How Anique Asher is leveraging the advice of her mentors to pay it forward.

Anique Asher

As Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy at Scotiabank, Anique Asher shares why and how mentorship is a mutually beneficial relationship, the ways her mentors impacted her career, and how she’s supporting others in their career aspirations. 

 

By Shelley White

 

Take a risk. Trust your instinct. Seek out mentorship. Work hard. 

These are the words of wisdom that Anique Asher has kept front and center while building an impressive career as an executive in the financial industry. Now, she’s passing along that advice and more to a new generation of go-getters.

“Mentorship is one aspect of my job that I really enjoy, because now I get to see it from the other side and provide advice that may help others in their own careers,” says Anique, Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy for Scotiabank.

“When I say to someone I’m mentoring, ‘I don’t think you’re challenging yourself enough, I think you should take that risk,’ I see myself 10 or 15 years ago,” she says. “And it feels really good to know that you can help that person make an impact in their career.”

Anique is no stranger to taking risks and leaping into the unknown. Growing up on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, she was the third generation in a family-owned and operated business, and spent her summers as a teenager working alongside her parents. 

“I always envisioned myself becoming an entrepreneur,” Anique says. “I never envisioned a scenario where I would be working in a large financial institution because it’s just not something I had ever seen growing up.” 

But her path would prove very different. Anique’s father had gone to university in Montreal, Quebec, and wanted to give his children the same opportunity. “My parents made the financial decision to enable us to go to a university that was outside of Trinidad. They felt that experience was important for us to expand our thinking and have different experiences,” she says.

“I never envisioned a scenario where I would be working in a large financial institution because it’s just not something I had ever seen growing up.”

Anique went to the University of Western Ontario in London, completing her undergrad and MBA at the Ivey Business School. Instead of pursuing a path of entrepreneurship, she took a position at a multinational financial consulting firm, working in mid-market M&A, eventually moving into investor relations for a major life insurance company. 

“Being in that role, I knew early on that I was going to have a significant learning curve,” she says. “What I needed to do to be effective was to build-out a strong team, to ask questions, to ask for help when I needed it, and to make sure that we were addressing the issues of the shareholders and the institutional investors.”

When Scotiabank approached her in 2018, Anique says she was initially hesitant to make the move, having never worked in banking. But she was enticed by the idea of a new challenge, and once again was encouraged by her mentors to take the risk of the new role.  

“What made this role very appealing to me was a couple of things: First, it was a much larger team than I’d ever managed — 100+ people. Secondly, it was a different industry, and one of the things I have prided myself on in my career is being able to get up to speed quickly, being able to be challenged and learn new things,” she says.

Anique joined the Scotiabank in 2018 in a Senior Vice President role, and in November 2020, she was promoted to Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy. It’s a role she relishes because it encompasses varied sides of the business, she says. While she is responsible for the more traditional financial side of things, such as global financial planning and forecasting, Anique is also involved in formulating and articulating the bank’s identity from a strategic perspective. 

“It’s rare that you would see finance so well connected to strategy, and sometimes people scratch their heads and say, ‘It’s actually such a different skill set, why would you have the same person doing that?’ But the reality is that it’s such a valuable opportunity to connect those things in a way that will drive meaningful value for the bank and deliver value for our shareholders,” she says.

Throughout her career, Anique says mentorship has been invaluable. Sometimes, her mentors were people that she worked with. Sometimes, they were people that she worked for. And sometimes, they were people outside of her organization.

Anique says that one of the most valuable things she gained through being mentored is having others see things in her that she didn’t see in herself. 

“I remember having a conversation once about a role that I was contemplating taking. And the individual said to me, ‘I think you’re making a big mistake if you take that role, because I don’t think you’re thinking big enough.’ And it was the first time in my life that I’d ever thought, ‘If this person thinks I could do that, maybe I can.’”

“Early on in my career, I would say, ‘I really appreciate everything you do, is there something that I can do?’ And nine times out of ten when you ask that, you get an answer.”

Now, Anique is the one doing the mentoring, through both informal and formal programs like Scotiabank Inspire. She says that the best mentor relationships are reciprocal, with both sides benefitting. As mentees, people should always be asking how they can help their mentor, she says.

“Early on in my career, I would say, ‘I really appreciate everything you do, is there something that I can do?’ And nine times out of ten when you ask that, you get an answer,” Anique says. “Maybe, it’s helping them with a project that’s off the side of their desk, or maybe it’s dealing with an issue that they’re struggling with from a different perspective.”

As the leader of a large team, Anique says that diversity is essential in any organization. She notes that of the 100+ people on her team, more than 50 percent identify as women. “I feel very proud of that as a woman leader,” she says. 

It’s important for people in an organization to see women in leadership, Anique says.  It’s about role modeling, she adds. 

“My husband and I have two kids, 14 and 12. Many times, I’ll say to my team, ‘I have to leave now because I need to do something for one of my sons. I’m going to a baseball or hockey game, so I’m not available at this time.’ And I think that it’s important to role model these behaviors for the team.” 

Anique notes that there were times in her career when she was the only woman in the room, and she had to trust her instincts and ensure that she was heard. 

“I came back to work after my second maternity leave, very clear that I wanted to be promoted, and I was an advocate for myself,” she says. “But if I didn’t have strong women mentors that were supporting me and giving me the runway in which to do that, while still getting to be a mom where I could actively engage with my kids, that would have been a lot harder. I feel a responsibility, particularly within my own team, to be a role model so that people see that it’s possible to have both, just not always at the same time.”

Beyond gender, other aspects of diversity are essential to any successful team, Anique says, which is why it’s important to hire people with different perspectives, such as newcomers. “Because that was me. I was new to Canada and needed somebody to give me an opportunity,” she says. 

“If the person happens to be from a warmer country, I’ll send them a note at the first snowfall saying, ‘Don’t worry, don’t leave. It’s not that bad. You’ll get through it!’” she adds with a laugh.

“When I’m most challenged and I’m really struggling with something, I always think, there’s a path through. Maybe that means getting a different perspective. Maybe that means asking for help.”

Outside of work, Anique loves to travel, read, and play tennis, but most of all, she enjoys spending time with her kids, especially when they’re on the baseball field or at the hockey arena.  

“Both of my sons play competitive sports. I actually find it funny, because I go to these games and they can be so intense for other parents, but I find it to be a source of stress relief for me, because I was so terrible at sports growing up. It just amazes me that we’re genetically related because they are pretty good. And it’s so great to see them take on those challenges and learn how to win and lose as a team a valuable lesson that they can take with them as they grow up.”

While she can’t predict where her career will take her in the future, Anique notes that she’s always ready and willing to take on any new challenge that comes her way. 

“One of the things a mentor said to me is, ‘There’s always a path through, you just have to find the path.’ When I’m most challenged and I’m really struggling with something, I always think, there’s a path through. Maybe that means getting a different perspective. Maybe that means asking for help.”

Or maybe it comes down to those earlier words of advice: Take a risk, and work hard.

“Don’t feel you can’t do something because it’s not innate to you,” Anique says. “You can always figure it out.”

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.”

Rencontrez la femme à la tête du premier fonds de capital de risque dirigé par des Noirs et soutenu par du capital institutionnel au Canada.

Lise Birikundavyi

En tant que vice-présidente, Clients – Diversité à BDC, Laura Didyk dirige les efforts de la banque visant à comprendre et à relever les défis auxquels sont confrontés les entrepreneurs sous-représentés et mal desservis, qu’ils soient racialisés, qu’ils s’identifient comme femmes, qu’ils s’identifient comme membres de la communauté LGBTQIA2S+, qu’ils vivent avec un handicap ou qu’ils aient une combinaison de ces identités. Elle présente leurs parcours dans le cadre d’entrevues, et ce mois-ci, elle reçoit Lise Birikundavyi, directrice et gestionnaire de fonds de Black Innovation Capital.

