Why I started a book club for in-risk teen girls


Tanya Marie Lee is the founder of A Room Of Your Own book club, offering teen girls living in poverty a safe space to find their voice, see their potential, and discuss issues they might face — with monthly meet-ups that include the author of the book they’re reading. Inspired by the sanctuary the library provided during her own traumatic childhood, Tanya launched the program in 2017 and has served over 600 students in Toronto so far. With no stable sources of funding, she relies on donations to continue her work. We asked Tanya to share her story.


By Tanya Marie Lee



When you think of a library, what is the first thing you think of? Books? Librarians? How about a sanctuary? What about a home away from home? How about a road to recovery? When I think of a library, these are the indomitable words that come to my mind.

My name is Tanya Marie Lee and I am the founder of “A Room Of Your Own Plus+” (AROYO) book club for teen girls living in poverty. Hosted in the Lillian H. Smith Public Library in Toronto, our primary focus is on giving young women a space for self-exploration, access to anti-oppression information, and a voice in society, while supporting their mental health and wellness. Girls from 13 to 18 years of age, from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, abilities and sexual orientations, meet monthly for a discussion — with the author in attendance. We create safe spaces to encourage these young women to express their curiosity, ambitions, hopes, fears, needs, concerns, and frustrations.

How did I know a book club could offer so much? Libraries and books have always been a lifeline for me. Growing up in a very abusive household, my life was filled with conflict and trauma.


“I felt that abuse and struggle was just a way of life for me. No matter how much I prayed to God, the abuse never stopped — that is, until the moment I entered a library.”


I was physically, emotionally and spiritually abused. I was sexually abused by numerous people in my life, as a young child and into my teen years. I felt as if I couldn’t catch a break. Not only was I abused, but I witnessed abuse when my mother physically and verbally abused in front of me. I wasn’t valued at home for being a girl child either. I had no self-esteem and no sense of my potential. I felt lost, isolated and forgotten.

At school, I was bullied. As a mixed-raced girl, racism was ever present. I felt that abuse and struggle was just a way of life for me. No matter how much I prayed to God, the abuse never stopped — that is, until the moment I entered a library. The library was like heaven on earth for me. The library was a place of salvation, my lifeline. Books were my sustenance. When I walked into a library, I was no longer someone’s prey. I was me, Tanya Marie Lee. I was whole. I could be anything, or anyone, the moment I picked up a book and started reading. I wasn’t a victim or a survivor when I was reading a book. In books, I found everything I needed to survive, and eventually triumph.

Unfortunately, as a result of the abuse I endured, I now also live with an invisible disability. I live with PTSD and Bipolar II Disorder. When you look at me there are many things you do not see. You do not see my past nor what is happening to me in the present moment — both the good and the struggles. My identities include being an empowered, mixed-raced, Jewish woman who is a Life Skills Coach and a parent to an LGBTQ+ child. This rings true for young marginalized women as well. The layers of their identities are often unknown or dismissed.

I started “A Room Of Your Own” book clubs for girls in high priority areas (low income neighbourhoods) of Toronto, because I wanted to help them see their potential and shine brightly despite their struggles. This is the driving force that propels me to do this amazing work. It’s devastating to think it might come to an end.


Each month, A Room of Your Own needs about $2000 to pay for books for all of the girls, their lunch, and the travel expenses of authors. With your donation, this program can continue providing at-risk teen girls a safe space

How Latha Sukumar turned a small non-profit translation service into a national success — giving people in need a voice

Latha Sukumar was working as a lawyer when a personal experience led her down a new career path. She’s now the Executive Director of MCIS Language Services, a non-profit social enterprise offering translation, interpretation, and consulting to over 800 organizations across Canada — but it wasn’t always such a success. Latha shares how she came into her role and grew the business, with a mission of giving more people a voice.




By Karen van Kampen


As a summer law student working at the Crown’s office, Latha Sukumar witnessed a trial that would have a deep, lasting impact on her life. A man was charged with sexually assaulting an Iraqi woman at a church picnic. It was a difficult and emotional case, says Latha, with the Arabic speaking woman unable to tell her story.

“I felt totally helpless because I didn’t speak her language,” says Latha. “It became evident that these kinds of cases cannot be properly prosecuted if women don’t have a voice. That became a crusade for me.”

As Executive Director of MCIS Language Solutions — a non-profit social enterprise that specializes in translation, interpretation, and consulting — Latha works tirelessly to give people a voice by removing language barriers. In recognition of this unwavering vision, in 2018 she was presented with the RBC Social Change Award. It’s given to the leader of an organization dedicated to social change, that’s championing philanthropy and volunteerism in Canada.

Latha’s fight for social change began when she was a young girl growing up in India, listening to stories of oppression from her mother’s village. Stories of marital rape and widows working as menials in their own homes. Despite being very smart, her mother had to quit school when she reached puberty, forbidden to attend a mixed school with boys.

Along with her two sisters, she “grew up with the idea that women are subject to all these injustices and we have to stand up for the rights of women,” says Latha, adding that her mother “raised us to be women who were fearless.”

In 1987, at the age of 25, Latha immigrated to Canada with her husband and one-year-old daughter. “I had to go through a whole process of transforming myself,” she says. Latha cut her long hair, removed her nose ring, and began wearing Western skirts and pants.

