in the city. After three years in Edmonton, the family moved to the small island nation of Papua New Guinea where Swanzy attended an international school. 

Swanzy says that she felt like an “outlier” in both those environments.  

“In Edmonton, I was one of four black kids in my school and two of them were my sisters,” she says. 

After that first whirlwind experience landing a job on Bay Street, Swanzy began to build her career in capital markets in Canada. She worked her way up to portfolio manager in the energy space within five years of being hired.

When the company she was working at was acquired, Swanzy found herself again at a transition point. Keeping an open mind to new opportunities and different career paths, she talked to oil and gas companies, analysts, private equity firms, investment bankers, and more. “It got me as excited about my career as I was that first day I got off at Bay subway station.” Except this time, she had a network of contacts who rallied around her.

 

“Anytime you can break a barrier or break a ceiling, you have a responsibility to also pull somebody else along with you. And I see the Black Employee Network as that group that will allow me to reach out to people that face similar barriers and to help pull them forward.” 

 

When Swanzy was contacted by Scotiabank to discuss a new opportunity to join the bank as Director, Energy Sales Specialist, she went in with an open mind and quickly realized this new position was exactly what she had been looking for. 

“My clients are institutional investors that invest in energy,” Swanzy explains. “As a representative of Global Banking and Markets at Scotiabank, I represent the research team and provide clients ideas and solutions on behalf of the bank. Whenever there’s anything noteworthy going on in the energy landscape, I reach out to clients.”

Swanzy says Scotiabank’s commitment to diversity and inclusion was a major factor that convinced her it was the right place for her. During the interview process, her potential employer expressed how diversity and inclusion was an integral part of the bank’s culture. Scotiabank is currently the only Canadian bank that has created a Diversity and Inclusion office with a focus on capital markets.

“I was searching for a new platform to launch the next phase of my career. The role, the fact that diversity and inclusion is an integral part of this leading Canadian bank’s culture and the opportunity for career progression and development told me this was the right place for me,” she says.

Another important change in her life has come from her involvement with the Black Employee Network at Scotiabank. Swanzy says that in the past, although she had worked with some associations and done some mentoring, she never explicitly attached herself to any one group.

“I’ve come to understand that I have a role to play,” she says. “Anytime you can break a barrier or ceiling, you have a responsibility to also empower others. And I see the Black Employee Network as that group that will allow me to reach out to people that face similar barriers and to help pull them forward.” 

To celebrate Black History Month this year, the Black Employee Network is hosting a panel, moderated by Rania Llewellyn, Executive Vice President, Global Business Payments at Scotiabank, that will tackle the question “What does the future of Corporate Canada look like for black professionals?” Swanzy says that for her, Black History Month means a great deal. 

“I take a lot of pride in who I am,” she says. “And I take a lot of pride in the collective black experience. A lot of the slave trade occurred through Ghana. Slave castles dot the country’s coastline, so I’m forced to think about this part of our history often. For me, Black History Month is about recognizing all the achievements that have been made by our shared group in the face of extraordinary and often insurmountable barriers.” 

For young women hoping to succeed the way she has, Swanzy has this advice: Stop putting yourself in a box. 

“I think as women we naturally assume really defined roles and we allow these roles to further define who we are and our career choices,” she says. “If you want to grow, it’s really important to erase the confines that come with definitions, so you can embrace new experiences and the mistakes and failures that inevitably come with them.” 

 

Meet Ashley Freeborn: founder of Canadian fashion brand Smash + Tess

Founder and Managing Director of Smash + Tess,  Ashley Freeborn spent the better part of a decade working as an educator before making the leap to corporate training and culture, where she worked in the finance sector for almost three years. Although she loved it dearly, she still felt the need for a fun and fresh creative outlet — enter Smash + Tess. After finding a void in the loungewear market, she attended the summer fashion program at Conde Nast in London, UK, and the rest is history!

 

My first job ever was… I was a hostess at a hotspot in Kits, Vancouver BC. I was 16 years old and loved the freedom associated with earning my own cash!

The biggest lesson I have learned from my two big career transitions is… That you are never stuck! I’ve learned to open my mind and say ‘yes’ to opportunities. Good things come to those who are open and aren’t afraid to take a calculated risk!

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I didn’t choose the entrepreneur life, the entrepreneur life chose me! When I started Smash + Tess I knew that it was something special, but I always intended to keep my corporate job. I was more comfortable with the idea of having job security. But now, I can’t imagine not being an entrepreneur. I LOVE that I can affect change quickly and that I’ve found an avenue for my creative side.

My proudest accomplishment is… Creating a brand and community where women uplift other women – where women of all shapes and sizes are celebrated equally. Smash + Tess is all about girl power and I have always considered us as more of a lifestyle brand, encouraging positivity, comfortability, and fun!

My boldest move to date was… Leaving my 9-5. If I’m being honest, I still wait for the sky to fall. I’m so conservative by nature, and continue to engage in a lot of self-talk and self-love, assuring myself that Smash + Tess is not just going to fail overnight. As an entrepreneur, your highs are so high, and your lows are so low. So I’m learning how to find balance and security in this new kind of life that I’ve created for myself.

I surprise people when I tell them… That I was a teacher for 10 years and have a Masters’s degree in Education. But really so many of those skills are now parlayed into my current career. Being an educator is really about building a community- and that’s my main focus of Smash + Tess… also, it definitely helps with all of the public speaking engagements!

My favourite product in my collection is…Definitely the Sunday Romper. It was the first Romper we ever did and it really started the Romper Revolution. It looks amazing on all body types, never loses its shape, and continues to be our bestseller. Many brands have done jumpsuits in the past, but Smash + Tess truly pioneered our signature silhouette, feel, and branding.

 

At the end of the day, you have to trust your gut — it will tell you what the right path to take is… you just have to listen.