 

Au Canada, moins d’un fonds de capital de risque sur dix est géré par une femme. En ce qui concerne les fonds soutenus par du capital institutionnel, on trouve une seule femme noire aux commandes : il s’agit de Lise Birikundavyi. Elle est directrice et gestionnaire de fonds de Black Innovation Capital, un fonds de capital de risque de 10 millions de dollars, soutenu par BDC Capital et lancé en juin 2021, qui investit dans des entreprises technologiques en démarrage dirigées par des Noirs. 

Avant de prendre la barre de Black Innovation Capital, Lise a travaillé dans le domaine de la finance internationale pour plusieurs institutions. Elle a grandi à Montréal, mais son parcours l’a menée en Argentine, en Chine, au Ghana, en Côte d’Ivoire et à Toronto (ce qui fait en sorte qu’elle puisse s’exprimer en français, en anglais, en espagnol et un peu en mandarin). Au fil de ses études et de sa carrière, elle a orienté son travail vers l’entrepreneuriat social et l’investissement d’impact. 

Lise croit fermement à la possibilité de mettre à profit les forces des marchés de capitaux pour générer une richesse plus inclusive et réduire la pauvreté de façon durable. J’ai rencontré Lise pour en savoir plus sur son impressionnant parcours, qui a abouti au récent lancement de Black Innovation Capital. 

Laura : Vous avez consacré une grande partie de votre carrière à la finance à but social. Quel a été le point de départ de ce cheminement? 

Lise : Tout a commencé lorsque je suis retournée au Burundi pour la première fois, à 18 ans. J’ai grandi à Montréal, mais je suis née là-bas. C’est un pays qui a connu son lot de problèmes, notamment la pauvreté, la guerre civile et les difficultés d’accès à l’éducation. Je ne savais pas à quoi m’attendre en arrivant, mais j’ai été émerveillée par la beauté du pays et l’intelligence de ses habitants. 

J’ai été également frappée par le fait que pour la plupart des gens la réussite passe par le travail dans une organisation internationale. Il y avait très peu d’entreprises locales alors que les opportunités semblaient multiples. Lorsque que je réfléchissais avec amis et cousins sur des compagnies qui pourraient voir le jour et régler certains problèmes, on me répondait souvent « c’est une bonne idée, tu devrais créer cela » ou « Oui, pourquoi tu ne viendrais pas commencer cette initiative? ». Et je me disais toujours : « Mais, je ne vis pas ici, pourquoi ne le faites-vous pas? ». Je me suis rendu compte de fil en aiguille que l’aide humanitaire avait son rôle à jouer, de façon bien involontaire, dans la diminution de l’esprit entrepreneurial.  

“J’ai réalisé qu’il s’agissait là d’une véritable autonomisation, qui soutenait la création de modèles dans différentes sociétés en donnant aux populations vulnérables les moyens de bâtir leurs propres solutions.”

Quelques années plus tard, pendant mon séjour en Argentine, j’ai découvert la notion d’entrepreneuriat social. J’ai lu Comment changer le monde : Les entrepreneurs sociaux et le pouvoir des idées nouvelles de David Bornstein et j’ai commencé à me renseigner sur l’entrepreneuriat et sur la microfinance. Cette idée de pouvoir faire le bien tout en renforçant les capacités et en gagnant de l’argent m’a plu. J’ai réalisé qu’il s’agissait là d’une véritable autonomisation, qui soutenait la création de modèles dans différentes sociétés en donnant aux populations vulnérables les moyens de bâtir leurs propres solutions. Cela aurait ensuite un effet d’entraînement au sein de leurs communautés, sans que personne ne se sente redevable puisque le bénéfice financier serait partagé. 

Laura : C’est génial. Je sais que vous avez commencé votre carrière dans les fonds spéculatifs. Comment vous êtes-vous ensuite orientée vers l’investissement d’impact? 

Lise : J’ai adoré travailler dans le monde des fonds de couverture, mais je savais que je pouvais faire quelque chose de plus, sans pour autant savoir comment accéder au domaine du développement avec cette perspective d’autonomisation. Une amie m’a parlé de l’investissement d’impact, puis j’ai commencé à me joindre à un groupe de femmes du secteur bancaire à Montréal qui organisait régulièrement des événements pour en parler et réfléchir à la façon dont nous pourrions développer ce concept au Canada. 

J’ai décidé de m’engager dans la voie de l’investissement d’impact en m’intéressant aux marchés émergents. J’ai fait mon MBA à Shanghai avec trois objectifs en tête : apprendre le mandarin, créer un réseau solide et mieux comprendre la relation entre la Chine et l’Afrique. Tout ce que j’ai fait là-bas tournait autour de l’investissement d’impact, et j’en ai profité pour élaborer soigneusement mes prochaines actions. 

Au début, je me suis concentrée sur les marchés émergents dans une perspective de développement. L’objectif était de faire en sorte que d’énormes problèmes puissent être résolus en donnant aux gens les moyens de le faire, tout en générant des revenus aux fonds pour lesquels je travaillais à l’époque. 

Laura : Qu’avez-vous fait après votre passage à Shanghai? 

Lise : Je suis revenue en Amérique du Nord. Puis, lorsque je suis tombée enceinte de mon premier fils, j’ai décidé d’aller vivre au Ghana pour y travailler pendant mon congé de maternité. J’avais toujours voulu vivre sur le continent africain et je supposais, naïvement, que je m’ennuierais en restant à la maison avec un bébé. J’étais prête pour une nouvelle aventure et je voulais poursuivre mon travail de sensibilisation. Au Ghana, j’ai appuyé Ingénieurs sans frontières, Canada. Nous avons trouvé une communauté là-bas et ce fut une belle expérience. Nous avons ensuite passé trois ans en Côte d’Ivoire, sur la côte sud de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, où je gérais un fonds de technologies éducatives pour la Jacobs Foundation.

Laura : Et ensuite, vous avez créé Black Innovation Capital. Comment avez-vous eu cette idée?

Lise : Lorsque j’ai décidé de me lancer dans cette aventure avec Isaac Olowolafe pour fonder Black Innovation Capital, cela me semblait similaire au travail que j’avais fait auparavant, bien qu’il s’agisse d’un marché complètement différent. Je travaillais auprès d’une population extrêmement talentueuse qui ne reçoit pas le financement qu’elle devrait, en vue de l’aider à créer de la richesse pouvant être réinvestie au sein de leur communauté. Pour nous, avec le Black Innovation Fund, il ne s’agit pas d’une communauté en opposition à une autre, mais plutôt d’une incitation à une plus grande participation de toutes les communautés au secteur du capital de risque. Il est question de diversité et d’inclusion, et de la contribution de chacun à un meilleur système. 

Le fait que BDC soit devenue notre investisseur principal a eu une contribution importante à la création du fonds. Nous avons apprécié l’expérience et le soutien que nous avons reçus, particulièrement au niveau de l’aide apportée aux nouveaux gestionnaires de fonds. Nous avons officiellement lancé le fonds le 7 juin de cette année et sommes actuellement en train de négocier nos premiers investissements. 

Laura : Quelle est la vision de Black Innovation Capital? Qu’est-ce qui le distingue des autres fonds de capital de risque?

Lise : Nos objectifs sont de contribuer à la création d’entreprises technologiques dirigées par des Noirs, d’offrir un rendement supérieur à nos investisseurs et d’accroître la diversité dans l’écosystème du capital de risque. Globalement, notre thème principal est donc la diversité. 

Toute entreprise dans laquelle nous investissons doit comprendre au moins 25 % d’actionnariat ou de cadres dirigeants noirs et être une entreprise technologique en phase de démarrage. Nous nous attendons à ce que les équipes viennent d’horizons divers, car même au sein des communautés noires, on observe généralement des origines et des perspectives riches et diversifiées. 

“Jusqu’à présent, nous avons constaté une résilience intrinsèque au sein des entreprises que nous examinons. Beaucoup d’entre elles ont eu de la difficulté à trouver des financements et ont dû faire preuve d’une grande créativité pour en arriver là où elles en sont aujourd’hui.”

