How Vivian Kaye embraced her differences and built a multi-million dollar hair business.

Vivian Kaye

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

People have been trying to get Vivian Kaye to conform to preconceived societal standards since she was a kid. As a Ghanaian immigrant and one of four sisters, it was expected she would attend school, get a degree, and settle into a solid and stable career. But spend just a few minutes chatting with the effervescent and empowering entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of KinkyCurlyYaki — a first-of-its-kind, premium hair extension company for Black women — and you know fitting into a mould was something she was never going to let happen.

“People have always tried to fit me into a shape, but I’m a rhombus or parallelogram,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the black sheep. I’m the queen of the pivot, the queen of solving problems, and the queen of being me!”

Vivian says her entrepreneurial spirit likely developed as a young girl, watching her mother selling wares at Ghanaian markets to feed her family. “She did it all with me strapped to her back,” she says. Her family eventually immigrated to Canada with the help of her father, and she went on to graduate high school. By university, Vivian realized school wasn’t really her thing, and that she would rather find work by capitalizing on her “superpowers” — namely confidence, curiosity, innovative thinking, and the ability to speak two languages. 

It was a gamble that paid off. Vivian immediately found work in call centres, which evolved into roles in medtech and fintech. This led to a job at a company supporting entrepreneurs, working for a boss who pushed her to try new things. “Even though he was the most random white guy, he helped me to see myself and to be who I am today,” she says. 

With that encouragement, Vivian started a wedding business as a side hustle. “I saw an opportunity to help brides find better wedding decor without spending millions,” she explains, and her instinct was right — it grew to six figures. 

“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed. I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad.”

And then a chance meeting with a woman in 2012 changed her career trajectory forever. “I had been looking for protective hair in the form of a wig, weave, or braid, but there weren’t a lot of options for women on the market — everything was based on white, European hair textures,” she says. “I really wanted to solve my own problem, so I joined social media groups with people like me.” They shared specifics about vendors who sold the kinds of hair Vivian was looking for, from curly to braided.

“Then one day I wore some hair to an event, and a Black woman pulled me aside and said, ‘who does your hair?’ I was like ‘girl, this is a weave.’ And I thought, if she would buy my hair, a ton of other women would, too.

So, with the help of some human hair sourced from India, a Rubbermaid bin, and the support of the Internet, Vivian launched KinkyCurlyYaki. It immediately took off. Today, the company stands as the originator of an entire niche in the hair industry and has become so popular that companies have begun trying to replicate its business model.  

“Online word of mouth was huge for my company because nothing like it existed,” Vivian says. “I hit my first $1 million without placing a single ad. It was all about influencer marketing on social media before influencer marketing was a thing, and using social media groups to talk about my products. I also hit the jackpot with online shopping. KinkyCurlyYaki started when people were becoming more comfortable with spending money online.” 

Vivan says learning the ins and outs of doing business in a digital world has been paramount to her success, but she openly states her company wouldn’t have become successful if she wasn’t the person running it. 

“I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me.” 

“What no one can compete with is me. I get high on my own supply, and I resonate with customers because I’m not afraid to go to work with my afro. I know what it feels like to be judged by others because of my hair, so I can communicate with my customers in a way no one else can.”

She also attributes part of her success to her approach to business in general. “I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would go. I started this because I wanted to solve my own problem and those of other women who looked like me,” she explains. 

And from there, Vivian defined success on her own terms — which she recommends all entrepreneurs do. “If you’re worried about ‘making it,’ you have to define what that means for you. For me, it was about flexibility, especially after my son was born, because as a single mother, I wanted to stay home and raise him. I wanted a business I could do at 2 a.m. while he was sleeping,” she says. “If money is your number one driver, you are going to be sorely disappointed in anything you do.” 

Vivian also has advice for anyone who doubts themselves: sit back and ask, “What would Chad do?” 

“There are some mediocre men out there who don’t have any idea what they’re doing, but they walk into roles because they know they might not know B, but they have A and C figured out. You, as a woman, can figure it out. Stop looking for someone to give you permission to be you and be successful. Don’t be the damper to your own light. If someone doesn’t like the path you’ve taken? Well, they can kick rocks with flip-flops.”

Vivian adds that everyone will face challenges when building a business, but it’s the ability to push through difficult times that will make the impossible possible. 

“The past 18 months of the COVID pandemic have been difficult — as a business person and a mother,” she says. “But shit transforms into manure. Manure helps things grow, it fertilizes. In order to grow, you sometimes have to wade through the shit to get to the place where success happens.”

Meet Christal Earle, founder of sustainable fashion brand Brave Soles.

Christal Earle

Meet Christal Earle, a serial entrepreneur, public speaker, agent for social change, and founder of Brave Soles, a brand that upcycles tires from landfills to create handcrafted shoes and accessories. Before working in the sustainable fashion space, Christal was the co-founder of Live Different, an international youth humanitarian charity. In 2017, Christal launched Brave Soles, working with artisans in the Dominican Republic to create products that are conscious of people and the planet.

My first job ever was… as a seating host at a breakfast diner in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. 

Before my work with Brave Soles, I was… the founder of an international humanitarian charity.

I founded Brave Soles because… I worked for many years with landfill workers in vulnerable communities around the world. I began to see the opportunities for circular fashion and a circular business model based on what I saw being discarded.

The thing I love most about what I do is… I get to work with some of the most kind and generous people — that includes both our team and our customers. 

I love public speaking because… I come alive when I have the chance to connect with an audience and help them begin to see the power of their choices in a new perspective.

“Listening and learning from people who are living in a challenging environment day to day helped me see the possibilities from their perspective and think about how to start in the most simple and effective way possible.” 

My best advice for anyone that cares about a cause and wants to contribute to it would be… to learn about it and to challenge your perspectives and assumptions. For example, before I started working with landfill workers, I assumed that discarded materials would be useless at that point and that there would be no way to reclaim them. Once I started to ask questions to the people who lived and worked in that landfill, I began to see a thread of common opportunities emerge. Listening and learning from people who are living in a challenging environment day to day helped me see the possibilities from their perspective and think about how to start in the most simple and effective way possible. 

One tangible way you can be a more conscious shopper is… to look for transparency. If a brand is truly being transparent, it means they are working to do better and better. When it comes to building a more sustainable and resilient world, we can’t get stuck on looking for perfection. We have the opportunity to look at what is being done with an honest and transparent effort and we can put our resources and attention into those places. 

I like to think of the way forward as a reflection of what served humanity for thousands of years before now: If you were to go back 125 years, chances are you would have known who made your clothes, who made your shoes, or who crafted the items in your home because you would have been connected to them. However, we have become very disconnected from what we own and the stories and people behind what make those products possible. To be a conscious shopper is like an adventure in curiosity and in learning to see the story behind what you are putting your money into. 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… never being scared to ask questions — of myself, of trusted advisors, and of the people I am seeking to serve. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I get weak in the knees for anything with maple syrup!

I stay inspired by… always learning from others through reading, listening, and through the people I have in my life from around the world. 

The future excites me because… I have the opportunity to create meaningful change for myself and my daughter, and those who will come after her.

les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2021 sont annoncés

Nous sommes fiers d’annoncer les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2021. Un nouveau record a été battu cette année, avec plus de 10 000 candidatures de femmes des quatre coins du pays nommées par leurs collègues et leurs pairs. Après examen approfondi, 21 finalistes ont été sélectionnées dans l’ensemble des sept catégories de prix traditionnelles. Cinq autres candidates ont été choisies pour recevoir le prix Entrepreneure prometteuse, qui vise à récompenser des entrepreneures qui ont lancé des entreprises ayant connu un succès étonnant en moins de trois ans.

Les femmes qui forment ce groupe exceptionnel, diversifié et résilient ont été choisies pour leurs réalisations dans un large éventail de secteurs, dont les médias, la gestion du capital de risque, les vêtements, la construction, les services médicaux et la cybersécurité.

Compte tenu de l’incroyable essor du programme, la catégorie Évolution sociale a été élargie cette année. Ce prix comprend maintenant deux catégories : 1) le Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence régionale, qui est remis à la gestionnaire d’un organisme de bienfaisance enregistré, d’une entreprise sociale ou d’un organisme sans but lucratif se consacrant à un aspect précis du changement social, à un niveau local ou régional ; 2) le Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence nationale, qui est remis aux gestionnaires dont l’organisation a une portée nationale ou internationale.

Les Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC rendent hommage à des femmes propriétaires
d’entreprise partout au Canada qui retiennent l’attention en raison de leur importante contribution à la vitalité des économies locale, canadienne ou mondiale. Les candidates sont des visionnaires du secteur des affaires, et font preuve d’une détermination à toute épreuve afin de concrétiser leurs rêves. Les prix sont accordés à des femmes d’affaires et à des dirigeantes d’organisme sans but lucratif des trois grandes régions du Canada : l’Est, le Centre et l’Ouest.

« Nous sommes honorés de célébrer les parcours et réalisations extraordinaires de nos finalistes de 2021, a déclaré Greg Grice, vice-président directeur, Services financiers à l’entreprise, RBC. Nous nous réjouissons de voir l’influence grandissante des femmes entrepreneures au Canada, qui sont des pionnières, des mentors, des créatrices d’occasions pour d’autres femmes, et qui contribuent d’importante façon à notre économie et à nos collectivités par leur leadership. Il importe de soutenir leur avancement et de célébrer leurs réalisations pour créer un milieu des affaires plus inclusif et inspirer la nouvelle génération d’entrepreneurs dans une économie post-pandémie. »

Le nom des lauréates sera annoncé à l’occasion du 29e gala annuel de remise des prix, le mercredi
17 novembre. Il s’agira encore une fois d’un gala virtuel. Le gala, qui sera diffusé en simultané dans le monde entier, soulignera l’excellence des entrepreneures canadiennes. La conférencière invitée sera Nadine RenaudTinker, présidente régionale, Québec, RBC.

Pour plus d’information, visitez le communiqué de presse. 

Voici les lauréates du prix Entrepreneure prometteuse 2021:

Voici les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2021:

Prix Micro-entreprise Portail de connaissances pour les femmes en entrepreneuriat
Prix Nouvelle entreprise
Prix du dynamisme RBC
Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence nationale
Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence régionale
Prix de l’innovation
Prix de l’excellence

Announcing the 2021 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Finalists!

Pour la version française, cliquez ici.

We are proud to announce the 2021 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards finalists. A record-breaking year for the program, Canadian women entrepreneurs were recognized by their colleagues and peers with over 10,000 nominations from across the country. After an intensive judging review, 21 finalists were selected across seven categories. An additional 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.

The women in this exceptional, diverse, and resilient group were chosen for their accomplishments in a wide range of industries including media, venture capital management, apparel, construction, medical services, cybersecurity and beyond.

In recognition of the incredible growth of the overall program, the Social Change category has been expanded this year. This award has now grown to include two categories: Social Change: Regional Impact, which recognizes a leader of a registered charity, social enterprise or not-for-profit that is dedicated to their unique brand of social change at a local or regional level; and Social Change: National Impact, which recognizes those whose organization has national or global impact.

The RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards recognize women business owners from across Canada who make impressive and substantial contributions to the local, Canadian, or global economy. Candidates share a strong entrepreneurial vision and a relentless passion in pursuing their dreams. These awards recognize businesswomen and leaders of non-profits from three major regions across Canada: East, Central, and West. 

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. 

“We are honoured to celebrate the stories and accomplishments of our 2021 award finalists,” said Greg Grice, Executive Vice-President, Business Financial Services, RBC. “We’re excited to see a growing force of women entrepreneurs in Canada who are trailblazing industries, mentoring and creating opportunities for other women, and making significant contributions to our economy and communities through their leadership. Supporting their advancement and celebrating their achievements are critical to creating a more inclusive business community and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs as we strive for greater growth and resilience in a post-pandemic economy.”

We are honoured to celebrate the accomplishments of our 2021 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 29th Annual Awards Gala, on Wednesday, November 17, where all attendees will be once again digitally transported into our Virtual Awards Gala. The Gala, which will be live streamed around the world, will shine a spotlight on all these amazing Canadian women entrepreneurs. Keynote remarks will be shared by Nadine Renaud-Tinker, Regional President Quebec, RBC.

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

Mandy Rennehan, CEO of construction company Freshco, is on a mission to make the trades more relatable.

Mandy Rennehan

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

Mandy Rennehan — the fast-talking, down-to-earth CEO of Freshco, a retail maintenance and construction company that counts organizations like the Gap and Tesla as clients — is on a mission.

“We devalue the trades,” she says, of the way society looks down on blue collar workers — a group that includes everyone from estheticians to electricians. “We don’t think about the people who design and build all of the things we rely on. It’s now about making the trades relatable.”

Mandy, who’s called Bear by just about everyone who knows her, is hoping to fuel this revolution by bringing a little of her blue collar perspective to the white collar world. Her efforts have included everything from inspirational speaking (with viral TEDxTalks), providing scholarships and mentorship for women in trades, partnering with Barbie’s You Can Be Anything Mentorship Program, and an HGTV series called Trading Up that will air in 2022. (The show will follow her as she trains apprentices while renovating three unique properties in her hometown of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.)

“It will give me a bigger platform to share my message,” she says. 

Growing up with financial struggles, Mandy hightailed it out of Yarmouth with “only a hockey bag and personality” after high school, taking odd jobs that played to her physical strength on dairy and horse farms. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t be academic or go to school, I just didn’t want to,” she says. 

Instead, Mandy spent her spare time cold-calling construction companies asking if she could pitch in on projects. “I laid stones, concrete, electrical, and pulled wire for weeks so I could understand the foundation of everything,” she says. 

“If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”

Luck struck when she landed a gig with a flooring company and was tasked with developing a customized cherrywood for a wealthy client in Halifax. The son appreciated her craftsmanship and work ethic — and was vocal about it.  

“From that time, my name spread through the Maritimes like a bad fart,” she jokes. “There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know about the young woman from Yarmouth who was making waves in construction.” The then 19-year-old Mandy founded Freshco, which has since grown to service Fortune 500 clients across Canada and the Eastern United States. 

“I am a pilot project that went really well,” she says, adding how important it is to share her own story. “If we don’t talk to people about how rewarding the trades field is — fixing essential things — we will remain in this trade shortage.”

Mandy points to the issue of how trade work is viewed versus earning a university degree. In her experience in the industry, blue collar parents push their kids to go to university thinking it will insulate them from the discrimination they faced, while white collar parents do the same because they think non-corporate jobs aren’t prestigious enough for their kids.