 

My best advice to people thinking about leaving a 9 to 5  to start a business is… Do what feels right for you. There is no one way to take this leap. If you feel more comfortable transitioning slowly then do it your way. If you want to do a swan dive into the unknown — then go to it! At the end of the day, you have to trust your gut — it will tell you what the right path to take is… you just have to listen.  

A piece of advice that I often give but find it difficult to follow is… To relish the moments where you feel off balance. It’s in this discomfort that all of the learning happens. 

I would tell my 21-year old self… To GET IT GIRL! I was so unsure of who I was when I was 21. I could have been an entrepreneur then, but I was so scared. I’ve always been petrified of failure- but what I’ve since realized is that these failures mean growth, and growth is so important to me and my goal to be the most self-actualized human I can be!

My biggest setback was… My own self-doubt. Continuously worrying myself sick that I won’t succeed and that I’ll let myself, my family, my partners, and my team down.

I overcame it by… Putting one foot in the front of the other… I just keep plugging away and staying focused on my goal. I always say, the harder I work, the luckier I get.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is… The creative freedom. I LOVE that I get to have an idea and very quickly, that idea becomes a reality. It is so exciting and having an ability to express my creative side is almost as important to me as the air I breathe.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Hang out even more with my 2-year-old daughter. She has taught me so much about the world, about love, and about myself.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I LOVE to ride motorcycles!

The future excites me because…I have SO many ideas that it’s hard sometimes to keep them straight! I’ve learned about the incredible things that can happen when you act on your dreams… and I have a lot of dreams… so look out!

My next step is… World domination- one Romper at a time! Bringing joy to the lives of our #smashtessgirls continues to drive me every day!

 

How Nathalie Pougno beat the odds to become a leader in IT

Nathalie Pougno’s path to director of digital transformation at Ricoh began in post-Soviet Russia, included two life-changing moves — to Israel and Canada — and the challenges of a male-dominated sector. Here’s how she made it.

 

by Sarah Kelsey

 

Nathalie Pougno’s father always told her there was something extra special about being a woman. “He said because I was a girl, I could do more than he could. I could do what boys could do and then some,” the director of digital transformation, IT, at Ricoh Canada notes. “He never let me settle.”

And she hasn’t. Since Nathalie realized one of her great loves was math, she’s worked diligently to break through the glass ceiling of the male-dominated tech industry — despite a personal journey full of unique challenges.

Raised in Moscow, Nathalie’s formative years included the fall of the Soviet Union, and the economic hardship that followed. Looking for opportunity, she eventually moved to Israel to study computer science — knowing no one but her husband and daughter, without speaking or understanding Hebrew, and having only $400 in her bank account. She enrolled in a program part-time so she could work in parallel.

“It was 1999, and the tech industry was booming. I was fresh from university and computers always fascinated me, so it was a great fit,” she says. Upon graduation from the 18-month program, her school connected her to a contract job, something Nathalie says was a miracle given the timing. “It was just after 9/11, when people with experience lost their jobs in the industry.”

With Israel as a home base, Nathalie went on to hold various contract roles throughout Europe. She had a great career, exceptional friends, and was building a better future for her kids — but after a decade, Nathalie and her husband began to feel the need to take on a new challenge on a new continent.

“Moving to another country was more complicated, as we had an established life in Israel. We looked around, and Canada just felt like the best fit for us,” she says, noting the country’s values intrigued her and her husband. It was also a place where her husband, who is a nurse, could grow his career.

Three days after arriving in Toronto she landed a job interview, and was working full-time by the end of the week. Nathalie started at Ricoh in 2012, where she says she’s never been happier. “I think about Monday,” she says, “and I want to come to work, and I want to see people in the morning.”

 

“In my mind, technology is the easiest part of the job. Being in IT, you need to be able to drive change through people. It’s not about my idea or yours, it’s about us putting our best thoughts together and getting to a place where we wouldn’t get individually.”

 

It’s a feeling she credits not only to her team of twenty, but the culture of the company as a whole. “It’s all about asking and listening. It’s about having a safe place where failure is acceptable and we have each other’s backs,” she explains, adding she loves how Ricoh encourages employees to be drivers of positive change — not just at work, but also at home and in their communities.

“The company’s tagline — imagine. change. — is more than just a tagline,” explains Nathalie. “It challenges all of us to unlock our creative potential in order to dig deeper and dream bigger. Those words don’t just describe what we do, they’re at the core of who we are.”

The sense of community stewardship that is fostered at Ricoh is certainly in line with Nathalie’s own values. On the home front, she has adopted twin boys from war-torn Ukraine. In her community, she’s an active volunteer, lending her time and expertise to several initiatives at Ontario Tech University, based in Oshawa.

Through Ontario Tech’s Women for STEM program, Nathalie acts as a mentor to students hoping to pursue a technology career. She has also been involved in a number of events at the university, participating in a Reverse Career Fair — where students host tables and employers circulate the room to share information about their organization — and Tech Connect, an event that brings together students from three faculties and gives them the opportunity to make connections and build relationships with potential employers in the tech ecosystem.

Thanks to her involvement, Ricoh is currently exploring co-op and internship placements with the school, and Nathalie has already made her first job offer — a fourth-year student will soon be joining her team as a business consultant.

Nathalie also identifies with Ricoh’s commitment to inclusion — building a workplace where everyone feels seen, respected, and valued as individuals. “If you see people around you as people, not those who are just sitting and doing a job, and you make a connection, that human connection, it makes a difference,” she explains.

From a leadership perspective, Nathalie believes that tapping into your emotional intelligence and creating deep interpersonal connections — skills she refers to as “soft power” — are key to running a high-functioning team, where everyone can be themselves. It creates a safe space for vulnerability, which she advises others not to shy away from. “Don’t be afraid to share your feelings and your aspirations, be vulnerable, and seek help,” says Nathalie. “There are a lot of people around you who would love to help you.”