Jusqu’à présent, nous avons constaté une résilience intrinsèque au sein des entreprises que nous examinons. Beaucoup d’entre elles ont eu de la difficulté à trouver des financements et ont dû faire preuve d’une grande créativité pour en arriver là où elles en sont aujourd’hui. Nous voyons également beaucoup de produits et de services inclusifs, qui résolvent les problèmes sous différents angles et perspectives. Et c’est exactement ce que nous recherchons : des entreprises en démarrage qui font les choses différemment, qui répondent à des besoins qui ne sont pas actuellement satisfaits et qui apportent de sérieuses améliorations à des concepts déjà existants. 

Laura : Alors, le Black Innovation Capital est-il un fonds d’investissement à impact? 

Lise : Pour moi, l’investissement d’impact consiste à faire le bien tout en ayant un retour sur investissement qui soit positif. Bien que Black Innovation Capital ne soit pas à proprement parler un fonds d’impact, il a néanmoins un impact qui me tient à cœur. Je comprends ce que c’est que d’avoir l’impression de devoir travailler plus dur que les autres, de ne pas être évalué selon les mêmes critères et de ne pas avoir le droit à l’erreur. En créant des outils qui aident à la création de richesse ou à l’autonomisation en général, je rêve d’un monde où nous n’aurons pas à avoir de telles conversations avec nos enfants et où la diversité deviendra la norme. Pour moi, c’est ça le véritable impact. 

Laura : Le financement par capital de risque convient-il à tout le monde? Qu’en est-il des autres options pour les entrepreneurs noirs, comme les prêts? 

Lise : C’est formidable de voir émerger davantage de soutien pour les entrepreneurs noirs, comme le Programme de démarrage pour entrepreneur.es noir.es ou le Fonds de prêts pour l’entrepreneuriat des communautés noires. Ces deux programmes offrent un financement et un mentorat, ce qui constitue une combinaison importante pour la croissance d’une entreprise. Le choix entre un programme de ce type, l’octroi de prêts, ou l’investissement en capital de risque dépend vraiment de l’entrepreneur et de son entreprise, car les deux sont assortis de conditions différentes et répondent à des besoins différents. 

Quand notre fonds investit dans une entreprise, nous devenons actionnaires et donc un partenaire d’affaires. Nous nous rendons disponible afin que l’entrepreneur puisse nous appeler  pour obtenir de l’aide lorsqu’elle ne sait pas quelle décision prendre. Nous restons présents sur le long terme car nous sommes des partenaires de croissance et nous assumons le risque avec l’entrepreneur. 

Il est important d’obtenir des conseils pour déterminer quel est le meilleur modèle de financement pour chacun. 

Laura : Nous savons que les entrepreneurs noirs ont de la difficulté à trouver des capitaux et des modèles inspirants. Quels sont, selon vous, les facteurs à l’origine de cette situation et comment envisagez-vous d’y remédier? 

Lise : Les raisons pour lesquelles les entreprises appartenant à des Noirs obtiennent disproportionnellement moins de capitaux sont nombreuses. Il est important de reconnaître que les préjugés inconscients existent dans tous les domaines, y compris dans celui de l’investissement. Les gens ont tendance à faire confiance à des personnes et à des concepts qu’ils connaissent bien, donc ne prennent pas toujours des décisions sur la base de leurs valeurs, de leur expérience ou d’une solide analyse de rentabilité. 

Nous avons également souvent vu des programmes de mentorat qui ne sont pas assortis d’un accès au capital. Or, le succès repose sur la combinaison de ces deux éléments. Nous nous efforçons de résoudre ce problème de mentorat excessif et de sous-investissement. 

“L’objectif est de changer la perspective des jeunes générations et de leur faire voir qu’il leur est possible de faire tout ce à quoi elles aspirent.”

On observe aussi parfois un manque de sensibilisation des entrepreneurs qui ne savent pas où ni comment trouver du soutient. Les communautés d’investissement sont cloisonnées et manquent souvent de diversité. Cela peut entraîner un manque de confiance chez certains entrepreneurs noirs. Même s’ils ont une bonne idée, ils ne croient pas nécessairement qu’elle intéressera d’autres personnes. 

Ainsi, le fait qu’Isaac et moi représentions un homme noir et une femme noire à la tête de cette initiative nous positionne comme un reflet de la population qu’on souhaite servir. L’objectif est de changer la perspective des jeunes générations et de leur faire voir qu’il leur est possible de faire tout ce à quoi elles aspirent. Nous investirons dans des entreprises qui finiront par connaître un franc succès et leurs dirigeants deviendront des modèles de réussite pour leurs communautés.

Laura : Quel conseil donneriez-vous aux femmes noires entrepreneures qui sont confrontées à des obstacles liés leur sexe et à leur race?

Lise : Mon conseil est tout simplement d’oser, de se concentrer sur son objectif et de connaître sa valeur. Beaucoup de femmes noires sont audacieuses, elles n’ont pas peur d’être plus fortes et d’aller là où elles ne devraient pas être. Donc c’est de garder cet esprit car nous n’avons rien à perdre. Je crois que nous devons apprendre à nos filles à s’instruire continuellement, à ne jamais avoir peur d’exprimer une opinion si elle est fondée sur la vérité, même si elle semble impopulaire, et à saisir les possibilités qui se présentent. Ce n’est pas parce que nous avons peu de modèles de réussite qui nous ressemblent dans un certain domaine que nous devons nous imposer des limites. Finalement, ne pas oublier de soutenir les autres tout au long du chemin! 

Laura : Dans cinq ans, qu’envisagez-vous pour le Black Innovation Fund?

Lise : J’aimerais voir beaucoup d’exemples de réussite, pour les entreprises dans lesquelles nous investissons, pour nous-mêmes et, surtout, pour le secteur du capital de risque en général. Nous nous efforçons également de modifier l’optique d’investissement en formant des professionnels noirs dans le domaine de l’investissement qui travailleront dans l’écosystème du capital de risque afin de renforcer la diversité au niveau de la prise de décision. Nous espérons que cette tendance devienne la norme, à la fois dans les entreprises qui recherchent des fonds d’investissement et dans celles qui réalisent ces investissements. Dans cinq ans, j’espère voir des fonds de plus grande taille pour les initiatives dirigées par des personnes issues de communautés diverses dans le domaine du capital-investissement et du capital de risque. J’espère que 15 à 20 ans plus tard, ces fonds n’existeront plus, parce qu’ils ne seront plus nécessaires et que la diversité fera partie du quotidien.

Meet the woman at the helm of the first institutionally backed, Black-led venture fund in Canada.

Lise Birikundavyi

As Vice President, Client Diversity at BDC, Laura Didyk is leading the bank’s efforts to understand and address the challenges faced by underrepresented and underserved entrepreneurs — whether they be racialized, identify as women, identify as members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, be living with a disability, or exist within a combination of these identities. She’s sharing their journeys through conversations, and this month it’s with Lise Birikundavyi,  principal & fund manager for Black Innovation Capital.

 

In Canada, fewer than one in ten venture funds have a woman as a managing partner. Narrow that down to Black women and institutionally-backed funds, and there’s only one: Lise Birikundavyi. She is principal & fund manager for Black Innovation Capital, a $10 million VC fund that invests in Black-led tech start-ups, backed by BDC Capital, and launched in June 2021.  

Before taking the helm at Black Innovation Capital, Lise worked in finance internationally for a number of institutions. Raised in Montreal, her journey has taken her to Argentina, China, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and back to Toronto (picking up French, English, Spanish, and a bit of Mandarin along the way). Through her education and career, she’s steered her work towards social entrepreneurship and impact investing. 

Lise is a firm believer in using the forces of capital markets as a basis for the more inclusive wealth creation and sustainable poverty alleviation. I caught up with Lise to discuss her impressive journey, culminating in the recent launch of Black Innovation Capital. 

 

Laura: You’ve focused a lot of your career on finance with a social purpose. How did you get started down this path? 

Lise: It started when I was 18 and went back to Burundi for the first time — I grew up in Montreal, but I was born there. It’s a country that’s had its share of issues; poverty, civil unrest, and access to education are some of the main ones. I didn’t know what I’d find when I arrived, but I was amazed by the beauty of the country and the intellect of the people. 

