Thembi Bheka is on a mission to empower one million women by 2025.
“Our studies have shown that if you empower one woman, they, in turn, empower those around them,” Thembi says. “And the best way to eliminate and reduce poverty is not just to educate, it’s to empower. With hard work, we will reach this goal.”
The “we” Thembi refers to is the team she’s built as the founder of Digital Marketing on Demand (DMOD), a unique organization that seeks to connect talent from developing countries with global work opportunities, specifically in the digital marketing space.
A service provider can reach out to DMOD for assistance on any number of needs, including creating high-converting landing pages to managing website updates. An assessment of the company’s needs are performed at the outset by DMOD, and the specific task is then assigned to a team member with the right set of skills to deliver the project on time and on budget. All of this is done virtually by someone in the developing world, mostly Africa.
To date, more than 4,200 services have been completed by the company’s team members.
“These women didn’t have the confidence to search for or apply to jobs, even after extensive education, so I thought, ‘I’ll connect them with opportunities.’”
The idea for DMOD came to Thembi after she immigrated to Canada as a refugee. Originally from Zimbabwe, she fled an emotionally and mentally abusive relationship, eventually settling in Montréal with her daughter. Though she studied and worked as a registered nurse, she continually felt the pull toward entrepreneurial opportunities. She dipped her toe into the entrepreneurial world as a real estate investor and even founded a course, Real Estate Real Riches, that taught women how to invest in housing. As her real estate business grew, she found herself in need of assistant-level help, and instead of hiring in-person, she turned to a virtual assistant (VA) in Kenya for help.
“At the time, no one knew what a VA was or what they did,” she says. “I found mine on Upwork and eventually returned to Zimbabwe, realizing there was an opportunity to train people to be VAs. I started to meet incredible women — lawyers, doctors — who were all unemployed and in abusive relationships, similar to my situation before I left for Canada.”
She adds: “These women didn’t have the confidence to search for or apply to jobs, even after extensive education, so I thought, ‘I’ll connect them with opportunities.’”
That’s how DMOD was born. Today, Thembi and her team have been recognized for the work they’re doing by a number of high-profile organizations, including Stanford’s Seed Transformation Program. Thembi was also selected as a Coralus (formerly SheEO) Venture in 2021, giving her access to the financial support and coaching needed to expand her business.
“I have a podcast where I interview women entrepreneurs, and one of my speakers asked me whether I had heard of SheEO and convinced me to apply,” Thembi says. “Until then I had been bootstrapping my business. I had even started to sell my real estate holdings to accelerate the growth of DMOD. Being selected as a SheEO venture not only gave me the funding I needed to build my business, but it also connected me with a community.”
That community, she says, is something she leans on regularly for support when facing challenges in her business, joking, “your friends don’t want to hear about that employee issue you have, but like-minded leaders do.”
“When you do what inspires you, you can empower people. That can help them better themselves and rise above any situation they face.”
The funding was also valuable because, as an immigrant, Thembi says she found it hard to access funding through traditional means.
“When you’ve been in Canada for a long time, you’ve learned the system, like what a credit score is or even how to register a company. Most people don’t live in cultures where business is done like it is in Canada or North America. Education is key.”
She says that until she joined SheEO, she didn’t even know that she had to pay herself a salary. “There needs to be more and greater educational supports to help immigrants and refugees learn certain systems so they can succeed.”
That’s also one of her lasting messages for women who want to dip their toes into entrepreneurial life: get educated.
“I didn’t have a business background, nobody taught me how to be a businessperson. I’ve had to learn as I’ve grown. I’ve struggled with management and leadership. I’m not a born leader, but I’m now mentoring people,” she says. “Just do it. Don’t wait. There are so many things I waited on. I look back and think about having been able to do stuff. Whatever you want to do, just do it.”
And most importantly, do something that inspires you.
“When you do what inspires you, you can empower people. That can help them better themselves and rise above any situation they face.”
Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland is an award-winning multidisciplinary innovator, educator, artist, and activist. She is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Women Invested to Save Earth Fund (WISE), an organization that facilitates a network and connects donors and social financiers to underfunded activists, technological innovators and other stakeholders invested in finding solutions to the environmental crisis. In addition to her work with WISE, Dr. Copeland has also founded Black Philanthropy Month, an initiative dedicated to celebrating and raising awareness around Black giving and philanthropic efforts. Recognized as a HistoryMaker and included in the Congressional Record for her civic contributions, Dr. Copeland has been working in the social and environmental justice space for 40 years, with her work efforts reaching at least 20 million people.
My first job ever was…My very first job was as an administrative assistant with the Navy in the Naval Aviation Engineering Services Unit at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, specifically in its Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance Unit. It was a great introduction to the good, bad, and ugly of the work world, and it was part of the Mayor’s summer youth employment program.
I became interested in pursuing social and environmental justice as part of my work because… I lived through many injustices starting in childhood. I always wanted to do what I could so that people in my community, the nation, and the world did not have to suffer these same challenges.
My hope with The Women Invested to Save Earth Fund is that we can create a new model for how all innovators, regardless of background, can be supported for their merit, qualifications, and the potential their innovations have to address social issues and the climate change challenge facing our entire world.
I created Black Philanthropy Month because… I created Black Philanthropy Month 20 years ago for several reasons: to celebrate and raise public awareness that giving is written into the DNA of every Black culture worldwide; to educate about innovative, diverse forms of Black giving; to build global Black unity and community impact through collective giving; and lastly, especially as of 2020, to promote fair access to all forms of private capital for economic justice — the last frontier of Black civil, racial, liberation movements.
Black Philanthropy Month advances a global movement to advance Black giving and social finance innovation in all forms for the betterment of our communities everywhere and the planet we share for all people.
“I have absolutely no doubt that I have done my best to be good in the world.”
My proudest accomplishment is… Being a mother and supporting the development of my now 32-year-old child, an accomplished artist and activist. Also, I’m proud of my leadership role in my family and my community. I am blessed to be recognized as a HistoryMaker for my 40 years of civic contributions, including my early contributions to Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance initiative, as well as Black Philanthropy Month, Reunity, and now WISE founder. It is also a miracle that, with much support, I launched my first album, Blachant, as both executive producer and singer-songwriter — an almost lost personal goal.
My biggest setback was… There have been many setbacks, but I think of life in terms of overcoming. Poverty, dramatic family troubles, workplace discrimination, and health challenges are a part of my story, but I’ve been blessed to overcome these challenges and grow through difficult experiences too. I’m still here, thriving, leading, and serving with my joy and faith intact, stronger than ever.
The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… I’m much better at it now, but the one piece of advice I definitely have trouble following is to care for myself while caring for others. I work harder now to live with “radical self-care,” although that’s still a work in progress. Becoming a master life coach now helps, as it encourages me to be a better self-care role model.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… If I had an extra hour in a day, I’d spend it hiking, praying, meditating in nature, catching up with loved ones, writing fiction, poetry, and songs, or creating my wellness movement practice.
The thing I love most about what I do is… I have absolutely no doubt that I have done my best to be good in the world. I can document it. I can almost count the number of communities and people I’ve touched. What motivates me and partly why I think I’m on the planet is to do my utmost to heal people, society, the planet we share, and in the process, myself.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know…I’m a certified Zumba instructor and a global Black home chef. I’ve even won awards for my African Soul Collard Greens, mixing how I learned to cook low country cuisine with West African cooking. Dancing and cooking for friends are two of my favorite social activities.
The future excites me because…Even in the midst of struggle, we all need to find ways to hold on to joy. I stay inspired by the challenges we face and the prospect of making life better for many people today and for future generations. My faith, life purpose, and stories of past and present social justice leaders gives me inspiration and strength. The future is daunting but inspiring because we have many opportunities to create a better world for all — together.
When Katherine Hay was a teenager, her mother recertified her nursing credentials so she could continue supporting Katherine and her younger sister as a single mother. Katherine’s older brother had just died in a car accident at the age of 19.
“My mom was and is the epitome of strength, courage, and grit without ever losing her warmth or ability to cast a safe and loving family net,” she says.
Katherine remembers volunteering with her sister in the chronic care ward where her mother worked. “Those were good early experiences that were anchored on some tough family times,” she says. “Young, early experiences shape a bit of the mettle you might take into your adulthood.”
Volunteering was something they always did as a family, which Katherine carried on through her own family with her two children. When Katherine decided to make a career in non-profit, “It felt deeply satisfying for me,” she says. “I knew that I was going to move the needle in some way, shape, or form.”
For more than two decades, Katherine has been driving social change. As President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital Foundation, she led record-breaking fundraising efforts to support women’s health. In her current role as President and CEO of Kids Help Phone, Katherine is advancing Canada’s mental health service for youth as a virtual health innovator that connects with young people online, by phone, and text. Katherine is an inspiring and passionate leader, and she is being recognized for her achievements.
Katherine was the 2021 winner of the Social Change Award, National Impact, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an exceptional leader of a registered charity, social enterprise, or not-for-profit who is dedicated to their unique brand of social change.
“I knew that I was going to move the needle in some way, shape, or form.”
Katherine describes her journey toward her current work as a very wavy line — “I was amassing experiences,” she says — and she didn’t start out with a vision to work in the not-for-profit sector. Katherine left university and got a job as a bank teller. She worked her way up in the bank, taking on a management role and running branches. “I learned so much in those early days in banking about customer service and team experiences that I put into play, day in and day out,” she says.
In the mid-nineties, Katherine’s journey took a different turn when she moved with her family to São Paulo, Brazil. With her kids at school and husband at work, Katherine thought about what to do next. She finished her BA in psychology and economics remotely from the University of Waterloo. Katherine approached the Consul General in São Paolo, offering to volunteer. They created the Canadian Foundation and Katherine was appointed president of the fundraising volunteer organization. The goal was to raise approximately $25,000 for HIV/AIDS. At the time, mortality rates were high and there wasn’t fundraising to help families impacted by the condition. Katherine approached multinational corporations doing business in São Paolo. The foundation raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It was incredible,” says Katherine, who describes her experiences in São Paolo as “transformational.”
In 1999, Katherine and her family returned to Canada. After many years of volunteering, sitting on non-profit boards, and doing fundraising events, Katherine realized that she wanted to make a career of it, “knowing that the work I would do could very well enable something so much bigger than me or my world,” she says.
Katherine began doing strategy work with Big Brothers Big Sisters. She remembers making $17 an hour and thinking, I am a paid professional in this sector. “I was very proud of that,” she says. Katherine gained experience working with Families and Children Experiencing AIDS (FACE AIDS) and University of Toronto Mississauga. In 2004, Katherine was appointed Director of Advancement at the University of Toronto. Then in 2014, she became President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital Foundation.
“If you make decisions outside your values, outside your place, and it doesn’t work out, those are your mistakes.”
Reflecting on her journey, Katherine says that while there wasn’t a specific end result in sight, she had a clear feeling that she was taking the right steps for herself while also helping others, which was important to her.
Katherine’s mother used to tell her, “Stand in the right place, and you’ll be ok.” If Katherine aligned herself with her values, then she would find her way. “If you make decisions outside your values, outside your place, and it doesn’t work out, those are your mistakes,” she says. If you get back to your values, says Katherine, most things will find their path. Don’t be afraid if you don’t know fully what you want, she says. But you should work hard to know who you are.
Katherine has explored the values that are integral to who she is. “If I didn’t have them, I couldn’t be me,” she says. Katherine writes her values on the inside of every notebook and looks at them often, including before she goes into a tough meeting.
Working in the not-for-profit sector requires a steadfast belief in what you are trying to accomplish. “This is not a job,” she says. “It has to be authentic and genuinely inside you.” When Katherine was appointed President and CEO of Kids Help Phone in 2017, she was compelled by the meaningful work of the organization, which was a pioneer in virtual health, as well as the youth mental health crisis. While there is an often-cited statistic that one in five youth face mental health challenges, Katherine believes that one in one young people are impacted, whether it be personally or through a friend or family member.
When Katherine joined Kids Help Phone, it was a well-loved organization with a solid foundation. Yet maintaining a steady state was not an option. “We’d be the Kodak of the not-for-profit sector because we have innovation and technology right in our hands,” says Katherine of Canada’s 24/7 virtual mental health service for youth. The organization needed to evolve along with technology and the fast-paced world in which youth were navigating.
“We will continue to evolve and grow, and that’s what drives us.”
Katherine drove a new strategic direction for Kids Help Phone, positioning it as an innovation technology driven charity with a razor-sharp focus on youth mental health. Kids Help Phone connects with young people where they are, including gaming sites, social media, online chat and peer-to-peer forums, as well as by phone with professional counsellors, and text with crisis responders.
When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, Kids Help Phone was ready. “The world shut down,” remembers Katherine. “We did not go dark or silent. Not for one minute.” The organization went from 708 crisis responders to more than 2,230 responders active on the platform monthly. During COVID-19, Kids Help Phone trained more than 5,000 crisis responders, enabling the high number of crisis responders to be on the e-front lines. Since January 2020, Kids Help Phone has interacted more than 11.3 million times with young people in every province and territory in both official languages; a dramatic increase from its 1.9 million interactions with young people in 2019. Wait times remain on average five minutes.