Through her own success, Nathalie has seen the benefit of being able to bring empathy to a technical discussion. If she were to “imagine change,” as the Ricoh tagline asks, it would always start with people.

“In my mind, technology is the easiest part of the job,” says Nathalie. “Being in IT, you need to be able to drive change through people. It’s not about my idea or yours, it’s about us putting our best thoughts together and getting to a place where we wouldn’t get individually.”

Meet Carol Reynolds: Award-winning Film Writer and Producer turned Real Estate Broker

Carol Reynolds is a Toronto-based real estate broker whose expertise in media, marketing and technology helps her clients to buy or sell properties. Approaching a property as a brand with its own unique story and personality, she offers them a combination of attentiveness and strategic insight that benefits their bottom line. Carol helps ease clients’ minds by empowering them with a clear understanding of the buying or selling process. As a former award-winning film writer and producer, she developed several programs for CBC, CTV, Discovery Channel and The Life Channel, and applies the same level of creative savvy to the real estate profession. Carol has two amazing children who have also found tremendous satisfaction forging their own successful career paths.

 

My first job was… as a guest artist (singer) on a number of nationally broadcast Canadian television variety programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

My proudest accomplishment is… the incorporation of my Toronto company Challenge Media Productions Inc. in 1989, and the development, production and broadcast of my groundbreaking award-winning television series Challenge Journal. The three-season series featured 39 + half-hour programs about the socio-economic issues and challenges of being disabled in Canada.

My boldest move to date was… moving from Toronto to Nova Scotia for 14 years with my fabulous husband to live in our custom-built home on the Atlantic Ocean and begin my (then new) career as a luxury real estate broker with clients from many parts of the globe.

The most important lesson I learned as a film and television writer was… to be true to the story being told. Be brave enough to show the truth in the most direct manner and expect to stand by the consequences.

I became a real estate professional because… I love the business of real estate in all of its complexities. Helping clients make well-informed decisions about what is, in most cases, the most important financial decision of their lives, is a delicate process. It demands people skills, in-depth knowledge of the legal aspects and market stats, and a firm grip on all aspects of strategic negotiation. It’s an intellectual high and I find it deeply satisfying to make it work for my clients.

To anyone thinking about making a career transition, I would say… Research your choice of new career thoroughly. Be sure you have the skills and/or are willing to learn new ones if necessary. Be sure the culture suits your wants and needs. Satisfy yourself that the financial compensation will grow along with your commitment. Imagine yourself at the 5-year mark in that new career and identify what your goals will be at that point. Can you see a path to success? If yes, then go for it!

The most fulfilling thing about my job is… the people connection and the look on my clients’ faces when we achieve their real estate goals.

The hardest thing about my job is… the disappointment I feel when I’m faced with a disrespectful attitude from a potential client who may have had a negative real estate experience with other real estate professionals and then they punish me for it.

 

“Be patient and listen”

 

My greatest advice from a mentor was… be patient and listen.

My biggest setback was… a terrible fall and injuries that stopped me from achieving my professional goals for a 4-year period of time, while I recovered from numerous surgeries.

I overcame it by… keeping my eye on my goals: get better, get healthy, and get going!

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… a very confident tenacity.

I surprise people when I tell them… I have always been an entrepreneur and I’ve had three deeply satisfying and successful careers so far.

I stay inspired by… always being willing to learn as much as is possible about the legal and financial aspects of my real estate business.

The future excites me because… it’s open-ended. Every real estate transaction is unique because of the people involved and the ever-changing market conditions.

My next step is… I’m open to ideas, after all, I am only 71 years young!

Good Question: how should my company manage online trolls and negative comments on social media?

Q:

“A negative comment was left on my company’s social pages and it’s starting to go far and wide. I am worried it is going to affect business. How can I manage and should I respond?”

 

OUR EXPERT:

Lauren Shirreffs
Founder and CEO, 2Social

Lauren Shirreffs is the founder and CEO of 2Sociala women-led Canadian digital agency that delivers full service, community-minded marketing solutions to organizations across North America. Known as a brand nurturer, expert digital storyteller and passionate problem solver, Lauren continues to be at the forefront of social media innovation and has built 2Social into a thriving bi-coastal agency with offices in Toronto and Los Angeles.

 

 

 

A:

Social media opens the door for two-way communication between brands and consumers, which ultimately helps drive engagement, loyalty and community. However, consumers will often take the time to write a negative comment when they’re frustrated or upset rather than a positive one when they’re pleased with their experience. When negative comments are posted, it’s ideal to have a corporate social media policy and prepared “FAQs” written in the voice and tone of the brand at the ready. These materials provide direction and leave no room for error in these imperative touch points with consumers. 

If you don’t have a corporate social media policy or FAQs at your organization, don’t panic — now is the time to think rationally and clearly. Immediately escalate this comment (ideally within one to three hours from the time the comment was posted) to your marketing manager and collaborate on the best way to approach your response. This is also a good time to prepare for any virality or further customer feedback.

Look at this situation as a window of opportunity to shift a negative comment into a positive customer experience. If done skillfully and strategically, the response can also illustrate to the online audience the brand’s core values and its values as a whole. 

Do:

  • Respond in one to three hours.
  • Be polite, positive, helpful and synonymous with your brand tone.
  • Encourage the conversation to be continued as a direct or private message.
  • Escalate the comment to the appropriate managers with a suggested response that is on tone and on-brand.
  • Document the incident for future references.
  • Add to or develop a FAQ document to share best practices, ensure speedy turn-around times, and support the community management team.

Don’t:

  • Respond if the comment includes any vulgarities, racism, or sexism. It is perfectly okay in these instances to hide the comment.
  • Escalate the comment to a superior and then not follow up on the matter.
  • Continue the conversation on a public forum, such as a wall post.
  • Argue, retaliate, or provoke.