A year later, Latha began a Master’s in Women’s Studies. “When I came here, I had to find my voice,” she says. “I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”

Latha continued her studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she learned a more evidence-based way of thinking. “If I did not go to law school, I would have a much more rosy-eyed view,” she says. “Now I’m more practical.”

In 1996, Latha was appointed Executive Director at the non-profit Multilingual Community Interpreter Services (MCIS). “It was serendipitous,” she says. “It felt like my cause had found me.” At the time, MCIS had a staff of two-and-a-half, including Latha, operating out of a small warehouse in Scarborough. They relied solely on year-to-year government funding, which was unsustainable.


“When I came here, I had to find my voice. I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”


In 2004, Latha set out to grow the organization, a feat she says she completely underestimated. “I thought as a lawyer, I had all the competence to do things,” she says. “I was so wrong.” Latha discovered that being an entrepreneur entailed reading financial statements, building streamlined operations, collecting and reading data, predicting and planning.

That year, MCIS partnered with Rotman School of Management, offering students experience at a not-for-profit. In exchange, Latha says the MBA interns shared knowledge of operations, upgrading technology, standard operating procedures, and marketing. MCIS continued the summer program for the next six years. “It was incredible learning,” she says.

As your business grows, it’s important to constantly educate yourself, to stay on top of changes within your industry, and “to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you in many different ways,” says Latha. “That’s hard sometimes because you feel challenged.”

It’s also important to delegate responsibility and not “get bogged down with busy work,” she adds. “The more you grow, the more strategic you have to become. It’s important to look beyond the present and keep calibrating your company’s weaknesses, strengths and opportunities to grow to the next level.”

To stand out in the crowded space of language services, MCIS increased its training programs to ramp up capacity quickly, hired bilingual staff and ensured people had the proper security clearance. This enabled MCIS to compete for federal government contracts, and in 2015, MCIS won the contract to provide interpreter services for Syrian refugees immigrating to Canada. When the first plane landed, Latha says they were ready, deploying hundreds of Arabic speaking interpreters who also spoke English and French to work with government authorities in both Montreal and Toronto.

Today, MCIS has more than 6,000 interpreters and translators who speak more than 300 languages collectively and serve more than 800 organizations across Canada. While it hasn’t always been easy, Latha tells herself, “every day incrementally,” focusing on how she is able to make a difference in people’s lives.

Latha reflects on a woman who refused to speak for three months. Every day, an MCIS interpreter would visit the woman in a shelter, yet the woman remained silent. Then one day the woman found the courage and trust to tell her story of abuse. The case went to superior court and her husband was convicted.  

“We know that we made a difference in that woman’s life,” says Latha. “Those are the stories that keep you going every day.”



Top 25 Women of Influence 2018: Jana Girdauskas



Jana Girdauskas


A teacher by day, Jana Girdauskas started The Period Purse with one idea: one purse filled with menstrual supplies and other hygiene items to give to someone experiencing homelessness. In the spring of 2018, Girdauskas and a teenage volunteer created Menstruation Nation, a high school program to help highlight menstrual equity, helping schools to have period product drives, and starting the conversation around periods. In May 2018, Girdauskas, along with another period advocate, worked with Toronto city councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam to get Toronto to proclaim May 28th Menstrual Hygiene Day. This was a bold step for the city to recognize and start opening up more of the conversation around period poverty and the challenges that people experiencing homelessness and people living in marginalized communities face when dealing with their period. Over the past year, Girdauskas has led her volunteer team in Toronto and the community to donate period supplies for menstruators to have over 9,000 healthy periods. The Period Purse has now spread to 9 other Ontario cities.



Who else are we honouring? See the full Women of Influence Top 25 list for 2018.



Top 25 Women of Influence 2018: Kehkashan Basu



Kehkashan Basu

Environmental & Children’s Rights Activist

Empowering young people like herself is Kehkashan Basu’s passion. In 2012, at just 12 years old, she started Green Hope Foundation, a youth organisation working on Education for Sustainable Development, children’s rights and environmental protection, with the goal of empowering young people to utilize their power to make a difference. The organization seeks to provide a networking platform to children and youth, especially girls, to carry forward the Rio legacy through several environmental workshops and ground level projects on promoting gender equality, climate justice, stopping land degradation, biodiversity conservation, waste segregation and reversing land degradation. While the organization now has over 1000 members across the Middle East, India, Brazil, USA, Canada, Europe and Southeast Asia, in January 2018 Basu led a team of Green Hope members to Syrian refugee camps on the border of Lebanon and conducted environmental workshops for over 600 refugee children, turning into reality the UN mandate of “leave no one behind.”



Who else are we honouring? See the full Women of Influence Top 25 list for 2018.



Top 25 Women of Influence 2018: Anna Mackenzie & Ella Gorevalov



Anna Mackenzie & Ella Gorevalov

Co-authors of The Expecting Playbook

When they realized that the majority of tech start-ups were not only vague and noncommittal about their parental leave policies, but actually didn’t have policies in place at all, Anna Mackenzie and Ella Gorevalov decided to help usher in a change. So, they wrote The Expecting Playbook, a guide and pledge focused on supporting new parents in the tech industry by sharing the parental leave policies of some of Toronto’s tech heavyweights, encouraging a spirit of open source information. The goal is trifold: 1) To affect positive change for new families by allowing them to spend time with their children while providing financial support for their newly arrived family member(s); 2) To increase the tech industry’s transparency surrounding parental leave policies; 3) Encourage companies to be forthcoming about their parental leave policies, thereby reducing the risk of unconscious bias against potential job candidates who ask about such benefits. The initiative is already backed by the likes of Wealthsimple, hackerYou, Nulogy, and Opencare.