While COVID-19 has exacerbated young people’s anxiety and mental health challenges, there is a youth mental health crisis beyond the pandemic. Canada has the third highest youth suicide rate in the industrialized world and suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Canada. The silver lining is Kids Help Phone, says Katherine. “Not only are we here,” she says, “they’re reaching out.”
In the future, Kids Help Phone will continue to find innovative ways to connect with young people and provide mental health support. “We will continue to evolve and grow,” says Katherine, “and that’s what drives us.”
If you’re like most people, when you see a cloud of fog rolling in, you probably think about waterproofing your wardrobe for the day. But if you’re someone like Tatiana Estevez Carlucci, all you see is possibility.
“It was right after graduation and it was my dream to go backpacking in California, so I landed in San Francisco,” she says, arriving at a time when the state was going through a historic drought, costing the economy billions and devastating the mental health of farmers. “I was looking out the window of my Airbnb, and as I watched the fog roll in, it hit me: fog is a huge source of water. What if that water could be harnessed to solve problems like drought?”
The result of that brainwave is Permalution: a revolutionary cleantech organization devoted to creating and leveraging technology to harvest water droplets from fog. Tatiana’s goal is to support local ecosystems and contribute to environmental conservation.
“By definition, fog or clouds are made up of tiny particles of water that are suspended in the air, so we developed technology that allows us to predict where fog will occur, the amount of water one can yield from a specific fog patch, and collect water droplets from fog as it passes over one of our units,” Tatiana says.
“We want to democratize fog as a new water source, and we need to introduce the technology in a way that allows everyone to access it.”
The fireproof, ready to assemble modules have an integrated IoT system and allow her team to collect 150 to 400 litres of water per day — or an amount that can support a family of four to six.
“We want to democratize fog as a new water source, and we need to introduce the technology in a way that allows everyone to access it while abiding by the water regulations in each state, province, and country,” she says.
Based in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the first-of-its-kind fog organization has received several recognitions and grants since launching in 2015, including one of BMO‘s Celebrating Women Grants in 2021.
Tatiana says she’s eternally grateful for the support and recognition, especially because she had no formal business or engineering education when starting her company. She took some electives in environmental engineering in university and went on to teach herself about all things sustainability; what she knew was that she ultimately wanted to work with water and in the cleantech space.
“I started little by little,” Tatiana says, adding that every small step has led her to the road she’s currently on, from landing in Silicon Valley for a period of time to working with the Canadian Government on environmental matters.
“The support of others, patience, and tenacity has been key to getting Permalution where it is today,” she says. Believing in the end result of what the technology can offer the world has also been key. “All entrepreneurs need to believe what they’re bringing to the table is very important and worth taking the risk and chance on.”
“What we’re doing really has the power to change the world.”
Tatiana keeps a book of accomplishments to flip through when she feels she or her organization have hit a wall; this empowers her to move forward when it feels like the universe is against her.
“Women need to get rid of the fear of failing in order to get to where we need to go. We have to fail fast and hard, but keep going,” she says.
Up next for Tatiana and Permalution is a new website so the organization can make more noise (a dream would be to attract attention from the likes of Greta Thunberg) and an advancement of plans to commercialize their products. Tatiana and her team want to increase output and recently started working with the University of Toronto to develop and launch a backpack-sized module that will, hopefully, bring water to displaced populations.
“We’re working on so many cool innovations that will help us bring this technology to where there is no fog or even few clouds so we can address the climate and water challenges of today,” she says. “What we’re doing really has the power to change the world.”
Laura Isidean is nearly a decade into what she calls her “second act.” As a volunteer, non-profit Board member, and advisor, Laura is fulfilling her desire to give back in a meaningful way. After nearly two decades working in capital markets, Laura decided to transition to something completely different.
“I had a really rewarding career,” Laura recalls. “I started on the buy side, moved to the sell side, and had the opportunity to work on the trading floor in what was a thrilling and fast-paced environment. I was very fortunate.” The first inkling that she was ready for change came in 2013 when she, her husband, and her daughter took a family sabbatical to Asia which included living in China for six months. “We adopted our daughter from China in 2010, so this was a ‘roots trip’ — an immersive opportunity to experience the culture and learn the language together as a family.”
Stepping away — as it has a tendency to do — helped provide more clarity for Laura on where she was at in her career and where she wanted to go next. While in China, she began thinking about her next steps. “While I recognized that the decision to permanently leave my job came from a very privileged position, I felt the need to contribute to society in a new way.”
After leaving Scotiabank where she’d been for the past 16 years, Laura began to get involved in a number of charities and non-profit organizations,following her personal interests and the causes that mattered to her. “Then, life threw a curve ball my way,” Laura recalls. “In 2014, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”
During that extremely difficult time, Laura turned to Wellspring, a cancer support organization that she’d learned about through their annual fashion show fundraising event she’d taken clients to.
“Knowing I could turn to them for programs and services while I was undergoing treatment proved to be an integral part of my recovery,” she recalls. From then on, Laura was committed to giving back to the organization that had helped her and her family so much. “I joined the Board of Wellspring five years ago and became Chair in 2021.”
“I was lucky enough to find not one, but two organizations that really resonated with me for different reasons — and the life-changing impact this work has had on me, is that it’s really given me a true sense of purpose.”
But Wellspring wasn’t the only organization Laura devoted her time and resources to. She had already come across the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) while looking for an opportunity to join an organization at an advisory or governance level, and was drawn to their local and global impact.
“I was lucky enough to find not one, but two organizations that really resonated with me for different reasons — and the life-changing impact this work has had on me, is that it’s really given me a true sense of purpose,” she says.
Laura’s first position with the Red Cross was in a volunteer advisory role with the Toronto Region Council, supporting CRC management in all aspects of operations within the GTA. “That was my initiation, in a way, learning how the organization operates within the city,” she says. “My role has evolved since then and now I support different levels of management with the CRC from an advisory standpoint, provincially and nationally, with a focus on volunteer engagement.”
Volunteer engagement is something she’s especially fond of. “The Red Cross has thousands of volunteers, and I get really excited about contributing towards making sure their experience is a positive one,” she says.
But it’s not just through volunteer work that Laura contributes to the Red Cross. She has also become a donor through theTiffany Circle — a community of women philanthropists committed to furthering the humanitarian mission of the Red Cross locally, nationally, and around the world.
Laura found out about the Tiffany Circle through a fellow volunteer. She invited Laura to join her at a conference in Winnipeg hosted by the Tiffany Circle. “I was instantly inspired by the women I met and their commitment to the organization. I was drawn to the warmth of the Circle and the common purpose they all shared,” Laura recalls.
Joining the Tiffany Circle provided Laura with a new level of involvement and a way to contribute to the organization financially as well. “I believe many women like to give to charity in a more engaged way — they want to not only write a check, but also feel connected with the organization they’re giving to.”
She says women’s giving circles are filling this need by forging connections between like-minded philanthropic women. Within the Tiffany Circle, Laura is a member of a national steering committee that’s examining this idea of active philanthropy. “We are working to raise awareness around the ways members of the Tiffany Circle can engage with the CRC that are meaningful to them.”
Through the Tiffany Circle, Laura has also become a Red Cross ambassador within her own community, hosting disaster preparedness workshops to help empower people to feel more prepared for unexpected circumstances that could happen in their own lives, such as climate disasters.
“I feel so fortunate to be part of such an inspiring and empowering group of women who share my commitment to make a meaningful contribution to the work of this important organization.”
The philanthropic aspect of the Tiffany Circle is also very important to the organization. The annual financial contributions help the Red Cross deliver disaster management programs, forge Indigenous community partnerships, provide Emergency Field Hospital and medical specialists to communities after disaster and disease outbreak, and build and staff community and mobile health programs reaching women and children in crisis zones.
“I feel so fortunate to be part of such an inspiring and empowering group of women who share my commitment to make a meaningful contribution to the work of this important organization,” Laura says.
When approached for advice on how to manage a career shift into professional volunteerism, or how to know where to begin getting involved in a meaningful way, Laura typically suggests women do a bit of introspection to determine what causes and issues matter to them most.
“For me, the Canadian Red Cross was appealing in part because it’s the largest humanitarian network in the world, and in part because it’s there to support individuals and communities in a wide variety of circumstances. Whether conflict, climate disaster, or pandemic, we know these sorts of things can happen to anyone at any time.”
Knowing how to contribute is also important. “If you’re in the thick of your career and don’t have a lot of free time,” Laura says, “financial contributions are always needed. Your contribution will look different depending what stage of your career you’re in — and that will change with time. Find what works for you and go from there.”
Since the COVID pandemic, many people have begun to think about what type of community members they want to be and how they want to contribute. “Ultimately, we all have a role to play,” Laura says. “Everyone, at every stage, can contribute in some way. The key is to think about what causes are appealing to you.”
As a mother to a 12-year-old, Laura feels even more committed to setting a good example. “I’ve always instilled in my daughter, from a young age, the responsibility to be an active contributing member of the community we live in and that notion has been embodied in our lifestyle,” Laura says.
No matter what you do or how you do it, the important piece is to do something. “If you are fortunate enough to live in a safe community, to have all of your needs met — schooling, healthcare, career opportunities — then I think we all have the responsibility to lift up those around us.”
Remix Snacks began in a home kitchen with an idea for a recipe and a desire to make a change in the industry. And while co-founders Jamie Lee and Isabelle Lam were cooking up their idea for nutritious and sustainable treats, they were also students in McGill University’s Bachelor of Nutritional Sciences, Dietetics program.
“Through our education we recognized two gaps in the food and beverage industry. First was the lack of healthy snack options that contained protein and fiber, and the second was the amount of food waste being produced by this industry,” Jamie explains. “When Isabelle and I chatted about wanting to start a business, we agreed that anything we developed had to focus on nutrition and environmental sustainability.”
At the time, their idea was more of a project than a business plan. “We thought it would be fun to start a business, but we never imagined that it would take off in the way it has,” Isabelle says.
In 2018, Jamie and Isabelle, who were roommates at the time, started playing around with recipes for a trail mix product that would contain dehydrated beans, fruit, and chocolate. “Beans were new in snack foods at the time, but they had a great nutritional profile with protein, fiber, and iron,” Isabelle said.
In class, they learned that 58 percent of food produced in Canada is wasted and 45 percent of that comes from imperfect produce. Eager to solve this issue, Jamie and Isabelle decided that their product would use upcycled fruit – the stuff with bumps and bruises that often finds its way to the landfill. “In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves,” Jamie recalls.
“In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves.”
Being students at McGill helped Isabelle and Jamie access a few invaluable opportunities that propelled their project forward. They entered McGill’s start-up competition, Dobson Cup, and their snack idea won two innovation prizes which helped fund their first year of business.
They also followed a lead to audition for a student themed episode of CBC’s Dragons’ Den, and not only did they get onto the show, they even received an offer from two of the Dragons on air. They later decided not to go through with the offer because they were at such an early stage of their start-up, and had found other forms of funding that allowed them to keep full ownership of the company, rather than giving over 35 percent.
The early days of Remix were very hands-on, with Jamie and Isabelle doing everything themselves. They ordered packaging from amazon, designed a logo on Canva, printed stickers at a local print shop, and assembled snack bags one by one. Their friends were their taste-testers.
Since then, the product has had 10 to 12 iterations, taking it from a homemade bag of trail mix to where it is today – professionally prepared and packaged chocolate bark made with dark chocolate, a proprietary black bean recipe, and upcycled fruit.
Remix Snacks went from a home kitchen project to being produced in a commercial kitchen with a small production team to using a co-packer to do their manufacturing. The product was first sold in a few Montreal stores that the duo reached out to and managed directly and is now available across Quebec and Ontario in Loblaws, Metro, and some Sobeys stores. Despite their growth and plans to keep growing, they’ve stayed committed to their original values when it comes to sustainability.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of new challenges came up for Isabelle and Jamie, but overall, it has not deterred them. When the first lockdown hit, they were en route to a food expo. “We literally had to turn around after spending a night in the hotel, and forfeit the fee for that event,” they recall. “Everything changed after that.”
“Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking — encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating.”
From there, the way they marketed their product began to shift. “Much of our sales came from interacting with buyers and customers and offering samples,” Isabelle says. “We had to pivot from in-person marketing to e-commerce, focusing on ads and social media – but we adapted.”
With more people working from home and snacking on the rise, having a healthier option for chocolate with nutritional benefits proved to be a very good thing. “Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking – encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating,” they explain. “This is something we really believe in, and it’s become our third mission after nutrition and the environment.”
They’ve used the same practice of mindfulness to grow their business, one step at a time, focusing on small actions to achieve results. And while it hasn’t always been easy, they’ve remained committed to making it work.