One thing that really struck me is that most people’s idea of success meant working at a large institution or at an international organization. There weren’t many locally owned businesses. When I talked with people about their entrepreneurship ideas, they would always say, “you should start one,” or “you should do it.” And I kept thinking, I don’t live here, why don’t you do it? I realized that an unintended consequence of humanitarian aid was that it was weakening the entrepreneurial spirit.

“I realized that this was real empowerment — supporting the creation of role models in different societies by giving them the means to build something on their own which would then have a ripple effect in their communities.”

A few years later in Argentina, I stumbled upon the idea of social entrepreneurship. I found the book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein and began learning about microfinance. I liked the idea of doing good while building capacity and making money. I realized that this was real empowerment — supporting the creation of role models in different societies by giving them the means to build something on their own which would then have a ripple effect in their communities, without anyone feeling indebted as the financial benefit would be shared. 

Laura: I love that. I know you started out working in hedge funds, though — how did you steer your career into impact investing? 

Lise: I loved working in the hedge fund world but I knew there was something more I could be doing, I just didn’t know how to enter the development space from an empowerment perspective. A good friend started talking to me about impact investing, and I began to meet with a group of women bankers in Montreal organising regular events to talk about what it was and exploring how we could develop it in Canada. 

I decided I would try to create my own pathway in impact investing with an outlook for emerging markets. I went on to do my MBA in Shanghai with three goals: to learn Mandarin, to create a strong network, and to understand the China-Africa relationship. Everything I did there was around impact investing, and I took the opportunity to carefully craft my next steps. 

At the beginning, my focus was emerging markets with a development outlook. The goal was to make sure huge problems could be solved by empowering people to solve them, while making money for the fund I was working for at the time. 

Laura: What came next for you after Shanghai? 

Lise: I came back to North America, but when I got pregnant with my first son, I decided we should go live and work in Ghana. I had always wanted to experience living on the African continent and I assumed, naïvely, that I would get bored staying home with a baby. I was up for another adventure and wanted to continue my impact work. In Ghana, I worked supporting Engineers Without Borders, Canada. We found a community there and it was a beautiful experience. We then spent three years in Côte d’Ivoire, a country located on the south coast of West Africa, where I was managing an edtech fund for the Jacobs Foundation.

Laura: And then your next step was Black Innovation Capital. How did that come about?

Lise: When I decided to start this adventure with Isaac Olowolafe to found Black Innovation Capital, it felt similar to the work I had done in Africa — despite it being a completely different market. The fund was about economic empowerment, working with a population that is not receiving the funding it should, and wanting to help them create wealth that can be reinvested in the community. For us, it’s not about one community versus another, it’s about the greater participation of all communities in the VC space. It’s about diversity and inclusion and everyone contributing to a better system. 

Having BDC come on as our anchor investor really helped to bring the fund together; we’ve loved the experience and the support we’ve received in everything from working out the funding model to facilitating first time fund managers. We launched officially June 7 of this year, and are currently in negotiations for our first investments. 

Laura: What’s the vision for Black Innovation Capital? What sets it apart from other VC funds?

Lise: Our hope is to help build successful Black-led tech businesses, deliver returns to our investors, and increase the diversity in the venture capital ecosystem. So overall, our main theme is diversity. 

Any business we invest in must be Black-led — that’s at least 25% of ownership or executive management — and an early-stage tech company. We expect the teams will come from various backgrounds, because within Black communities you tend to see many different backgrounds and perspectives. 

“So far, what we’re finding among the companies we’re looking at is this embedded resilience. Many have had a hard time finding financing and have had to be really creative to get to where they are at now.”

So far, what we’re finding among the companies we’re looking at is this embedded resilience. Many have had a hard time finding financing and have had to be really creative to get to where they are at now. We are also seeing a lot of inclusive products and services, solving problems from different angles and perspectives. And that’s exactly what we’re looking for: start-ups that are doing things differently, addressing needs that aren’t currently being met, and bringing about serious improvements to concepts that already exist. 

Laura: So, is Black Innovation Capital an impact fund? 

Lise:  To me, impact investing is doing good while doing well — making money while creating a positive change in society. While Black Innovation Capital isn’t technically an impact fund, it does have an impact that’s very close to my heart. I understand what it is to feel like you have to work harder than the rest, that you’re not measured against the same standards and making a mistake is not an option. In creating tools that are helping with wealth creation or empowerment in general, I dream of a world where we don’t have to have these conversations with our children. Where diversity becomes the norm. To me, that’s the real impact. 

Laura: Is VC funding right for everyone? What about other options for Black entrepreneurs, like loans? 

Lise: It’s great to see more support emerging for Black entrepreneurs, such as the Black Entrepreneurship Startup Program or Black Entrepreneur Loan Fund. Both offer funding and mentorship which is an important combination for growing your business. Choosing between a program like these, extending loans, or VC investment really depends on you and your business — because both come with different terms and serve different needs. 

One of the biggest differences between venture capital and a loan is the loan is paid back on set terms. With venture capital, we mainly use equity, which means that we invest in your company and our return on investment generally depends on how well your company does, so the kind of partnership you have with a VC fund can often be a bit more hands-on. We’d expect you to call us for support when you don’t know what decision to make. We’re there for the long run, we’re partners in growth, and we really take the risk along with you. 

In any instance, what is most important is to get advice to determine what is the best financing model for you and your business. 

Laura: We know that Black entrepreneurs struggle to secure capital and find role models. What do you see as some of the issues causing this, and how do you hope to address them? 

Lise: There are many reasons Black-owned businesses aren’t getting capital. It’s important to recognize that unconscious bias exists everywhere, including in investing. People typically invest in individuals and concepts they are familiar with, not always based on their values, experience or a sound business case. 

What we often see are mentorship programs that don’t come with access to capital. To be successful, you need both. We’re trying to solve this issue of over-mentoring and under-investing. 

“From a role model perspective, it’s really nice that Isaac and I represent a Black man and a Black woman leading this initiative. The goal is to change the perspective for younger generations and make them see that it is possible for them to do whatever they decide to do.”

On the part of the entrepreneurs, there is also sometimes a lack of awareness — they don’t know where to go for help. The investment communities are siloed and often lack diversity. That can lead to a lack of confidence for some Black entrepreneurs. Even if they have a good idea, they don’t necessarily believe others will be interested in it. 

From a role model perspective, it’s really nice that Isaac and I represent a Black man and a Black woman leading this initiative. The goal is to change the perspective for younger generations and make them see that it is possible for them to do whatever they decide to do. We will be investing in companies that will eventually create massive success stories, and those leaders will become models of success as well.

Laura: What’s your advice for Black women entrepreneurs, who face barriers both because of their gender and their race?

Lise: My advice is simply to be daring, laser-focused, and know your value. A lot of Black women are actually fearless, not afraid to be louder and go where they should not be. Many feel they have nothing to lose. I want us to teach our daughters to educate themselves, to never be afraid to express an opinion if rooted in truth, even when it seems unpopular, and to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Just because we haven’t seen many others who look like us be successful in a certain field, it doesn’t mean we should put limits on ourselves. And, be sure to support others along the way! 

Laura: In five years from now, what do you envision for the Black Innovation Fund?

Lise: I’d like to see a lot of success stories, for the companies we invest in, for ourselves, and as importantly for the VC space in general. We’re also working to shift the investing lens by training Black investment managers who will be placed in the VC ecosystem to help create more diversity at the decision making level. We hope for that to be the norm — more diversity not only in the companies seeking investment dollars but in those making the investments. In five years, my hope is to see larger size funds for Black-led or BIPOC-led initiatives in the private equity and venture capital space. In 15-20 years, I hope they no longer exist because they won’t be needed anymore — that diversity will be business as usual.