The reality, though, is that the world of construction and trades is not only rewarding — it is beginning to lead the way with innovative and future-proof technologies. 

“You need more math and physics to do most of the things you need to do in trades than you need for a desk job. But the industry isn’t being sold that way,” explains Mandy.

Case in point: “You know those cabinets you dream about — the cabinets you see in magazines? Years ago we had to physically train someone about the art of spraying cabinets. Today, we put them in a spraying simulator. That simulator is all AI that’s teaching people how to do things using tech. We’re no longer wasting wood or resources,” she says. “And then we have exoskeleton suits that allow contractors to demo without putting wear and tear on their bodies.”

“We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”

Software has also changed the game. A general contractor can now work from home and watch what’s happening on site through cameras. Programs even allow teams to do scans of an area so crews can see what’s behind a home’s walls. 

“What this is doing is attracting people with a tech background to trades,” says Mandy. “We’re not — nor will we ever be — in a place where we can get rid of people. But you’re no longer going to school to learn how to lay bricks; you’re going to learn about the technology behind new high-tech processes.”

The challenge then is getting people’s viewpoints to catch up to the way the industry is evolving. “We’re still missing the people with the knowledge of modalities for building techniques. We don’t have enough people that have enough wisdom to do certain things. And if we don’t start training more people in building modalities or making them aware of the career possibilities, we’re all going to be sitting here struggling to find people to build things.”

Which is why she’s extolling the virtues of working in the trades for everyone. 

“This industry was made for both genders,” she says — an assertion she’s supported not only through hiring and training women in her own company, but also by providing inspiration, mentorship, and financial aid to girls and women interested in trades. “But I’m not just after your daughter and those in junior high school. I’m after people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who say ‘I want to work with my hands. I want to build stuff. I want to build and maintain a new Canada.’”

All people have to do is take a cue from Mandy’s career to see how wildly successful and fulfilling life outside the white-collar world can be.

“I’m bringing the sexy back to the trade industry,” she jokes, “and I’m making and inspiring new leaders and general contractors who see the absolute gratifying fun and kick-ass part of the trade industry. The opportunities are endless.”

Sylvia Parris Drummond is making change and building community for Black Nova Scotians — through education, opportunities, and celebration.

Sylvia Parris Drummond

By Karen van Kampen

 

At the age of 16, Sylvia Parris Drummond discovered the importance of learning in order to teach others. She got a job overseeing a summer camp program in her community of Meadowbrook Hill, Nova Scotia, which provided her firsthand experience and insight into the education process. “If you give something of yourself, then you can help others benefit,” she says. “I recognized my passion to work in education and with the community.” 

Sylvia’s lifelong dedication to learning, community building, and social change has made a profound impact. She is CEO of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute, that is committed to creating academic change and opportunities for learners of African descent while celebrating the accurate history, heritage, and contributions of Black/African Nova Scotians. In 2020 she was recognized for her accomplishments with the Social Change Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an exceptional leader of a registered charity, social enterprise, or not-for-profit that is dedicated to their unique brand of social change. 

Community has always been an integral part of Sylvia’s life. She remembers families in her neighbourhood being generous in sharing their praise and expertise, which included baking soft molasses cookies. Childcare was provided for neighbourhood children as a part of community support. 

As the second youngest in a combined family with 15 children, Sylvia understood the importance of taking care of family and kinship. “There was always that accountability that the older one took care of the next younger sibling,” she says. “That learning is rooted in you, and you don’t even realize how much it might show up in different things until you have the opportunity to think it through.” 

Sylvia was in grade nine when her father passed away. Two years later, her mother died. “No matter your age, you are an orphan when your parents are gone,” she says. “For me, it was so important to continue taking care of my younger sister.” Sylvia’s parents had taught her the importance of faith in her life, and during this time she found strength in her faith. 

“The intertwining of our humanity is so important, and the recognition that if you are successful, I am successful. Our hearts, our souls, our resilience, and our existence are still within our locus of control.” 

She moved with her sister to Antigonish where Sylvia attended St. Francis Xavier University, earning a science degree and teaching degree while her sister attended high school. Sylvia had a couple of part-time jobs during university and says, “It was a gift to be able to take care of my sister.” She had the benefit of caring people in her life, including professors at the university who kept an eye out for Sylvia and her sister. 

Sylvia continued her studies, earning a Masters in Curriculum at Saint Mary’s University. In 1995, she got a job at the Department of Education in Halifax where she worked in policy and diversity. She gained experience in the provincial and municipal government, which gave Sylvia a strong sense of how policy was developed, applied, and implemented. In 2010, she completed a Masters in Africentricity Policy Leadership at Mount Saint Vincent University. “It’s such an opportunity to be able to have studied and lived experience for your work,” she says. 

In 2015, Sylvia was appointed CEO of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute. Today, she continues to work with the Department of Education as well as Regional Centres for Education, Labour and Advanced Education, and community organizations serving Black/African Nova Scotian communities to ensure there is genuine access to accurate information on the contributions of Black/African Nova Scotians. 

“We draw upon the diversity within our diversity and our uniqueness, but also the common thread within us,” says Sylvia, explaining that the essence of Africentricity is “the centring of our voices and our needs in terms of community, with a recognition that getting this right will benefit everyone.” 

The institute’s research, education, and policy activate the African philosophy Ubuntu and its belief in “I am because we are” and the universal bond of humanity. “The intertwining of our humanity is so important,” says Sylvia, “and the recognition that if you are successful, I am successful. Our hearts, our souls, our resilience, and our existence are still within our locus of control.” 

The organization’s reach and impact on individual and community pride continue to grow along with its Africentric publishing program, dedicated to sharing stories of the 50-plus Black/African Nova Scotian communities. Books include The ABC’s of Viola Desmond in both English and French and Black History: Africa, The Caribbean, and the Amercias that is used in African Canadian Studies courses.  

Reflecting on her experiences and lifelong journey of learning, Sylvia offers some sage advice: “Continue to value and respect those who went before you and all that they have done, because none of us get where we are by ourselves,” she says, adding that we also need to recognize our own strengths and accomplishments, and take time for self-reflection. 

“Your body and mind will tell you when to think about where you are at and what you are doing. Are you still going where you wanted to go?” asks Sylvia. “Have a vision, hold to that vision, and work for that vision.”

How the pandemic inspired this entrepreneur to shift from her 9-5 and build her business.

Maria Poonawala

By Hailey Eisen 

 

In the midst of Ontario’s COVID-19 stay at home order in early 2021, Maria Poonawala was conflicted between a job she loved and becoming an entrepreneur. Making this sort of high-risk decision in the middle of a global pandemic was challenging, but Maria says working a 9 to 5 job, and running her start-up from 5pm to 1am was taking its toll.

“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this,” she recalls. 

In officially launching Connexa, Maria was poised to offer small and medium sized businesses a customer service platform that would help them maintain a human connection with their customers through a centralized inbox that saves them time while leveraging machine learning to provide customer feedback insights in an analytics dashboard. 

She’d built the idea into a functioning high-fidelity prototype in the months prior with a team of women in STEM apprentices. The premise for Connexa came from observations and experiences Maria accumulated during the five years she’d worked in the technology sector prior to venturing out on her own. But, as she explains, her interest in technology came about almost by accident, leading to a career journey she probably wouldn’t have imagined for herself. 

“I went to Ryerson to study international business,” Maria recalls. “And while I was looking into strategy consulting for my third-year internship, I kept hearing that digitization was the way companies were going and that technology was where I should be focusing my attention.” 

Maria credits Ryerson with being an entrepreneurial minded school with great incubators and an atmosphere in which students were encouraged to pursue ideas as student group leaders and start their own businesses. “That’s where the entrepreneurship seed was planted,” she says. “And while I’d never before considered technology, I decided to apply for internships in that space.” 

While she faced many rejections, as a result of her inexperience, Maria says Cisco took a chance on her, offering her an internship and an opportunity to build her skillset. “I fell in love with tech that year,” she recalls. 

Upon graduation, Maria took a consulting job with Ernst & Young (EY) in their Technology Advisory practice, where she had the opportunity to work on a number of projects and dive into Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Robotic Process Automation, and Virtual Agents (Chatbots). “Things were moving fast, I was learning on the job, and I just knew that it would be technology that would change everything – I wanted to brand myself as someone who was an expert in AI application, and I sought out opportunities to do that.”  

“Feeling mentally worn out and triggered by the stay at home order, I realized that I was young and didn’t yet have a family, plus it was difficult to have a social life during the pandemic — and with that extra time it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances coming together to take a leap of faith and try something like this.”

Maria came across her next career move while doing a vendor assessment for a project she was working on with EY. “I was evaluating this small company against some big vendors, and when they pitched to me, I fell in love with what they were doing.” The company was Wysdom.AI, a conversational AI optimization platform and service that delivers chatbots. 

“I went from a 4000-person company to a 40-person company,” she says. “Being part of an AI start-up was a really interesting, fascinating opportunity, and I was eager to learn as much as I could.” 

Maria dove into her work at Wysdom, and within a few years, was promoted twice and became a people manager to a team. “I learned a lot about leadership and developed the confidence to know that if I ever started my own business, I’d be able to manage a team,” she says. “I’ve never loved a job more than I did working with them. Being part of a growing start-up is magical.”

This made Maria’s decision to start Connexa all the more difficult. But in late 2020, her entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with a calling and a strong desire to give back, propelled her forward. 

“I’m an empath by nature, and during the pandemic, I really felt devastated for small businesses and also for the students who I noticed had a sense of hopelessness, facing limited career prospects,” she says. Feeling fortunate in her job and her ability to work from home, Maria says she wanted to employ a mentorship model with her start-up where she could help women in STEM and provide access to experience. 

The idea for Connexa had been planted years prior when Maria worked in customer service automation and saw the need for a system that was easy for agents to interact with — and that handled the data analytics they often struggled with. “The goal was to reimagine customer service while letting the platform do the hard work,” she says. The platform would help those small and medium sized businesses that were already struggling because of the pandemic. Finally, she saw a way to build her platform while also providing opportunities to women in STEM who were looking for experience to build their resumes. “I wanted to give them the opportunity I’d been given in tech early on,” she says. 

“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur. As such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.”

Thanks to an encounter with another woman founder and Tech Undivided alumnae, Maria was pointed in the direction of the Female Laboratory of Innovative Knowledge (FLIK), a program that connects female founders with student talent from around the world in an apprenticeship model. “I put out what I was looking for with Connexa, looking for help to build this company, and overnight my inbox was filled,” Maria says. “Over the December holidays in 2020, I booked 30 interviews in a week and ended up having the most incredible conversations with women from around the world who I was so impressed with and inspired by.” 

Maria put together a team of 6 people in functional roles to begin with virtually, and maintained the goal of creating an inclusive, supportive environment where an all-woman team would thrive. She then began to build out her business in the hours she wasn’t working at Wysdom. 

A few months later, with the support of her mentors at Wysdom and her family, Maria says she was ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship full-time. Since then, Connexa has continued to grow, building relationships with investors, and getting the platform in the hands of initial users. “We are delivering a simple platform that’s intuitive and affordable.”

Recently Connexa was selected as one of the women-led start-ups to be part of the third cohort of ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program. “Female founders are typically over-resourced and underfunded in North America. I was looking for an accelerator program that would centralize these resources, provide mentors to reach out to with targeted help, and a cohort or community of peers to lean on,” she says. Tech Undivided is designed for founders building breakthrough technology solutions. It draws on the expertise of strategic mentors and partners to help founders refine their product-market-fit, amplify sales, and hone their pitch for customer and investor meetings. “Being a woman founder can be lonely at times, and having others who are going through the same things at the same time can be really helpful.” 

As Maria looks at Connexa’s growth ahead, she says she would love her company to be the next great Canadian success story, like Shopify. She’s committed to creating a culture that’s supportive, inclusive, and that values all of its employees. She’s also eager to advise other young women entrepreneurs, sharing advice she’s been given along the way. 

“The barriers to entry have never been lower to become an entrepreneur,” she says. “And, as such, I think everyone should measure the cost of inaction, recognize failing is part of the process, and avoid spending too much time on decisions that can be reversed.” Her advice for anyone with an entrepreneurial inclination: “Take action as soon as possible.”

How Vicki Saunders of SheEO built a new financial model for a better world.

Vicki Saunders

When it comes to financing, women business owners face significant barriers when securing capital compared to men — but how bad is it?

“51% of the population are women, yet we receive 2% of the capital,” explains Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO. “That’s statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”

A serial entrepreneur who has made a career of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, Vicki Saunders’ latest venture was designed to directly tackle the issue of gender inequity. Launched in 2015 in Canada and now also in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, SheEO is a not-for-profit company that has made an entirely new model of financing for women-identifying and non-binary entrepreneurs.

Built on a foundation of ‘radical generosity,’ the five-year loans SheEO provides have zero interest. There are no requirements for collateral, and a simplified process for applying. And when the money is paid back, everything gets reinvested back into a perpetual fund to support the next round of business owners. 

“When I was getting started with SheEO, people would say to me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with making money on an investment,’ because that’s how it’s always been done,” says Vicki. “But you don’t have to make money on everything. This is a radically different way of thinking about investing — it’s more about a collective ensuring capital is flowing to innovators who have been consistently put to the margins by our systems and structures. We need to rethink what we are investing in, for what kind of future.”

The capital is provided by a diverse community of women-identifying and non-binary individuals. Known as Activators, they come from all walks of life, varying in experience and ranging in age from 11 to 95. In addition to a monthly contribution of $92, they commit to sharing their expertise, networks, and buying power. “We have weekly community calls which are designed for us to get the support we need from one another,” says Vicki. “Everyone in this community has something to give, and we offer it up in a radically generous environment full of trust and love.” 

“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically. When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.” 

Each year, Activators democratically vote in their country on the Ventures that will be supported. The businesses who apply to SheEO come from a broad range of sectors, but they all have a few things in common: they are majority women- or non-binary-owned and led; they’re revenue-generating (from $50k to $2M); and they’re “tackling the World’s To-Do List” in their own unique way.

“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically,” explains Vicki. “When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.” 

The ‘World’s To-Do List’ is based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. SheEO selected Ventures not only identify which of the 17 SDGs they are working on, but also measure their impact related to those goals.