“Within the food industry, many of the big players happen to be older, white men – and so coming in as young, Asian women was challenging in that we had to build a rapport and have the others believe that we were a business to be taken seriously, not just a student project,” Isabelle explains. “Thankfully, with COVID, there seems to be more support for women and BIPOC-led businesses like ours available. And we’ve been connected with some great grant programs willing to support us and give us that extra leverage.”
Most recently, Remix Snacks was chosen as a recipient of a $10,000 grant through the BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program — an initiative that gave $120,000 in grant funding to 18 Canadian, women-owned businesses that are contributing to social, environmental, or economic sustainability outcomes. “We are so thankful for programs like this that have helped us fund and grow our business.”
Another opportunity that came about during the pandemic was an accelerator led by York University’s YSpace to help Ontario business owners with products in the market to scale up rapidly during COVID. “Working with nine other companies all going through similar challenges as we were, helped us learn so much and answer so many questions as we continued to grow,” Jamie explains.
“You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses — which can be hard in the age of social media — but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.”
Jamie also credits her dad’s entrepreneurial journey with providing inspiration for Remix Snacks. “My dad moved to Canada from Hong Kong and started a food company, and in a way, I feel like I’m walking in his footsteps. He’s always been a big mentor to me, and we’ve asked him a lot of questions along the way.”
For other entrepreneurs looking to make a go of it, Jamie and Isabelle have lots of advice to share. “Don’t let fear get in the way, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Isabelle says. Jamie agrees, “Something we’ve come to learn and practice is that when an opportunity presents itself, there’s no harm in going for it, even if you’re not sure what will come about as a result.”
And while they’re so thankful for all the advice they’ve been given along the way, they emphasize the importance of not getting too caught up with what others are doing. “You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses – which can be hard in the age of social media – but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.”
If you ask Brittany Davis how she chose her career — she’s a General Partner at Backstage Capital, a venture fund investing exclusively in women, people of colour, and LGBTQ founders — she’ll point to the systemic barriers these entrepreneurs face in accessing capital.
However, her origin story is a lot more personal.
While doing her undergraduate business degree, Brittany completed an independent study project on Black Wall Streets: prosperous enclaves of Black Americans, served by and supporting Black-owned businesses. The one in Tulsa, Oklahoma was well known on account of its size (more than 35 square blocks, with hundreds of businesses) and its demise (The Black Wall Street Massacre, one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States, which had its 100th anniversary this year), but Brittany learned there were several Black Wall Streets operating in the early 20th century, including one in her home state of North Carolina.
“The takeaway from the project was that we do need to have a concerted effort on funding,” says Brittany. “There were a lot of Black business owners that had really thriving businesses, and they were able to get them up and running with that first infusion of capital. I wanted to be that person that could catalyze other businesses.”
At the time, she wasn’t thinking specifically of venture capital — she knew about it structurally, but didn’t know anyone that had a career in the field — but saw the need for a separately managed pool of equity or debt-based financing for Black-owned businesses. She brought her pitch to Bank of America, where she ended up working for five years in a traditional finance role.
Then, after earning an MBA from Harvard, Brittany launched her own startup building AI software for fashion ecommerce. Runway Technologies ultimately failed, but it sparked an interest in supporting other people’s visions — she kept meeting fellow founders of color that were struggling to get funded and felt compelled to help.
“There were a lot of Black business owners that had really thriving businesses, and they were able to get them up and running with that first infusion of capital. I wanted to be that person that could catalyze other businesses.”
“That’s when I was actually looking for roles in venture based on this diversity thesis. I was interviewing with a lot of mainstream funds. Just coming out of Harvard Business School, I had a company, I worked in finance, I also spent some time in tech. These are all of the things that I’m explaining that I can do. I have that background, but what’s going to make me unique is that I’m bringing a lens of let’s invest in more women and people of color,” explains Brittany. “I interviewed quite a bit without finding a real landing. Most VCs I did not hear back from after I explained, ‘This is what I’m trying to focus on at your fund.’”
It was a long road. Brittany interviewed for about five months, eventually finding her way in by focusing less on big, traditional funds and moving to more early stage investments. Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital, had a similar story. “The reason she started the fund was that she could not find a job in venture, even as an apprentice” says Brittany. In fact, she sent over 100 emails applying to apprenticeship roles, and got no’s from all of them. “Her road was actually trying to find a job.”
Brittany first met Arlan in 2016, when they were both on the judging panel for a Black founder’s pitch competition. At the time, Brittany was working at a fund called Village Capital. Though her role didn’t have an explicit diversity lens, their model allowed for a personal focus on finding and investing in more women and people of color.
Arlan, on the other hand, was just getting started with Backstage Capital, which she had launched in September of 2015. “I’d heard about this woman putting together funds for underrepresented founders,” says Brittany, “but this was Arlan before she started doing public speaking. She was very reserved and quiet.”
At the end of the competition, Arlan ended up investing in the top five founders. It was a lightbulb moment for Brittany.
“I thought I had to do it within funds, and then to see how her approach was, ‘Let me actually get some funds and do it myself,’ I was like, ‘Okay, that fast forwards my plan of having to work for years and years and see if I can change the industry from the inside,’” explains Brittany. “I remember thinking, one way or another I’m going to find a way to work with this woman, because this is exactly what I’m doing.”
That opportunity came in early 2018. Arlan was looking to build out the investment team, and she brought Brittany on as Head of Deal Flow. In a typical venture firm, a lot of that role would be finding new companies to invest in. At Backstage, the deals were coming to them. In addition to having built a strong brand and presence in the ecosystem, Backstage had launched open applications for investment through a form on their site. It was a groundbreaking idea within venture, explains Brittany, because the model had always been that you had to network your way in.
Over a thousand founders applied. Brittany oversaw that inbound deal flow — not only managing the investing that Arlan wasn’t doing herself, but also figuring out how to build a framework that captured the way Arlan thinks about investing, so that Backstage could scale beyond its original founder.
“I was really passionate about figuring out how to take those unique things that I loved — a lot of the investing that Arlan was doing was a lot of the same companies that I would have invested in — and create a basic framework that other people could learn and adopt, but with the freedom to bring in their own perspective.”
“She explained some of her first investments, and how she thought about deals,” says Brittany. “I was really passionate about figuring out how to take those unique things that I loved — a lot of the investing that Arlan was doing was a lot of the same companies that I would have invested in — and create a basic framework that other people could learn and adopt, but with the freedom to bring in their own perspective.”
Using the criteria she identified, Brittany and her team went from seeing about 450 companies to investing in five. Her next big project, the Backstage Accelerator, added another 24 companies to the portfolio. Launched in the spring of 2019, the 12-week development program worked with founders in four cities — Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, and London — to help build their community and network and prepare them for future investment.
“The core of our thesis is investing early with underrepresented founders, so that we can catalyze their progress in getting additional capital,” explains Brittany, adding that they’ve been the first investor for over half their portfolio. “A lot of times we’re catching them before they have something to really evaluate in a quantitative sense; a lot of it is thinking about future potential.”
That means their investing framework must be less metrics-driven (x number of users, or x dollars of revenue, for example). The evaluation used by early-stage funds often includes criteria like who is on the team, what’s the potential market size, and what makes the product unique. Many investors also use pattern matching, which means looking for similarities with founders that have already been successful, such as the schools they went to or the companies they worked at.
“When you hear the term pattern matching, it’s always usually looking for that Mark Zuckerberg type,” says Brittany. “That’s just going to get you more of the same. Arlan used to say she pattern matched for grit.”
So, Brittany added grit into their scorecard, which enabled recognition for what the founders had accomplished with the limited resources they’d had. She even added that gut feeling — the spark or connection with a founder — because it was something Arlan often described when talking about her investments.
“We’re really talking about some of this stuff because for a lot of our founders, the journey can be a long one, especially not getting adequate resources,” says Brittany. “We look for where they can push past those things, and the founders that have done the best in our portfolio essentially have demonstrated a lot of that grit. I was trying to build that into how we think about investing so that we’re not just using the same standard metrics. We’re using something very specific to Backstage, and so it’s authentic to us.”
“Yes, we really are just getting started. There’s a lot of work we can do to help diversify who’s investing and who gets investment.”
Creating a scalable version of Arlan’s investing process was foundational for Backstage — but it was just the beginning. Brittany wants to build a firm, not just a single fund, and ultimately enable more people to get involved in venture.
“I think that’s core to the end outcome of getting more resources to the founders,” she says. “That’s something that I’m always thinking about and was passionate about to begin with in my career. I have seen that journey through Backstage, and yes, we really are just getting started. There’s a lot of work we can do to help diversify who’s investing and who gets investment.”
The work they’ve already done to provide access, resources, and education for people who are interested in investing has been varied, from sharing lessons through Arlan’s book, It’s About Damn Time, to offering an introductory course on Investing as a Catalyst, to helping with a Harvard Business School case study that, in Brittany’s own words, sends a message to the world about who business leaders are and who they can be.In October they launched a pilot Apprenticeship Program, bringing on 20 would-be investors for a three-month stint working with the investment team on deal flow review, as well as being taught the Backstage philosophy on investing, how to build a fund from scratch, and more.
Their biggest effort, however, came earlier this year, in the form of a crowdfund. Recognizing the need for operational capital — Backstage now supports 180 companies — as well as the potential of an engaged community that understood the importance of their work, they saw an opportunity to not only bring in resources, but also to further their mission of exposing a broader group to venture capital investing.
Typically, a fund raises capital from accredited investors, which limits the pool to about 2% of the wealthiest individuals. In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought in a rule called Reg CF, or Regulation Crowdfunding, that opened the door to non-accredited investors. In their first crowdfunding round, Backstage reached the max of $1 million in about eight hours — the fastest equity raise ever on Republic, the investing platform they worked with. In March, the SEC changed the rules of Reg CF to allow for up to $5 million annually, so they opened it up again. A total of 6,755 investors — Brittany included — purchased the equity available, the majority of whom had never invested in venture or private companies before.
“That was the best way to share a piece of what we’re doing with the people who really want to help build the organization that we have,” says Brittany. “Then they in turn get a lot of exposure to venture. Long-term, hopefully, they’re getting a return on this too, and I believe that they will, but I do think the huge benefit is the exposure to venture.”
And that is the long game — a more inclusive population investing will result in more inclusive investment, whatever the source. On that front, things are looking up: Since Backstage launched a little over six years ago, several other funds with a diversity-focused mission have entered the space (over 70 in the US, by Harlem Capital’s count), and they often come with a collaborative attitude — which all serves to reduce the time of getting resources to founders.
In the broader venture capital ecosystem, Brittany says the biggest change over the last few years has been a growing awareness of and conversation around the issues that underrepresented founders face. “One thing that’s helping is data points. I’m seeing a lot more of the numbers being shared,” she says. “I couldn’t actually point to the lack of venture capital in dollars for different demographic groups when I was starting.”
“I still think we have a ways to go with creating that real fear that you’re missing out if you’re doing what you did 5, 10 years ago — which is just looking around you, most likely at people in similar networks, similar schools, similar demographics as you.”
There’s also more data on the opportunity cost, whether that’s studies highlighting the benefits of diverse leadership teams, or estimations of the amount of money being left on the table (according to Morgan Stanley, the inequity in funding for multicultural and women business owners is costing the US about $4.4 trillion in GDP annually).
“It hasn’t fully moved the needle on the outcomes. Black founders still get less than 2% of venture capital; women founders are the same,” Brittany points out. “I still think we have a ways to go with creating that real fear that you’re missing out if you’re doing what you did 5, 10 years ago — which is just looking around you, most likely at people in similar networks, similar schools, similar demographics as you.”
Brittany believes the missing piece for more traditional VCs is representation at the success level, which would essentially create the opportunity for a new pattern match. “But I want people to understand what it takes to get to the Mark Zuckerberg point. If you’re not getting resources early on, it’s really hard to get there.”
Simply put, these underrepresented, underestimated, and underfunded founders have a longer road to returns compared to those who haven’t faced the same barriers.
“The timeline might not be the same, but I think the outcomes could actually exceed some of the businesses that are getting more funding,” says Brittany. “It’s just that there is a bit of time for them to get the capital and get to work. There’s a starting runway that you need that these companies didn’t have.”
That leaves a chicken and egg situation; the founders need proven success to get mainstream funding, and they need funding to achieve big success. So, what happens in the meantime?
“You have people like Arlan who are saying, ‘I can do this, and whether you believe it or not, I’m going to take the steps and prove a thesis.’ She’s doing the things that a lot of people told her she couldn’t do,” says Brittany. “Being successful with what we have, I think we’ve proven a lot.”
In 2020, Hailey Hechtman moved to Ottawa from the Yukon to take on the role of Executive Director for Causeway Work Centre, a not-for-profit agency helping those with mental illness and other challenges find meaningful work. She has spent the last decade working in the social services sector, promoting thoughtful leadership and aligned decision-making for mental wellness, disability, and youth organizations. Prior to her current role, Hailey founded the Yukon Distress & Support Line, established the Yukon Inter-Agency Network on Disability, created standardized narrative reporting processes for the Yukon Government, and spearheaded the Learning Essential Support Skills Online (LESSON) program.