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 Siobhan McManus: the Women’s Entrepreneur and Client Diversity Champion at BDC

Siobhan McManus

Siobhan joined the Business Development Bank of Canada (also known as BDC), the only Bank devoted exclusively to entrepreneurs, 5 years ago, after working with a large commercial chartered bank, and spending time in healthcare philanthropy. She leverages her expertise to journey alongside entrepreneurs throughout all stages of the business cycle. She has worked across a diverse spectrum of industries and with businesses of all sizes, as a partner, to help them access the financing and advice they need to succeed. She is proud to support entrepreneurs through her leadership as a Client Diversity Champion, and B Corp (Beneficial Corporation) Champion. Supporting BDC’s national Client Diversity and Inclusion strategy, Siobhan works closely with Women Entrepreneurs to equip them with the resources and the tools they need to thrive, understanding the unique challenges they face, and the incredible strengths they possess.

 

My first job ever was…. I founded and operated a small commercial office cleaning business when I was a teenager. 

The best part of my role at BDC is… Seeing our clients succeed and being a partner in that success. Our mandate is impact, and we have incredible resources to help our clients reach their potential.

My proudest accomplishment is… A career path with positive impact, fundraising millions of dollars as a volunteer and professional, cycling across Canada in 2010, and running as a semi-elite athlete in the 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

I surprise people when I tell them… I don’t like bacon. 

My best advice from a mentor was… Run your race; this applies to all areas of life!

My best advice to women entrepreneurs is… Understand your finances and ask for help. Everyone wants to support your success!

The best lesson I’ve learned from women entrepreneurs is… Balancing risk and reward. 

My biggest setback was… Not making a career move sooner.

I overcame it by…Being more courageous, taking more risks, and always putting my hand up and name forward for opportunities to grow and help others!

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Slowing down to enjoy the moment.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Read, more.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I love to travel! Seeing new places and experiencing new cultures is a privilege that I am fortunate to experience.

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Ask for help. You cannot know everything and there is no need to re-invent the wheel; you’ll be surprised to find that your challenges are not unique, and there are lots of great solutions!

I stay inspired by… Being witness to the incredible resiliency of entrepreneurs.

The future excites me because… Consumers are increasingly voting with their dollars and want to support diverse, innovative and ethical companies. I’m excited to see this new appetite foster diversity, inclusion, and ethical commerce!

My next step is… To continue to support entrepreneurs with BDC’s diversity and inclusion mandate so that our Canadian economy is truly reflective of the diverse and rich fabric of our Country.

 

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 Jennifer So, responsible investing expert.

Jennifer So

Jennifer So is a Portfolio Manager with BMO and has been a member of the BMO Asset Management Inc. team since September of 2015. In addition to her work as a Portfolio Manager, Jennifer is a specialist in Responsible Investing with an emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. Jennifer also has knowledge of Investment Banking, Research, Institutional Sales, and seven years of experience as a Chartered Accountant, contributing to her robust knowledge of and experience with finance and banking.

 

My first job ever was… delivering newspapers. 

The thing I enjoy most about being a Portfolio Manager is… no day is the same, I’m constantly learning, working with a smart team, and finding companies that can create long term shareholder value. 

The best advice I received from a mentor was… develop your ability to communicate — written and verbal. Be succinct, combine numbers with a compelling narrative, and be confident. What is the point you want to convey? What is the action item for people to take away?

Investing with the intent to make a positive impact is important because… finding companies that are making a positive impact translates into opportunities for growth, which will translate into better financial performance and address the many sustainability challenges around us.

I would tell my 20-year old self… the key to success is to find a “sponsor.” This is different from a mentor. A sponsor, or, even better, sponsors is someone within your organization that is senior to you and will basically say nice things about you behind your back. They will put your name forward at promotion time, for new projects, and help support your initiatives. The really hard part is finding a sponsor, and often, each time why a sponsor takes a shine to you is different.

“Finally, governments, society, and capital allocators are working together to address the transition to a lower carbon economy and important social justice issues. We can all make a difference.”

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… good habits — they are the compound interest of self-improvement. Many people know that compounding interest (if not, Google it ASAP) builds long term wealth.  

Small choices like a salad over burger, calling the client instead of leaving early, or volunteering for extra assignments doesn’t seem to matter much at the moment. But, as days turn to weeks, those tiny repeatable choices compound. These habits build your skill set and open doors in the future you never imagined.

The one piece of advice I would give someone who is starting to invest is… do your homework, read or listen (e.g., podcasts) to lots of different investors to see what style suits you. You need to have a passion for this business or you won’t last.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I am reliving my childhood through the lens of my two sons (8 and 10 years old). I’ve learned to skateboard (kinda), and play Dungeons and Dragons. I am a level 5 elf magic user.

The future excites me because… finally, governments, society, and capital allocators (the Paris agreement, carbon taxes, Greta Thunberg, ESG funds) are working together to address the transition to a lower carbon economy and important social justice issues. We can all make a difference.

Meet Caroline Dabu, Head of BMO Wealth Distribution and Advisory Services.

Caroline Dabu

Caroline Dabu is a strategic marketer, communicator, and Head of BMO Wealth Distribution and Advisory Services. After earning her journalism degree and working for various publications, Caroline transitioned out of journalism to work in Communications in the Financial Services sector. Since joining BMO Nesbitt Burns in 2000 as the Head of Marketing, Caroline has held various leadership roles in Marketing and Client Strategy, and established BMO’s Enterprise Wealth Planning team in 2012. Today, Caroline is responsible for guiding a team of people that provide wealth planning, estate, and advisory services for BMO wealth clients.

 

My first job was… an intern cub reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press. I think I got paid by each word I wrote!

I chose my career path because… I became fascinated by the impact financial decisions can make. After graduating from Journalism School at Carleton University, I worked at Financial Post Magazine and it was such a rush working at the magazine, and in particular, learning more about personal finance. After that experience, I wanted to be in a position to be able to communicate how meaningful of an impact financial decisions have in people’s lives. Taking a communications role at a bank was a pivotal moment that set me on my career path. 

My boldest personal or professional move to date was… to move out of my comfort zone around Marketing and Communications. I moved out of a senior role in Marketing and Communications ten years ago for an opportunity to build up the retirement, financial, and wealth planning area of BMO. It was a risk because I didn’t go to business school, and my career to date had been focused on being a strategic Marketer and Communicator. This role was developing a strategy that not all our businesses bought into at the time, and its value was not well understood. It tested me as a leader in many ways and starting up in a new area required evolving and learning well outside of my comfort areas. This move has broadened my leadership and helped me tackle additional opportunities and challenges in my career. 

The thing I love most about my role as Head, Wealth Distribution & Advisory Services is… working with an incredible team of professionals who are passionate about what they do and the direct impact they can have on helping individuals, families, and businesses achieve their goals and dreams for the future and be prepared for some of the challenges that may come along the way. Our team provides wealth, tax, estate, business advisory, philanthropy and insurance planning, and not a week goes by where I don’t hear about the meaningful difference they are making for BMO Wealth clients and their families. 

Having a wealth management plan is important because… together with your advisor, it helps you identify and get specific around your wants, needs, and goals and helps you stay the course. A plan helps you prioritize what is truly important and gives you the confidence to stay focused even when there are things happening in the short term that can veer you off path. A wealth management plan also gives you the ability to thread all the different aspects of your financial picture together, rather than in disparate pieces.

“The best piece of advice I would give to someone who wants to use their wealth to make a positive impact is to think about how they want to give “meaning” to their wealth, what they are passionate about supporting, and then speaking to an advisor about how to do this strategically.”

One misconception about wealth management is… that it’s intimidating and that it’s not accessible. Wealth management is really about having a comprehensive view of your financial goals and managing how you will achieve them — whether you are a young family with goals to save for your kids’ education, a professional early in your career just starting to make some investments, or if you have a family business and want to plan for your business to be passed on to the next generation. If you’ve got a goal, you need wealth management — whether that means working with a financial planner or a Wealth Advisor.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… being open to feedback and being willing to evolve — this attitude opens up so many more pathways and doors. And embracing every opportunity to learn. (Ok, that’s 3 things!) 