Removing the requirement for a financial return has made it simpler to focus on supporting the businesses on their own terms, leaving space for new models and new approaches to emerge. “Many of our Ventures would not have received funding at this early stage unless they are privileged to have friends and family with capital. We are focused on creating more equitable systems and getting capital into the hands of those with brilliant innovations that help us get to a better world. And, in a community that comes from a place of radical generosity, we’ve experienced that businesses that look ‘uninvestable’ through a traditional lens can literally transform almost immediately when hundreds of women get behind them and support them as customers, advisors and connectors.” 

Even by traditional metrics, the results are impressive: About 95% of the loans are repaid, and in the last year alone, the 63 Ventures in the program created 772 environmentally and socially sustainable jobs, and experienced 65% growth in revenue. Those successes, Vicki explains, wouldn’t have come about if not for the power of the deep relationships between Activators and Ventures.  

“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers,” says Vicki. “The entrepreneurs who have been funded through SheEO would never run a business alone again.”

“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers.”

The connections are fostered with the help of several events, from fireside chats to the annual SheEO Summit. Their Learning Circles feature topics ranging from the power of email marketing to the creation of sacred space through Indigenous teachings. Since the pandemic started, everything has been pushed online, but Vicki says that’s actually been beneficial. “The virtual transition really worked well for us. We were able to connect more with our community from across the globe.”  

In 2020, SheEO hosted 263 Zoom calls, and reached over 8,000 guests through virtual events. They also welcomed nearly 1,500 new Activators, growing the community by over 30%. This year, largely enabled by $1.2 million in funding provided by BMO, they’ve gone from 20 to 44 Ventures supported globally, including all 23 Canadian applicants. 

“BMO’s investment in SheEO is helping a growing number of women-owned businesses affected by the pandemic to have the opportunity to grow and prosper,” says Vicki. “We are excited to have the opportunity to double the number of ventures for the first time since we launched in 2015 — and we’re particularly excited that BMO has matched our lending terms at 0% interest, recognizing the power of our unique ecosystem.”

Of course, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. SheEO’s relationship-based, impact-focused ecosystem is doing far more than providing loans, generating jobs, and increasing revenue. “It’s showing the world that another way forward is possible,” says Vicki.      

“Our current economic system isn’t working; it’s built on inequality and it’s unsustainable. We’ve lost our sense of community, and we don’t know how to say, ‘maybe we have enough,’” she says. “That’s why SheEO is redefining how things are done.” 

Vicki believes the old system is dying, but that we’ll continue to be held back if we don’t foster an entirely new mindset. 

“We have this inertia. Even though we’re not happy, we just keep doing what we’re doing because it’s easier, because we know how. And overcoming that inertia takes an incredible amount of force,” says Vicki. “It takes a stretch of the imagination to think in a non-transactional way. Everything in this world is transactional. What if instead we asked, ‘How can I make things better?’ We all have excess capacity. We all have a talent we can share. Maybe you’re a storyteller or a super-connector — whatever it is, there’s a way you can contribute.”

The founder of Balzac’s Coffee left the brand she built — to create an entirely new retail business during COVID.

Diana Olsen

By Sarah Kelsey 

 

How do you know it’s the right time to leave a job? It’s a question many people seem to be asking themselves as Canada comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have even begun to warn of a coming wave of resignations. 

For Diana Olsen, who left her long-term career at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters in December 2020, it came down to two things: gut instinct and timing. 

“You have to hone in on your intuition and what it’s telling you,” Diana says. “You can’t listen to the advice or thoughts of anyone else. The decision to leave has to be one you make for yourself.”

Diana became a household name in the coffee world after beginning the much-beloved brand in Stratford, Ontario in 1996. She spent almost 25 years building the company and turning it into a café chain with outposts across the province.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced her into an unusual period of downtime, which she used to reflect on her career and future goals. 

She knew she loved the people she was working with and adored her customers. “The thing that set Balzac’s apart from other coffee shops was I did take the coffee seriously — we roasted it ourselves. I learned the craft of roasting,” Diana explains. “But I was also interested in the design and ambience of the café, and I took my inspiration from the ones in Paris, a city I lived and worked in for years. That’s what made Balzac’s unique. It wasn’t just a chain of coffee shops, it was a coffee roaster with a beautiful space.”

But as the brand grew, so too did her disconnect with these elements of the business. Diana began to desire a return to the fresh and small. That led to the creation of her latest venture, Inner Beach

“Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person. The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.” 

“I started Inner Beach in the spring of 2021, months after retiring from Balzac’s, because I wanted to build a community and bring the laid-back energy of beach culture to everyone at a time when they need a way to escape their day-to-day and destress and relax,” she notes. 

The result is a thriving omni-channel business — with a stand-alone store near the shores of Port Credit, Ontario, and online presence at innerbeach.com — full of boho-chic finds. Integrated into the experience is a partnership with Swim Drink Fish, a charity with a goal of cleaning up Canadian shorelines to protect swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone.

Launching an entirely new retail brand during a pandemic came with unique challenges. Diana leaned on technologies she had used at Balzac’s to create an online sales channel, and she turned to social media to source suppliers. “Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person,” she says. “The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.” 

Even the vintage products carried in the store were found through a combination of virtual and live thrifting events, as well as auction sites. Embracing a hybrid model of online and in-person — which she’s used from sourcing to sellingChas led to success. 

Today, Diana says she feels a renewed passion for the work she does; she’s reconnected to her start-up roots and her ability to be creative. While she acknowledges some may think her move to leave a successful brand to launch something new is risky, she doesn’t let their thoughts phase her. 

“Being an entrepreneur is risky. You want to stand out and you want to be unique, but sometimes in the back of your mind you’re thinking, should I be doing this?” she says. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you feel you need a change, tune into your intuition. You have to keep pushing and being forward thinking. You have to remain resilient and do what works for you.”

“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day.”

She adds all entrepreneurs should remember that advice or the unsolicited thoughts of others should always be taken with a grain of salt. You will know your business best, and just because someone advises you of something doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s great to have a trusted mentor to lean on and bounce ideas off of, but you can’t let them knock your confidence or confuse your instincts. 

“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day,” she says.

Diana’s last piece of advice for anyone who is looking to make a career shift during this time is to make sure the move is calculated. She reiterates she still loved Balzac’s when she left, but knew it was time to challenge herself in a different way and to take a smart risk. 

“I’ve failed over the course of my career. But I know you have to make mistakes along the way to learn and grow. Any entrepreneur is going to make mistakes. You’re going to be completely convinced of something and then you’re going to realize you’re wrong,” she says. “Just remember: there will be plenty of times you’re right. You can’t let fear stop you. Know when something is no longer working for you. Tap into your intuition. Take risks. All of this is way better than not having the confidence to try something new.”

Mandy Farmer built an award winning retro-themed hotel brand — and kept it going through the pandemic by focusing on helping people.

Mandy Farmer

By Karen van Kampen

 

For 10 years, Mandy Farmer wrote one business plan after another, trying to sell the concept of retro-themed hotels to her business partners at Accent Inns. Yet she couldn’t convince them to invest in renovating old motels and rebranding them with a 1970s flair. 

Refusing to give up, Mandy brought her partners to a motel that was owned by Accent Inns. The property was projected to lose money, and Mandy asked for their advice on how to turn things around. Standing in front of the motel, her partners proposed Mandy’s idea as their own — suggesting they reinvent the property with a retro theme. Naturally, she agreed.

In 2014, the first Hotel Zed was launched. Today, Accent Inns operates three Hotel Zeds across British Columbia, entertaining guests with a 1980s arcade, mini disco, and bike path that runs through the lobby. “We are rebels against the ordinary,” says Mandy, echoing Hotel Zed’s tagline. 

As President and CEO of Accent Inns, Mandy is being recognized as an innovative hotelier with a passion to bring comfort and happiness to her guests. She was the 2020 winner of the Excellence Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, that honours an entrepreneur who has built and managed a successful business over a decade through timely innovation, strategic thinking, and smart execution. 

Looking back, Mandy remembers the pivotal experience of watching her dad become a hotelier. She was 13 when he built the first Accent Inn, transitioning from the family construction business into hotels. “I saw my dad come alive,” she says. “There was a jaunt in his step. He whistled. He talked to everyone about Accent Inns. He was so proud.” 

When Mandy was in her twenties, she became Sales Manager at Accent Inns. It wasn’t easy cold calling potential business customers, including film studios and insurance companies that needed accommodations for their employees on the road. “You’d have doors slammed in your face,” she says. “But it was also exhilarating to get a sale.” She worked her way up in the company by recognizing and seizing every opportunity. 

During her executive MBA at Royal Roads University, Mandy wrote her thesis on retro-themed hotels. She graduated in 2003 and became Vice President of Accent Inns. Two years later, Mandy was appointed president and CEO. Today, she continues to brainstorm innovative and unique ideas to grow the five Accent Inns and three Hotel Zeds. “It is in our blood to look at every single thing and decide, how can we make that unordinary?” she says.

Accent Inns are built on fun and humour, with secret jokes hidden in every room. Stepping into an elevator is like taking a hot air balloon ride, with guests surrounded by a 360-degree aerial photograph of the property. At Hotel Zed, things get a bit wilder, with a mini disco where people can DJ their own dance party and a retro office space with a secret switch on a bookshelf that opens onto a 1980s arcade.   

“I was able to go down the rabbit hole of fear and see that I could lose the family business. We kept talking about leading with love and opening our hearts wide.”

Mandy remembers working at franchised hotels that were very formulaic, giving her scripts to read when she was on the front desk. “We are the exact opposite,” she says. “We are surprising and fun, refreshing and real.” 

Mandy is also dedicated to the happiness and satisfaction of her 300 staff. New employees are told, “We hired you because you’re awesome. Please let your awesomeness show, however that is for you,” she says. They are given a name tag and asked to create their own title. There is a disco dancer and dog walker on the team. “It’s permission to be yourself at work,” she says. 

After so much success, the pandemic has brought about a difficult time for the company. “I was able to go down the rabbit hole of fear and see that I could lose the family business,” says Mandy, who decided that if they were going to go down, they would do so with their heads held high and help as many people as possible. “We kept talking about leading with love and opening our hearts wide,” she says.

 After hearing about a nurse sleeping in her car for fear of bringing the virus home to her family, Mandy began providing hotel rooms at cost to frontline workers. When bus drivers were being mistreated by some passengers during the pandemic, Mandy and her team gave drivers thank you notes and gift cards to show their appreciation. She gave her employees the gift of giving at the holidays by providing them with two gift cards: one for themselves and one to give to someone else. 

Then there were the party parades in which staff would drive by kids’ houses in Hotel Zed’s 1960s VW buses with signs and balloons, honking and wishing children a happy birthday. The parades were provided free of charge, which kept Mandy’s team engaged and feeling like they were making a difference. “It’s changed our company,” says Mandy. “To this day, we’re constantly asking, how can we help?”   

Looking to the future, Mandy is excited to continue to grow her business as well as her people. “It’s a passion for us to transform our employees’ lives, however we can do it,” she says. “I want their jobs to be the best of their lives so that when someone asks them when they’re 80 years old, ‘what was your favourite job?’ I want to be it.”

Meet Jen Lee Koss, retail entrepreneur and investor with a social purpose.

Jenn Lee Koss

Jen Lee Koss is an entrepreneur and investor, passionate about supporting, uplifting, and making a change in the lives of entrepreneurs and working families. A graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and Harvard Business School, Jen has worked in the consumer and retail sectors for most of her career. Before launching BRIKA, a business focused on helping businesses with innovative, curated retail experiences in 2012, Jen worked in the management, consulting, investment banking, and private equity spaces. Alongside her work with BRIKA, Jen is a Founding Partner of Springbank Collective, an organization that invests in early-stage companies that are re-imagining work, building the care infrastructure, and creating solutions for working families — with a goal of a more inclusive future.

 

My first job ever was… as a House Manager at The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. I was responsible for making sure the shows started on time and that the audience was taken care of! 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… if I look back at the trajectory of my education and career, I have always had big ideas and executed them. For example, I founded my University’s first conductorless orchestra (which still exists today!). When I left my finance career to start BRIKA, I was craving a more creative path in life.

I co-founded BRIKA because… I met the right person to start the business with. When I met my co-founder Kena, I knew she had the right experience and skillset that was complementary to my own, and that we would make a great team. 

I co-founded Springbank Collective because… in my role with BRIKA, I have been privy to working and partnering with thousands of small businesses, of which the majority are women-founded, run, and owned. I have understood firsthand how difficult it is to work and raise a family at the same time (I have four young children under the age of 10), so, in many ways, I have always felt passionate about gender equality issues, but didn’t know how or what I could do to make a change. With my founding partners, Courtney and Elana, I knew that the thesis we came up with was a large enough platform to make a difference. We believe the gender gap can’t be siloed as a “women’s issue” — it is an infrastructure gap and a massive, overlooked opportunity. We invest in the tools and services to support working women and working families across the categories of care, career, and household consumer, irrespective of the founders’ gender.

“There’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.”   

My biggest setback was… not being able to accept what I considered my “dream job,” due to a Visa issue that I had overlooked. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world, but in hindsight, I may not have ever started my entrepreneurial journey.

I overcame it by… accepting it was completely my fault and focusing on the next thing ahead. 

One misconception about social enterprises is… that it’s not big business. You can make an impact and a return at the same time. 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs with a social mission is… there’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.   

The thing I love most about what I do is… meeting and connecting with new people.

One tangible way you can make your everyday spending more impactful is… putting your money where your mouth is. Go out of your way to support your local businesses and small makers because when you do, you’re supporting a dream.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… the people with whom I have had the privilege of working with. I have worked with some of the best, hardest working, most inspiring individuals out there who believe in supporting talented founders and businesses. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I played Division I lacrosse in college for four years. 

I stay inspired by… my kids. They are 10, nine, six, and four, and have completely different personalities and interests. I love the lens from which they look at the world, and how their brains work as they learn.   

The future excites me because… there is still so much to do, but also so much that can be done to make lives better for the generations ahead. The onus is on us to change the gender equality equation for our kids!

Meet Kim Taylor and Anne-Marie Kypreos, founders of Little Buddha Cocktail Co.