My first job ever was… My first official job was working as an assistant at my mother’s tanning salon — I wiped down tanning beds, rolled towels, cleaned and interacted with customers. My first job outside of my family was working as a pharmacy cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart. This job was one where I learned on the spot problem solving, prioritization (it was a very busy store) and the value of great teamwork.
I decided to go into the social services sector because… I am really passionate about creating environments that empower people to see their potential. This is something that I want to foster for not only the people accessing supports in the mental health and disability space but for the team that is working with them. I really like to see patterns of intersection between the work happening across communities, am interested in creating new ways of enhancing experiences and most of all in advocating for everyone’s value
My proudest accomplishment is… Although I have several significant moments that I am proud of in my career, I would say my proudest has to be supporting an organization to go from 40% annual turnover, with a difficult reputation in the community and a history of mistrust amongst the team to one that had 1-2 people leave per year for education or other experiences, where people valued one another, where professional development and growth were prioritized and where we became an example to our community.
My biggest setback was… My confidence in coming into new environments with long histories, complex programs, entrenched team dynamics and multiple competing priorities. In situations like these I have felt overwhelmed to figure out the answers and have on occasion experienced my own imposter syndrome in not feeling like I was the right person to help.
I overcame it by… Working with the team to acknowledge their past challenges and successes, listening and learning from their context expertise, getting to know the ins and outs and the perceptions and collaboratively problem-solving using the tremendous knowledge in the room from all levels including the people supported by the work that we are doing.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… An unshakeable belief in the potential of my team and the organizations that I have worked with. In seeing what other people are capable of and fostering that, cultivating their confidence and hearing their insights, I have been able to learn far more about how to address any issue than going at it alone.
When engaging with the community, it’s important to remember… The answers are already there within the community itself. It is paramount that we listen to people, ask them deep questions about their experiences, their insights and their ideas. We need to see that in everyone there is context expertise that can be harnessed to help us co-create solutions that work for that specific community. There is no one size fits all solution and we can only build trust through listening and following through.
When leading a team in the non-profit sector, it’s important to remember… That as leaders we are models for our own expectations. If we want to create a learning environment -then we must be the first ones in line to learn. If we want to create a space where people feel safe exploring, failing and trying again, then we need to be open about our mistakes, about what we don’t know and work on those things. If we want to create an environment where everyone practices self-care and feels comfortable coming forward when they are feeling overwhelmed, we need to be vulnerable, honest and human about sharing our own experiences and expressing healthy boundaries.
My advice for anyone interested in a non-profit leadership role is… Really dive into your why. When it comes to leadership, especially in non-profits where you are undoubtedly going to be wearing many hats and working around complex social issues, it is important to know what is driving you into the space, what your personal values are and how your strengths can support an organization in working towards its mission. I would recommend reaching out to people in the field, volunteering in the non-profit space to get a sense of the environment and encourage you to find a space within the sector that you truly care about.
The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Thinking, researching, analyzing and creating space for the discovery of solutions through rest is where the real magic happens. Be sure to schedule yourself time when you are focused on reflection and not overcrowding your schedule with constant doing.
The thing I love most about what I do is… Seeing people flourish and teams evolve organically based on their learning, their relationships and the feedback that they get from the people that they support. I love hearing stories about how our work has made a human impact in someone’s life and seeing the shine in the eyes of the staff who supported them.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I love making decorative smoothie bowls first thing on a Saturday morning.
I stay inspired by… Checking in with my team, taking time to learn about what is happening in the community around me and by building networks and relationships with other incredible leaders working in the social impact space doing amazing things.
The future excites me because… I see so many social impact leaders focused on cultivating partnerships; we are actively exploring intersections in new ways and many are taking the steps to move towards a more community-led approach to their decision making. We are also in a time where mental health and inclusion are being talked about so much more in the workplace and I am excited to see how we can support people and businesses alike to find matches that lead to new ways of working together.
My next step is… At Causeway we are in a time of reflection and planning. We are engaging in the deep work, we are thinking intentionally about who we want to be and where we want to go and are about to embark on an exercise with those in our communities to incorporate their voices into how we design our organization’s future.
Being a solopreneur can be a lonely endeavor. Without a leadership team or co-workers to bounce ideas off of, many women founders end up doing most of the heavy lifting on their own.
“Essentially, you become your own tech support, accountant, marketer, and HR,” explains Kirsten Ramos. Prior to starting her own training and development consultancy, Kirsten worked for a large digital media company — so she knew what was missing when she entered the solopreneur space. For the past five years, she’s owned and operated Chicago-based Elevate Performance Solutions. In May, she also became Co-CEO of femmebought, a role that came to her thanks to her own search for community and support.
At an event in February 2020, Kirsten met Sophia Ruffolo, the founder of femmebought, a strategic hub and virtual space for experienced women business owners. femmebought allows founders to connect with like-minded women for skill-building, mentorship, education funding, strategic planning, expert advice, and networking for business growth.
“Sophia’s passion for helping women business owners attracted me to the organization,” Kirsten explains. “When I joined femmebought as a member, it gave me an avenue to connect with other entrepreneurial women, share advice and skillsets, and create the sense of community I had been lacking.”
What Kirsten didn’t anticipate when she joined femmebought was that 16 months later, she’d be stepping into the role of Co-CEO of the organization — and President of femmebought’s Impact Accelerator program.
“I was a very active member when I first joined and quickly realized that I could help Sophia with the backend of Zoom events — since I’d been working virtually long before COVID — and could step in as a facilitator of mastermind sessions when she was unavailable,” Kirsten explains.
One thing led to another, and the opportunity for a leadership position was soon presented to Kirsten. “Sophia had built this amazing organization very quickly, and she was looking for some fresh eyes to move it forward,” Kirsten recalls.
“As we saw reported in the fall of 2020, more than 800,000 women have left the traditional business world because they were faced with challenges resulting from the pandemic, be it childcare or eldercare, or both.”
Along with her now co-CEO, Kristine Givens, Kirsten realized that it would take two women to do the work that Sophia had been doing on her own. “We were excited to team up to take femmebought into the future,” she says. “Both of us had our own businesses that we planned to continue running, so it was great to know we’d be able to work together in this role.”
Along with femmebought’s board of directors, which includes Sophia, the co-CEO’s plan to embark on many new opportunities and programs going forward. They’ve been polling their current members and evaluating the existing programs to determine the future of the organization. With members across Canada and the US — mostly in Toronto and Chicago — the opportunities for collaboration and expansion seem to be endless.
And in the current climate, an organization like this is needed more than ever. “As we saw reported in the fall of 2020, more than 800,000 women have left the traditional business world because they were faced with challenges resulting from the pandemic, be it childcare or eldercare, or both. Many women are still making less than their male counterparts, so they were the ones who stepped away from jobs and opted to stay home,” Kirsten says.
What’s come from all these women exiting the workforce, however, has been a surge of women-owned startups. “When women go out on their own, they need support. And we know they’re typically less likely than men to ask for help and to gain access to mentorship and funding.”
That’s where femmebought comes in. What sets it apart is its multifaceted approach to supporting women entrepreneurs. Membership within femmebought includes workshops, meetups, and a listing in the femmebought directory.
Members include product and service-based companies, primarily solopreneurs, who are looking to access education, share expertise, and collaborate. There’s a social media strategist, a photographer, a purveyor of delicious toffee, and a practitioner who’s set to launch a line of products. There are financial experts, coaches, and jewelry makers. There are women who have been in business for years and some who are newer to the entrepreneurship journey.
“People are certainly more conscious now in their buying and hiring habits, and many are looking to support local businesses and shop women-owned when possible.”
Through femmebought’s global directory, business owners and consumers can access an extensive list of these women-owned companies and service providers. “People are certainly more conscious now in their buying and hiring habits, and many are looking to support local businesses and shop women-owned when possible,” Kirsten says. “For me personally, I’ve used the femmebought directory a number of times, most recently to connect with a Canadian website developer who helped me redesign my website.”
Taking the support of women entrepreneurs one step further, earlier in 2021 femmebought launched and successfully ran its first Impact Accelerator, a 6-month program that allowed 15 self-identifying women entrepreneurs to grow and scale their businesses with the help of expert advisors, peer group accountability, and strategic resources.
As part of this program, seven members of typically underrepresented and minority communities were able to access scholarships provided by BMO. “Thanks to this extremely generous scholarship program, these women, who were both Canadian and American, were able to participate in the Accelerator program and gain invaluable support as they worked to scale up their businesses,” explains Kirsten.
“As we know, women are typically underrepresented in the entrepreneur space, and the intersectionality of women of colour, LGBTQ+ women, and those with disabilities further delineates that inequality,” Kirsten says. “That’s why the program had such a tangible impact on the participants.”
In fact, many of the women who participated in the Accelerator have already come back to femmebought looking to be mentors going forward. “The participants have this great attitude of paying it forward, and many have stayed on as part of our community since their experience was so valuable,” Kirsten says.
In a time when community and connection have never been more important, femmebought is poised to continue giving many solopreneurs what they wouldn’t have access to otherwise — a network focused on learning, growth, problem solving, and support.
“We are excited to continue elevating women-owned businesses in new ways while helping to ensure it’s not so lonely for those on the solopreneur journey.”
Brianne Miller’s zero-waste journey began several years ago when she was working in ocean conservation as a marine biologist. Faced with the dramatic impact plastic pollution was having on the animals she was studying, she felt helpless in her role and decided to shift her career path to counter all the “doom and gloom.”
What began with a few pop-ups and farmers’ market stalls morphed into Nada, Canada’s first full-service, package-free, responsibly-sourced grocery store. Located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Nada is also a thriving community hub that promotes education and activism.
Brianne is extremely well versed in conscious consumerism and how to take steps toward reducing waste and leaving a smaller footprint on the planet — from less packaging to more meal-planning. She sat down with us to share surprisingly simple and often overlooked tips to help you get started on your own zero-waste journey.
Your career in marine biology inspired your transition to founding a zero-waste grocery store and community hub. Can you share a bit more on how you decided on the issues of plastic, packaging, and food waste as the ones you wanted to tackle?
In my decade working as a research scientist and marine mammal biologist, I was fortunate to do a lot of travel and work in remote field sites. It quickly became apparent just how global and widespread the plastic pollution problem was. For me, the start of this journey began when I saw the direct impact plastic pollution was having on the endangered species I was studying. Over time, I’ve learned a lot more. I dove into understanding our industrial food systems and their impact on oceans, from shipping noise, to agricultural runoff, to marine debris.
How did you come up with the idea for Nada?
I had started personally trying to reduce my waste and carbon footprint and was finding that while it was possible to make strides in other areas of my life, doing it with food was next to impossible. There were so many items you couldn’t get package-free, and you definitely couldn’t do all of your shopping in one place. That was my impetus to create this type of store.
Nada was started to address the plastic pollution issue and quickly morphed, along with our commitment, to focus on creating a more just, equitable, and regenerative food system — while keeping in mind climate action in the decisions we make. Soon we were having a much more holistic conversation about our food system and were making commitments around our sourcing criteria and the companies we chose to work with. And our goal was always to make this type of shopping easy and more accessible to our customers.
How does zero-waste shopping work exactly?
First off, the myths people tend to believe about zero waste shopping is that it’s expensive, pretentious, and unavailable to the vast majority of people. Our mission is to dispel these myths. This starts with understanding that you don’t need to go out and buy a whole bunch of expensive containers. We encourage our customers to use upcycled containers when they’re shopping. Think hummus containers, yoghurt tubs, and tomato sauce jars that are cleaned out and ready to use again.
For us, anything that can be used again and kept out of the landfill one or more times is a big win. That’s where cost-savings also begin. When you’re buying spaghetti sauce in the grocery store, you’re paying for that heavy glass jar, not just the product within it. In our store, people weigh their containers and pay only for the cost of the products themselves. While people can pay a deposit fee for a reusable container, we are finding that 95% of our products are going out the door in upcycled containers — both from in-store and online sales.
What if you don’t have a store like Nada in your community? Where can people do their shopping to reduce waste?
While these stores are starting to pop up across the country, there are lots of things you can do even if you don’t have access to a zero-waste store. The first is shopping the bulk bins at your local grocery store and bringing your own containers or reusable bags. Also, many stores will support people bringing their own containers or bags for produce purchases as well. I also recommend shopping at farmers’ markets, which is a great way to support the local supply chain. Many farmers’ market vendors will take back things like egg containers and re-use them.
Beyond changing how you shop, what would you say is the most important first step in making conscious choices around grocery consumption?
I believe the most important thing people can do, which is very much the mission of our company, is to learn more about where your food comes from. Start by understanding how your food is grown and produced, who is growing it, how it’s getting to you, how it’s transported, and what happens to it if it’s not consumed. There are a few resources I like to recommend: the first is the podcast, How to Save a Planet, and the other is Project Drawdown. Education is a key part of this journey.