 

A LinkedIn consultant shares 8 suggestions for building thought leadership and staying top-of mind with your network

Optimizing your LinkedIn presence isn’t just about perfecting your profile. The social network offers the opportunity to develop an audience of connections who are actively interested in what you have to say. These 8 suggestions will help you use thought leadership to educate, empower, and add value to your connections — while providing you with more opportunities.

by Leslie Hughes

You are a brand. 

Back in 1997, Tom Peters wrote an article entitled “The Brand Called You” in Fast Company magazine. He stated that “You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop.” 

Today, you have unprecedented access to build your professional brand using channels like LinkedIn so that you can develop an audience of connections who are actively interested in what you have to say. 

You may be thinking, But Leslie, I don’t have anything to say! or, No one really wants to listen to me.

Here’s the thing: Nobody knows what you know from your perspective. You are an expert. 

You’ve learned things over your career that people can benefit from. The information you have access to could benefit someone else.

Building thought leadership not only helps to provide you with more opportunities but can help you to educate, empower and add value to your connections. By sharing quality content that helps your network solve their problems, you’ll automatically build trust and become the go-to resource in your niche. Here are seven suggestions you can use when you’re building thought leadership:

 

1) Solve common problems.

This is the easiest way to source content. If one person has a question or a challenge, chances are many other people are struggling with that same issue. Write a blog post, or record a video that describes how those in your network can solve that simple problem, and they might be interested in hiring you to solve the problem for them.

2) Don’t be overly promotional.

As Seth Godin says in his 2003 TED Talk, How To Get Your Ideas To Spread: “The world revolves around me. Me, me, me, me. My favorite person — me. I don’t want to get email from anybody; I want to get me-mail.” 

People don’t want to hear what you can sell them, they want to know about solutions to the problems they have.

It’s okay to toot your own horn, and share upcoming events or promotions; just don’t focus on self-promotion for each and every post. A good rule-of-thumb is to publish at least four status updates that solve problems for every sales promotion.

3) Mix up your own content with curated content.

Writing your own content allows you to provide your own perspective and helps you to shine as the foremost thought leader, but even if you publish content from trusted third-party sources, you’ll still continue to stay top-of-mind as someone who is in-the-know. 

To leverage curated content, reshare information provided by your marketing department, or turn to trusted news sources (such as Women of Influence), and include the link in your status update. With each post, ask yourself, “Is this information useful and helpful to people in my network?”

If finding insightful articles isn’t something that easily fits into your routine, you can turn to technology for help. A cool free app called Grapevine6 helps you to curate and re-share content based on keywords that you choose.

4) Get out of your own way.

Clicking “publish” can be nerve-wracking. I’ve been writing blog posts and creating videos for over 10 years, and I’m still nervous when I click publish. I’m afraid someone will judge me based on my thoughts or opinions. 

Often, after I write a blog post, I’ll revisit the draft copy just to ensure it flows properly. If I’m really nervous about clicking “publish,” I’ll have a trusted colleague review the copy just to get their input and perspective.  

Just remember that you bring a unique perspective to your network. Be brave, click “publish” and you’ll be surprised to learn how many people are looking for your insights.

“People don’t want to hear what you can sell them, they want to know about solutions to the problems they have. It’s okay to toot your own horn, and share upcoming events or promotions; just don’t focus on self-promotion for each and every post.”


5) Expect some trolls — but don’t engage with them.

The power of social media comes from two-way engagement and conversations. I even invite people to disagree with my views. I think it’s very healthy to have contrasting opinions, as long as no one is being a troll or is attacking anyone. 

Only once did I have a troll try to bait me into an online argument. He commented: You get paid for this crap? I didn’t bother to even respond because this ridiculous statement didn’t warrant a response. Nor did I delete his comment either. Other people messaged me privately to inquire about why someone would be so foolish. His comment was speaking volumes about his own brand — not mine.

6) Publish content regularly. 

You don’t have to publish every day, but to build a following of people who begin to know, like, and trust you, you have to stay top-of-mind. 

Did you know that it takes a minimum of eight to ten times for someone to see your name before they begin to build an emotional attachment or even remember who you are?

Start by publishing a status update on LinkedIn once a week and, once that’s manageable, try to publish twice a week. Focus on quality content, not just making noise.

7) Get organized.

One of the easiest ways you can save time and get organized is by assembling a content calendar. Whether you’re using a Google calendar or an Excel spreadsheet, reverse-engineer what you want to post and when you want to post it. This way, you can focus on your strategy and objectives instead of scrambling with what to post next. 

Use your marketing goals to shape the big picture. If you want to focus on an upcoming promotion or event, plot out how often you want to remind people what’s coming up next. Also, be conscious of roadblocks that might delay a post. If you’re in a compliance-based industry, you’ll need to ensure your compliance partner approves the content well in advance as well.

8) Engage in two-way conversation

What makes Social Media different than traditional media, is that it you can engage in a two-way dialogue instead of a one-way monologue. When you’re publishing content to your network, ask questions and see if you can elicit a response or some feedback. 

You could ask, “So, what do you think?” or “Do you agree or disagree with this post?

By responding to their feedback, you’ll not only begin to deepen relationships with your audience, but you’ll also get exponential reach from people outside of your network as well.

Remember that every brand relies on a combination of reach and frequency. Publishing the right content, to the right audience, using the right messaging helps to build up your brand so that you can obtain more opportunities. 

People need to know what you know from your perspective.

Leslie Hughes

Leslie Hughes

Leslie Hughes is a LinkedIn Optimization Specialist, Professor of Social Media, Corporate Trainer, Principal of PUNCH!media, and author of CREATE. CONNECT. CONVERT. She was called a "Social Media Guru" by CBC Radio and was featured on CTV’s The Social discussing how to manage your digital identity. Leslie has been working in digital marketing since 1997 and founded PUNCH!media in 2009. 