Little Buddha Cocktail Co Founders

Originally from Florida, Anne-Marie Kypreos worked all over the world as a model before meeting her husband, former NHL player Nick Kypreos. The pair settled in Toronto (his hometown) after he got a contract with the Maple Leafs. Kim Taylor moved to Toronto from the Bahamas; originally coming for school, but eventually staying for career and family. The pair became friends after meeting through their teenage daughters back in 2016. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2020: the pandemic had just started, and Kim (then 48 years old) and Anne-Marie (then 54) founded Little Buddha Cocktail Co. — a line of premium distilled cocktails, made with organic, health-forward (they come in low or no sugar options), and socially conscious ingredients. We asked them about their career transition, what it was like to launch during a pandemic, and what they’ve learned on their entrepreneurial journey so far. 

 

My first job ever was… (Anne-Marie) at a Hallmark Card Shop and (Kim) at Benetton clothing store.

We decided to be entrepreneurs because… Kim and I felt it was the perfect time in our lives to challenge ourselves. We had both taken time off work to raise our families, but our kids were now in their teens and more independent so it made sense to start a new career chapter. It also was clear to us that there was a growing segment of people looking for healthier and organic cocktail options — and luckily we were ready and eager to create a product to fill the gap. As they say: it’s never too late to be what you might have been.

The idea for Little Buddha Cocktails came to us when… visiting Kim’s farm for the weekend. At dinner we discussed that the adult beverage market had a niche that hadn’t been filled yet. We imagined a flavourful ready-to-drink cocktail that was organic, had no sugar, was gluten-free and that had a low-calorie count. There was nothing on the shelves like that.  The lower calorie drinks we did find didn’t have the burst of flavour that we wanted in a cocktail. Our husbands joked around that maybe we should just start a cocktail company ourselves.

Our proudest accomplishment is… launching a company during the pandemic when the world seemed to basically shut down (we launched in Spring 2020!)  We could only rely on word of mouth and grass roots efforts – we couldn’t do any in-store sampling or participate in any events to get people to try it.  We overcame shipping issues, aluminum can shortages, as well as the inability to have the hands-on approach that is necessary for new companies.  We must have held our breath for the first six months after our product hit shelves.

Our boldest move to date was… entering a blind taste test against very established brands.  We fared very well!

We surprise people when we tell them… how quickly we came into being.  It only took a few short months from conception, flavour development, branding and design, creating a business plan and then contracting supply partners.  It was a steep learning curve, but somehow, we made it happen. 

Our best advice to people starting out in business is… ask as many questions as you can.  And find a product or service that fills a void. Most importantly, ask potential customers what their needs and desires are.

I would tell my 20-year-old self… (Anne-Marie) to stop worrying so much about the what-ifs in life and trying to be perfect. There is no perfect. The philosophy of our company is actually a great reminder to my 20-year-old self. Live mindfully. Live more in the present. Embrace what you have, today. Also, to buy Apple shares! 

(Kim) Celebrate all of your achievements…ideally by dancing.

“As they say: it’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

Our biggest setback was… not being able to have consumers sample our product at the LCBO and restaurants, as well as having to cancel our big launch party. We were also scheduled to be the exclusive cocktail at the Canadian Film Awards. We had planned large events that were all cancelled due to the Pandemic.

We always felt if we could just get people to try our cocktails, they would love Little Buddha. Even now, over a year after we’ve launched, all tastings and events are still on hold. Of course, we are just one of many who have been impacted and certainly aren’t complaining. The most important thing is to keep everyone healthy and safe.

We overcame it by… relying on social media and word of mouth. We’re so fortunate that many of the people who pick up Little Buddha Cocktails share their love for it on social media. We also continue to work to produce new flavours to offer more variety on shelves (we just launched our Organic Natural Peach Tea flavour in April!)

If we had an extra hour in the day, we would… (Anne-Marie) spend more time outside and (Kim) workout with weights.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… (Anne-Marie) accepting things that are out of my control. I like the analogy that trying to change life’s circumstances is like trying to change the current in a river; it will never switch directions just because you want it to. This is something I especially have to remind myself.

(Kim) Things always happen for a reason, even if you don’t immediately understand the reason. 

If you googled us, you still wouldn’t know… what we thought was a simple concept took many months of 18-hour days to get off the ground. And it came with a few mistakes along the way, but it has been an amazing experience — and we would gladly do it all over again. 

The best thing we’ve done for our business so far is… surrounded ourselves with hardworking partners who are excited about our product. This ranges from flavour providers, sales agents, can suppliers, a marketing team, social media management, and the list goes on. 

We stay inspired by… the reaction we get from people who have tried our product.  We hear from our customers every day. We love reading the testimonials and seeing photos of Little Buddhas being enjoyed on docks, in backyards and on snowbanks. One customer sent footage of a drone finding a Little Buddha at the top of a mountain. We love seeing these personal tributes!  

Also, believe it or not, we stay inspired by our competitors. The ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail market is one of the fastest growing distilled beverage categories in history. We are thrilled to be a part of it.

The future excites us because… people are seeking out drink options with better-for-you, organic ingredients. We’ve always said our customers are people who read labels and want to know what goes into their bodies. We are proud to list and provide transparency about our ingredients (directly on our cans!) which is uncommon in the alcoholic industry… we are excited to see that this industry is starting to incorporate and promote this evolution.  

Meet Jill Earthy, CEO of Women’s Enterprise Centre.

Jill Earthy

Jill Earthy is the award-winning CEO of Women’s Enterprise Centre, a non-profit organization that supports women entrepreneurs with loans, education, mentorship, and advisory services throughout British Columbia. An entrepreneur herself, Jill has built two national companies and sold them, spending several years as a leader in the non-profit sector providing support to entrepreneurs afterwards. Currently serving on the national Board of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Women Entrepreneur Organizations of Canada (WEOC), and The Forum, Jill remains a thought leader and active member of her community.   

 

My first job was… working as a Counsellor at a YMCA summer camp. It was an incredible job as I was able to work outdoors with my peers, trying new things and gaining a wide range of skills. I was put into very challenging situations that stretched me, giving me the opportunity to develop leadership skills from a very young age.  

I did not set out with a specific career path in mind, but I did know that I wanted to do work that was purposeful and impactful. I have been fortunate to have found or been given opportunities that align with this goal. When I reflect on my winding path, I see intentional steps of growth and opportunity that I could not possibly have predicted.  

The thing I love most about what I do is… seeing the women I work with realize their dreams and goals. Entrepreneurship is not easy, but when fueled by passion and surrounded by support, anything is possible. I am inspired every day by these women creating the businesses of the future.

Being the CEO of the Women’s Enterprise Centre is important to me because… we recognize the unique growth pathways of women entrepreneurs. We offer an integrated approach including mentorship, skills development and capital, meeting women entrepreneurs and business owners where they are in their business evolution. As a result, we see them realize their business potential and have the impact they want to have in the world. We are also able to use our established record of success to educate other funders and stakeholders on the different definitions of growth to influence systemic change. 

My best advice for new entrepreneurs is… ask for help. You are not alone, and building a business is hard. We cannot be good at all aspects of business. We are fortunate in Canada to have many incredible resources for entrepreneurs. Sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know, and by utilizing resources and reaching out to entrepreneurs who have forged the path ahead of you, you will be better set up for success. 

“One misconception about women-focused funding is that women are risk adverse. We need to reframe this narrative as women tend to be “risk-astute,” meaning they take calculated risks based on research and consultation.”

I believe in the importance of investing in women… because women entrepreneurs are building incredible businesses having a positive impact in this world. Women entrepreneurs currently receive less than 4% of Venture capital and less than 20% of traditional loans. Less than 20% of Angel Investors in Canada are women and less than 15% are Venture Capital Partners. We need more diverse perspectives making investment decisions to ensure more diverse entrepreneurs and businesses receive funding. I consider myself a micro-investor and an advocate to encourage more women to participate as investors. I have been doing this work for the past 10 years and we are finally starting to see the numbers shift ever so slightly. Having more women investors will lead to a greater distribution of wealth, different types of businesses being supported and more investment into the community. Participation by women as scaling entrepreneurs and investors is essential as we consider economic recovery, and growth. 

One misconception about women-focused funding… is that women are risk adverse. We need to reframe this narrative as women tend to be “risk-astute,” meaning they take calculated risks based on research and consultation. The result is that women access capital in smaller tranches over a longer period of time. This is actually a very strong approach but it does not always align with the existing venture model of growth. As more types of financing emerge, we will see more women access the capital they need for their businesses to grow and thrive. 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed… it would be always being curious and open to learning and being surrounded by incredible people.   

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I did my undergraduate thesis studying how the size of a person’s eyes predicts how trustworthy they are. This has come in handy in my business career. 

I stay inspired by… reading, learning and spending time in the mountains with friends and family. 

The future excites me because… we are seeing new models emerging that are more inclusive. We are in a time of change when traditionally underrepresented voices are being acknowledged and heard. Incorporating diverse perspectives into decision making across all levels and sectors is hard but critical if we want our country to thrive.

Meet Tanya Hayles, founder of Black Moms Connection.

Tanya Hales

Tanya Hayles is an award-winning writer and storyteller who uses different platforms to encourage thought, create dialogue, and be an agent for change. She is the founder of Black Moms Connection, a global platform and non-profit that provides resources, support, and education for Black women and their families. In addition to being a writer and founder, Tanya’s work ranges from event planning to anti-Black racism advocacy and public speaking.

 

I chose my career path because...it chose me. It started because I liked that when I went to work, it had a bigger purpose than just a paycheque. While I eventually left the non-profit sector to pursue a career in event planning, the sector never left me. 

I started the Black Moms Connection because…I wanted a space to ask culturally relevant questions and get culturally relevant answers. I wanted it to be a safe place to do so without the sexist and racist vitriol lobbed our way as Black women (sometimes from women themselves). 

The thing I love most about what I do is… it is always rooted in the service of others. If I cannot answer how this benefits the moms and their families, I don’t do it. 

My best advice for anyone that cares about a cause and wants to contribute to it would be… to look at who is doing the work. Ask questions about where the money is going. See how you can help an organization grow and be sustainable. It isn’t always money they need. Don’t make them fit your mandate, build a relationship to see how you can both mutually benefit.

“Why are you doing what you are doing? Is it solely for money? If yes, then you are destined to lose your way.” 

Black Moms Connection partnering with BMO for the Rent Bank Grant Program was important because… it showed the value of building authentic and reciprocal relationships. We didn’t ask BMO for money, we asked for amplification. They gave us both and added validation. 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… authenticity. I am the same person chatting with CEOs and banks that I am on social media (with a few slight filters of course). I don’t promote anything unless I love it. I don’t align with brands unless I can do so enthusiastically without compensation. People can trust what I’m going to do and who I am because I choose my words very carefully and intentionally. 

One tangible way you can build your legacy is… constantly circling back to your why. Why are you doing what you are doing? Is it solely for money? If yes, then you are destined to lose your way. Who is it serving? What problem are you trying to solve? Why are YOU the one to do it?

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know that… I am obsessed with planners, notebooks, and stickers. Yes, stickers. It’s part of my self-care and brings out my inner 8-year old!

I stay inspired by… being connected to the community. I read the posts from our members, the emails from donors, and on the days when it becomes too much, I am reminded that the universe chose me to be here. 

The future excites me because… I have big lofty dreams that do not scare me. I also love that Gen Z is highly impatient to fix the issues that previous generations have been working for decades to solve.

How Diane Scott made a late-career pivot to focus on giving back.

Diane Scott

By Hailey Eisen 

Diane Scott couldn’t have planned a career as dynamic as the one she has. Five years ago, it didn’t exist.

As Chair and CEO of JMCC Group, Diane sits at the helm of Canada’s only woman-led international medical cannabis company. She built the business from the ground up and today operates on four continents and the Caribbean.  

JMCC, which stands for Jamaican Medical Cannabis Company, was founded in 2016. After more than a decade working in New York and London in the global financial services and technology industries — including work in the financial services practice of presidential candidate Ross Perot Sr — Diane felt burnt out and in need of a restart. “After all those years I wasn’t loving what I was doing anymore, and I didn’t like the person I had to be to do it,” Diane recalls. 

Taking a career pause gave her the opportunity to return home to Toronto after 17 years. “I sold my apartment in New York and came home to the town I was raised in to reflect. Suddenly I had five acres to look after, and I had to learn how to garden.”

While her next steps weren’t clear, Diane felt fortunate to have the time and resources needed to regroup. She’d been following the medical cannabis industry closely for some time and saw its potential from an investment perspective. In 2014 she started making investments in Canadian cannabis companies. 

What followed was a sequence of events which led Diane to explore cannabis farming in Jamaica. She was asked to consider investing in a family farm on the island, and while she initially said no as she felt only comfortable dealing with Canada, the idea stuck with her. 

“I took a conference call with the family who were looking to convert their sugarcane farm into medical cannabis. While we didn’t end up taking that opportunity, it made a few things very clear,” she says. First came the understanding that growing medical cannabis outdoors — what she calls a ‘natural grow’ in proprietary greenhouses — would ultimately be better for the end patient than growing it in big warehouses. And second, Diane came to learn that Jamaica has the most optimal growing environment, combined with regulations in line with what you’d see in Canada, Germany, and Australia. 

“We both reject the notion that you have to compromise profit in order to do good.”

Soon after Diane and a close friend in London, Tom Speechley, decided to build and launch a global venture capital business, SX2 Ventures. Their goal was to support innovation and long-term value creation in the human care sector, with a focus on life sciences, longevity, specialized care and emerging market healthcare solutions. “We were clear when we started that we wanted to do more with our investments. Rather than solely focusing on financial returns, we saw an opportunity to direct our funds to have a positive impact,” Diane explains. “We both reject the notion that you have to compromise profit in order to do good.” SX2 was an early expression of an environmental, social, governance (ESG) investment model years ahead of today’s standards. 

It was upon this ethos that JMCC was founded. “Starting SX2 naturally led us to create JMCC because we found there was nothing like it in the world. We saw the need, and believed that if it didn’t exist, we should build it.” After nine months of due diligence in the Jamaican market, Diane got on a plane to visit the island. 

“The huge learning curve for me became about the science and medicine,” she explains. And to help grow the business, Diane turned to people who she knew and trusted. “As an entrepreneur, you need to know your own strengths. We can’t be great at everything, so you need to build a team that’s great at everything.” Starting with her well-established network, Diane began to build the JMCC team, both in Jamaica and internationally. While Tom continued to run SX2, Diane focused on JMCC — taking a “divide and conquer approach.”

Diane knew her strategy with JMCC was unconventional from the get-go. “Being a female CEO who had chosen to do things differently than they were being done in Canada at the time, not going public, not growing in a big warehouse, cultivating on an island — I wasn’t making the most popular choices,” she recalls. Even still, she was clear on her vision and happy to be occupying a place that others were not.  