Plastic pollution inspired your own journey. In terms of reducing an individual’s carbon footprint, is packaging and plastic the most important thing to begin with?
No. I would actually say the best thing people can do is ensure they are using all the food they buy. The food waste conversation is a much bigger and more important conversation in the grand scheme of things. It starts with meal planning, and only buying what you are going to use. Spend time thinking about how you store your produce so it lasts longer, how to cook with leftovers, how to make sure you’re saving and preserving anything that could go bad by freezing it or chopping it into soups. Repurpose ugly or bruised fruits and veggies into sauces or smoothies. The reality is, 25% of the food consumers bring home is lost to food waste or surplus food. We want to prevent, all the time, energy and resources that go into food growth and production from being wasted.
As a retailer, we know there are many barriers when it comes to removing waste from the food supply chain, which is why we choose to support vendors who prioritize sustainability in their packaging choices, product design, and raw ingredient sourcing. And we as a store are committed to producing little to no food waste and have achieved a food diversion rate of less than 1%. The only things that go to compost in our store are things like banana peels and avocado skins.
That’s really interesting and something that’s probably often overlooked. What other efforts can help?
The next most important thing, I would say, is buying local. From a carbon footprint perspective choosing local growers that focus on organic, regenerative agriculture is way more important than what the food is sold in. If your food is traveling from a short distance, even if it’s in some sort of packaging, it’s going to be a much better option than buying something package-free that’s being flown halfway across the world to get to your grocery store.
How has your life changed since starting this journey professionally? Do you always walk the talk at home?
I’m definitely still learning as well and incorporating new ideas all the time. I do eat a vegan diet, mostly local. And my biggest thing is trying not to buy anything new, that’s one of the best things you can do for the planet. That’s a principle I live by and practice when running Nada as well. I buy second-hand clothing and my entire house is furnished with second hand furniture. Our store is also made of all repurposed materials as well — from the wood to the fixtures, we didn’t buy anything new.
There’s a lot to think about here. Any final advice?
What I’d like people to start thinking about going forward is how they can translate their individual actions into collective actions. A lot of us are now taking individual steps, and that’s wonderful, but the reality is we are so tight on time to tackle this climate change issue that we really need more people engaged. It’s things like, if you’re trying to reduce food waste at home, can you convince your workplace to do the same? If you work in a hospital, can you get involved in conversations around waste and sustainability? Can you work with your apartment building to do more? To be honest, it doesn’t matter as much which actions you take, as long as they bring you joy. If it’s something you’re passionate about, then that’s the most important thing. Combine something that makes you happy with your skillset and begin there.
Meet Connie Stacey, Founder and President of Growing Greener Innovations (GGI) Inc., an award-winning clean energy technology company based out of Edmonton, Alberta. With a BA from the University of Alberta and 20 years of experience in the IT and computer programming sectors, Connie founded GGI in 2014, intent on creating a generator that was silent, cleaner, and safer, free of fumes and carbon emissions. Since creating GGI’s patented GRENGINE™ solar battery generator, Connie and her company have expanded into the battery energy storage sector. In addition to being President of GGI, Connie is on the steering committee of NAIT’s Centre for Grid Innovation, is a frequent speaker at cleantech events, and has been the recipient of several awards herself, including the Alberta Business Award for Woman Entrepreneur of the Year.
My first job ever was… Camp Counselor for the YMCA Summer Camps in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I wanted to use business as a way to create positive social change.
I founded Growing Greener Innovations because… Once I learned about global energy poverty and realized the technology I was inventing could make a real difference, I felt compelled to take the leap and build my new technology.
My biggest setback was… People had a hard time seeing a woman inventing new battery technology — there was a lot of skepticism.
I overcame it by… I kept talking to and meeting as many people as I could, trying to find believers who would support me and I looked for alternative ways to get past the barriers I came up against.
I’m passionate about cleantech because… I believe that cleantech is not just imperative for the environment, it is imperative for people. Clean air, drinkable water, sustainable food —these are essential for our planet, and they are essential for all people.
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Stick with it! There will be so much to learn in the beginning and so many obstacles to overcome, but if you believe in yourself and stick with it, you will get through it.
“I believe that cleantech is not just imperative for the environment, it is imperative for people. Clean air, drinkable water, sustainable food —these are essential for our planet, and they are essential for all people.”
The thing I love most about what I do is… I can’t pick one! I am picking two things. One, I love talking to people: My colleagues, our customers, our vendors, and everyone and anyone with interest in cleantech. Two, I love inventing; I love the process of unravelling a problem and finding innovative ways to solve those challenges.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… The love and support of my friends and family. Many of them did not understand the deep technology I was building, but they believed in me and made sure I knew it.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I am a huge fan of Star Wars and all things geeky! My coffee mugs are Star Wars, I have a Rey bobblehead on my desk, and I even have rebel alliance cufflinks! I spend my (few minutes of spare time) making 3D prints and toys for my kids and I love it!
I stay inspired by… Spending time with my kids. I have three beautiful children and they remind me of how important it is to leave the world a better place than we found it. I want them to enjoy the beautiful planet we inhabit and truly be equal with all of the people who live on it.
The future excites me because…Now that we are moving from development into commercialization, we are truly starting to see the positive outcomes our work can create. Knowing we are on the brink of so many positive results is unbelievably exciting, and I cannot wait to do even more!
We’ve all heard of conscious consumerism — but do you know what it really means or where to begin? With an increasing number of global and local issues in need of our attention, many are looking for real ways to make an impact. While we may aspire to “do more,” it’s not always easy to know which actions will actually make a difference.
Laura Reinholz — the current Head, Workplace Experience GTA and former Director, BMO for Women — has done a pretty significant life overhaul, changing the way she lives and shops to be more conscious, sustainable, and thoughtful. Her journey began four years ago, but as she tells us, it’s not nearly complete.
Laura found inspiration through work, where her focus is on breaking down barriers for women in their personal, professional, and financial lives. As she began to make these changes, she became so passionate that she enrolled in a graduate diploma in Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability. Her commitment has increased year over year to a point where spending money consciously has become second nature.
That being said, it doesn’t take a huge overhaul to make a big difference. In fact, the easiest way to begin is by taking one or two conscious steps in the right direction.
Where did your journey into conscious consumerism begin?
In my role with BMO, I began focusing on supporting women-led businesses as a means of economic development. I also became a SheEO activator around the same time, and began to take an intersectional look toward supporting Black women owned businesses, Indigenous women owned businesses, and 2SLGBTQIA+ owned businesses.
I wanted to understand how I could show support through my spending and create economic empowerment amongst those historically underrepresented groups, while also increasing my support in the community. What I found through my research was that many of these groups had products and services that were doing something through a lens of sustainability as well — whether intentional or not. Many were solving local issues while also addressing larger global issues as a result.
“The first step is awareness; recognizing that you want to make a change, learning more about the things you’re purchasing and their impact on the world as a whole.”
Where does someone even start when it comes to making changes?
The first step is awareness; recognizing that you want to make a change, learning more about the things you’re purchasing and their impact on the world as a whole. For me, it began with sustainability. And, while carbon emissions seem to be an almost overwhelming issue, there are small things you can do within your own home that can contribute in some way.
What was the first thing you changed?
I started by looking at the impact my purchases had on the environment — be it single use plastics or fast fashion. An easy way to start is to pay attention to the stores and restaurants you frequent. Are they using other products instead of plastic? Can you bring your own bags, containers, and cups? Can you buy refillable products that produce less waste?
You mentioned fast fashion. Were you able to change the way you bought clothes?
Yes. When it came to clothing, I chose to overhaul my wardrobe slowly. The fashion industry creates a massive amount of landfill waste and uses a huge amount of water in its production process. Much fast fashion is also produced under poor working conditions. You end up buying clothing that you wear for six months, and even if you donate it, so much still ends up in the landfill. There’s also some fitness attire that’s now seeping microplastics into the laundry and making their way into the waterways.
When I started to make personal changes to my wardrobe, I looked at the impact clothing brands were having and started choosing more sustainable brands that were locally made. It just so happens that there are a lot of women-owned companies making sustainable clothing, paying living wages, converting ocean plastic into clothing, and making capsule collections that can be mixed and matched. While it will cost more up front, I do see it as an investment. When I stopped buying frequent inexpensive fast fashion items and chose fewer, more costly pieces that would last, the amount I spent on clothing evened out. Take my winter jacket, for example. I bought a Patagonia jacket in 2015 that I’m still wearing. Their lifetime warranty means you can take it in and have it repaired when needed. I no longer need to buy a new jacket every few years. There are also amazing finds at vintage, consignment and second-hand stores. The majority of my “designer” items were purchased this way.
OK, what’s next? Beyond your closet, where else can you make meaningful changes?
The next obvious place I looked was the kitchen. Food waste was something that really bothered me. To solve for all the food that was going bad and being thrown out, I started to meal plan. Every Saturday morning, we sit down and plan out our meals (breakfasts, lunches and dinners now that we are working from home) for the week. I then go to the St. Lawrence Market to do my shopping, buying only what I’ll need that week. The next thing I do is clean all my fruits and veggies and prep them into containers so they’re easily accessible. By Friday night — our night for takeout — there’s nothing left in our fridge.
The reason we shop at the market is because on Saturdays, they have a farmers’ market and we have the option to buy from local growers and producers. I like to know that my dollars are going toward people from this region who are growing and producing food. I also bring all my own cloth bags, because there’s nothing that bothers me more than all the plastic in the grocery store.
“I recognize that I’m fortunate to live in downtown Toronto and have so many options when it comes to local small businesses I can support. I’ve also invested time to research businesses online and find individuals who are making what I need to buy.”
Going to the market every Saturday sounds like a conscious decision. How do you decide where to shop and is that part of conscious consumerism?
For sure it is. But I have to say, I recognize that I’m fortunate to live in downtown Toronto and have so many options when it comes to local small businesses I can support. I’ve also invested time to research businesses online and find individuals who are making what I need to buy. I won’t shop at some companies because of the way they treat their employees, and while that means I may pay more for certain items, I want to know that employees are being treated and paid fairly.
Where do you look to find businesses you’re aligned with?
As I mentioned, Google searches often turn up lots of results. Google ‘sustainable activewear in Canada,’ for example, and you’ll find articles listing different companies. You can then go to the individual company’s website to do more research. I also have found great brands by wandering into local stores that have values similar to my own. There’s also a lot on social media now. Once you start following a couple brands, you’ll end up seeing posts from others like them.
Have you experienced any secondary benefits from making more thoughtful choices about how you shop?
Yes! The best thing to come of this is the customer service. Last Christmas because of COVID, I couldn’t see my family who all live in B.C., so we decided to send gifts (usually we opt for experiences instead). Our agreement was, everything we bought had to be sourced locally. So, there I was, looking for local, women-owned, BIPOC-owned, socially conscious gifts that I could ship to my family in Vancouver Island and Whistler. I was able to create these amazing Christmas care packages. With every order that was delivered to me, I got this nice personalized message; when I wrote to engage with them on social media, they would engage back; and if there was ever an issue, I was contacted by a human being very quickly who was committed to making things right. That level of service you just don’t get with large companies.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had with all of this?
The area I’m having the hardest time switching over is personal care. Not all natural products work as well, and I’ve found it harder to make the switch. I just — after years — found a shampoo line that’s locally made and has removed all the water in the manufacturing process. The shampoo comes in an aluminum tube you can recycle when it’s done and there’s a plastic cap they take back and reuse.
That’s great. When you find a product you love, do you share it with others?
Oh, all the time. That’s a big part of the process. I do a bit of that on Instagram and I talk about it incessantly. That’s a philosophy I’ve taken with BMO for Women as well. We walk the talk. Every vendor we use for the program, even if not at the enterprise level, is women-owned. My journey with BMO has gotten me to where I am personally.
I believe spending deliberately helps level the playing field for historically underrepresented groups. When you consciously spend money with those businesses, you’re creating an environment in which they can thrive, which means they’ll be more likely to access financing to grow their businesses. The ripple effect also happens when these business owners succeed and are able to invest back in their own, often marginalized communities, and can continue to empower others.
Now that you’ve inspired us to make a change — is it time to throw everything out and start over?
No, definitely not. Making a total change all at once could end up being unnecessarily wasteful. For me it’s been a four-year process, and I still see myself as only being half way there. Identify areas where you can make the most impact, and start there.
On dit souvent qu’il faut du courage pour être entrepreneur, mais je pense que c’est plus compliqué que cela. Après avoir travaillé pendant près de 27 ans auprès d’entrepreneurs à BDC, j’ai appris que chaque personne avait sa propre définition du mot courage.
Parfois, il s’agit du courage d’un innovateur qui lance une idée inédite n’ayant jamais été éprouvée jusqu’ici dans le monde. D’autres fois, il s’agit de la capacité à faire face à n’importe quel obstacle et à le transformer en une occasion de croissance. Il arrive aussi qu’un entrepreneur doive faire preuve de courage pour être simplement lui-même et bâtir son entreprise comme il l’entend (un problème pour de nombreux propriétaires d’entreprises sous-représentés – problème que mon équipe et moi aidons à résoudre).