The first thing I would suggest to someone that wants to set financial goals is… categorize your needs, your wants and your wishes — and be specific about them. This will help you prioritize and set a realistic plan. Your needs are what you need to make sure is fully funded, full stop. Then, you can plan for your “wants or must-haves.” Your wishes are your “nice-to-haves” after you can fund the first two buckets.  

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I never saw being a hockey mom in my future! 

The best piece of advice I would give to someone who wants to use their wealth to make a positive impact is… to think about how they want to give “meaning” to their wealth, what they are passionate about supporting, and then speaking to an advisor about how to do this strategically.

I stay inspired by… tackling at least one new personal challenge every year that takes me out of my comfort zone. 

The future excites me because… technology in financial services is accelerating in such a way that we’ll see the convergence of the power of human advice with digital to make personal finance and wealth management even more engaging, easier, and collaborative.

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.

This executive is committed to environmental change with the BMO Climate Institute.

Sharon Haward Laird

Sharon Haward-Laird, General Counsel and Executive Committee Lead for Sustainability at BMO Financial Group, shares how BMO is leveraging their commitment to sustainability with its new platform, the BMO Climate Institute.

 

By Shelley White

 

As the world races to transition to net zero emissions, every one of us has a role to play, says Sharon Haward-Laird, General Counsel of BMO Financial Group. 

Financial institutions will be a crucial part of the solution, she adds, particularly when it comes to the significant task of financing the development of clean and renewable energy sources.

“There will be a significant amount of financing required for the scale of the transition that needs to happen,” says Sharon, who championed BMO’s recent statement of its climate ambition: to be their clients’ lead partner in the transition to a net zero world. “It’s trillions of dollars a year, from a global perspective. Government alone is not going to be able to do that.” 

Aligned with BMO’s long-standing commitment to sustainability and support of the Paris Agreement, the bank recently launched an industry-leading platform for change, the BMO Climate Institute. This virtual hub will bring together science, analytics, expertise and partners to understand the financial risks and opportunities related to climate change and transition, for the bank’s clients and the bank itself. 

BMO promotes sustainability through lending, investing, underwriting and advising companies on sustainability strategies, Sharon explained, and the BMO Climate Institute will be a key resource and source of expert advice for BMO’s clients. 

The inspiration for the BMO Climate Institute is the concept of convening stakeholders, leading information and best practices at the intersection of climate adaptation and finance, driving thought leadership and providing best practices for clients. 

“The mission of the BMO Climate Institute makes it clear that our climate ambition isn’t about BMO, it’s about our clients,” Sharon says. “It’s about creating a space where all stakeholders — BMO, clients, experts in the field, academics, government regulators — can come together and help solve the complex problems presented by the transition to a net zero world, and the opportunities that it creates for our clients to play leading roles in it.” 

Sharon notes that BMO’s purpose is to “boldly grow the good in business and life.” It’s a philosophy the company takes seriously, she says. 

“When we have experience actively participating in the transition to a net zero world in our own operations, it’s easier for us to act as our client’s advisor in making their own transition — because you learn as you go.”

BMO was one of the first major banks to sign the UN Principles for Responsible Banking, and the bank is committed to aligning its business strategy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. BMO is a pioneer in sustainable finance, recently announcing its goal to more than double its sustainable finance commitment, deploying $300-billion in green, social and sustainable lending, underwriting, advisory services, and investment by 2025. 

BMO also is dedicated to finding innovative ways to minimize the environmental impact of its own operations. Proudly carbon neutral since 2010, in 2020 BMO reached its goal to match 100 per cent of its global electricity use with electricity produced from renewable sources. Now, through operational efficiency improvements and building upgrades, BMO has set a new science-based target to reduce operational greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. 

These actions aren’t just important because every company needs to do its part, Sharon says. They also position the bank to share expertise and best practices with clients. 

“When we have experience actively participating in the transition to a net zero world in our own operations, it’s easier for us to act as our client’s advisor in making their own transition — because you learn as you go,” she says. “What worked well? What could you have done differently? We can connect with clients that may be at an earlier stage in their transition and support them with the benefit of our experience.”

While the conversation around the transition to a net zero world and the development of clean energy sources often revolves around the costs and challenges of this process, Sharon points out that it’s important to remember the vast opportunities that exist as well.

Sharon notes there are two major categories of how climate will affect the economy and the business world. On the one hand, there are the costs associated with a transition to a net zero world and development of clean energy. On the other, there are the physical risks of climate change, and that’s another major priority for the BMO Climate Institute. 

A new climate analytics lab, built by BMO’s Sustainability team and BMO Enterprise Artificial Intelligence (AI) Labs with external partners, will enable the bank to analyze climate-related risks and opportunities facing the financial sector and key client industries. The platform leverages geospatial data and scientific modelling to generate actionable insights — all in service to clients, Sharon says.

“It allows us to analyze all kinds of different physical hazards, both today and in the future, based on different climate scenarios,” she explains. “Things like wildfires, extreme weather events, coastal flooding — we’re able to model these with geospatial data and satellites. We built this platform for analysis of our own assets, and we want to use it to have value-added conversations with clients about the types of challenges they’re facing too.”

“I don’t want to leave a world for my kids and grandkids that’s a mess for them to clean up. I think we have a responsibility not to push the problem out into the future to be resolved by somebody else.”

One tangible example is around the effects of climate change on real estate. Sharon says that the analytics lab is also working on capabilities to model the transition to clean energy, in order to understand the economic impacts for different sectors. 

“What will the decarbonization pathways look like? Where are we now and where are we going to end up?” she says. “And for individual clients, how much will that cost and what are optimal investment structures?”

BMO’s sustainability team is developing capabilities to do this kind of modelling, and are exploring a variety of different tools and methodologies. As data availability becomes more widespread and data quality continues to increase, the opportunities will increase exponentially, she adds.

“This isn’t a two-year thing. The transition to a net zero world is going to take a considerable amount of time,” she says. “There’s a huge opportunity here for us to grow with our clients, and we want to make sure that we’re experimenting with different analytical tools in the meantime.” 

As the mother of young adults, Sharon says her children’s passion about climate change is one of the things that has inspired her in her role in BMO’s sustainability work.

“I have three kids and I’m not a grandmother yet. But when you think of the urgency of the transition that must happen by 2050, and the concrete steps that need to be taken now, I don’t want to leave a world for my kids and grandkids that’s a mess for them to clean up,” she says. “I think we have a responsibility not to push the problem out into the future to be resolved by somebody else.”

Transforming the world into a place where clean energy is the norm will take the work of many generations, she says.

“But I think we have the chance now to really get the work started.”

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.”

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

Erica Wiebe

By Hailey Eisen 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherri Pierce owns her voice to make a positive impact on others.

Sherri Pierce

by Shelley White

 

Sherri Pierce remembers the first time she understood the positive impact she could have on others, just by being herself.

She was at an awards gala run by Out on Bay Street (now called Start Proud), an organization that facilitates the professional development of LGBTQ2S+ students as they transition from school to career. Sherri was there with her Scotiabank colleagues, and they were being approached by young people attending the event who had questions about opportunities in the financial industry.  

“I remember very distinctly one girl tapping me on the shoulder and asking, ‘Hey, what company are you with?’ I said, ‘I’m with Scotiabank, I work as a manager there.’ And she said, ‘I didn’t think I would show up to an event like this and see myself in someone in the professional world,’” recalls Sherri, Manager, Operational Effectiveness at Scotiabank.

“That really took me by surprise. I thought I was just coming to a nice dinner. But just by showing up, I had affected someone’s life. It was really eye-opening for me,” Sherri says. “It’s not just about me and the people who have come before me. It’s about the people who come after.” 

It wasn’t long ago that Sherri was a student herself. Growing up in Brampton, she initially thought she would pursue a career as a lawyer. But she was also attracted to the financial industry, and upon graduation from the University of Toronto, “I walked around the downtown core, handing out my resume to a bunch of financial institutions,” she says. “Scotiabank welcomed me in. So here I am, eight years later.” 

“I was surrounded by a community of people who were from different walks of life, but we had something in common.”