How Nazaneen Qauomi went from struggling immigrant to social entrepreneur

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

 

by Hailey Eisen

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Better living through agriculture

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Striking red gold

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Meet Stephanie Florio: a woman on a mission to make job searching for students easy

In the spring of 2017, Stephanie Florio co-founded Swob Inc., a mobile recruitment application. Swob is designed to make job searching for students easy and recruitment even easier. Using their smartphone, students looking for a job can now search in the comfort of their own phone. Swob is the first of its kind to target students in high turnover industries such as retail and foodservice for part-time, seasonal and full-time employment. In May 2018, Swob was named the first-ever Canadian company to win Richard Branson and Virgin Mobile Canada’s “Pitch to Rich” contest.

 

My first job was… working in retail at the Disney Store. 

My proudest accomplishment is… being the first Canadian company to ever win Virgin Mobile Canada and Richard Branson’s “Pitch to Rich” contest… and of course, launching Swob!

My boldest move to date was…taking the leap and starting my own business. 

My biggest setback was… the fact that I thought I had to have it all figured out by the time I finished school. It took me a while to realize it’s about the journey and not how fast you get there. 

I overcame it by… trusting the process and trying new things to really figure out what I like and dislike. 

One thing I wish I knew before starting Swob was… you won’t always make the right decisions, and that’s okay. Since starting Swob, I have worked harder than I ever have before and have used the mistakes we’ve made as a way to learn and grow.

If I had five extra hours in the day I would … cook more often. 

 The best part of what I do is… speaking at different events and inspiring those to take the leap and start a business. I love what we are doing with Swob, and if I can inspire someone to take the leap, it means I am doing something right.

The most challenging part of what I do is… the unknown. Starting a business and trying to scale it means taking risks. Some of the risks we take turn out to be successful and some fail. Not knowing what is going to work is scary at times but it’s all apart of the process. 

 

“If you never try, you’ll never know.”

 

My greatest advice from a mentor was…know how great you are. I think at times starting a business you have so much going on in your mind that you forget to celebrate the wins.  

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… my attitude. I always live by the words “if you never try, you’ll never know”. 

If you googled me you still wouldn’t know…that I lived in New York for a summer and studied fashion at Parsons. 

The future excites me because… Swob is changing a process that has stayed the same for years. We are living in a digital world and we want to be the first to change this process, and ensure that young job seekers have a resource that’s built for them.

Three tips for growing your confidence and resilience

Confidence and resilience are two attributes that are commonly linked, and vital for personal and professional success. However, although they’re highly sought after, they are two qualities that we can often find difficult to master. Sun Life’s Chief Digital Technology Officer, Alice Thomas shares three tips for growing your confidence and resilience.

 

By Alice Thomas

 

I started working in technology in the late ’80s. There were very few women employed in the industry at the time, and not a lot of support for those of us trying to navigate our careers. The gender imbalance wouldn’t improve much over the years, but it would end up teaching me important lessons about confidence and resilience.

At the start of my career, I struggled with carving out a place for myself in the industry. Being in the minority, it was all too easy for self-doubt and insecurity to set in. I routinely held back in meetings and stopped myself from raising a hand to ask questions.

To stay afloat in the industry, I knew I would have to change the self-limiting thoughts and behaviours that were in my control. Despite having all of the skills and knowledge to succeed, if I wasn’t confident or resilient, my career would eventually stall. The following three tips have helped me nurture these two areas over the years.

Learn to embrace failure.

Since most of our insecurities stem from a fear of failure, our confidence levels are linked to how well we manage this fear. Mistakes and slip-ups are inevitable. The sooner we learn to accept them, the sooner we open ourselves up to trying new things. I’ve felt the most confidence at times when I’ve taken a leap of faith, only to realize the initial outcome I feared didn’t come true. 

Once you learn to embrace failure, the easier it becomes to pick yourself up again. You spend less time pining over the mistakes, and more time implementing the lessons.

Find your cheerleaders.

It’s your career, but you’re not in this alone. The relationships you build with others can help boost your levels of confidence and resilience at times when you can’t do it on your own. Building a network of support takes time and precision, but the sooner you assemble the right people in your corner, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits. 

Your supporters can be found in all types of diverse settings. My group of advisors consists of men, women, people younger than me, people in my field, and some who are not in the workforce at all. The common denominator between them is that they allow me to be myself in a judgement-free zone, and have my best interests at heart.

It was only after receiving encouragement from one of my mentors that I took a role in a new and uncertain area of technology. Ecommerce was uncharted territory at this time, and I was hesitant to take on the challenge. Pursuing this role ultimately led me to find my true passion for digital innovation, which shaped the remainder of my career.

Mentors are great, but you have to learn how to be your own cheerleader at times, too. When times get tough, take stock of your past successes rather than the missed opportunities, and use them as motivation to keep going. Believe in yourself and the accomplishments that are already under your belt. You’re far more resilient than you think.

Don’t take it personally. 

More often than not, the unfortunate thing that happened usually has very little to do with you. Sometimes, it really is just business. Other times, a co-worker might be having a bad day. It’s completely natural to be disappointed by a business decision, but try not to put yourself at the centre of it.

This was a difficult lesson for me to learn as it felt like I was automatically at a disadvantage because of my gender. I spent a lot of time indulging in setbacks and using the negative event as fuel for my insecurities.

What helped me overcome this mentality was to view the negative event through the lens of a third party. I thought about the advice I would give to a friend in a similar situation. It helped me take myself out of the equation, and view things in a more productive light.

I’ve seen many women leave the industry over the years because they lacked the confidence and resilience to see their careers through. I likely would have been one of them if I hadn’t identified the internal roadblocks preventing me from moving forward. 