Who else are we honouring? See the full Women of Influence Top 25 list for 2018.



Top 25 Women of Influence 2018: Dr. Alaa Murabit



Dr. Alaa Murabit

Physician & International Peace Advocate

Born and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Dr. Alaa Murabit has eclipsed her wildest dreams and achieved worldwide recognition for her roles as a physician and leading international advocate for inclusive peace processes. At 28 years old, she is a UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth and one of only 17 Sustainable Development Goal Global Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary-General. Continuing her career of high achievements and countless accolades, this year, Dr. Murabit was honoured by the Nelson Mandela Foundation with the “Nelson Mandela Changemaker Award” an honour previously presented to the likes of Masai Ujiri, activist and president of the Toronto Raptors, and Julie Lewis, founder of the 30/30 Project.



Who else are we honouring? See the full Women of Influence Top 25 list for 2018.



Top 25 Women of Influence 2018: Eileen Jurczak



Eileen Jurczak

Founder & Chair, Bay Street Deconstructed

Eileen Jurczak is the Founder and Chair of Bay Street Deconstructed, a non-profit organization that is defining the future by opening the exclusive doors to financial services for girls from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The program structure, boasting a curriculum informed by a team of professionals with a broad base of skills and experience in both education and industry, is designed to address gaps in current high school courses and existing industry initiatives with respect to financial services career education. With a background in Sales & Trading, Asset Management, Wealth Management, and Equity Research, as well as her current position as Director on the Trading Floor with BMO Capital Markets, few can match Jurczak’s klout: by December 2017, Eileen had used her influence to secure close to $200,000 of initial funding from nine prestigious financial firms, including BMO, CIBC, and Scotiabank. While formally established in 2015, November 2017 marked the start of Bay Street Deconstructed’s first year of workshops and, as a result of Jurczak’s tireless efforts and ability to inspire others, over the past 10 months the program has achieved remarkable success: to date, roughly 4,000 Grade 10 students across the GTA have now received necessary financial services awareness education through the program, and another 9,000 Grade 10 students across Canada are lined up to attend workshops starting in September 2018 as part of the organization’s national launch.



Who else are we honouring? See the full Women of Influence Top 25 list for 2018.



Top 25 Women of Influence 2018 – Lifetime Achiever: Roberta Jamieson



Roberta Jamieson

President & CEO, Indspire

“Groundbreaking” is the most apt description of Roberta Jamieson’s long career. A Mohawk woman from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, in 1976 she became the first Indigenous woman ever to earn a law degree in Canada. She was the first non-Parliamentarian to be appointed an ex officio member of a House of Commons committee, and she spent a decade serving as the first woman Ontario Ombudsman. She was also the first woman to be elected chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, where she still resides with her family. With numerous awards and honours to her name, her current role as president and CEO of Indspire has brought her journey full circle: the Indigenous-led charity invests in the education of Indigenous people for the long term benefit of these individuals, their families and communities, and Canada.


A woman with an incredible decades-long legacy of making an impact on her community and the country, we recognize Roberta as a Top 25 Woman of Influence Lifetime Achiever. 



Who else are we honouring? See the full Women of Influence Top 25 list for 2018.



Meet Sage Franch, Co-Founder and CTO at Crescendo

Sage Franch is the Co-Founder and CTO of Crescendo Inclusive Workplaces, and the creator of TrendyTechie.ca. She specializes in emerging technologies including blockchain, augmented reality, and cognitive computing, and is passionate about leveraging new tech to build a better future. Previously, Sage worked as a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft, where she focused on global developer education and AI as a tool for positive change. Now, as Co-Founder and CTO of Crescendo – Inclusive Workplaces, Sage builds AI-powered tools that identify unconscious bias and help people learn to be more inclusive at work.





My first job ever was… teaching drum lessons at a young performing arts academy when I was in middle school.


I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I never actually decided to become an entrepreneur, I decided to solve a problem. When I met my co-founders, we all bonded over our experiences of bias and discrimination, and based on our skill sets we realized we could build tech to change the world for the better. We researched and worked until the idea turned into a plan, which eventually turned into a startup, and here we are! I guess the day I became an entrepreneur was when I left my old job for my startup – that was the day it became real.


My boldest move to date was… leaving my fun, comfortable, well-paying job at Microsoft to go full-time on my startup without a salary! Leaving a bad job is hard, but leaving a great job is even harder. I loved working at Microsoft, but the time came where I knew I needed to give Crescendo 100% of my time in order for it to grow. Startup life is completely different from corporate life so it was a big adjustment, but so worth it.


I surprise people when I tell them… I also write music and science fiction!


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I studied martial arts for nine years!


My best advice to people starting a business is… don’t get caught up in the “cool factor” of what you’re doing. Focus on your customer and what they need. No matter how excited you are about blockchain, AI and the next emerging tech, if it doesn’t add value to your customer, you should leave it out.