And her outside-the-box thinking paid off. In the five years since its inception, JMCC has become a fully integrated medical cannabis company, operating with a self-contained supply chain — from propagation and cultivation of raw materials supply, product development, manufacturing and packaging, through to global logistics and distribution. “We are the leading global provider of premium Jamaican medical cannabis products and services to the world.” 

She’s also in the final stages of organic certification, which should be in place by later this year. “Not many others can say they’re naturally grown, organic, and control their supply chain from start to finish. This allows us to ensure the highest possible quality patient experience,” explains Diane. “For JMCC, patient quality is at the center of everything we do. It has to be.” 

The company also just completed a joint venture in the Channel Islands, UK to establish a JMCC distribution hub in order to ensure seamless and timely prescription fulfillment to UK patients, and has expanded into an exclusive distribution agreement for the Australasian Region. 

Being a woman running a global medical cannabis company is unprecedented (the industry is dominated by men), but it has pushed Diane even harder to ensure an environment of equality for everyone on her team. “I’ve made it clear for all the women and teams I work with, that we are a company that will find the best talent — regardless of gender, religion, or sexual orientation — and that everyone who joins us has to believe and respect this.” 

Diane and her partner’s commitment to do their part to leave the world a better place has carried over in other ways to JMCC. “This is more than impact investing. We focus on profitable businesses that also are committed to doing good in the community,” she says. “We created the JMCC Foundation, and have committed to reinvest 10% back into communities, education, scientific research, and the medical cannabis industry.” 

“The idea of giving back has become more important to me the older I get. Societal benefit is as important as financials or unique value propositions when looking at an investment.

This includes working with academic institutions to support trials — such as an epilepsy trial being conducted via a Canadian university, which JMCC will provide the cannabis for at their own expense. They’re also one of only five companies in the world chosen to support Drug Science’s Project T21 — which is deemed to be the largest observational evidence-based study in the world, with a target of 20,000 UK patients.  

“The idea of giving back has become more important to me the older I get. Societal benefit is as important as financials or unique value propositions when looking at an investment. In SX2 and the companies we fund, we look for investment opportunities with those who share our vision for this.”  

Personally, Diane carries on that legacy with her involvement in community initiatives beyond her work. She’s a patron of a small school in Maasai Mara, Kenya on a 3,000-acre conservation area protected by the Kenyan Government. She was introduced to the school while on a business trip in Nairobi. “I had decided to stay over for a weekend and go on safari, and I met the manager of the safari who offered to take me to the local school,” she says. Since connecting with them, Diane has sponsored a water harvesting program that has allowed the school to harvest rainwater rather than the village mothers having to bring it from the river, which can be very dangerous. She’s also organized a program to ship books and sporting equipment from Canadian children to the children at this school, who are now learning to read in English. 

Diane is also a Royal Patron of the Royal Ontario Museum (also known as the ROM, in Toronto) and an Activator for SheEO, an organization which has built a $1B fund to help women-led businesses. SheEO is focused on investing to help with the ‘worlds to do list’.  She’s also a mentor and advocate for women, encouraging others to have confidence in themselves and their decisioning. 

“I think as women we don’t always feel like we deserve to be at the Board table, but the truth is, most of the time we’ve earned the right to sit in that seat,” she says. “Use your voice, share your knowledge and experiences, and contribute your thoughts as diversity always leads to better decision making.”  

She also has advice for anyone who is feeling the same sense of burnout and dissatisfaction she was before her pivot: “Doing what you love should be a career goal,” says Diane. “I don’t think people prioritize that enough.” 

How Nicole Neuman overcome gender barriers in engineering and became an international expert in her field.

Nicole Neuman

By Karen van Kampen

 

As a young girl, Nicole Neuman was very quick at learning new things. But picking up new concepts without a lot of effort had an unintended side effect, she says: “A lot of boredom.” So Nicole tried a variety of activities, from car repairs, to cooking, to metal and wood work. In university, she took all her pre-law and pre-med courses and completed most of her chemistry major before choosing engineering as a career. 

After more than two decades in the industry, Nicole has become an international expert in her field. As President and CEO of Synergy Engineering Ltd., she leads a team of electrical, instrumentation, and control engineers to design and supply turnkey projects around the world, primarily to the mining industry, as well as local infrastructure and industrial projects. 

Her impressive achievements are being recognized: Nicole was the 2020 winner of the Innovation Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours a forward-thinking entrepreneur who has demonstrated outstanding leadership within her company and industry while setting standards for originality, quality, and successful management. 

Looking back, Nicole says, “I was always very driven growing up.” When she started babysitting at the age of 12, Nicole made a resume and business cards. In high school, she saved up her money from lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons to buy a snowboard as well as a car so that she could get to the hills at Whistler. From 1993 to 1995, she competed in snowboarding while attending university.  

In the mid-nineties, it wasn’t commonly accepted for women to be in electrical engineering — but this didn’t deter Nicole, who joined Synergy as a co-op student in 1995, while studying at Simon Fraser University. Three years later, she joined the company full-time. As she worked her way up in her field, Nicole experienced first-hand what it was like to be a woman in engineering. 

“I was met with hostility with a capital H,” she says. In one instance, Nicole was hired by a local mine to conduct a training course in an area in which she was an international expert. When she asked a conference room of engineers to open the manual that she had created, most of the men shut their binders, put their heads down, and closed their eyes, refusing to follow along. “I just carried on. What can you do?” she says. “When I left, I cried in my car, thinking, what am I doing here? Why am I doing this to myself?” 

As an entrepreneur, Nicole says it’s important to surround yourself with a network of like-minded mentors who have encountered similar barriers, as well as mentors with inspiring attributes that you admire. When you discover characteristics within yourself that help you to excel, she says, then you become a leader who others look to for inspiration. “That’s really empowering,” says Nicole. “Once you get to that stage, you want to keep growing because you want to keep leading, keep demonstrating.” 

Nicole has several powerful women mentors in her industry as well as a couple of men mentors who were early adopters to accepting women in the business. She says it’s important to see herself as an engineer in the mining industry rather than a woman in engineering. “There is this whole sentiment of going up against it, but you really need to think of it as joining it; joining the team,” she says. 

In 2015, there was a downturn in the mining industry, and Synergy faced a few hard years. Nicole was Executive Vice-President after working her way up in the company, and along with her team, she began targeting other markets and diversifying Synergy’s client base. 

At the end of 2019, Nicole took over as President of Synergy. Today, the company has between 50 and 60 employees and has expanded the manufacturing side of the business, with half of the employees in engineering and half in manufacturing. Nicole’s goal is to manage multiple projects with multiple teams at once to avoid downtime between projects. 

Nicole has worked hard to foster connection within her company and once COVID is over, she will continue focusing on team building and nurturing company morale that emphasizes personal values. “Our employees, I want what they do to have mattered to them, to have mattered to their children and grandchildren,” she says, adding that her long-term goal is to leave a legacy in which she looked after her company’s projects and the employees who ran them. “I want to leave a positive influence in people’s lives,” she says.  

Nicole has a strong relationship with her 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. She volunteers as treasurer for hockey and Brownies, roles that keep her connected with her kids’ activities. Nicole recognizes her children’s drive and dedication for things that interest them. “I think they thrive to succeed in certain areas because they witness this of me,” she says. 

Since she was a girl, Nicole has always had a strong character. Reflecting on her experiences and challenges along the way, she says, “It has certainly crafted me into the strong individual that I am today.” 

How this beauty entrepreneur successfully built a purpose-driven company.

Jenn Harper

By Khera Alexander

Jenn Harper had no intentions of becoming an entrepreneur. In fact, she didn’t think that was something that was even possible. And then in a dream one night, Jenn was visited by happy, smiling Indigenous girls wearing lip gloss. This dream was vivid, and it sparked an idea in her that she didn’t think of previously: to build a beauty brand with a purpose.

“Wanting to recreate this joy for those Indigenous kids that were in my dream was essentially the foundation of how I began this journey,” Jenn says.

Jenn had already done a lot of work on herself: she had overcome personal struggles, recovered from alcoholism, and learned more about who she was, her culture, and the lineage from which she descended. She was ready and determined to work on building her business, Cheekbone Beauty. She wanted to make a positive impact, invest in her community, and run a business that would do its part to help the environment — not hurt it.

Jenn also wanted Cheekbone Beauty to be a symbol of representation and something Indigenous youth could take inspiration from. Jenn had experienced the intergenerational trauma of North America’s colonial past and current settler colonial environment that has harmed Indigenous nations. “For many years, part of my addiction came from this deep shame of actually being an Ojibwe woman,” she says, adding that she wanted to do her part to subvert the miseducation and share more positivity for the next generation of children. “Can we change this narrative for our kids? Can we give them good stories to see? They don’t have to be ashamed of who they are and where they come from, and they can use their wonderful, incredible gifts, all these things that are innately Indigenous. It’s an amazing culture with really powerful teachings and stories.”

“It’s not about this Western view of, how much can I attain for myself? An Indigenous view of success is about how much you can give back to your community, and thinking about our actions today and how they impact the next generations.”

Jenn started with the basic steps: gaining an understanding of how products are made, what a supply chain is, and what channels she could use for sales. She wanted to create high-performing beauty products that were cruelty-free and without harmful ingredients. As she progressed, industry experts encouraged her to focus on profitability only, but Jenn continued to push forward in her pursuit of being of service to others while building Cheekbone. 

“I fought all of the pushback from business advisory boards and mentors saying, ‘No. This is the only reason I’m doing it. And if we can’t weave that in as part of the foundation, then it’s not going to work,’” she said. Little by little, Jenn built Cheekbone Beauty from the ground up and on her own terms, tapping into her culture to inform some of her decision-making. “It’s not about this Western view of, how much can I attain for myself? An Indigenous view of success is about how much you can give back to your community, and thinking about our actions today and how they impact the next generations.”

In business since 2016, Cheekbone Beauty is still a young brand — but they have already made significant strides aligned with their three sustainability pillars: Economic good, educational good, and environmental good. “We add it into every part of the business,” explains Jenn. 

Their SUSTAIN Lipstick line, for example, has a tube that uses 85% less plastic and is made of biodegradable paper — and once it’s used up, the packaging can be separated by the consumer for recycling and compost. Each shade is either named after the earth, the land, or after the word that means “on the land or earth” in one of the over 7000 Indigenous languages. Plus, “For every one that is purchased, there is one going back to an Indigenous youth somewhere in some community.” 

They also sell a Give Box seasonally, featuring both Cheekbone items and natural and sustainable products from other North American brands, with a large portion of the proceeds going to a charitable cause. “Usually in spring and summer, we’re planting trees. Last spring, we got water and solar power to a family from the Navajo reservation in the United States. We’re always just looking for streams of giving, different ways that we can add that layer of giving into everything that we do,” Jenn says.

Cheekbone Beauty has been able to invest in Indigenous communities by donating over $108,000 to a number of causes. One of these initiatives is Shannen’s Dream, an organization that works in tandem with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS) to address educational disparities between Indigenous youth and non-Indigenous youth. In the future, Jenn has plans to create a scholarship program to help fund the education of Indigenous students. 

On the environmental front, she has goals to eliminate single-use plastic products, provide refill options, and have all packaging be biodegradable and compostable by 2023. The company is also looking into a recycling initiative to safely dispose of their products. “Internally, we’re trying to figure out what it could look like if we could create some kind of program where we’re the ones taking back the product, so that our customers know something really positive is happening with that product at the end of that packaging life,” Jenn says. 

“The reality is, in every situation, it’s not black or white. When it comes to a sustainability journey, every choice is different for every product.”

Jenn credits her business’ success to being directly linked to how much Cheekbone values giving back. “When I think about the success in such a short time that we’ve had in the growth, it’s certainly because people feel how important that give back is to us,” she says. For any business that also cares about sustainability or being purpose-driven, Jenn points to authenticity and communication as key to success. 

“A business has to be very transparent about their supply chain, how they operate, and how they source products and ingredients,” advises Jenn. “With our SUSTAIN Lipstick, we were open and honest about that process, making sure that the organization is giving the right information to support the consumer with the product at the end of its life, and anything there in between.”

Jenn can empathize with any customer that may feel overwhelmed when attempting to shop sustainably, but wants for people to find what works best for them. “The reality is, in every situation, it’s not black or white. When it comes to a sustainability journey, every choice is different for every product. Plastic, glass, or aluminum, they all have a place, and that’s why it’s hard,” Jenn says. “It’s up to each individual consumer to decide on the consumer they want to be, and then do the research,” she says. 

For consumers who are skeptical of the difference they can make as an individual, Jenn encourages thinking of your efforts as part of a community. 

“It takes one person to start building that community, and be a part of a community, and share what they know with the community,” says Jenn. “We can’t do it alone. We just can’t, and that’s why we need each other. We need to find people that you connect with and realize, even though you are on your own, and though you’re making those small steps and changes, then it’s going to be about your example and you spreading that into your community.”

How Desirée Bombenon transformed the call centre industry with her purpose-driven Certified B Corporation.

Desiree Bombenon

By Karen van Kampen

 

In 1989, while studying business administration at the University of Calgary, Desirée Bombenon joined the dispatch department of Page Direct, a Calgary-based paging and telecommunications company — typing out messages for pagers. “It was extremely interesting to hear the variety of messages that were going over the voice message centre with people not realizing that a person was actually typing the message,” says Desirée. 

With the rise of cellular phones, the company sold its paging assets. Desirée had worked her way up in Page Direct, and she had an idea to reinvent the dispatch centre as an after-hours answering service. Instead of shutting down, Page Direct became PDL Contact Centres Ltd., and Desirée helped grow the business into a multimedia call centre providing more complex applications, including emergency response. 

Then in 2013, along with business partner Marc Bombenon (who is now her husband), Desirée launched SureCall Contact Centres Ltd., offering customized services for clients while creating more of a consultant role for frontline staff. Desirée followed her passion to utilize business as a force for good and built SureCall into a purpose-driven Certified B Corporation, maintaining the highest levels of sustainability and ethics while creating a dynamic and positive work environment. 

After more than 30 years of helping to transform the contact centre industry, Desirée is being recognized for empowering her employees while demonstrating business excellence. As CEO of SureCall, Desirée was the 2020 winner of the RBC Momentum Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an entrepreneur who has created a responsive business that can adapt to changing market environments and leverage opportunities for continued growth.