I consider confidence and resilience to be like any other set of muscles in our body. They require training and exercise in order for us to exert our true potential. By practising these tips, your confidence and resilience will maintain their strength over time so that you can flex them in the moments when you need them most.

Alice Thomas

Alice Thomas

Alice Thomas is Chief Digital Technology Officer at Sun Life, where she oversees technology enablement of the company’s digital strategies globally. Alice is a passionate supporter of diversity and inclusion and champion for the advancement of women in technology. She was recently named Advocate of the Year by the Women in IT Awards Series for her efforts to increase the participation of women in IT.

Meet Charly Lester: Co-Founder and CMO of Lumen, a new dating app especially for over 50s

Charly Lester is experienced in the art of entrepreneurship, Lumen is her third business. Previously she established international awards for the online dating industry, and she is the co-founder of A League of Her Own, a learning platform designed to encourage more women to become entrepreneurs. She is the author of two books for entrepreneurs – The Female Entrepreneur and Modern Marketing for Start-Ups. Charly regularly appears on TV, radio and in the press, talking about entrepreneurship, dating and equality. Charly teaches classes in marketing and entrepreneurship at The Guardian newspaper. She is the former Global Head of Dating at Time Out, and began her career in the dating industry as Dating Editor at the Guardian, after her blog ‘30 Dates’ went viral. Outside of work, Charly regularly competes in Ironman triathlons, runs marathons, and she recently ran Marathon des Sables – six marathons in six days across the Sahara desert.

 

 

My first job ever was…Working as a waitress and ‘chef’ at a cafe at age 15. I would make a fried breakfast in a microwave … who knew that was even possible?! (I wouldn’t recommend it)

My career as a journalist has helped me in my entrepreneurial journey … in more ways than I ever expected.  When I first launched the Dating Awards – my first company – I did all my own PR. Knowing what made a good story and having contacts who were journalists allowed me to get early coverage for the new business, completely free.  In fact, I only realized how unique a skill it was for an entrepreneur when friends running other businesses in the dating space repeatedly asked who my PR company was!

I did a Masters’ degree in Broadcast Journalism and it’s so useful these days as a tech founder. I regularly do national TV and radio interviews and having the confidence to do a live TV interview with the questions coming via an earpiece from the other side of the world, or to review the papers, talking about topics I know nothing about, has been a real help. Media is a big part of modern entrepreneurship.

My proudest accomplishment is… paying my bills all thanks to my own ideas for the last 6 years! I think that’s the dream of every entrepreneur – to create something which is not only sustainable but which can actually provide. The first time I took home a paycheque working for myself that was larger than my salary working for someone else – that was a big moment!

My boldest move to date was… starting my first ever company.  I didn’t know any other women my age who were running their own businesses. In fact, I can remember really doubting myself and my capabilities at the time – specifically for that reason.  But I had an idea which I knew could work, and a business model which would make profit within just a few weeks. So I took the plunge … and here I am, six years later, running a business worth probably 100 times more than that first company.

I surprise people when I tell them… We do all our marketing in-house, with just a team of two of us working on the brand. Lumen’s adverts have made headlines and been debated on national TV.  We don’t use agencies for the ideas, or to create the adverts. Every advert has been either my idea, or my Head of Brand’s (Liesa Stecher), and we use a crack team of trusted friends and freelancers, who we have met across our careers to deliver the finished results. 

I’ve always been a fan of doing stuff in-house – when you start out small, you become so used to doing every job under the sun, that you learn which things you are capable of, and which things you should outsource.

My best advice to people starting out in business is…You need to be passionate about what you’re doing.  Too often I see people making assumptions that a certain industry or company is going to make them rich.  But business is about so much more than that. And if you’re going to be working on it 16 hours a day, 7 days a week … which sometimes you do have to … then that business needs to be something you care about.  These days the world is all about authenticity – customers seek it out. The reason The Dating Awards worked was because I had been a dating consumer myself. I knew what it was like to use dating apps and websites, and so I knew what was important to consumers.  I genuinely cared about which dating apps or sites won the Awards because I wanted to steer consumers to the best products and services. Now, running a dating app, I genuinely care about our members. I have a profile on the app, and literally chat to at least fifty different members all around the world, every single day.

 

“I got into the dating industry by writing a blog about my love life, and I’ve always been a bit of an open book! I imagine most parts of my life can be found somewhere on social media!”

 

My best advice from a mentor was…To find your niche and stick to it.  I almost left the dating space a few years ago to work in broader tech.  My good friend Ellie Ford, who was working at Time Out at the time, told me to stick at dating. Two years later we got funding from the owner of Bumble to create Lumen.

I would tell my 25-year old self… That you’re doing the right thing! At 25 I went backpacking around the world for a year. I remember being in a hostel in Costa Rica and bumping into the younger sister of someone I went to university with. When I emailed him to tell him we’d met, his reply was really scathing ‘I don’t really understand what you’re doing’ – because I was travelling while the rest of my graduating year were pursuing careers in law and management consultancy.  But I always knew I wasn’t designed for an orthodox career. And a few months later I got my first taste of entrepreneurship. I ended up living in Whistler during the Olympics, and set up a first aid school there when I realized the nearest place you could qualify as a first aider was in Vancouver. To this day I still get emails from people asking if they can renew their first aid license with me!

My biggest setback was… Genuinely, nothing stands out. But I think that’s because entrepreneurship is often about how you frame stuff. Sometimes you can feel like you’ve failed massively, only to realize no one else has even noticed because no one else knows what you were trying to achieve! The key to being a successful business owner is recognizing when something isn’t working, and then adapting.  I’ve had heaps of failures across my career, but I’ve never viewed them as failures. They were tests or learning points, and I’ve always come out stronger because of them.