My best advice from a mentor was… talk about what you do in simple terms. When you live and breathe your business, it can be easy to forget that not everyone understands it as well as you do. Whether you’re talking to a customer, an investor, or a potential hire, it’s important to be able to convey what your business does in plain language. If you’re struggling to break it down, do the family test; pick the family member who knows the least about your industry and explain it to them.


“When you live and breathe your business, it can be easy to forget that not everyone understands it as well as you do.”


I would tell my 20-year old self… not to forget about self care. I way overworked myself in my early twenties, simultaneously studying full time to complete my Bachelor of Computer Science and working full time for Microsoft. That whole period of my life is a blur, and I didn’t focus nearly enough on my own health. Burnout is real and bouncing back from it is harder than pacing yourself!


My biggest setback was… when my mother and my grandmother were diagnosed with cancer. Nothing could have prepared me for how much my life would change when I had to become a caregiver early in my career.


I overcame it by… prioritizing endlessly and learning how to turn down opportunities. When I was just starting out, I said yes to every opportunity and task that was sent my way, because I simply loved learning new things. But when faced with family health crises, I had to learn how to budget my time and prioritize the most important things. It took a lot of “no’s” but I eventually learned how to not feel guilty when turning things down, and that is a skill everyone should learn.


Work/life balance is… absolutely essential. Work and life don’t have to be separate, but it’s important to give yourself time to think about something other than work. I get my balance by practicing yoga, playing guitar, and going to concerts, all things that allow me to disconnect and focus on something else for a while. Think about it like restarting your computer – sometimes we just need a reboot to start fresh and operate at full speed.


The last book I read was… 10% Happier, by Dan Harris. Now I’m reading Data and Goliath, by Bruce Schneier.


I stay inspired by… mentoring technologists who are starting to work with emerging tech. Geeking out with people who are excited about the future of tech is always so inspiring. And if my experiences can help remove barriers for someone on their road to their goals, I’m happy.


“If my experiences can help remove barriers for someone on their road to their goals, I’m happy.”


The future excites me because… there is so much potential for good technology to improve people’s lives. At Crescendo, we’re building tools to help people be more inclusive of one another, and we’re looking forward to a future where people and tech work together to do good in our world.


My next step is… expanding our development team and launching the full version of Crescendo!



Meet Adrienne Clarke, Director of Content at United Way Greater Toronto

Adrienne Clarke has more than 15 years of commitment to the nonprofit sector. As the Director of Content at United Way Greater Toronto, she leads a team that is responsible for brand management, content marketing, and creative and editorial direction. There, she also led the creative development of the “It Looks Like Me” campaign, which won an Applied Arts magazine Photography and Illustration Award in 2017. She is also responsible for the conception and development of the first-ever national content campaign for the United Way Centraide movement. Previously, she ran her own non-profit consulting practice providing content strategy and writing expertise. Most recently, she launched LocalLove.ca, a magazine-style website designed to help people live well and do good. It is the first content destination of its kind in Canada conceived and developed by a non-profit.





My first job ever was… A donut finisher at Tim Hortons. Seriously. It was a thing. That was back in the day when they still baked the donuts fresh every morning. I’d take the trays of still-warm, naked donuts and fill them with jelly, dust them with sugar, dip them in chocolate. That job taught me a lot about hard work, perseverance, and a commitment to excellence no matter what the work—whether it’s the launch of a new brand or just dressing a donut, you always bring your best.


I chose my career path because… When I look back at the decisions I’ve made in my working life, they all have a common theme and have (haphazardly) created a career path I never consciously charted. Everything I’ve done has always been about telling authentic human stories that mean something to people and inspire them to understand others and to make a difference in the world. I admire women who chart a career path and consciously seek opportunities to get them to their ultimate destination. In contrast, I floated along blissfully bouncing from one thing to another that challenged me, brought me satisfaction, learning and joy. The unvarnished truth is I didn’t “chose” a career path, it chose me.


“Everything I’ve done has always been about telling authentic human stories that mean something to people and inspire them to understand others and to make a difference in the world. I admire women who chart a career path and consciously seek opportunities to get them to their ultimate destination.”


My proudest accomplishment is… That’s a tough one. On a personal level, my kids are a huge accomplishment. But I can’t claim a lot of the credit. They are amazing human beings and that’s because they were beautiful, kind, funny, generous spirits when they arrived. All I did was not ruin them (well, not yet anyway). In work, the creation of LocalLove.ca is likely my proudest accomplishment. It’s a labour of love and I have the tremendous privilege of getting to do it with a completely rad group of women who inspire me and make me feel smarter just being around them.


My boldest move to date was… Wearing white after Labour Day?


I surprise people when I tell them… I never surprise people. I’m too much of an open book. I’m always telling stories, including ones about myself, so there’s never anything left uncovered.


My best advice to people starting their career is… Relax. You’ll figure it out. It’s a long way to retirement.


My best advice from a mentor was… Don’t let perfection get in the way of great.


I would tell my 20-year old self… You do NOT look good in red lipstick. Stop trying.