“People are not loyal to companies. They are loyal to other people. We need to treat people with respect and kindness, and they will be loyal.”

Desirée’s road to entrepreneurship was driven by her passion to help build community, diversity, and gender equality. She decided that through business, she would make an impact. “I call myself the accidental entrepreneur,” says Desirée, who focuses on finding creative, innovative solutions rather than taking on a figurehead role. “If you find the best entrepreneurs, it’s not people who think, one day I want to be an entrepreneur — it’s people who think, how do I find the best solution to this problem? How do I create something cool and interesting? This is going on in my community, what can I do about it?” 

In the call centre industry, there is often a high turnover rate of frontline staff doing the same routine tasks every day, and Desirée questioned how she could create change in the industry. SureCall began with a team of 40 staff from PDL, and as the company grew, Desirée wanted to create a more diverse and inclusive culture. This included taking the cognitive bias out of hiring and assessing candidates in terms of their values and talent. 

In 2016, SureCall implemented a no resume, no interview process. Instead, potential candidates fill out a profile that is based on their cultural values. Applicants who score at least 85 per cent are typically hired. “We don’t know what gender you are, what religion you are, what colour you are,” says Desirée. “It enables us to have diverse, non-biased recruitment. That’s really important to the creativity and the inclusiveness that our team feels.” 

SureCall continues to invest in employee education and training, offering meaningful work for frontline staff. As clients rely on frontline employees to help improve business operations, the employees feel valued for their contributions. “People are not loyal to companies. They are loyal to other people,” she says. “We need to treat people with respect and kindness, and they will be loyal.”

SureCall supports the health and wellness of its diverse team, providing a weekly session with a nutritionist/trainer, 15-minute back massages on Wellness Wednesdays (which is suspended temporarily during COVID), and a meditation and prayer room. “We respect everybody’s differences and we try as much as possible to make accommodations that help them feel like they belong,” says Desirée. 

“Leap, and a net will appear.”

Today, SureCall has approximately 130 employees across Canada who offer customized services to clients around the world. The company is expanding its global clientele and has a 2022 vision of at least 25 per cent of its business coming from outside of North America. Desirée also remains focused on giving back to her local and global communities. 

SureCall contributes two per cent of its top line revenue to its GoodCall program that supports local, national, and international causes. SureCall’s Hero Girls program, which Desirée built while attending Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, helps to educate girls in underserved and developing countries. This includes Nepal where a rigid caste system is a significant barrier to girls’ education. Currently, more than 100 girls are being supported through scholarships and other Hero Girls initiatives. In her local community, Desirée mentors young girls into leadership roles, helping them embrace their true selves along the way. 

When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, Desirée says, “Don’t worry so much. Don’t sweat the small things and lose your focus.” It’s also OK to fail. In fact, “Failure is your first step to your best performance,” says Desirée, adding that it is necessary to fail in order to reach your full potential. Even though growing her business has come with some sleepless nights, she says it’s important to let go of your fear, “leap, and a net will appear.”

How this entrepreneur is working to solve how people manage and save their money.

Roya Kachooei

By Hailey Eisen  

 

When she was just 11 years old, Roya Kachooei remembers a friend asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her response is something she recalls clearly to this day. “I told him that I wanted to have my own business first, buy a sports car next, and then get married,” she says with a laugh. 

After earning a computer engineering degree and a number of tech jobs later, Roya is now living her childhood dreams. “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who makes the world a better place to live in, and I believe that in building our start-up, Walletifai, I’ve found a strong way to contribute,” she says. (She still has her eye on her dream sports car.)

In 2019, Roya was working as a software engineer for FreshBooks when she and a business partner decided to start building out their idea for Walletifai. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together on an idea, but this one definitely had more traction. 

“Over the past seven years, I’ve had 4 or 5 serious business ideas, but the first one we developed as a side project ran into some international difficulties, so we put it aside,” she recalls. 

This time around, after many coffee shop discussions about the state of the world and the future, Roya and her partner were ready to go. In conversations, they kept coming back to the idea of personal finance and what the future would look like in terms of money management and savings. This fueled the plans for Walletifai. 

“I saw a problem that needed solving, and I’ve always been someone who likes to solve problems, to fix things.” 

“I saw a problem that needed solving, and I’ve always been someone who likes to solve problems, to fix things,” Roya explains. The immediate problem was that no matter how many apps she tried — and she tried many — Roya could not find a solution that would help her manage her personal finances better than the spreadsheet model she’d always employed. “As a user, I thought, if I can’t find a solution on the market, I’ll build one.” 

The goal was to build a personal finance management application that would help people understand their spending — in the past, in the form of visualized spending history, and in the future, in the form of prediction; this would help people identify how else to spend their money, and how to make the most out of money that they make. It makes saving more intuitive and more fun, cutting back on fees, and avoiding human error, Roya explains. The overall focus would be to maximize what’s left in a person’s wallet at the end of the day. “I truly believe that savings is a great contributor to getting the things you want in life.”

Using machine learning and automation, Roya has developed a mobile app that can predict expenses and provide insight into a person’s spending history. It works with 20,000+ banks and financial institutions, allowing users to connect their bank accounts and manage their personal finances. The app will soon launch a “savings challenge” component, something Roya is especially excited about. “It’s different from all the savings tools out there, and it will help users shift their perspectives and expectations around savings.” 

Walletifai is free, and eventually the app will have a premium offering for those who want to pay for additional features. Roya is currently working on developing partnerships which will tie into their savings feature. 

“I don’t have a business background, but I’m passionate about learning, and having good advisors available to use, to help unblock you, to brainstorm with, and correct you along the way is incredibly valuable to any start-up.” 

She’s excitedly tracking the app’s milestones while working hard behind the scenes to continue to grow and develop its offering. “When we reached the first 100 users on our platform organically, that was an amazing moment,” she recalls. “It proved that what we were building had demand.” When she talks to early adopters, she says, the response is overwhelmingly positive. “Some people — including potential investors — may try to make you doubt your decision, but if you know the product really helps crack the code and it isn’t out there yet, then that gives you the confidence to push forward.” 

In order to gain more support and help Walletifai reach the next level, Roya applied to ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program, which offers a comprehensive 6-month program to enable women-led tech companies to scale their businesses through access to critical pillars like capital, talent, technology, and customers. Tech Undivided curates a supportive community focusing on equality, open dialogue, and overcoming obstacles — all things Roya is eager to embrace. 

“We met with ventureLAB last year when we only had an idea and a presentation,” Roya recalls. “They liked our idea and said to me as many others had, ‘prove to me you can do this first and then come back’.” 

After their first release in 2020, they went back to ventureLAB and were chosen to be part of the third Tech Undivided cohort. “I’m so excited that we were accepted into the program and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they can support us on our journey,” Roya says. “I don’t have a business background, but I’m passionate about learning, and having good advisors available to use, to help unblock you, to brainstorm with, and correct you along the way is incredibly valuable to any start-up.”

Is that surface clean? This new technology will let you see the answer.

Natalie Ambler

By Hailey Eisen  

 

Being part of an emerging health and safety technology company with a focus on hygiene outcomes is an interesting place to be more than a year into a global pandemic. For Natalie Ambler, Co-Founder and Director, Innovation and Development at OptiSolve®, the past year has been significant to say the least. 

“Understanding cleaning has become a lot more important, and while I used to spend time explaining why infection prevention was important, since COVID-19, I no longer have to do that,” Natalie says. 

OptiSolve was born out of business expertise in the cleaning and disinfection industry, and as a result of the big, important questions a small team began to ask. Its two key offerings are a proprietary surface imaging technology that enables you to visualize contamination, and a quality management system that produces a comprehensive program to validate cleaning and disinfection. Essentially, you’re enabled to answer the question: “Is this clean?” 

Natalie began working on the technology behind OptiSolve more than five years ago as part of a team at an existing company that formulates and manufactures cleaning products.  The team began working with an academic partner to find answers to their own questions about product innovation. Specifically, they wanted to know what more could be done about two key issues: despite living in a microbial world, people have high expectations for clean, healthy spaces; and despite leaps in sanitation, medicine, and technology, one of the world-wide causes of death remains infections. How could they better support practitioners in maintaining healthy spaces? How could they improve education and training? And how could they identify when a space was clean? 

“Understanding cleaning has become a lot more important, and while I used to spend time explaining why infection prevention was important, since COVID-19, I no longer have to do that.”

“In the beginning, we started taking images of surfaces to determine the efficacy of products, but quickly realized that being able to come up with new test methodologies was an extremely innovative and interesting area to be working in,” she explains. 

Early on, the team was able to secure grant funding which allowed them to transition their research project into the development of a surface imaging technology. “We knew the industry standard for cleaning and disinfection validation was predominantly visual assessment and checking a box, which wasn’t necessarily the best methodology.” 

OptiSolve became a stand-alone company two years ago— but the journey began long before that for Natalie. In university, she completed an undergraduate degree in sciences, fueling a desire to find answers and an interest in systems thinking. She went back to school later in her career to complete a Master’s in Business Strategy and Sustainability. She found her passion point in the intersection of science and business.  

“My career has been focused on having a scientific mindset for finding real-world solutions through innovation, strategy, and business development,” she says. “In the work I’ve had, that’s been a pillar for me.” 

As a mom of young daughters, Natalie says it’s important to demonstrate what passion looks like. “We talk about following your purpose,” she says. “I’m in start-up mode and spend a lot of time working, and they’re so supportive of what I do because they can see the passion I have.” The excitement Natalie feels about this technology and its potential is palpable — which has certainly helped as COVID-19 has ushered in a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. In 2020 change came fast and furious for many industries, especially around cleaning standards. While the OptiSolve technology and services were deployed in healthcare and food services settings, they are now also targeting commercial facilities, hospitality, government, and other places where health and safety have become a lot more important. 

“We provide systems, tracking, and reporting for cleaning and disinfection productivity which helps facility managers support their duty of care responsibility,” Natalie explains. This is often a big part of the re-opening strategies for many companies.  

“I love the collaborative aspect of the business, knowing that the sum is always greater than the individual parts.”

Looking ahead, OptiSolve is also focused on the idea of precision cleaning, which is another area Natalie and the OptiSolve team are very passionate about. “Precision cleaning uses resources more effectively for better outcomes, saving time and effort,” she explains. “In response to COVID-19, many have been employing ‘deep cleaning’ which may include spraying entire rooms with chemicals without knowing the unintended consequences. Our aim is to help people better understand what’s on a surface and how to clean it with the appropriate products and processes.”   

With a small but dedicated team — including a chemist, CTO, marketing coordinator, and supportive business advisor/investor — OptiSolve now relies on strategic partnerships to accelerate its growth. “We’ve worked with one of Canada’s leading R&D medical device companies on the engineering side, as well as fantastic academic partners, and software and digital experience experts to enhance our technology,” Natalie explains. “I love the collaborative aspect of the business, knowing that the sum is always greater than the individual parts,” she says.

“Our greatest challenge now is being able to scale, and that’s why I was so pleased to be accepted into ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program,” Natalie explains. As part of the accelerator’s third cohort of the program, designed for founders building breakthrough solutions leveraging hardware and/or enterprise software technology, OptiSolve will have access to industry experience, strategic partner connections, and a dedicated ventureLAB advisor. “Working with Tech Undivided helps us think big about what we can do to make OptiSolve into a global leader for the detection, diagnostics, and surveillance of environmental risk,” Natalie explains. “It’s an exciting opportunity and we’re really looking forward to what’s to come.” 

How this entrepreneur is helping brick and mortar businesses navigate the digital-first landscape.

Karen Wong

By Sarah Kelsey  

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way we do many things — how we shop is one of them. Because of city and province-wide lockdowns and restrictions, many retailers have had to rapidly pivot to e-commerce and the online world — a strategy that can be quite costly if implemented incorrectly. 

“We’re now in a situation where most retailers don’t know how to digitize, and they are lacking the staff to help guide them,”  Karen Wong says. “It’s a very different thing to sell online. You find customers differently — it’s about SEO, online presence. It’s about digital marketing. Profits can get eaten up by shipping — something most retailers do at a great loss to their bottom line. It’s not as simple as it looks.”

If Karen sounds like she knows what she’s talking about, that’s because she does. She is the CEO and co-founder of TAKU Labs, a transformative point-of-sale (POS) software company that allows brick-and-mortar shop owners to open up online with next to no effort. The software can help an entrepreneur track everything from sales to customer data all while offering an accurate real-time view of inventory so consumers know exactly what is available to purchase when. 

Essentially, it’s a game changer for store owners who are now being forced onto the World Wide Web. 

“Retailers can get online in two weeks,” she says. “They upload their product information once, or we can help them do it, and then after that the retail experience is seamless. No more inventory issues, no more sales issues — retailers know exactly what is available when. The customer experience is vastly improved.” 

“By the end of everything, I was flying every week and I was working non-stop. The experiences I had were great. I did well, but I was burnt out.”

POS and managing a tech startup wasn’t something Karen ever imagined she’d end up doing when she graduated university. 

“I graduated with a B.A. and no real work experience, so I started doing admin work at Husky. There, I found out I really liked marketing.” 

She made the leap to CPG and worked her way through an MBA part-time. She tried her hand at running a wholesale home decor company (“I did everything I shouldn’t have done!”) and even moved to Asia for eight years where she worked in manufacturing and operations and eventually opened up her own retail business in Taiwan. 

“By the end of everything, I was flying every week and I was working non-stop. The experiences I had were great. I did well, but I was burnt out,” Karen says. So she returned to Canada. 

That’s when lightning struck. 

At every turn in Karen’s career, she found she was forced to work with disconnected systems to accomplish a variety of retail-based tasks. “There was a tool for marketing, another for sales, another for operations,” she said. “Nothing spoke to each other. Nothing was integrated. Nothing was simple.” 

Karen realized a system that could amalgamate all of these features could change the retail landscape. One purchase of a languishing company that offered the basics of this service and 5,000 customers later, and she had the beginnings of what would eventually become TAKU.

“My journey to become an entrepreneur… I would say it was no less risky than working at a big corporation today,” Karen says, alluding to the tenuous nature of employment during a recession. “But I wasn’t afraid of failure. In fact, you can’t be afraid of failing in this line of business. You have to adopt a mindset that it’s absolutely key to growing and learning, because once you make a mistake it’s unlikely you’ll make it again. It’s the most expensive training school you’ll ever have.”

“I know what that opportunity feels like. I was my clientele. Support is everything, and that’s what makes what I do rewarding.”