The best thing about what I do is…  I genuinely use all the skills I’ve amassed over the last 36 years, in a whole range of different ways.  No experience is wasted. Having a Swiss Army knife array of skills can be a real asset as an entrepreneur, as it means you don’t have to constantly hire other people to do things. And every day is different.  I always said I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk. Creating Lumen takes me all over the world, and when I’m back in the UK I’m often on photo or video shoots, or speaking at conferences.

The most challenging thing about what I do is… Convincing other people it’s a real job!  Particularly when I was first starting out. My Dad was an entrepreneur, but my parents died when I was in my teens. So it was my friends’ parents who were around when I launched my first company and for years, every time I returned home, they would ask me ‘when are you going to get a real job?’. They didn’t understand what I was doing, and were genuinely worried about me.  A key part of entrepreneurship is learning which voices to listen to.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Probably sleep! I’m super nocturnal – I’ve always worked best late at night – but then tried to also keep normal ‘office hours’ which means during the week I don’t get lots of sleep, and then I’m forced to catch up at weekends.  If I slept more during the week, I might actually get up for a park run on a Saturday morning!

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… Not much at all! I got into the dating industry by writing a blog about my love life (which went viral, and was then picked up by The Guardian newspaper), and I’ve always been a bit of an open book! I imagine most parts of my life can be found somewhere on social media!   

The one thing I wish I knew when starting Lumen is… Just how fast things would move! We launched in the UK in September 2018.  Then in Ireland in November 2018, Australia and New Zealand in February 2019, America in 2019, and Canada, France and Germany in September.  The last 18 months have absolutely flown by, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I stay inspired by… Surrounding myself by women who inspire me.  Some of my friends are achieving such incredible things.  And always raising my personal bar that bit hire – not just in business but also in my personal life.  I love sporting challenges. I’ve been running marathons for years, but last year I completed my first Ironman triathlon, and this year I completed Marathon Des Sables – 6 marathons in 5 days, across the Sahara Desert.  Every time I realize just how achievable something is, I raise the stakes for next time.

The future excites me because… It’s down to us to make it!

 

Meet Sheree Atcheson: One of the UK’s Top Most Influential Women in Tech

Listed as one of the UK’s Top Most Influential Women in Tech & an international multi-award winner for her services to the Diversity & Inclusion industry, Sheree (@nirushika) is the Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Monzo; Board-Appointed Global Ambassador, Women Who Code; Contributor, Forbes. The aim of her career is ensuring people are aware of the fantastic opportunities the tech industry has to offer and to make certain that each person is able to benefit from these and reach their full career potential. 

 

 

My first job was…working on the counter at a local pharmacy when I was 14/15!

My proudest accomplishment so far is… having been able to make a sizeable impact on the industry with how we approach inclusion and change our ways of thinking. Being able to truly influence change has been super rewarding.

A defining moment in my life was… for work – becoming a Forbes contributor. I am very proud to be able to share my thoughts on that platform and it gave me the confidence and validation that what I was and am doing is important to more than just me. In my personal life – meeting my partner and forming a life together with our pooch, Alfie. We’ve been together for almost ten years and married for over three. Without his support, I’d have struggled a lot more on my journey.

Being a Global Ambassador for Women Who Code is important to me because… changing the face of tech is important. We must organically provide the tech and human skills that people need to progress. WWCode provides free monthly meetups to our 180,000 member base (and growing) on just that – helping to level the playing field and empower women globally. It’s also important to me as someone who began their career as a software engineer. Leading the UK expansion was instrumental to my career path and I will always be proud of that.

The most fulfilling thing about the work I do is… helping organizations do more and do it better. Being able to see people come to life and fully thrive because of the work I do is such a warm and humbling feeling. It’s a privilege to be able to do it and be able to create environments at the scale that work everyone, not just those leaders may directly identify with (or not).

The most challenging about my work is… mindset change. Inclusion strategies are organizational transformation and that takes time. We must spend the time engaging those who get why we’re doing it but also those who don’t. They will likely make up a large part of the organization and it can be challenging. It’s important to understand that perspective to help engage those people in a way that brings them along the journey – even if it is a slower journey than we’d like.

I would tell my 18-year-old self… that I will accomplish really amazing things. And to not focus too much on putting myself into a box because it will limit you in the long run.

I am an advocate for diversity and inclusion because… I don’t want to live or work in a society that isn’t fair. And currently, I do.

 

“Seek forgiveness rather than permission.”

 

A world where we have achieved diversity and inclusion looks like this… everyone has the opportunity to flourish and become leaders, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, disabilities, sexuality, economic background, etc. Everyone has the opportunity to fairly compete for the roles and jobs they want.

The one piece of advice that I always give, but find difficult to follow is… take time for yourself. Remember to prioritize your own rest and “time off”. It’s one of my growth areas in taking time for myself and my partner. Turning off isn’t easy but very required.

My greatest advice from a mentor was… seek forgiveness rather than permission.

My biggest setback was… how people view me. Leaders don’t typically look or sound like me. And that has been a consistent setback as I have pushed through and become a senior leader in my industry. It is obviously something I can’t and won’t change but the reaction many leaders have to me is regularly a setback. I then have to quantify myself and my accomplishments to them.

I overcame it by… realizing that it isn’t my problem if my presence makes people uncomfortable. Most of the time I am the only, whether it’s the only woman of colour, woman or person of colour. Having the mindset change of understanding that I very much deserve and have earned my spot in those rooms has helped me discount the sometimes shock or setbacks I get from people being shocked I exist in the way I do,

I surprise people when I tell them… I am 28 and from Ireland. Most people don’t expect me to be from where I’m from but fun fact: I was adopted at 3 weeks old from Sri Lanka and raised in Ireland. I have got a relatively thick Irish accent and that usually throws people when they first see me. Most people are also surprised that I am 28 and have done what I’ve done. However, that probably lends itself to me not knowing how to fully turn off!