My biggest setback was… I’m in the business of ideas and sometimes they’re big ideas that I fall in love with. I’m so committed and in love with some ideas and I’m ready to settle down and have kids with them. When they don’t work out, for whatever reason, it’s a killer. It can be soul-crushing when you’ve nurtured the idea, brought others along on the ride and then just as you feel like you’re about to get lift you hit a roadblock and the idea never takes off. There’s been a few in my career that have dealt me some soul-crushing blows.


I overcame it by… It took me a while but I figured out that you need some time to let yourself mourn an idea you’ve loved and then let it go. Ideas are like all the relationships you’ve had in your life that never worked out: they’re great while they last but the timing wasn’t right and after all is said and done you’re a different (and more resilient) person than you were before. The next great idea is out there and when they work out it’s a beautiful thing. Seeing LocalLove.ca come to life has been exhilarating for that reason. It feels like all the stars aligned and I’m walking down the aisle with the right idea at the right time. Did I go too far with the relationship analogy?


“Ideas are like all the relationships you’ve had in your life that never worked out: they’re great while they last but the timing wasn’t right and after all is said and done you’re a different (and more resilient) person than you were before. The next great idea is out there and when they work out it’s a beautiful thing.”


Work/life balance is… Unattainable. Balance would suggest there’s a fulcrum point that you can find on which all things weigh equally on either side, as if I only expend 50% of myself at work and 50% is reserved for “life”. As if! You’ll always jump from one side of the scale to the other but I don’t believe you ever truly find balance. All you really do is figure out when to jump.


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… Anything about me, but you’d probably find out a lot about a botanist in Australia with the same name.


I stay inspired by… Listening to smart people talk about big ideas. I’m a total podcast junkie. Right now, I’m obsessed with Still Processing from the New York Times. I feel smarter just downloading it.


The future excites me because… Beyoncé, Hillary Clinton, Samantha Bee, Robyn Doolittle, Melinda Gates, Indra Nooyi, etc. etc. etc. These women and so many others make me excited about what the future holds. #TheFutureIsFemale


My next step is… To pour another cup of coffee and get back to business.



Meet Maya Chivi, an author, speaker and advocate for children’s rights and gender equality

Maya Chivi is an author, a two-time TEDx speaker, and an advocate for mental health, gender equality and children’s rights. Her 2017 book “What Nobody Knows” is an illustrated story on leadership, mindfulness and the power of believing in yourself. In 2014, Maya was invited to deliver a keynote speech to the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Commission, where she spoke about children’s rights to gender equality and the future implications on businesses and board rooms. She’s currently focused on bringing conversations about mindfulness to workplaces and sharing her story of overcoming eating disorders and depression with youth through her platform, You Matter.







My first job ever was… selling seashells my siblings and I would collect at the beach where we grew up in Dubai. We’d each set up a “stall” in our bedroom to sell to our relatives. It’s not really a job but my path to entrepreneurship started early!


I chose my career path because… it chose me everything I do is an outcome of following what I’m passionate about. That includes focusing on mindfulness and mental health advocacy, gender equality, and children’s rights.


My proudest accomplishment is… advocating for LGBT children on live, international TV in Lebanon. Children’s rights are important to me, and I felt it was necessary to speak up in a country where being gay is illegal.


My boldest move to date was… leaving my network and friends in Montreal and moving to Lebanon to start my first business. I was the only person in the country to be doing private parenting consults and within six months I created and launched parenting seminars, a kids’ etiquette and life skills series, and teacher trainings. By refusing to compromise on children’s rights, I got called a lot of names, but I also set higher standards for working with that demographic.


I surprise people when I tell them… I’m an introvert.


My best advice to people starting their career is… take care of yourself, so you can take care of business!


My best advice from a mentor was… you can do this, keep going!


I would tell my 20-year old self… the universe is running on time; relax, enjoy the experience, and be mindful!


“The universe is running on time; relax, enjoy the experience, and be mindful!”


My biggest setback was… burning out so many times in my 20’s that at some point, I couldn’t work for several months. It took a lot to feel like myself again.


I overcame it by… learning about real self-care and transforming my life and brain in the process. I now have a daily regimen of exercise, meditation, and reflecting on the things I’m grateful for. It feels great to have a clear mind and energy throughout the day.


Work/life balance is… for me, it’s come down to prioritizing my well being so I can enjoy my work without having it consume me as a person.


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I didn’t have a name for fourteen days after I was born.


I stay inspired by… remembering why I began along this path and staying spiritually connected.


The future excites me because… as one of the lines in my illustrated book, What Nobody Knows, says, “Anything and everything is possible when you believe in yourself!”


My next step is… publishing a children’s book I wrote on gender stereotypes that’s based on my first TEDx talk, working on a project I’ve been dreaming up around gender equality in the workplace, and continuing to reach people with my work on mental health and mindfulness.



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



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


By Kristen Sears



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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


Building a Better Ladder: How Scotiabank fosters female talent through sponsorship



Not having a sponsor is a key reason many talented women never reach their potential. That’s why up and comer Alana Riley was paired with Alex Besharat, Senior Vice President & Head, Canadian Wealth Management through Scotiabank’s Canadian Banking Sponsorship Program. With a senior leader advocating on her behalf, there’s no telling how far Alana’s career will go.


By Shelley White



Sometimes the best way to grow as a leader is to jump out of your comfort zone, says Alana Riley.