She notes building her business over the past few years has been possible because of the support network she’s built, including a key relationship with ventureLAB, a leading technology hub in York Region. 

Since joining ventureLAB in 2018, Karen has relied on ventureLAB for everything from sourcing funding to explaining “Silicon Valley lingo” in a way that was understandable. As a member of ventureLAB’s Innovation Space, TAKU also has access to exclusive collaboration and networking, as well as opportunities to showcase their product. TAKU was even selected by ventureLAB’s partner Digital Main Street for their community collaboration program, something that enabled Karen to bring select retailers online for free. 

“ventureLAB has been incredibly supportive,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges for women in the tech space is there aren’t a lot of mentors. At ventureLAB, there’s a heavy emphasis on the practical and tactical tools you need to be a founder and woman in tech. I always tell people in this industry to do their research and find an organization you can lean on like I have with them.”

Karen’s other big piece of advice for entrepreneurs is to find a partner who can help lighten the startup load.

“No one knows everything, so unless you have a partner who can challenge you and push you, you’ll end up being an entrepreneur that works in a vacuum, and that’s not really valuable,” she says, noting many big organizations (even Google) won’t work with a company if they’re not headed by two or more people. “You have to have someone at an equivalent level challenge you and your assumptions.”

When discussing where TAKU goes next, Karen says it’s all about expanding the business to help retailers thrive and grow in a post-COVID world. Most of her current clients are medium-sized, multi-sector yet still independent outlets like cafes, pet food stores, grocers, antique shops, and specialty sellers like Kawartha Dairy.

“A lot of our customers have said it’s been incredible to have the ability to go home and work on the store from there — they can update product pricing or add inventory from home as opposed to only in the physical store,” she says. “It’s helped bring balance to their life — that’s particularly true for women — all while expanding and scaling their business. I know what that opportunity feels like. I was my clientele. Support is everything, and that’s what makes what I do rewarding.”

How this tech entrepreneur is disrupting the shoe industry.

Sophie Howe

By Sarah Kelsey  

 

The next time you’re wearing a pair of shoes, take a good look at them. How do they fit? If you’re like 75 percent of the population (this figure could be as high as 90 percent depending on the research you read) they’re probably the wrong size. And the repercussions of wearing shoes that are too small, too tight, too long, or too wide are many — from ingrown toenails to back and leg issues. 

“Everyone’s foot is so different, and buying shoes is not like buying a sweater or shirt, where if a seam is not aligned with your shoulders, it’s fine… shoes can be incredibly painful if they don’t fit,” says Sophie Howe, the CEO and co-founder of the innovative app Xesto (pronounced “zesto”). The app uses a smartphone’s FaceID camera to take a 3D image of a person’s foot. When integrated into the e-commerce sites of retailers, a person can virtually figure out which shoes will fit best (the app is accurate to under 1.5 mm). Over 10,000 people have used the tool, and the company now has major partnerships with several shoe manufacturers. 

“The first time I saw someone using the app my brain broke for a moment, because it was so surreal,” Sophie says. “But with the rise of e-commerce, it makes sense to have the ability to take a scan of your foot with your own phone.”

Sophie’s journey to become the CEO of an industry-leading, first-of-its kind app started straightforward enough. She studied finance and economics at university and realized that she really enjoyed problem solving. While many of her peers began to look for work in finance, she fell into the “uncool at the time” world of startups because of a friend. And that’s where things began to click. 

“I spent a lot of time learning about and trying to understand what technologies could exist in the future. There was a lot of not knowing and having to learn from the ground up.”

With no prior knowledge of how to run a tech startup or build an app, Sophie and her co-founder found themselves knee deep in conversations about the innovative ways smartphone cameras could be used for customization. A few dozen discussions about sizing and e-commerce later, and Xesto was born. 

One of the most impressive and inspiring things about Sophie’s journey to date is that almost all of her success has been built on the skills she learned through self-guided education. 

“I spent a lot of time learning about and trying to understand what technologies could exist in the future. There was a lot of not knowing and having to learn from the ground up. It was frustrating how bad the resources were if you wanted to learn about something. There were no websites saying, ‘if you want to learn how to code, go to this website.’” 

Sophie found herself digging through the Internet and doing deeper and deeper dives into specific areas where she lacked expertise; that would inevitably lead her to another Internet hole of research, and so on. “I would start creating mind maps of how everything was connected in the tech and AI world, and how things could come together,” she says. “I’m always looking for opportunities to learn and grow.”

That digging eventually led her to ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided a six-month program that emboldens women-led tech companies to scale their business. “We are at an inflection point and have a lot on our plate for the next six months, so it will be invaluable to tap into [the organization’s] advisors and mentors,” she says, noting that building a support system is key to making entrepreneurship work. 

“There’s always progress happening. You have to celebrate all of the wins, even if they’re not for certain.”

“It took a long time to get here like, many years, and that story is never really told to anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur. We went through many years of hitting wall after wall without success,” she says. “You just have to keep on going and figuring it out. Our first idea didn’t involve footwear; what we’re doing now was many iterations down the line.”

Sophie also hammers home the notion that success doesn’t look the same for everyone, and that as an entrepreneur, you have to get used to the idea of imperfection. “Not everything needs to be perfect. Work with a prioritization matrix. What needs to be done first? Things will slip through the cracks. And as much as you hate it, that’s OK. You’ll figure it out. Just make sure that the ball that gets dropped is not one of those things that’s important to the business.”

She adds “founder’s guilt,” if not monitored, could lead to burnout. “What will make you effective is to build a work schedule around boundaries that will keep you healthy.” 

Sophie’s next big goal for Xesto is to grow it into a sustainable and profitable business (hopefully with the right venture capitalist who wants to form a marriage with the company), and to acquire more users.

For now, she’s celebrating all she’s accomplished and the big wins she and her team have had over the past year despite the pandemic. “There’s always progress happening. You have to celebrate all of the wins, even if they’re not for certain,” she says. “I love that we brought something into the world that has never been done before. In spite of all of the challenges, it’s really rewarding to know you’re making an impact on someone’s life.” 

Why this entrepreneur decided to contribute to the mental and cognitive health landscape.

Andrea Palmer Awake Labs

By Sarah Kelsey  

 

When Andrea Palmer and her Awake Labs co-founder Paul Fijal conceived of a platform to measure anxiety in people with autism, she didn’t think it would be relevant to her personally. But that’s exactly what happened a few years later when she sustained a brain injury during wrestling practice. 

The trauma of the takedown was so severe it impacted her cognitive function, which led to a decline in her mental health and well-being and a rise in her anxiety. Their platform wasn’t yet ready to help with her own recovery, but she certainly wishes it was.  

“The platform wouldn’t have been able to heal my brain faster — it can’t physically do that — but it could have let me know when I was going to react to something negatively, helping me to manage my responses to situations” Andrea says. “It could have helped give me my quality of life back — and that’s what we want to do for other people.”

Awake Labs is a revolutionary app that’s connected to a smartphone and smartwatch that detects a person’s heart rate. Using a clinically validated algorithm licensed from Holland Bloorview, the app detects when stress and strong emotions are escalating and alerts a person or caregiver to the impending big emotion (fear, joy, anger, etc.) so they can intervene and support the person affected. 

“Any big emotion, if left unchecked, can have a negative outcome. Sometimes, that big emotion will cause someone to completely withdraw and turn inward; sometimes it looks like an external outburst of aggression; other times, antipsychotic medication is administered,” she says. “Incidents like these can be disorienting and draining for everyone involved. They’re not good for those experiencing them or for those caring for them.” 

“It could have helped give me my quality of life back — and that’s what we want to do for other people.”

Today, there are 300 individual users of the app, including almost 100 self-advocates and 30 agencies who use it with people they support. The agencies really value the platform. There are strict checks and balances when it comes to consent, and anyone who wants to stop using the tool can do so.

“Staff and caregivers report feeling more confidence in being able to support people because of our platform,” Andrea says. “It helps them know how to respond to an individual’s needs and helps them feel safe. Everyone can build a trust relationship quicker.” 

It’s also begun to change the lives of adults with intellectual developmental disabilities. 

One young woman who wants to live independently is using the tool to learn how to self-regulate her emotions so she can manage certain situations without a caregiver. In another case, a mother of a young autistic man — whose anxiety presents as self-harm and who gets overwhelmed by loud, busy environments — was able to host her first family event in years. The Awake Labs technology helped them recognize the early signs of big emotions and take steps to make everyone feel comfortable.

“When we get messages like these from our users, it’s very motivating,” Andrea says, noting she and her team are currently working on some pretty incredible new use cases for the platform. She acknowledges that many communities are often underdiagnosed and therefore overlooked, including women, people of colour, and people who can’t afford to get diagnosed. “It’s important to be aware of these inequities when providing our platform to our users.”

“I don’t know everything, and I will ask anyone who will listen to me to help me figure something out.”

The success stories are all pretty surreal for Andrea, especially because she says she went to university unsure of where her life would lead. “I wanted to be a math teacher, and my mom convinced me to try engineering… she said it was a good base for a career.” She ended up studying mechatronics, which eventually led to her acceptance into the prestigious New Venture Design course at UBC, designed for individuals who want to develop their creativity while learning about the business cycle of a startup. During the course, students are tasked with creating a product with a real-world use case. That’s how Awake Labs was born.

“The New Venture Design course really taught us to get up out of our chair and talk to people and to validate every assumption we had,” Andrea says. It taught her to seek out people who know more than her on a daily basis. 

That’s partially how she stumbled upon ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program, a six-month initiative that helps women-led companies scale their business through mentorship. She wanted to learn from those who’ve had success in the industry. 

“I don’t know everything,” she says, “and I will ask anyone who will listen to me to help me figure something out.”

Andrea has also learned something that’s key for any owner of a company: perseverance. “Never be afraid to ask for what you need — the worst thing people will say is no, or they won’t respond,” she notes. “There will be sacrifices, and we probably survived because we continued to proceed and push through things when other companies with similar ideas to ours stopped.”

Andrea adds the key to continuing when the going gets tough is to stay laser focused on the benefits of what you’re trying to do. “We have the ability to change lives. That’s what really matters.”

Meet Julia Elvidge, tech investor and advisor, and co-founder of Chipworks.

Julia Elvidge

Julia Elvidge is the past President and co-founder of Chipworks, a company that sold patent and technology intelligence related products and services to large international electronics companies. After selling Chipworks to its largest competitor in 2016, Julia remained active in the tech community by working with companies and founders as an advisor and investor. Additionally, Julia is a member of the Canadian Institute of Corporate Directors and sits on boards in the tech and investment space, including ventureLAB’s Hardware Catalyst Initiative advisory board and the Capital Angel Network. 

 

My proudest accomplishment is…helping to create a company culture at Chipworks where people wanted to come to work each day. I have never seen it done as successfully, before or after. We achieved this by treating people with respect and being consistently open and transparent, even when the news was hard to hear or did not reflect well on senior management. Over time, we built a solid trust relationship with our employees.

I surprise people when I tell them… that I am an electrical engineer. I didn’t intend on studying engineering initially and never really considered it at first. I ended up in the Sciences without much of a direction. After wandering for a while, I finally decided that Biomedical Engineering was my passion. Back then, Biomedical was only a master’s program, so I enrolled in second year Electrical Engineering and studied my heart out –– I was determined to catch up for lost time! The semiconductor industry was just starting to boom as I got my first Co-op jobs. I loved the work experience and quickly fell in love with microchips and the buzz of the industry. I never went on to do that master’s degree, but I have no regrets.

My best advice to people starting out in the tech industry is… knowing your customers is key to success at any stage of a company. At the beginning, asking potential customers open questions to understand their pain points helps you design your product before you write a line of code. The more time you spend understanding these customers and finding ways to test your product ideas on them, the faster you will get to market with the lowest development costs. Later on, as the company grows, don’t become a CEO that is only focused internally on operations. It is important to get out and talk to your customers and understand how their businesses are changing so that you are preparing your company for their future.

My best advice from a mentor was… ”This opportunity won’t be available in 5 years.” I was a founding member of Chipworks but I didn’t have the funds to invest in the business at the beginning; my contribution was “sweat equity.” Later on, my mentor discussed an offer that had been put in front of me for a significant portion of the company and the role of President. My very first response was “No, I am not ready for this right now, my kids are too young. I want to do this 5 years from now.” We talked for a while, but the most important thing he said to me was, “This opportunity will not be available in 5 years.” He was right and I took the offer. Today, I am happily retired based on the proceeds from the sale of Chipworks. I am very glad that I took his advice.

My biggest setback was… I asked my daughter –– now 28 years old –– what she thought my biggest setback was and she said, “Wasn’t it when you gave birth to my brother and I?”. My first reaction was shock, and then I quickly corrected her. I think of my time with the kids when they were young as a wonderful break from the working world and a time to fully enjoy being a mother –– and not any kind of setback.

I stay inspired by… women leaders and founders that are changing the world by just being who they are and leading the way for others (#SeeHerBeHer). The more representation we see, the more our children and their children will consider it normal for half the corporations in the world to be run by women.

The future excites me because… I am part of a movement to create more women-founded technology businesses so we can finally change the numbers and get more women involved in the tech industry. 

We have tried a lot of things, but women still don’t hold enough roles in the C-suite or the boardroom of technology companies. As recently as 2016, men had 4 times more tech jobs than women –– a number that has changed very little in the last 20 years or more. 

I believe we can achieve more diversity for women and minorities in tech companies by supporting women founders to start, grow, and scale their companies into $100 million dollar enterprises –– and beyond. 

My next step is…now. I am an early-stage advisor at Invest Ottawa, and a Capital Angel Network board member/investor and a co-founder of SheBoot. I have the enviable role of working with many amazing entrepreneurs and supporting them on their journey. 

SheBoot is a bootcamp for scalable technology and technology enabled businesses with women founders. It was created by women leaders and investors, and helps founders get their businesses ready for the investment stage. 

SheBoot’s first cohort in 2020 had fifty women leaders supporting ten women-led businesses as coaches, board members, workshop leads, or providing legal and finance support. In addition, ten of these women took $10,000 from their own pockets and put it towards the final pitch prize of $100,000 at the end of the program. This was later matched by non-dilutive funding to provide a first prize of $150K, and a second prize of $50K.

I know that if I am successful in SheBoot, I will make Ontario, Canada, and the world a better place, because it will get more women into the C-suite making decisions and women are more open to making diverse workplaces work!