Il est rare que ces trois définitions s’appliquent, mais c’est le cas pour Sarah White et Denise Taschereau, cofondatrices de Fairware. Au cours des 16 dernières années, elles ont fait de leur entreprise de Vancouver, qui a démarré dans le garage de Sarah, le premier fournisseur nord-américain de produits promotionnels durables et éthiques.
Non seulement Sarah et Denise ont maintenu leur engagement ferme pris dès le début quant à l’impact sur l’environnement et la communauté (elles possèdent la certification B Corporation [BCorp] depuis des années), mais elles se sont également inspirées de leurs propres difficultés en tant que petite entreprise appartenant à des membres de la communauté queer, qui plus est à des femmes, pour orienter leurs politiques d’entreprise. Elles ont délibérément mis en place une équipe diversifiée et surtout, une culture qui encourage à être soi-même au travail.
J’ai rencontré Sarah pour qu’elle nous parle de son parcours personnel et entrepreneurial, notamment de son engagement permanent en faveur de l’approvisionnement éthique et des pratiques commerciales durables, de l’importance qu’elle accorde aux objectifs ainsi qu’à la diversité et à l’inclusion, et de sa capacité à survivre et à prospérer en période d’incertitude. Sarah est une force à ne pas négliger. Elle s’est engagée, avant tout, à se servir du monde des affaires pour faire le bien.
Laura : Lorsque vous et Denise avez lancé Fairware en 2005, l’accent mis sur la durabilité et la volonté d’améliorer le monde par le biais des affaires était une idée relativement nouvelle. Comment vous est-elle venue?
Sarah : Fairware a vu le jour parce que mon amie Denise, qui est désormais ma partenaire commerciale et qui travaillait à l’époque comme Directrice, développement durable et relations communautaires à MEC dans le domaine de la durabilité et de l’approvisionnement éthique, avait constaté que de nombreuses marques de qualité offraient des cadeaux publicitaires fabriqués dans des conditions suspectes. À cette époque, le sujet de la responsabilité sociale des entreprises commençait à être abordé dans la presse et un peu partout dans le monde, et il y avait un décalage avec ces grandes marques qui distribuaient des produits inconvenants. C’est de cette constatation qu’est née l’idée de Fairware.
« Notre objectif a toujours été d’aligner nos valeurs d’entreprise sur nos valeurs personnelles. »
Laura : Comment l’idée a-t-elle été reçue à l’époque? Comment vous êtes-vous aperçues que les choses évoluaient? Je suppose que les entreprises sont aujourd’hui plus ouvertes à parler des pratiques durables.
Sarah : Si le développement durable est aujourd’hui bien plus ancré dans les esprits, ce n’était certainement pas le cas à l’époque. Dès le départ, lorsque nous prenions le téléphone pour appeler un fournisseur potentiel, nous lui disions « nous aimerions discuter de l’origine de vos produits », et souvent, on nous raccrochait au nez.
Au fil des ans, cette conversation a considérablement évolué. Nous avons commencé avec la conformité et la sécurité des produits, puis nous nous sommes intéressées aux droits des travailleurs et à l’impact environnemental. Depuis quelques années, nous discutons avec d’autres distributeurs de l’antiracisme et de la justice sociale. Nous discutons avec les fournisseurs d’emballages durables d’une représentation diversifiée dans les catalogues. Ce que nous vivons aujourd’hui est en net contraste avec la situation qui prévalait au début de notre parcours entrepreneurial.
Aujourd’hui, nous allons également au-delà de notre chaîne d’approvisionnement traditionnelle pour travailler avec des entreprises qui ont un impact – des entreprises à vocation sociale, souvent locales, appartenant à des entités issues de la diversité – qui n’auraient pas autrement la capacité de répondre à de grosses commandes d’entreprise. Nous consultons ces entreprises pour les aider à fixer leurs prix et à renforcer leurs capacités afin qu’elles soient en mesure de créer des produits à notre intention. Ainsi, notre succès nous permet non seulement d’aider les autres à se développer, mais aussi de contribuer à construire un écosystème qui soutient nos convictions en matière de durabilité et d’équité.
Franchement, si nous avons créé notre entreprise, ce n’est pas parce que nous aimons les babioles, mais parce que nous voulions faire bouger les choses. Notre objectif a toujours été d’aligner nos valeurs d’entreprise sur nos valeurs personnelles.
Laura : Et je sais que cela s’applique non seulement à la façon dont vous faites affaire avec vos clients et vos fournisseurs, mais aussi à la manière dont vous avez façonné la culture d’entreprise de Fairware. Pouvez-vous nous dire en quoi vos valeurs personnelles et même vos expériences personnelles ont joué un rôle à cet égard?
Sarah : Je plaisante parfois en disant que j’ai créé une entreprise simplement pour pouvoir m’habiller comme je l’entendais et être en accord avec moi-même, mais franchement, je pense que c’est en grande partie la vérité. Donner le ton de l’acceptation et de l’inclusion confère un certain pouvoir, et en me montrant telle que je suis, j’espère encourager les autres à en faire de même. Pour vous donner une idée de la culture que nous avons créée, une année à Halloween, un de nos employés s’est habillé en tenue de travail, juste pour nous embêter.
Mais être moi-même n’a pas toujours été facile. Étant de genre non conforme, j’ai souvent été mégenrée et confrontée à l’homophobie et à la misogynie, sous forme de micro-agressions. Alors que de nombreux membres de la communauté des entreprises progressistes se considèrent très au fait des questions d’antiracisme, de LGBTQ+, etc., nous nous sommes rendu compte cette année que la plupart d’entre nous ne l’étaient pas. Nous avons tous encore beaucoup à apprendre et à faire.
Sarah : Le parcours a été long. Je suis avec ma partenaire depuis 36 ans et j’ai deux enfants adultes. Avoir des enfants en tant que couple homosexuel était pour le moins avant-gardiste dans les années 1990. Je ne suis pas certaine d’avoir beaucoup changé depuis, mais j’hésite maintenant moins à être moi-même, je suis plus consciente des problèmes qu’éprouvent les personnes LGBTQ+ et j’en parle ouvertement.
Toutefois, pour le bien de mes enfants, même à l’époque, je n’ai jamais cherché à dissimuler qui j’étais vraiment, même si c’était difficile pour eux d’avoir une maman qui ne ressemblait pas aux autres mamans. Si j’avais dû changer à l’époque, mes enfants en auraient conclu qu’il n’est pas acceptable d’être soi-même et que l’on doit se conformer pour ne gêner personne. De plus, certains d’entre nous n’ont pas d’autre choix que de s’accepter. Certaines personnes peuvent passer pour cisgenres, d’autres non. Je veux que les autres se reconnaissent en moi et sachent qu’eux aussi ont leur place dans le monde de l’entreprise.
« Pour nous, la culture consiste à laisser les gens mettre leur propre diversité à contribution. »
Laura : Pouvez-vous indiquer aux propriétaires d’entreprise qui espèrent créer la même culture inclusive que la vôtre – y compris ceux qui n’ont pas vécu les mêmes expériences – quelques tactiques précises que vous avez utilisées pour harmoniser votre équipe avec vos valeurs?
Sarah : Pour nous, la culture consiste à laisser les gens mettre leur propre diversité à contribution. Bien que Denise et moi ayons toujours été des militantes – elle en politique, et moi dans le milieu communautaire – nous faisons de notre mieux pour ne pas engager des personnes comme nous. Nous encourageons tous ceux qui travaillent avec nous à intégrer leurs propres intérêts et passions à l’entreprise. Nous sommes également très transparentes sur notre site Web et dans nos offres d’emploi : si vous postulez pour travailler avec nous, vous rejoindrez un environnement de travail inclusif. Si cela ne vous convient pas, vous ne postulerez pas.
De plus, ce n’est pas parce que la durabilité est un sujet qui nous passionne, à Denise et à moi, qu’elle doit susciter le même degré d’intérêt chez nos employés. Lors d’un entretien d’embauche, nous posons la question suivante : « Sous quelle forme contribuez-vous au développement durable dans votre vie quotidienne? ». Si la réponse est : « Je recycle, mais je veux en savoir plus », cela nous suffit. Avant tout, nous recherchons des personnes ouvertes et intéressées.
Lorsque nous accueillons de nouveaux employés, nous appliquons une pratique que j’ai apprise durant un atelier sur la réconciliation. Nous demandons au nouveau membre du personnel de donner son nom, son nom traditionnel s’il en a un, et son identité culturelle, ainsi que toute information à son sujet dont il souhaite faire part à l’équipe. Dans une entreprise comptant moins de 20 employés, on parle au moins 11 langues différentes. La diversité est incontestablement ancrée dans notre culture.
Laura : Vous êtes également une société certifiée B Corporation, ce qui signifie que vous vous êtes engagées à créer un impact positif pour vos employés, ainsi que pour les communautés et l’environnement. Ce n’est pas chose facile, mais vous l’avez fait en 2010, en tant que l’un des membres fondateurs de la Canadian B Corp. Comment s’est déroulée cette expérience et pourquoi était-elle si importante pour vous?
Sarah : Au début, nous étions une petite entreprise dont l’équipe était restreinte. Nous nous sommes demandé si, étant donné que nous observions déjà ces pratiques de toute façon, nous disposions de la capacité ou du temps nécessaire pour nous soumettre au processus rigoureux d’obtention de cette certification. Mais à mesure que nous rencontrions des personnes du milieu des affaires de Vancouver qui avaient les mêmes idées que nous, nous avons commencé à comprendre qu’il ne s’agissait pas seulement de nous, mais de faire partie d’un mouvement qui utilise les entreprises comme une force pour faire le bien.
L’obtention de la certification B Corp a contribué à structurer nos engagements, à nous responsabiliser et à nous montrer les points que nous devions améliorer. Aujourd’hui encore, cette certification nous pousse à aller plus loin, à réfléchir à des choses auxquelles nous n’aurions pas pensé autrement et à nous dépasser pour atteindre nos objectifs. Cela va de la gestion de la chaîne d’approvisionnement aux pratiques durables, en passant par la culture interne, les salaires, les engagements sociaux, et bien plus encore.
Nous avons eu beaucoup de chance d’avoir BDC comme partenaire de financement, car non seulement vous nous avez fourni d’excellents conseils et services au fil des ans, ainsi que de l’aide pour renforcer nos capacités, mais vous avez vous-même obtenu la certification B Corp, ce qui signifie que nous avons encore plus de valeurs en commun.
« L’obtention de la certification B Corp a contribué à structurer nos engagements, à nous responsabiliser et à nous montrer les points que nous devions améliorer. »
Laura : Je suis certaine que votre engagement à construire une entreprise basée sur des valeurs et une culture inclusive a joué un rôle primordial dans le succès de Fairware, mais qu’en est-il pendant les périodes difficiles? Comment avez-vous, vous et votre entreprise, vécu les 18 derniers mois d’incertitude engendrée par la pandémie?
Sarah : En tant que jeune entreprise, nous avons survécu à la récession de 2008-2009, ce qui nous a donné un bonne idée du comportement à adopter pendant la pandémie de COVID-19. Lorsque la pandémie a frappé, nous venions de terminer une année durant laquelle nous avions engagé des dépenses importantes, ainsi qu’une rénovation majeure de nos bureaux. D’ailleurs, notre équipe de Vancouver avait été configurée pour travailler à distance en raison de cette rénovation, puis personne n’est revenu au bureau à cause de la COVID-19.
Nous avons alors compris que nous avions très peu de marge de manœuvre; Nous savions que nous devions procéder à des mises à pied et que si nous tergiversions, nous pourrions perdre l’entreprise. Ce furent les moments les plus durs et les plus pénibles de notre vie. Nous avons dû licencier la moitié de notre effectif. Vous parlez d’un impact sur la culture. Heureusement, nous sommes restées proches de tout le monde et avons aidé ces gens à accéder à des ressources et à du soutien. Petit à petit, nous avons pu les réembaucher grâce aux subventions du gouvernement.
Pendant la pandémie, comme vous le savez, de grandes questions sociales ont également surgi, notamment le mouvement Black Lives Matter et, plus récemment, la découverte de tombes non marquées d’enfants autochtones assassinés. Malgré tous ces événements, nous avons continué à parler, à travailler et à apprendre. Notre objectif et nos valeurs sont demeurés les mêmes. Nous nous réunissons quotidiennement en ligne et, petit à petit, les gens commencent à revenir au bureau.
Malgré les défis auxquels sont confrontés le monde des affaires et notre secteur, la COVID-19 a fourni à certaines entreprises une bonne occasion d’utiliser les budgets normalement alloués aux événements ou aux conférences pour montrer de la bienveillance à leurs employés en leur remettant des colis et des paniers, et nous avons pu les aider dans cette démarche. Nous sommes demeurés engagés à n’offrir que des produits et des cadeaux pratiques qui ne finiraient pas à la décharge, et nous avons mis au point un programme qui permet à une personne qui ne souhaite pas recevoir de cadeau de choisir de faire un don en son nom.