Alana first joined Scotiabank as a District Vice President, followed by the role of Regional Director, Scotiatrust for Western Canada. She recently completed her MBA through Dalhousie University’s distance program, balancing studying with leading a team of 500 people at work and being a wife and mother of three at home. It was a challenge Alana took on with gusto.

“Quite frankly, I don’t want the participation ribbon,” she says with characteristic enthusiasm. “You might say challenge, but I say, ‘Bring it on.’”

It’s this kind of drive that made Alana a natural fit for Scotiabank’s Canadian Banking Sponsorship Program. In order to promote gender parity and mitigate the barriers to advancement that women might face, Scotiabank’s Canadian Banking division implemented the innovative program five years ago.

High-potential women are paired with influential senior executives as a way for them to build networking relationships, better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and accelerate their career aspirations. The sponsors benefit from the program as well, by enhancing their coaching skills and interacting with diverse talent at the Bank.

This past summer, Alana was paired with Alex Besharat, Senior Vice President & Head, Canadian Wealth Management at Scotiabank. For the past six months, the two have been meeting bi-weekly. Alex says he wanted to take part in the program because of how he benefited from these types of relationships over the years. “I’ve had great mentors; people who helped me formally and informally through my career,” he says. “The advice, the counsel, the insights, challenging your thinking — those have been key things for me. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without it, and I wanted to pass that on.”

Alex notes that the low ratio of women in senior leadership roles across countless industries is an issue that needs to be addressed. According to the Canadian Bankers Association (CBA), as of 2016, women occupied 49.8 per cent of middle management positions and 36.2 per cent of senior management positions.

“One part of the solution is to make sure that people who have real talent are exposed to and benefit from the same opportunities as their peers,” he says. “It’s very easy for jobs to be all-consuming. Without these kinds of sponsorship programs, it’s incredibly difficult to take yourself out of the fray and really think strategically about your approach to things, how you’re evolving, and how you’re going to reach your maximum potential in a leadership position.”

Alex and Alana say their dialogue ranges from discussions on specific projects, challenges or job opportunities, to more high-level discussions of personality traits and leadership style.


“Without these kinds of sponsorship programs, it’s incredibly difficult to take yourself out of the fray and really think strategically about your approach to things, how you’re evolving, and how you’re going to reach your maximum potential in a leadership position.”


“I can dig deep into my 30 years and see if I can find situations where I can say, ‘I’ve dealt with this, or I’ve had this challenge myself and here’s what I did,’ good or bad, and hopefully that provides Alana with some learning,” says Alex.

Alana says she’s learned a great deal throughout the journey she and Alex have been on together.

“How can I leverage my strengths and where are the areas I need to develop?” she says. “I know Alex is invested in my success and that’s been key. He can be my advocate, knowing what I’m capable of delivering. And from a personal perspective, it has me thinking more strategically, and has increased my confidence.”

Both Alana and Alex note that an important part of the success of their partnership has been keeping in consistent contact and maintaining their bi-weekly meetings, “rain or shine.”

This kind of sponsorship program can be well worth it, says Alex, but it’s not something to be taken lightly.  

“For it to work well, it requires both people to be committed to it. Not just to make appointments and times, but to be emotionally ‘all in’ and honest, and have a very open attitude towards it,” he says.

“What you put in is what you get out of a program like this,” Alana adds.

Alana says she’s also developed a close network with the other women taking part in the program. “There are a core group of us that have really built our relationship and hold our own bi-weekly calls together,” she says. “So this journey with Alex as my sponsor has had a significant impact for me in terms of my personal development and career advancement strategy.”

When it comes to where she wants to take her career, Alana says the sky’s the limit. As Chair of the Prairie Regional Women in Leadership committee at Scotiabank, Alana looks to company executives like Barbara Mason, Maria Theofilaktidis and Gillian Riley for career inspiration.

“I think they are transforming our industry in terms of discussing unconscious bias that may have prevented women from taking on leadership roles in the past. So I hope to carry that torch forward,” she says. “I hope by the time my daughter is in her career, we will no longer need a committee to encourage leadership diversity.”


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

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


Solutions for All: How one Canadian bank is developing technology to drive accessibility



As Vice President of Design, Digital Banking, at Scotiabank, Pamela Hilborn is tasked with developing unique technology solutions that can meet the needs of the Bank’s diverse customer base including those with disabilities.


By Shelley White



Pamela Hilborn has always been fascinated by what makes people tick.

It’s a passion that was sparked 25 years ago when she was a student of physical anthropology at the University of Toronto, and carries into her work today as Vice President of Design, Digital Banking, at Scotiabank.

“I’ve always had a deep interest in human culture and human behaviour,” says Pamela. “So it’s been a natural evolution from having this desire as a young woman to understand what it is that makes us human to a position where I’m trying to create better experiences for humans using technology.”

Pamela leads a team of fellow innovators at Scotiabank’s cutting-edge Digital Factory in Toronto, which launched in January 2017. The idea behind the Digital Factory is to build, improve and reinvent digital banking experiences — to rethink the “end-to-end customer journey” with fresh ideas and next-wave technology.

“The role of design is two-fold at the Digital Factory,” explains Pamela. “We’re responsible for executing on the software design, but our role is also to dig deep and understand what our customers’ needs are and help bring the customer to the centre of whatever we are doing here.”