In her role, Sherri works in the Business Service Centre where she provides a breadth of services for business banking clients. She says she loves her job because no two days are the same. 

“Because it’s project-based, I’m always working on different things with different departments — commercial banking, regulatory, audit. I also get a lot of exposure at the VP and director level, so it’s definitely the perfect career-building role,” she says. 

Sherri says her experiences as an out gay woman in the financial industry have been positive, especially once she joined Scotiabank’s Pride Employee Resource Group (ERG). 

“I always felt very supported, and I think that support really took off when I joined the ERG, because then I was surrounded by a community of people who were from different walks of life, but we had something in common,” she says. “It’s a safe space. It’s a place where you can go to ask questions of our experienced leaders.”

Now, Sherri has taken on a role of co-chair of the Toronto chapter of the Pride ERG, feeling it’s her turn to “carry the baton a little ways further for the next person.” 

She also recently enrolled in a program through Pride at Work Canada, an organization that helps employers build workplaces that celebrate all employees regardless of gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation. THRIVE is a four-month virtual program to develop the next generation of queer and trans managers through virtual learning modules and mentorship.

Through THRIVE, Sherri was paired with Val Walls, Director of Sales Effectiveness at Scotiabank, and Sherri says the conversations they’ve had have been invaluable for her career development. 

“The program has really forced me to think about my future and not just come to work and think about what I had to do that day,” she says. “I’ve seen the growth, I’ve learned so much, and it’s only been four months.” 

“In being more me, I’ve been able to find a sense of confidence to speak up more, to not be so worried about what other people think.”

Sherri says her own coming out six years ago was “tough,” especially because she had to do it a number of times. 

“It was definitely difficult, building up the courage to come out to my friends from university, the girls that I play basketball with and wondering, how are they going to react? It’s the fear of the unknown,” she says. “Then, coming out to my parents, the fear of disappointing them. And my big brother. It was a stressful and scary time.” 

For the most part, Sherri says coming out “went okay.” She did receive the support that she needed, though it took some people a little longer than others to come around. 

“Now, I’m in a place where I’m unapologetically gay, it’s who I am. I’ll show up with my suit and tie, I’m not trying to fit a mold or wear a skirt or heels, that’s just not me,” she says. “And in being more me, I’ve been able to find a sense of confidence to speak up more, to not be so worried about what other people think.”

Sherri says that the Pride festivities that come around each June always mean a lot to her. Going to Pride for the first time in Toronto’s gay village neighbourhood felt like “the unshackling of myself,” she says. 

“I remember the first time walking down College Street and then turning down Church Street and it was like the air changed. Everyone was having the greatest time just being themselves. It was freedom.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pride Toronto 2021 will be a virtual celebration, and Sherri anticipates that the Scotiabank Pride ERG will take part in the Virtual Parade as they did last year. The rest of the day will be enjoyed at home with family, she says.  

“You have a seat at the table for a reason. So, use your voice and stand up and speak. Be heard, be seen, be you.” 

Though Pride is a meaningful and celebratory time for the LGBTQ2S+ community, Sherri points out that it’s also important for organizations to take the lead year-round in creating an environment that is safe, inclusive, and where people feel they belong. She says one of the best ways for people to be allies in the workplace is for those with privilege to use their platforms to support their colleagues in the queer and trans community.

“Use your platforms to stand up for them, stand beside them, or stand behind them, to support them in some way,” she says.  

As for LGBTQ2S+ people looking to advance in their careers, Sherri has this advice: own your seat in the room.

“You have a seat at the table for a reason,” she says. “So, use your voice and stand up and speak. Be heard, be seen, be you. 

Sherri says the idea of “owning your voice” is something that she’s learned and developed, especially over the last four months in the THRIVE program. 

“I’ve always been a shy, slightly reserved person, and I’ve been encouraged by my mentor, Val, and my senior leadership to speak up,” she says. “Now, I’m able to lead meetings on my own, and that’s because I’m owning my voice and really speaking up on behalf of what I believe in.”

Sherri says she hopes to take on even more active leadership roles in future, so she can pass along her confidence and her knowledge to the next generation.

“That’s what I have in the back of my mind,” she says. “How am I going to influence who comes next?”

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.”

Meet Stephanie Peltier: Indigenous advocate and behind-the-scenes support for her daughter, Autumn Peltier.

Stephanie Peltier

In 2019, we introduced our WOI Community to Top 25 Award recipient Autumn Peltier, a teenage water activist from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, and the chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation. Autumn’s advocacy for water protection started when she was just eight years old — and she’s been guided and supported throughout this journey by her mother, Stephanie Peltier. We asked Stephanie about her own role in advocacy, and how she’s helping Autumn navigate a growing spotlight on a global stage — while managing to keep grounded, and give a normal teenagehood to her three girls.

 

When I first became interested in advocacy… I was a young woman myself, 16, when I learned about advocacy. I grew up knowing and understanding our rights as Indigenous peoples and having role models such as Buffy Sainte Marie, Jenette Laval Corbiere and my aunt Josephine Mandamin. I was always fascinated how Indigenous women can be so strong and fearless and I always said to myself I hope one day I will be like them. I always attended traditional ceremonies, gatherings and protests because I always knew from a young age that one day I would be a mother and a grandmother. I always wanted to be the kind of grandma my grandkids could come to for help and guidance and to learn cool things. I also wanted to carry on our ways and traditions. From a young age I made it my personal mission to learn our ways from our knowledge keepers because I didn’t want us to lose our teachings and our way of life.  I never imagined that doing this would result in raising a world famous young advocate.  

My proudest accomplishment is… Being a healthy, strong, independent single mother. I think the biggest role as women we can ever be is mothers. There is no other honor in being chosen by your children to be their parent. It is also a whole different kind of strength and determination because all mothers want the best for their children and we do whatever we can to make sure our children experience life and succeed.

I think the belief I have in our spiritual ways is what carried me through all the struggles and hardships a mom can experience as a single parent. There were days when I felt I couldn’t do it, or worried about how to pay the rent, or where to get food, but at the end of the day we never went without. There were many struggles, but I always tried to stay positive, I allowed myself to cry and to feel, and knew things would turn out okay. 

I try not to be overly proud of my accomplishments as a parent and a woman. When I look at my daughters and see who they are and what they do today, it is my biggest and most proudest accomplishment. When I meet young moms, I always try to empower them to be resourceful and reach out for help and to know that there are services out there we can access to help us. I met amazing people in Big Sisters, the Aboriginal Health Access Centers, the Indian Friendship Centers, Aboriginal Head Start programs, day care subsidy programs, food banks, domestic violence shelters, and counsellors.

I surprise people when I tell them… usually my age, then that I am ‘Autumn’s mom.’  I was always taught to look after myself, never leave the house looking messy, wrinkled clothing, or unkept. Always take the time to comb your hair and brush your teeth and be color coordinated.  So I learned at a young age to take care of my physical appearance and be as healthy as you can be.  

When I travel with my daughter Autumn, I will sometimes be asked, “and who might you be?”  My response is “I am Autumn’s mom.” Many people know me as Autumn’s mom — I sometimes will say my name is “Stephanie” (LOL). It’s nice to be acknowledged because a big part of me has been mentoring her from the beginning.  

As a mother I hope to teach my girls… That giving up was never an option, that being a mother it gives you almost like a super power. It’s a strength only a mother would know.  When you’re so tired or so stressed or so upset, it takes a lot of strength to say with a smile, “Everything is okay, mummy loves you, everything will be okay.” Even when it feels like the world is crashing down around you. 

What always gives me hope is the stories of all the women’s umbilical cords I come from. We didn’t come from money, we came from hard work and survival. Every day was about surviving until the end of the day, the week, the month or year. Each season had to do with planting, nurturing, harvesting and preserving. It was knowing the land and animals. It was understanding if a harsh winter is coming, hauling water and travelling with no cars, having no electricity and all the necessities we have access to today. I often reflect and share the stories of how things were before me. How I came from women who worked hard and they planned for every situation. So I teach them to learn how to work hard for what you need and want. How to be independent and how there was no try, we keep going. I teach them that we can multi-task and women are capable of many things.  