Dans l’ensemble, nous en sommes sorties plus fortes et plus dévoués que jamais à notre mission. Et nous nous réjouissons de voir notre bureau nouvellement rénové, qui était trop calme, rempli de gens à nouveau.
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 Sarah White, co-founder of Fairwaire, North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.
It is often said that being an entrepreneur takes courage — but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. After nearly 27 years of working with entrepreneurs at BDC, I’ve learned that courage tends to take on different meanings for each individual.
Sometimes it’s the courage to be an innovator, bringing a new and unproven idea out into the world. Sometimes it’s the ability to face down any obstacle and turn it into an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it’s a courageous act by an entrepreneur to simply be their authentic self, and build their company their own way (an issue for many underrepresented business owners — one that me and my team are working on improving).
Rarely is it all three, as is the case with Sarah White and Denise Taschereau, co-founders of Fairware. Over the past 16 years, they have built their Vancouver-based business — which got its start in Sarah’s garage — into North America’s leading provider of sustainable, ethically sourced promotional products.
Not only have Sarah and Denise maintained a steadfast commitment to environmental and community impact since day one (they’re a Certified B Corporation (BCorp) and have been for years) — but they’ve also tapped into their own struggles as a queer-owned, women-owned, small business to guide their corporate policies. They’ve intentionally built a diverse team and, more importantly, a culture where people are encouraged to bring their true selves to work.
I sat down with Sarah to unpack her personal and entrepreneurial journey, including her ongoing commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainable business practices, her intense focus on purpose, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and her ability to survive and thrive during uncertain times. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with — committed, above all else, to use business as a force for good.
Laura: When you and Denise launched Fairware in 2005, a focus on sustainability and bettering the world through business was relatively novel. How did the idea come about?
Sarah: Fairware started because my friend, and now business partner, Denise was the Director of Sustainability and Community at MEC in sustainability and ethical sourcing, and she found that many really good brands were giving away swag that was manufactured under suspect conditions. This was at the time that corporate social responsibility was bubbling up in the press and around the world, and the disconnect between good brands giving away bad stuff meant there was a gap — which was how the idea for Fairware was born.
“To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values.”
Laura: How was the idea received then? And how have you seen that evolve? I imagine companies today are more open to conversations around sustainable practices.
Sarah: While sustainability is now much more embedded in the mainstream, it certainly wasn’t then. From day one we’d pick up the phone, call a potential supplier, and say, ‘we’d like to talk to you about where your products come from’ — and we were often hung up on.
Over the years, that conversation has evolved significantly. It began with compliance and product safety, and moved into workers’ rights, environmental impact, and over the last few years, we’re now talking with other distributors about anti-racism and social justice. We are talking to suppliers about sustainable packaging and diverse representation in the catalogues. What we are seeing is night and day from the beginning of our entrepreneurial journey.
Today, we are also reaching beyond our traditional supply chain to work with impact businesses — diverse-owned social enterprises that are often local — that wouldn’t otherwise have the capacity for large corporate orders. We consult with these companies to help them with pricing and capacity building so that they can create products for us. So, through our success, we’re not only lifting others up, we’re also helping to build an ecosystem that supports our beliefs on sustainability and equity.
To be honest, we started our business not because we love chachkies, but because we wanted to drive change. Our purpose was always to align our business values with our personal values.
Laura: And I know that applies not only to how you do business with your customers and suppliers, but also to how you’ve shaped the corporate culture at Fairware. Can you share a bit about how your personal values and even your personal experiences have played a role in that?
Sarah: I sometimes joke that I started a business just so that I could dress and be how I wanted to be — but honestly, there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s power in setting the tone of acceptance and inclusion, because when I show up as myself, I hope I make it easier for others to do the same. To give you a sense of the culture we’ve created, one Halloween, our staff dressed up in business attire just to bug us.
But being my true self in the world hasn’t always been easy. Because I’m gender non-conforming, I’ve often been misgendered, and I’ve experienced homophobia and misogyny in the form of microaggressions. While a lot of folks in the progressive business community see themselves as up to speed with anti-racism, LGBTQ+ issues, etc., what we’ve learned this year is that most of us aren’t. Some of us have a ton of work and learning to do.
Sarah: That journey has been a long one. I’ve been with my partner for 36 years and I have two adult kids. Having kids as a gay couple in the 1990s was pretty trailblazing. I’m not sure I’ve actually changed too much since then, but I do have more courage now to be myself, I feel more aware of LGBTQ+ issues, and I openly speak out about them and myself.
But for my kids’ sake, even back then, I never wanted to change who I was, even if it was tough for them having a mom that didn’t look like all the other moms. If I were to have changed then, I would have given my kids the message that it’s not okay to be who you really are, that you must conform for others’ comfort. Plus, some of us don’t have a choice but to embrace who we are. Some people can pass as cisgender, and others can’t. I want others to see themselves in me and know they too have a place in the corporate world.
“For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company.”
Laura: For business owners that hope to create the same inclusive corporate culture that you have — including those that don’t have the same lived experience to draw from — can you share a few specific tactics you’ve used to align your team and your values?
Sarah: For us, culture is about letting people bring their own diversity to the table. While Denise and I have always been activists — her in politics, and me in community work — we try our best not to hire people like us. We encourage everyone who works with us to bring their own interests and passions to the company. We’re also very transparent on our website and in our job postings that if you apply to work with us, you’ll be joining an inclusive work environment, and if that doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not going to apply.
Also, while Denise and I are both hugely passionate about sustainability, our employees don’t necessarily have to be. We’ll say in an interview, ‘how does sustainability show up in your life?’ and if the response is, ‘I recycle, but I want to learn more about it,’ that’s good enough for us. We want people who are open and interested, above all else.
When we on-board new staff we have a practice that I borrowed from participating in a reconciliation workshop. We have the new staff member say their name, their traditional name if they have one, and how they identify culturally, plus anything else they want the team to know about them. In a company of fewer than 20 employees there are at least 11 different languages spoken. Diversity is unquestionably ingrained in our culture.
Laura: You’re also a Certified B Corporation, which means you’ve committed to create a positive impact for your employees, as well as for communities and the environment. It’s not an easy feat — and you did it back in 2010, as one of the founding members of the Canadian B Corp. What was that experience like and why was it so important to you?
Sarah: In the beginning we were a small company with a small staff. We wondered, if we are doing all of this anyway, do we have the capacity or time to undergo the rigorous process to gain this certification? But as we began to meet more like-minded folks in the Vancouver business community, we began to see that this wasn’t just about us, it was about being part of a movement that uses business as a force for good.
Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve. To this day it pushes us to go further, to think about things we wouldn’t have otherwise, and to stretch us to meet goals. This is everything from supply chain management, to sustainable practices, to internal culture, to wages, to social commitments — and more.
We’ve been really fortunate to have BDC as a funding partner, because you’ve not only provided great advice and service over the years, helping us build capacity, but you’ve become B Corp certified, which means we have even more values aligned.
“Becoming B Corp certified helped give structure to our commitments, provided accountability, and showed us where we needed to improve.”
Laura: I am sure your commitment to building a values-based business with an inclusive culture has played a huge role in Fairware’s success, but what about during the tough times? What have the last 18 months of pandemic uncertainty been like for you and your business?
Sarah: As a young business, we survived the recession of 2008/2009, and that gave us a lot of insight into how to behave during COVID. We had just come out of a significant year of spending and had completed a major office renovation right before the pandemic hit. Incidentally, our team in Vancouver was set up to work remotely because of that reno —and then because of COVID, no one came back to the office.
From there, we knew our runway was short — we knew we’d have to lay people off, and procrastinating could lead to losing the business. Those were the hardest and most brutal moments of our lives. We had to let half of our staff go. Talk about an impact on culture. Thankfully, we stayed close with everyone, and helped them access resources and support. Slowly, we were able to hire people back, thanks to Government subsidies.
During the pandemic, as you know, some major social issues also came up, including the Black Lives Matter movement, and more recently the discovery of unmarked graves of murdered Indigenous children. Through it all we kept talking, kept working, and learning. Our focus and values haven’t shifted at all. We meet daily online and slowly, people are starting to come back into the office.
And despite the challenges to the corporate world and our industry, COVID provided a nice opportunity for some companies to take their budgets that they weren’t spending on events or conferences and show their employees some love with packages and baskets — and we were able to help with these. We remained committed to only providing products and gifts that were practical and wouldn’t end up in the landfill, and we developed a program that if someone opted out of the gift, they could choose to have a donation made in their name instead.
All in all, we came out stronger and more committed than ever to our mission. And we’re certainly excited to see our newly renovated office that’s been all too quiet, filling up with people again.
When asked how she became one of the country’s leading advocates in the area of mental health, Sandi Treliving remembers the evening in 2010 that sparked an enduring passion in her philanthropic work.
Sandi and her husband, businessman and star of CBC Dragons’ Den, Jim Treliving, were living in Texas at the time but were in Toronto for the weekend. They had been invited to UnMasked, a fundraising event put on by CAMH: The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, an organization that Sandi wasn’t familiar with back then.
“My husband said to me, ‘So, what are we doing tonight?’ His typical question. I said, ‘Well, we’ve been invited to this event. It has something to do with mental health,’” Sandi recalls. “It ended up being a game changer for me.”
At the event, Sandi and Jim were seated at a table with the late Michael Wilson, a former federal Finance Minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Michael had lost his son, Cameron, to suicide when Cameron was just 29 years old, and dedicated his later life to raising awareness and ending the stigma around mental health. Also seated at the table with Sandi and Jim was a representative for the CAMH Foundation, which raises and stewards funds for CAMH, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital and research centre.
“I was really blown away with the people that I spoke with that evening,” Sandi says. Listening to her tablemates talk about the advances in support and treatment being pioneered at CAMH, she knew she had found her calling.
“Being exposed to mental health challenges at a very young age with my brother’s illness, I always knew that I was going to do something in the mental health world. But I had been quite discouraged throughout the years because of the lack of change in treatment and the stigma attached to mental health.”
“I was just so happy to hear that the transition had been made from a life sentence of no support for people living with mental illness to an opportunity for wellness. And the respect and the dignity that goes along with that. It just completely changed my own thinking and was the impetus for me to get involved,” she says. “I toured the campus the next day and said, ‘How can I help?’”
Now a director of the CAMH Foundation, Sandi has headed many fundraising initiatives, including co-Chairing CAMH’s signature UnMasked event in 2015 and 2017, and acting as a Campaign Adviser for CAMH’s $200-million Breakthrough Campaign, Canada’s largest hospital fundraising campaign for mental health. Her current focus is womenmind, a CAMH initiative that seeks to close the gender gap in mental health and achieve equality in the way that mental health is researched and treated.
“Our focus is education, awareness, reducing stigma, and building a community of support,” Sandi says. “We are getting that message out to show people: here’s the hope.”
A personal connection that sparked a passion
While that special evening at UnMasked was the catalyst that prompted Sandi’s tireless advocacy work, she had long had a personal interest in the area, stemming from her family’s own experiences with mental illness.
Sandi was seven years old when her teenage brother, David, began exhibiting the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. It’s a disease that can cause delusions, hallucinations and disorganized thinking. When in the grip of psychosis, David would have violent outbursts, Sandi says, and it wasn’t until later in life that he was able to get the treatment and medication he needed.
“Being exposed to mental health challenges at a very young age with my brother’s illness, I always knew that I was going to do something in the mental health world. But I had been quite discouraged throughout the years because of the lack of change in treatment and the stigma attached to mental health,” she says.
She notes that back in the 1970s when David first began experiencing symptoms of his disease, they weren’t recognized as schizophrenia.
“Our family doctor said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s rebellious. He’s a teenager.’ So that started the trajectory downwards, because the psychosis led to more psychosis, more illness, and so on,” she says. “Now, had this happened today, we would have completely different options available to the person with the illness and for the families. And that is the reason that I advocate daily for changes in people’s attitudes towards mental health and for getting to that wellness stage that we all want for our loved ones.”
The more we talk about mental health, the better we will be able to support people and families living with mental illness, says Sandi, even though it can be uncomfortable to talk about sometimes.
“Let’s break down this mystery, and recognize that the brain is an organ, and sometimes organs get sick,” she says. “The best outcomes happen when we can recognize mental illness as soon as possible and act on it.”
Towards gender balance in mental health
For the past year and a half, Sandi has been a founding member and leading voice of CAMH’s womenmind, a community of philanthropists committed to closing the gender gap in mental health and driving change for women’s mental health and women in science.
Sandi says the initiative came about after a conversation with Deborah Gillis, President and CEO of the CAMH Foundation. “She pulled a couple of the female board members aside after a meeting and said, ‘I’ve asked for some information on women’s mental health and I’ve been digging deep into gender gaps.’ And she laid it out for us.’”