One of Scotiabank’s top priorities is ensuring that everyone has access to their products and services, says Pamela. When it comes to improving accessibility for people with disabilities, it’s important to understand that they are looking for the same service that everyone wants in an interface or a piece of software.

“You need to make sure that performance is amazing — is it loading properly, is it responsive? Is it useable?” says Pamela. “Security is a huge piece of what customers and consumers are thinking about as well. And once you meet those basic needs, consumers are expecting a high degree of personalization and understanding.”


“It’s been a natural evolution from having this desire as a young woman to understand what it is that makes us human to a position where I’m trying to create better experiences for humans using technology.”


And these days, customer expectations aren’t set by their interactions with one company, says Pamela. They are set by the multiple applications that people use every day.

“Whether you’re interacting with a media site like the New York Times or a social networking site like Facebook or Instagram, you’re getting trained on responsiveness, on speed, on security — and these interactions set expectations for the user’s experience on all apps.”

The biggest challenge when creating solutions for people with disabilities is first understanding what those issues actually are, says Pamela.

“We don’t necessarily think about a distinct group of people that are separate, we think about human beings and how our services need to respond to different contexts and abilities,” she explains.

Scotiabank currently offers a range of communications options for people with disabilities. For example, customers who are deaf or hard of hearing can use online live chat or relay services to communicate with a contact centre. Alternate formats of documents are available to customers, including audio, large text, accessible PDF and Braille. At some branches, Scotiabank offers ABMs with customer pin pads that have colour contrast, a larger screen and a tactile keypad. Customers who are visually impaired can access audio navigation.

At the Digital Factory, the goal is to create digital banking solutions that solve the problems of people across a whole spectrum of capabilities, says Pamela. That’s why when they do in-house user testing, they engage with people of all abilities.

One interesting area of technology is haptic communication, she says. Haptic feedback uses the sense of touch in an interface design to provide information to the end user. (It’s something you may have experienced when your phone is on mute — the vibration you feel when your phone rings is haptic feedback). Haptic feedback could be leveraged to help people with attention span impairments, says Pamela, giving them cues through touch in distracting environments.

“One of the things we’re trying to figure out is how to take advantage of all the wonderful senses that we have, and how can we use them in different contexts.” she says.

Regardless of how customers are interacting with their bank — by phone, through apps, at an ATM, in person — they all have one thing in common, says Pamela. People want the ability to control their own finances, and any new user experience being developed needs to be in support of that.

“I see my role as solving problems,” says Pamela. “At the Digital Factory, we really try to understand the different contexts that correspond to different types of accessibility needs. We want to solve for the greatest number of people, more often.”


How Lisa Milburn reinvented her career — and is helping BMO reinvent how they communicate with women



Lisa Milburn is the chief operating officer at BMO Insurance, a role she took on after pivoting out of a career in communications. She’s also the executive sponsor of the BMO for Women program, an initiative that’s changing the way the financial institution interacts with their female clients.


By Hailey Eisen



Lisa Milburn is an expert in communications. She spent over 20 years in the field, first on the agency side and then in three different industries: pharmaceuticals, insurance, and banking. But when she moved into her first business management role — chief administrative officer of Canadian personal and commercial banking at BMO Financial Group — she realized she had to leave her personal brand as a communicator behind.

“I was very deliberate in my upfront conversation with the person I was going to work for. We agreed that any advice around communications would be given behind a closed door, so that I could transition my brand into being seen as a credible business leader, versus how people had traditionally seen me, in my communications capacity.”

Being honest with herself and others about what her brand stood for and the other strengths she could bring to the role enabled her to achieve credibility in the transition. Taking inspiration from the many incredible global leaders she’d supported throughout her career, Lisa became an authentic and successful business leader.  

Two years ago, she moved on from personal and commercial banking to the position of chief operating officer at BMO Insurance. Lisa credits the bank’s culture for enabling her to begin her journey in a specialized corporate function and then pivot into C-Suite roles in two different lines of businesses. “It’s a culture where they take chances on people to grow and develop, and have a long career,” she says.

It was also the culture — and the brand that goes along with it — that attracted her to BMO in the first place. “I was drawn in by the BMO brand. The focus on making sure that our client experience is really the exemplar, and that we truly are passionate about being here to help our clients,” Lisa explains. “That transfers over into our culture, and how we work internally with each other every day.”

Having worked in three different capacities during the ten years she’s been with BMO, it’s not surprising that Lisa was tapped to be the executive co-sponsor of the BMO for Women program, representing the interests of BMO’s Wealth Management businesses. The initiative is helping to evolve client engagement strategies across the bank by recognizing that women want to approach their relationship with their financial institution differently.  


“We are earning more, and we need to consider how to protect that earning power in a different way than we have in the past.”


“Research has shown that women aren’t satisfied with the way that they are developing relationships with their investment advisors or their bankers today, so there’s a great opportunity to change that, to really listen to our female clients,” says Lisa. “We’re doing it in a thoughtful way, and we’re not trying to exclude men from conversations. The program is focused on the way we build relationships with women clients to differentiate their experience with us and serve their unique needs, both as an investment firm and as a bank.”