The future excites me because… itis getting better and I’m excited to see how it continues to evolve. How technology is changing the world can be super positive and impactful and if we start and continue to incorporate inclusion into the processes and conversations now, we can expect even better outputs.

Meet Kathryn Hollinrake: a photographer known for her profile portraits and celebrity clientele

photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

 

As a professional photographer, Kathryn Hollinrake’s client list has many notable names, including several stars of Dragon’s Den, Hurricane Hazel McCallion, and multi-talented Canadian entertainment icon Bruce McCulloch, among others. She began her career after moving from Vancouver, graduating from Ryerson’s Film and Photography program with a Bachelor of Technology degree, and taking a slight detour to work as a Technical Sales Rep for Kodak’s Professional Photography Division in Edmonton. Back in Toronto and back to the plan, she launched her own business specializing in commercial photography. Faced with changes in technology and within the industry, she expanded her skill set, and eventually established her current niche as a corporate and portrait photographer known for her compelling profile portraits.

 

 

My first job ever was… working in a department store in New Zealand where we lived briefly during my teenage years. During a particularly slow period, a customer once mistook me for a mannequin. I’m sure people who know me now would never believe I could stand that still. 

I became a photographer because…  I couldn’t draw fast enough. I wanted to do something artistic, and when my graphics teacher in high school said you had to be really fast, I thought, “Well, graphic design is out.” The same year I had my first experience in a darkroom and I thought I could see doing that kind of work for a long time. When I told a friend of my father that if there was a degree program in photography that’s what I’d choose to do, he said, “There is, at a school called Ryerson in Toronto.” I applied and got in and never looked back.

My proudest accomplishment is… staying in business for 25 years so far, when many of my contemporaries chose to leave the field, and when I, at times, have thought I may not be able to continue. Thankfully, I have been able to pivot when needed and build a business that looks nothing like what I would have imagined it would when I started. When I launched I was focused on commercial photography, working with ad agencies and art directors. As much of that work started to disappear, I shot stock, I shot weddings, I exhibited as an artist, I did pet photography, and ultimately I focused in on corporate photography and portraiture, working with clients and organizations directly, as well as with their design firms, to produce everything from headshots to book covers to environmental portraits and business-related imagery for websites and other marketing initiatives.

My boldest move to date was… embracing that I needed to think and act like an entrepreneur. For years I held on to the idea that I was a photographer, not an entrepreneur. It’s been an ongoing challenge as I am really an artist at heart. 

I surprise people when I tell them… I am a divemaster level scuba diver.

My best advice to people starting out in photography is… Success will be more about running the business than about your skill as a photographic artist. And whatever you do, make sure you have confidence in your product (which in this case is both you and your photographs). It is very hard to sell a product you don’t believe in. 

The best part of my job is… surprising reluctant subjects with photographs of themselves that they didn’t expect to love, but do. And I find it fascinating and inspiring getting to know new people in all kinds of roles and businesses, and getting the chance to see diverse businesses from the inside. I never know who I am going to get to meet in the next month or year. 

My best advice about headshots is… that the skill and experience of your photographer will make a big difference to your own experience and to the final product. If you find the right photographer you don’t have to know anything going into a headshot session. It’s their job to make it happen. Trust them, be open-minded, and follow what they say. If they send you wardrobe instructions, read and follow them. And don’t tie your hair back, unless that really is the way you wear it all the time. 

 

I stay inspired by being on a never-ending quest to up my game, and keep the work fresh and new, and uniquely mine. I experiment.

 

I would tell my 25-year old self… Don’t subjugate yourself to horrible people to gain experience, even if they are stars in your field. The benefits won’t outweigh the potential damage. Put self-doubt aside, specialize in one area of photography, become really good at just that, and make a lot of noise about it. Be out in the world, meet a lot of people, and build relationships. It really is going to be about marketing and connections. 

My biggest setback was… probably also the biggest boon to my career. The introduction of digital photography and subsequent availability of cheap, high-quality commercial imagery wiped out a huge part of my market. Photographers were no longer being hired to shoot jobs for which stock photography could be used. The barriers to entry began to evaporate as digital cameras became cheaper and cheaper, and the ability to fix mistakes in Photoshop meant photographers did not have to be trained the way we used to be. So more and more people started hanging out their shingles as “photographers”. 

I overcame it by… joining the stock industry by shooting stock myself (that didn’t last long!), and at the same time concentrating on where original photography was still going to be needed, and how to provide more for less, without totally succumbing to the “race to the bottom.” This ultimately required pivoting from a commercial specialization to more portraits and corporate work. Fortunately, the creative tools that became available to photographers with digital imaging expanded my ability to create compelling original imagery — and differentiate myself from my competitors. One way I do this now, for example, is by designing and producing my own photographic backdrops for corporate headshots. I basically simulate a corporate environment so I can shoot in any place at any time of day and get a consistent and appealing result that’s more interesting than a headshot on a gray background.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… pick up the ukulele I started learning to play a couple of years ago (but stopped) and start again. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I have acted in probably a dozen commercials.

I stay inspired by… being on a never-ending quest to up my game, and keep the work fresh and new, and uniquely mine. I experiment. I collect portraits I like and study the lighting. I constantly observe what works and doesn’t in my photos and others’, and I am always thinking about what will serve clients best. There is always room for improvement. People call me a perfectionist and since perfection is pretty much impossible there’s an ongoing impetus to keep striving for it.

The future excites me because… I am on a bit of a mission to see all the bad photos online (and in print) in business-related places replaced with good ones. I see a lot of opportunity there. There is a bit of a pendulum swing happening with some clients who have had bad experiences with less than professional photographers and are coming back to understanding the value of hiring a true professional. 

My next step is… Finishing my newest corporate portrait backdrop. I plan to continue to create a small set of them so clients have a choice. As far as I know, nobody else is doing this. And I am going to be looking into video portraiture, starting with one for my website!