Sandi learned that the challenges facing women in mental health are significant and pressing: women experience depression, anxiety, and trauma to a greater extent than men across different countries and settings. Many treatments used today have been disproportionately tested on men and not equitably studied on women. And women in science face biases as they work to advance their careers.
“During the conversation, a light bulb went off for me. I thought, this is something that we could get our girls involved with. So I talked to my husband, and I said, ‘I’ve got an idea here. Why don’t we give a gift from the Treliving women to women’s mental health?’ And Jim said, ‘That’s the best idea I ever heard in a long time.’”
Sandi spoke to the women in her family, who include her daughter and daughter-in-law, Jim’s daughter and daughter-in-law, as well as six granddaughters and one great-granddaughter. (“The men are scattered in there, but we are heavily weighted on the female side in our family,” Sandi says with a laugh.)
The Treliving women and girls were thrilled to be a part of a project that focused on women and mental health. “My daughter Katie said to me, ‘Mom, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get involved,’ and I just knew we were onto something.”
The family gave a $5-million intergenerational gift to launch womenmind in March 2020. In the first five years, the initiative aims to raise $10 million to recruit new women scientists, provide early career start-up support, hold research and seed grant competitions, offer mentoring programs for women in science, and host an annual global research symposium.
“There’s got to be other families out there that are thinking the same way, and how amazing would it be to have families come and join us in the womenmind community? Sisters, mothers, daughters, come and join us. I think that when we gather together, especially as women, we make change happen.”
womenmind has already achieved several significant milestones, like recruiting Dr. Daisy Singla as the first-ever womenmind Family Scientist specializing in women’s mental health, and launching the first womenmind Seed Funding Competition with awards going to support three women researchers whose fields of study focus on new clinical tools to treat depression, women and nicotine addiction, and safer, more effective use of benzodiazepines by women. It also developed a mentorship program for women scientists to provide training and skill development, and created the inaugural Treliving Family Chair in Women’s Mental Health in conjunction with the University of Toronto. An international search is currently underway for a chair who will lead the development of a research program focused on understanding and improving mental health outcomes for women.
“The goal of womenmind is to support, recognize and celebrate the work of female scientists who are working to improve mental health outcomes for women,” says Sandi. “I am confident the research they are conducting today will make all the difference to the lives of girls and women in the future.”
The focus on women and mental health is something that’s especially needed now, Sandi says. She points to a July 2020 paper released by CAMH called “Mental Health in Canada: COVID-19 and Beyond” that revealed the negative impact of the pandemic on Canadians’ mental health. A poll found that 50 per cent of Canadians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic, stemming from fear and uncertainty about health, employment, finances and social isolation. Women were identified as one of the groups most vulnerable to the mental health impacts of COVID-19.
“Women are the majority of essential workers, they are the caregivers, they could be caring for an elderly parent at the same time that they’re caring for a child at home. And they’re dealing with COVID on top of that,” Sandi says.
As a founding member of womenmind, Sandi points out that there’s yet another goal in what they are doing, which is mentoring the next generation of philanthropists. They are hoping to inspire other women to join the womenmind team to make real change for women and girls in mental health.
“There’s got to be other families out there that are thinking the same way, and how amazing would it be to have families come and join us in the womenmind community? Sisters, mothers, daughters, come and join us. I think that when we gather together, especially as women, we make change happen.” Sandi says it’s been a joy to have her daughters and granddaughters involved in this very special endeavour.
“It bonds us, moving in the same direction with the same focus. I can’t wait to see all of the innovations and discoveries; I can’t wait to watch the scientists as they develop their careers. I’m excited that my youngest granddaughter is six months old, so in 20 years, what will womenmind researchers have accomplished? That’s powerful.”
It’s also been very rewarding from a personal standpoint, Sandi adds.
“I didn’t realize the impact of my brother’s illness on me. I always looked at my father and mother and how challenging it’s been for them, but David’s illness has impacted me tremendously as well,” she says. “Because my brother is ten years older than me, I didn’t really get to know him ever. And I’m sad about that. I’ve heard that he was a great brother, but I never really experienced that relationship with him. So being able to do what I’m doing now is very healing.”
When it comes to financing, women business owners face significant barriers when securing capital compared to men — but how bad is it?
“51% of the population are women, yet we receive 2% of the capital,” explains Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO. “That’s statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”
A serial entrepreneur who has made a career of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, Vicki Saunders’ latest venture was designed to directly tackle the issue of gender inequity. Launched in 2015 in Canada and now also in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, SheEO is a not-for-profit company that has made an entirely new model of financing for women-identifying and non-binary entrepreneurs.
Built on a foundation of ‘radical generosity,’ the five-year loans SheEO provides have zero interest. There are no requirements for collateral, and a simplified process for applying. And when the money is paid back, everything gets reinvested back into a perpetual fund to support the next round of business owners.
“When I was getting started with SheEO, people would say to me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with making money on an investment,’ because that’s how it’s always been done,” says Vicki. “But you don’t have to make money on everything. This is a radically different way of thinking about investing — it’s more about a collective ensuring capital is flowing to innovators who have been consistently put to the margins by our systems and structures. We need to rethink what we are investing in, for what kind of future.”
The capital is provided by a diverse community of women-identifying and non-binary individuals. Known as Activators, they come from all walks of life, varying in experience and ranging in age from 11 to 95. In addition to a monthly contribution of $92, they commit to sharing their expertise, networks, and buying power. “We have weekly community calls which are designed for us to get the support we need from one another,” says Vicki. “Everyone in this community has something to give, and we offer it up in a radically generous environment full of trust and love.”
“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically. When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.”
Each year, Activators democratically vote in their country on the Ventures that will be supported. The businesses who apply to SheEO come from a broad range of sectors, but they all have a few things in common: they are majority women- or non-binary-owned and led; they’re revenue-generating (from $50k to $2M); and they’re “tackling the World’s To-Do List” in their own unique way.
“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically,” explains Vicki. “When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.”
The ‘World’s To-Do List’ is based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. SheEO selected Ventures not only identify which of the 17 SDGs they are working on, but also measure their impact related to those goals.
Removing the requirement for a financial return has made it simpler to focus on supporting the businesses on their own terms, leaving space for new models and new approaches to emerge. “Many of our Ventures would not have received funding at this early stage unless they are privileged to have friends and family with capital. We are focused on creating more equitable systems and getting capital into the hands of those with brilliant innovations that help us get to a better world. And, in a community that comes from a place of radical generosity, we’ve experienced that businesses that look ‘uninvestable’ through a traditional lens can literally transform almost immediately when hundreds of women get behind them and support them as customers, advisors and connectors.”
Even by traditional metrics, the results are impressive: About 95% of the loans are repaid, and in the last year alone, the 63 Ventures in the program created 772 environmentally and socially sustainable jobs, and experienced 65% growth in revenue. Those successes, Vicki explains, wouldn’t have come about if not for the power of the deep relationships between Activators and Ventures.
“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers,” says Vicki. “The entrepreneurs who have been funded through SheEO would never run a business alone again.”
“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers.”
The connections are fostered with the help of several events, from fireside chats to the annual SheEO Summit. Their Learning Circles feature topics ranging from the power of email marketing to the creation of sacred space through Indigenous teachings. Since the pandemic started, everything has been pushed online, but Vicki says that’s actually been beneficial. “The virtual transition really worked well for us. We were able to connect more with our community from across the globe.”
In 2020, SheEO hosted 263 Zoom calls, and reached over 8,000 guests through virtual events. They also welcomed nearly 1,500 new Activators, growing the community by over 30%. This year, largely enabled by $1.2 million in funding provided by BMO, they’ve gone from 20 to 44 Ventures supported globally, including all 23 Canadian applicants.
“BMO’s investment in SheEO is helping a growing number of women-owned businesses affected by the pandemic to have the opportunity to grow and prosper,” says Vicki. “We are excited to have the opportunity to double the number of ventures for the first time since we launched in 2015 — and we’re particularly excited that BMO has matched our lending terms at 0% interest, recognizing the power of our unique ecosystem.”
Of course, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. SheEO’s relationship-based, impact-focused ecosystem is doing far more than providing loans, generating jobs, and increasing revenue. “It’s showing the world that another way forward is possible,” says Vicki.
“Our current economic system isn’t working; it’s built on inequality and it’s unsustainable. We’ve lost our sense of community, and we don’t know how to say, ‘maybe we have enough,’” she says. “That’s why SheEO is redefining how things are done.”
Vicki believes the old system is dying, but that we’ll continue to be held back if we don’t foster an entirely new mindset.
“We have this inertia. Even though we’re not happy, we just keep doing what we’re doing because it’s easier, because we know how. And overcoming that inertia takes an incredible amount of force,” says Vicki. “It takes a stretch of the imagination to think in a non-transactional way. Everything in this world is transactional. What if instead we asked, ‘How can I make things better?’ We all have excess capacity. We all have a talent we can share. Maybe you’re a storyteller or a super-connector — whatever it is, there’s a way you can contribute.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 fourcontinents 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.”
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.”
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.
Aaiman Aamir is a community builder from Toronto whose passion for diversity and inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) led her to writing Our Stories in STEM, a children’s book about 40 Canadian women working in STEM fields today, illustrated by 40 Canadian artists. In 2017 she joined the Greenhouse Social Impact Incubator where she started a research project to figure out why only 22% of STEM professionals are women. Three years later, she wrote her book to inspire young Canadian girls to pursue careers in STEM.
My first job ever was… delivering newspapers on a paper route of 50 houses at 12 years old. Every weekend at 9am, a City of Mississauga car would drop bundles of newspapers and flyers on my driveway. I’d have to take apart each paper, put one of each flyer inside, package it in plastic, and leave it on people’s porches. They were heavy, took me hours, and were a nightmare to deliver in the snow; but I would stay focused thinking about all the things I could do from the money I was about to make. At the end of the month I received a check for $50… that was a pretty rude awakening.
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… seeing my family struggle in traditional jobs as part of the working class, and how often the amount and quality of work they put in would never equal financial stability, it seemed like the only promising route to financial independence based on the stories of other entrepreneurs around me. Apart from that, I’ve always had a deep desire to do something — whether that’s building community, making things, or volunteering. The desire to make an impact on the world has always driven me to do more. Acting outside the traditional norms of what society expects from a middle-class immigrant Muslim girl is an extra plus.
We need inclusion and representation in STEM because… we need inclusive, equitable, and innovative solutions to solve complex global problems. Diversity leads to better problem-solving, fresh perspectives that are a better representation of the global population, creates equal opportunities, expands the talent pool, and is imperative for long-term economic growth.
My proudest accomplishment is… the first time I ran a workshop with little children, introducing female role models through play-based learning. The little girls realizing that game designers and architects and engineers can be women — highly accomplished women doing things they love — was a big win for me. It made me realize that small-scale efforts can have large-scale impacts on young children’s lives.
My boldest move to date was… signing a big quote with a design studio to create the branding for my business. It was the first time I decided, ‘yeah, I’m doing this. I believe in this project and I’ll invest in myself to make it happen.’
I surprise people when I tell them… I was a horrible student who almost failed out of school many times. People often correlate traditional success with grades, but anything I’ve achieved in my life has never been from my academic performance. It’s okay if you failed, none of my employers have ever given it a second glance. Especially in the entrepreneurship world — it’s all about your willingness to self-learn and follow through.
My best advice to people hoping to become an author is… number 1: finish your book. Number 2: be very careful before signing any publishing deals; they can sound promising in the beginning but can often be very predatory in the fine print. Weigh the pros and cons between self-publishing and hybrid-traditional publishing.
My biggest setback was… not having the funds to bring ideas to life, or the knowledge of how government funding, grants, and bursaries could be applicable for me. This led to a lot of missed opportunities that could have resulted in catapulting my business much faster.
I overcame it by… asking for help. Founder support groups, especially the Female Founders Fund, are a great resource to get help from those who are looking to give it. There’s nothing wrong with letting people know that you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to certain areas of operating a business — vulnerability is a strength.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… make more things! Maintaining a balance between my business, my full-time work, my relationships, and other life necessities means a lot of the hobbies I enjoy have to take a backseat. With another hour I’d love to be painting, drawing, and making crafts.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… my real story. There are versions of my journey, so far, that I choose to put out into the world as they pertain to my career or my book, but I keep the full version about my struggles, abuse, and mental health issues close to me. It helps me maintain a choice between who I choose to be vulnerable to. That’s the best part about stories, you can choose how you tell it. Or on a lighter note: you wouldn’t know that I used to be a Paint Nite instructor.
I stay inspired by… the incredible women around me. Those that are achieving great things, along with those who are overcoming their barriers and surviving. The power and resilience that women hold within themselves is astounding.
The future excites me because… the youth are curious and informed. Now, more than ever, I see the next generation being the torchbearers for social, political, economic, and environmental change.
My next step is… to use my platform to bring more stories of every day role models to young children. Stories of political activists, environmental leaders, or everyday folks trying to live — stories have the power to change the world. I want to be part of that change in a teeny tiny way.