How this entrepreneur is solving immigration challenges through an app and global community.

Kushi Kaur

By Hailey Eisen 

 

The challenges facing immigrants are ever evolving, but for the most part, support for newcomers typically remains offline. Kushi Kaur, a young entrepreneur with a first-hand understanding of the trials and tribulations of immigration, hopes to change that with the development of an online platform and app targeting a global audience. 

Kushi and her family emigrated to Canada in the years following 9/11. She was born and raised in India and moved to Libya in North Africa before settling in Toronto. “As a young minority Indian family, adjusting to life in Canada was tough,” she recalls. After studying business marketing at Humber College, Kushi got her first job in marketing working for an IT company. 

Around that time, Kushi’s cousin came to Canada from India as an international student. “My cousin was living with us and I tried to help her out, to navigate the immigration system,” Kushi recalls. Her cousin ended up facing visa and work permit concerns, moving from Ontario to Calgary in pursuit of permanent residency based on the advice of an immigration advisor, and spending thousands of dollars on advice that got her nowhere. 

Witnessing her cousin’s struggles and feeling quite helpless, Kushi decided she had to do something about it. “I was always passionate about technology and I had an understanding of globalization from my own experiences and those of friends and family,” she says. “I realized that what was needed was digital support.” 

Kushi left her job and started taking courses in digital entrepreneurship. She began planning for Joint App, with a goal of helping immigrants navigate the immigration process, gain reliable information about visas and permits, and connect with a vetted, hand-selected  group of lawyers and advisors — all in the name of saving time and money. 

“I’m a learner, and as I started to plan things out, I was looking for ways to build my skill set,” Kushi explains. “There weren’t a lot of accelerators helping woman founders — not just with business advice, but with tech advice as well. When my friend told me about the Tech Undivided program, I eagerly applied.” 

“Tech Undivided empowered me to seek mentorship and advice regarding raising capital, and my mentors pushed me to put myself out there.”

In the summer of 2020, Kushi joined the second cohort of Tech Undivided, a program run by ventureLAB, which focuses on woman-led tech founders. Through the program Kushi gained access to industry experts, strategic mentorship, and investors. “Tech Undivided empowered me to seek mentorship and advice regarding raising capital, and my mentors pushed me to put myself out there.” Kushi notes that as a woman founder, she’s amongst the minority raising capital for a tech startup.

Another benefit of being part of Tech Undivided, Kushi says, has been the opportunity to work with the other members of the cohort — all women founders building breakthrough solutions. As a group, Kushi explains, the women have helped each other with applications, hiring, preparing to raise capital, and so much more. 

Armed with the right support, Kushi was ready to bring her idea to life. Before she could even get her app into production, demand for her services were greater than she could have ever imagined.  “I was getting emails and LinkedIn messages daily from students looking for help and support,” she says. In January 2021, Kushi realized she needed to create something that she could launch quickly — and thus, MangoVisa was born. This web-based community connects American and Canadian students living abroad on study permits and work visas and those trying to gain permanent residency. There are currently hundreds of members accessing the free services provided by MangoVisa. 

“I think COVID really helped us grow, because when the pandemic hit, immigration became even more complex,” Kushi explains. Distributing information, connecting students, and sharing stories are among the services currently provided by MangoVisa — but Kushi has even greater plans which she hopes will be realized with the launch of the app by the end of 2021. 

Ideally, Kushi says she’d like the technology to be so accessible that anyone can access it — from students looking to attend school in Canada to people in rural towns across the globe who have to walk miles to access a lawyer, and risk rejection as a result of simple paperwork errors. 

Armed with growing confidence and a strong sense of urgency to help improve the immigration process, Kushi is excited to see what happens when the app launches. “The market is hungry and I think our launch will be explosive,” she says. 

As an entrepreneur, Kushi believes inner strength is key to success. While she says her family couldn’t imagine her — an Indian girl — at the head of a tech company, they’ve been supportive none-the-less. “They don’t have anyone to look to, to understand what I’m doing,” she says. That’s something she hopes will change. 

“I’m really paying attention to the innovators of the world right now, trying not to worry about competition, but really hoping to break the industry apart.” 

How this woman’s health challenges inspired her to build a tech business.

Rachel Bartholemew

By Hailey Eisen 

 

The story behind HyIvy Health — a Hamilton-based women’s health start-up — began with a personal medical crisis. After years of pelvic health issues, Rachel Bartholomew faced her ultimate challenge in 2019 when, at 28, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Rachel’s surgery was followed by radiation therapy and a lot of time spent on bed rest. 

“I couldn’t do much, but my brain was on fire,” Rachel recalls. “I’m an innovator — problems are my thing and I feel an obligation to solve them.”

The problems Rachel was facing were the after-care following her treatment, the pelvic pain she was experiencing, and the life-altering health implications of surgery and treatment. “Part of my healing journey was connecting with other women going through similar things,” Rachel says. In private Facebook groups, Rachel found more than 50,000 women — many experiencing similar struggles. 

“These groups were my lifeline,” Rachel explains, and the frustration, pain, and feelings of not being heard were unanimous. This shared experience was what sparked Rachel’s entrepreneurial drive. 

But this wouldn’t be Rachel’s first foray into entrepreneurship. At 28, she was already a bit of a veteran in the start-up world. Since graduating with a Master’s in Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology from the University of Waterloo in 2014, Rachel had successfully launched and sold a software as a service (SaaS) a-commerce platform that used 3D and augmented reality to help car enthusiasts visualize modifications to their vehicles. She had also taught entrepreneurship at the University of Waterloo, and started Launch Pad, a campus-linked incubator out of Laurier University. 

Post-cancer surgery, Rachel says she was lying in bed with her computer, her brain working at full capacity. “In a way, having something to focus on through this time was a great distraction for me — it took me away from my suffering and pain.” 

Leveraging extensive research and her own personal experiences, Rachel put together a rough plan for a pelvic rehabilitation device (a dilator) to help alleviate pelvic health symptoms. The product she had in mind would work more intuitively than the current product on the market, which had been invented by a man in 1938 and had not been updated since. “I had this beautiful opportunity to be around doctors every day during radiation treatment,” Rachel recalls, “so as they were treating me, I found the chance to pitch my idea to them.”

“My biggest motivator right now is data. Providing therapy and helping women is great, but where I really want to help is in preventing women from having issues in the first place, and that’s where data comes in.”

Word of Rachel’s plans got back to her Oncologist, who requested a meeting with her to discuss it. “I got great validation from a medical perspective on the actual product, and realized that it wasn’t just a patient problem, the medical system recognized that this was a problem that needed to be solved as well.” 

Around the same time, Rachel pitched her idea to a friend who had a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. “We got together and ended up sitting for seven-and-a-half hours designing exactly what this product would look like and how it would function,” Rachel recalls. This friend, Kamyar Rouindej, is now HyIvy Health’s CTO and Rachel’s business partner. “While he had no intention in getting into the women’s health field, we make a great team and he’s now just as passionate as I am about this product and the field we’re working in.” 

Rachel realized there was an opportunity to take this product a step further, developing something that could collect data and help better understand the patient experience. “Our connected, smart device is able to collect real-time information through biosensors, and is also connected to an app where patients can answer questions about their pain and mental health,” she explains.  

Currently in the preliminary user testing phase and in the pipeline to get FDA approval, HyIvy Health is also in the process of raising capital. In August 2020 they were chosen to be part of the second Tech Undivided cohort, a program run by York Region incubator, ventureLAB. With a focus on women-led tech companies with breakthrough products, Tech Undivided provides access to a strategic mentorship network and investors, among other things. 

“We were paired up with a great mentor which has been a lifeline for me,” Rachel says. “I came at this from the patient perspective, not with a medical background, and having someone who has experience in the medical field to guide me through big decisions like understanding the market, process, and sales side of things — has been invaluable.” 

After Tech Undivided, Rachel applied to ventureLAB’s Hardware Catalyst Initiative (HCI), Canada’s first lab and incubator for founders building hardware and semiconductor focused products. “I’m really excited to be part of this program and I know it will help us get ready for manufacturing and the hardware side of things,” Rachel says. HCI was designed to enable tech companies to accelerate their time to market in a sector that normally incurs lengthy entry and scale times. 

HyIvy Health is just at the beginning of what Rachel expects to be an exciting journey. They incorporated at the height of the pandemic last year, and went from a team of two to 34 people working on the product, getting patents, applying for funding, and more. “My biggest motivator right now is data,” Rachel says. “Providing therapy and helping women is great, but where I really want to help is in preventing women from having issues in the first place, and that’s where data comes in.”

While Rachel says there’s obvious stigma around women’s health and vaginal health especially, she’s been delighted by how willing and open doctors have been to work with her. “Some investors have been obviously uncomfortable talking with me about this product,” Rachel says. “But I tell them ‘don’t worry, we don’t know either;’ even people with vaginas don’t know anything about them.”

With any luck, HyIvy Health will have an impact on that. “Getting sick a lot helped me learn to advocate for myself and to not take no for an answer,” Rachel says. These skills also come in handy in the start-up world. “It’s not easy being a woman in business and tech; there’s so much more we have to prove. But while it’s easy to roll over and be passive, we have to hold our ground, grow a thick skin, and learn to play the game.”  

How this tech entrepreneur is changing the healthcare landscape.

Mahshid Yassaei

By Hailey Eisen 

 

Gender inequality wasn’t on Mahshid Yassaei’s radar — that is, until she came to Canada at 22 to do a Master’s degree in computer science. “I grew up in Iran, went to an all-girls high school, and always loved engineering, math, and logical thinking,” Mahshid recalls. “I studied computer engineering in undergrad, and while there were more boys in the program than girls, it wasn’t a big thing in my mind. I always knew girls were equally competent.” 

As an entrepreneur in the field of medical technology, Mahshid has since experienced her share of gender inequality. But if anything, it has propelled her forward. “In high school, I had this image of myself having an impact — creating something from scratch,” she says. “Later in life, I’ve had to fight against how successful entrepreneurs are portrayed in the media — it’s not usually a woman of colour. To imagine yourself in the role you want is a mind game.” 

But, it’s a game that Mahshid, for all intents and purposes, is winning. In 2015, after working for a variety of technology companies, including Blackberry, in data security, Mahshid co-founded Evenset, a software company specializing in healthcare and medical industries. “In every job I had prior to starting my own business, I felt like I was reinventing the wheel for that company,” she says. “I was always repeating myself, and I thought, this could be a service I could provide.”

Mahshid says she and her co-founder, Hesam Dadafarin, a PHD in biomedical engineering, were the perfect fit and his background helped bridge the gap between technology and medicine. 

“As a woman starting my own tech business, I was a bit of an outlier, but my super star partner is amazing, he always looks at me as an equal.” 

Through Evenset, Mahshid and Hesam have consulted for a wide range of companies from small start-ups to large multi-billion-dollar organizations and government agencies such as Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). In 2019, they were hired by PHAC to conduct research on a problem this national health agency was experiencing. 

“They were spending time and resources developing hundreds of pages of evidence-based content for physicians and patients, and they weren’t seeing engagement with the content,” Mahshid explains. “Because it was time consuming to search through all of these documents, doctors were often turning to Google or other physicians when they came up against something they didn’t know — rather than referencing PHAC’s resources.” 

For six months, Evenset worked with the agency to determine if they could leverage AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to take passive content and turn it into intelligent content. In doing so, the idea for Tali was born.  

It just so happened that the launch of Tali coincided with the start of the COVID pandemic, a time when a great deal of information was being released — along with a great deal of misinformation. “We quickly built out a library of government guidelines, medical resources, and journal articles, and set up a mobile app to be trialed by a medical clinic in Alberta,” Mahshid explains. “The doctors’ feedback was positive and Tali allowed them to save a lot of time searching for answers.”

“This is a very exciting time and I think COVID has dramatically accelerated innovation in healthcare, opening doors instantly that once took years to open.”

Tali is described as an information retrieval chatbot, trained on an organization’s knowledge base or internal documents that can answer users’ questions in natural language. Mahshid explains it like this: “If a doctor asks Tali, ‘Can I give the MMR vaccine to a patient with a history of cancer?’ the bot will understand that cancer patients are often immune compromised and patients who are immune deficient can’t be given MMR.” It will then provide a summarized response, allowing medical providers to navigate lengthy articles and guidelines quickly at point of care. 

Tali can also be used by patients, something Mahshid is excited about. “We have started partnerships with patient education platforms so that eventually a patient could see his/her doctor and then turn to Tali with questions after their visit,” she explains. “The doctor would have access to the questions that were asked and could follow up on those as well.” 

Mahshid sees this as part of an on-going transition — or revolution — in healthcare. “We are seeing a shift from doctors and hospitals being the centre of the healthcare system to a mindset where patients are the centre and they’re empowered to take responsibility and accountability for care,” she explains. In doing so, knowledge and information becomes invaluable to patients. 

“This is a very exciting time and I think COVID has dramatically accelerated innovation in healthcare, opening doors instantly that once took years to open,” Mahshid says.  

But all of this change doesn’t come without its challenges. Navigating a field like medicine isn’t easy to do on your own — especially as a fairly young start-up. “We’ve been really lucky to have had the support of ventureLAB, and through them, access to amazing advisors and mentors in the healthcare space.” Mahshid attended a pitch night at a venue where, coincidentally, the Director of Venture Growth from ventureLAB — a technology hub located in York Region — was also in attendance. She was approached by the Director who encouraged her to join the Tech Undivided program. The program, created to help women-led tech companies access resources to grow and scale, seemed like a perfect opportunity for Mahshid. “Beyond the access to an experienced healthcare advisor who’s been invaluable in providing support around client growth, partnerships, and business development, the best part of this program has been connecting with other like-minded women founders and meeting regularly to support one another’s growth.” With women founders often being underrepresented in the tech sector, Tech Undivided aims to bridge those gender and diversity gaps. 

When it comes to navigating the healthcare space, Mahshid says she’s learned a lot. “It takes patience and respect for a system that’s been around for hundreds of years. To navigate a culture like this you need to wear the glasses of an observer and engineer and develop products with user understanding in mind.” 

In terms of her personal growth, Mahshid says there has been alot as of late. “I love where I’m at, at the intersection of tech and healthcare, building more and more impactful products in this space,” she says. “As a friend once said to me, if you dream about starting your own company or building an interesting product, but are holding yourself back for whatever reason, ask yourself, if not now, then when?” That same friend encouraged Mahshid to take action and do what she was passionate about — and she hasn’t looked back since.