I will often share with them the teachings I got from some pretty amazing women in my life about how to be a woman and what my role will be. Some of those women are not here anymore and a handful are, and when I say my daily prayers I acknowledge all those aunties and helpers I had, because without them I would not be here and would not have been the woman I am today or mother I am today.

My mother taught me… She taught me strength. My mother passed away only five months ago. This will be my first Mother’s Day without my mom. Until her last days she kept going. She could barely walk and at times I physically carried her and it reminded me of the book by Robert Munsch, Love you Forever. Her ending was very much that same way. It hurt me to have to carry her in and out of my vehicle and buckle her up. It hurt me to see her try to walk up and down stairs. My cutest memory was of her and I sliding down the stairs of my house because it hurt her to walk. She laughed as we slid down and she said, “Oh this is as fun as it looks.” 

Our last road trip we saw two moose. It was a large moose and we didn’t see the smaller one.  When the small one appeared and the mom moose kissed the baby moose, she simply said, “We couldn’t see the moose, like it was a part of her, then she appeared, like you and me.”  She said that is “you and me.” In her pain and her struggle, she smiled and always kept her thoughts positive. She made me see that we can’t change people but we can change ourselves and our moments. In her moments of despair, she still smiled and was at peace. When I have a pain, I smile and I keep going. She also showed me that we should not ignore our pains and ask for help, to set our pride aside. I guess we call that humility. She also did show me we are capable of forgiveness and everlasting love.

My biggest setback was… always working. I rarely got child support and I didn’t complain about it. I just figured that one day those who aren’t as responsible will realize it and my current responsibility was to provide. So I have always worked to give my kids a life where they didn’t have to worry so much and see struggle. So time with my kids as a mother, time with my own mother before she passed and time with my dad. Time is a precious thing and I learned that it was never about how much time we have, it is about what we do with the time we have. Make the best out of the time, even if it is short.  

I overcame it by… Picking myself up and dusting myself off. I came up with this plan with my kids. I always said because I’m not always there all day because I work, let’s try to make sure we make the best out of our time. So I said we will try to make it as fun as we can. So for our day we will try to have a checklist. One fun thing, one memorable thing, one silly thing, and make sure we tell each other we love each other and hug each other.  

The challenge we must work together to overcome is… Working as a team and figuring out a way to make things work. Making time to do loving things together. We also make time to bake cookies, cupcakes or biscuits, this has been fun for us. Also to be conscious of the hours we have together and do what we have to do. We also dance a lot — dancing is fun and we can do this anywhere. Ask the kids, sometimes I embarrass them, but this is also my time to be memorable and silly.

My advice for aspiring activists is… Just do it and if you have an idea, go with it. Follow your heart and trust your spirit. Whatever is calling you, follow it and just move forward.

I stay inspired by… Listening to the elders and the ones who have gone before us. Being grounded by grassroots people and things is what keeps me going. Hearing the stories and being there in the present and experiencing what people are going through and standing up for.

The future excites me because… You never know what is around the corner, but you dig your heels into the ground and be ready. If you’re somewhat prepared, you’re grounded and ready to have fun with what is ahead of you. Also allow yourself to have fun and be open for change.

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 Akosua Bonsu, policy and program analyst, activist, and award-winner.

Akosua Bonsu

At 26 years old, Akosua Bonsu is already well accomplished. A policy and program analyst with the Government of Manitoba, her interest in political economy was sparked when she was selected to represent Canada on an international trade mission to southeast Asia — the only Black person of the 30 people picked. Shocked — but not surprised — by this, her extracurricular activities now revolve around empowering Black youth to reach their true potential.

Akosua’s ambition and leadership have won her several awards, including YMCA-YWCA Young Woman of Distinction, University of Manitoba Emerging Leader, CBC Manitoba Future 40 Under 40, and one of 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women for 2020. She remains unstoppable in increasing representation of Black people in political and economic spheres.

 

My first job ever was… Working as a server at a Winnipeg ice cream shop!

I decided to work in the civil service because… I studied global political economy in university and have always been interested in the intersectionality of politics, economics, and health. Working as a policy analyst allows me to take a closer look at how laws and economic decisions affect citizens while exploring their effects on Manitobans’ social determinants of health (access to housing and income distribution, for example).

My proudest accomplishment is… Tough to pick just one! First on the list is being selected to represent Canada on a variety of overseas missions. In 2013, I was selected from hundreds of applicants to represent Canada on an international trade mission to southeast Asia. The goals of the mission were, in part, to strengthen Canada’s relations with the host countries and provide young adults with hands-on experience in international relations and diplomacy. Most recently, I was selected to attend the World Youth Forum in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, which gave me the opportunity to debate issues of global importance, engage with top policymakers, and recommend initiatives to decision-makers and influential figures. A close second is being recognized as one of the top 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women for 2020!

My boldest move to date was… Taking the time to focus on myself, which may seem like a strange thing to consider a ‘bold move’. I have always been quick to put others before myself, but in early 2019 I found myself unemployed, single, and feeling truly unmotivated to pursue personal goals. After hitting rock bottom, something within me clicked: I needed to take charge of my life and ask, ‘what’s stopping me from achieving my goals?’. This simple question began an ongoing quest to intentionally encourage personal development — both in myself and in others. Of course, helping people remains a priority for me, but you cannot pour from an empty cup. I am now learning the violin, obtained my level 1 sailing certification, and have visited four of the seven wonders of the world. We women are stronger and more capable than we give ourselves credit for! 

I surprise people when I tell them… I love to grow my own food! During the summer, one can find tomatoes, cherries, and cucumbers in my garden.

My best advice to people starting out in their career is… There is an opportunity to learn in every situation. What might first be perceived as a failure or a setback may be teaching you the skills you need to succeed later on.

My biggest setback was… My self-doubt. Throughout my early twenties, I could not bring myself to believe I was capable of achieving my dreams. I saw any form of rejection as validation of my (perceived) low self-worth. My mentality was not one that inspired strength, success, or confidence.

I overcame it by… Changing my mindset. Asking myself ‘what’s stopping me?’ forced me to contemplate the reasons I had fabricated as to why I could not do something. Instead of telling myself, ‘I can’t do that because I’m not smart enough’ or ‘because they would never pick someone like me’, I approached new opportunities thinking, ‘okay, if I truly can’t do this, why not? What can I do to address that?’. It took time, but developing this outlook has given me the confidence to pursue my goals with my best foot forward.

The best thing about being a policy analyst is… Knowing my work makes a difference in the lives of Manitobans.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Exercise more! I am a busy woman and often have a lot on the go. Though I like to be active, exercising is unfortunately one of the first things that falls off my agenda.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I do not watch much television, but I love game shows. My favourites include The Chase, 1 vs. 100, and Weakest Link.

The one thing I wish I knew when starting my career is… How tough it would be to establish myself. As a young university graduate, I was often competing with seasoned civil servants for job positions. Once I was hired, it took me some time to find my footing — feeling comfortable with asking questions, voicing my opinions, and so on. Being Black and female in this field was also not far from my mind. In short, I didn’t anticipate how difficult the process would be, but it taught me a lot about myself.

I stay inspired by… Leaning into my faith, primarily. I also think about the young people who are coming up behind me, especially young Black women who do not frequently see themselves represented in some of the spheres I’m in.

The future excites me because… As a society, we continue to push the boundaries of innovation. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned almost every aspect of life upside down, yet we have been able to do the once impossible: vaccines were developed over months instead of years, once rigid work arrangements are now more flexible, and we continue to adopt innovative ways of staying connected while staying apart. The COVID-19 situation is an ever-evolving one, but our capacity to affect change remains limitless.

My next step is… To blend my experience in policy development with my love of medicine and health. The emergence of the novel coronavirus and the unprecedented global response have both highlighted the importance of health-informed policies well before any pandemic is declared. By connecting the two disciplines, I hope my work can one day impact Canada’s preparedness for future pandemics.

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

Roxane Ducasse

By Hailey Eisen 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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