Lisa also says that there are parallels from an insurance perspective, noting that many of the same stereotypes that people have around investing persist when it comes to purchasing insurance, making men the focus of the conversation. That’s layered with the fact that most Canadians are underinsured, plus a tendency for women not to see themselves as part of the equation, especially if they are not the primary breadwinner.

But the situation is changing. According to the latest Statistics Canada census, women are the primary earners in 17% of households — a number that has doubled in recent years. And even when women aren’t the main breadwinner, Lisa stresses that they still need to be a part of the decision-making in their own financial future, thinking about insurance for themselves as much as they’re thinking about protecting their families with insurance for their husbands.

“As women, we often think about everybody around us, but it’s important that we stop and think about ourselves too,” she says. “We are earning more, and we need to consider how to protect that earning power in a different way than we have in the past. Women can be more modest about their success, but it’s okay to have that confident conversation and have the right advisors around you.”

Helping to provide that confidence is just one aspect of the BMO for Women program — and it’s a commitment that goes beyond the realm of clients. Lisa sees the potential to influence positive change outside of the company by breaking down the barriers women can face, from developing relationships with their investment advisors to growing their businesses with funding.

“It’s much bigger than just BMO. We see it permeate across many different industries,” says Lisa. “In our research, we’re finding lots of parallels in the barriers that women face, whether you are an investment advisor, an aspiring lawyer, or developing a career as a CFA. If we can start the conversation in banking, I’m sure there’s lots we can learn across multiple industries to bring these barriers down.”

In the meantime, Lisa has personal advice for women experiencing a barrier to their success — like figuring out how to reinvent their career, as she did. “As women, we can fall into scenarios where we are helping others to be successful. Helping others is phenomenal, but the key to advancing is determining what are the few things that you can be recognized as driving in your role that are creating a significant impact — and that can make you stand out.”


Being is Believing: How 18-year-old Sindy Mosquera became CEO of one of Colombia’s largest banks for a day



To mark the United Nations’ 2017 International Day of the Girl, 600 young women were selected to take over top jobs at various organizations around the world. Sindy Mosquera was one of them. As part of Plan International’s #GirlsBelongHere campaign, Sindy sat in on committee meetings, met clients and connected with some of the bank’s prominent female leaders, discovering that a leadership role as CEO of Banco Colpatria was within her reach.


By Shelley White



On October 2nd, 18-year-old Sindy Mosquera of Colombia got to realize one of her dreams — she became the CEO of Banco Colpatria, one of Colombia’s largest banks, for one day.

Sindy was given the opportunity to become the boss at a major financial institution — with 178 offices, assets of $22.3-billion and more than two million customers — as part of Plan International’s #GirlsBelongHere campaign. To mark the United Nations’ 2017 International Day of the Girl, 600 young women were selected to take over top jobs at various organizations around the world. This “CEO Takeover” was a way to prove that girls belong anywhere they choose and aspire to be, and to empower girls to believe their dreams are attainable.

Girls became lawyers, CEOs, politicians, journalists — roles where females are traditionally underrepresented. The idea of the Takeover initiative was to reduce (and ultimately tear down) the barriers that keep girls from achieving their dream jobs and reaching their full potential, including gender stereotypes, bias and discrimination.

After stepping into the shoes of the Banco Colpatria CEO, Santiago Perdomo, Sindy was able to attend committee meetings, meet clients and connect with some of the bank’s prominent female leaders. “I feel empowered,” says Sindy of her day as CEO. “And I want to empower other young women to feel the same way.”

When Santiago was presented with the opportunity, he jumped at the chance to participate in the #GirlsBelongHere program because he and Banco Colpatria want to show that girls and women can be empowered in their role as leaders. “We believe that investing in young people builds prosperity for the community,” says Santiago. “Girls must become visible in places of power and influence. By having Sindy take over as President of Colpatria for one day, we are sending a very clear signal to all Colombians that girls should be on every agenda. All girls must be free to dream and encouraged to lead.”

Santiago points out that in countries like Colombia, girls are often the most vulnerable group, especially when there is scarcity of resources. “This makes it challenging for girls to go to school and, as a result, many suffer discriminatory practices such as child marriage, domestic child labor, early pregnancy, violence, and discrimination.”


“Girls must become visible in places of power and influence. By having Sindy take over as President of Colpatria for one day, we are sending a very clear signal to all Colombians that girls should be on every agenda. All girls must be free to dream and encouraged to lead.”


Sindy is from Chocó, the largest Afro-Colombian district in the country, and one of the poorest regions in Colombia. She had the opportunity to submit a video application for the CEO Takeover program because of her volunteer involvement with Plan International’s activities in her own community.

A vibrant young woman who is equally passionate about math and social justice, Sindy points out that access to education is the greatest barrier for many women who seek to be leaders. “Surely this day will inspire hundreds of women in my region who are uncertain about their future due to a lack of opportunities,” she says. “Historically, women have not had the same opportunities as men. This condition is changing thanks to campaigns, such as this one, that raise awareness around gender inequality and help inspire women and girls.”

Santiago says they are also working inside Banco Colpatria to advance leadership programs for women in order to prepare and promote the female talent at the bank. “We want women to believe in their leadership capacities, and it’s a priority for us to help develop their skills to encourage their growth in our organization,” he says. “Gender inclusion is also a business imperative. It’s proven that organizations that have gender inclusion perform better. We see this in our organization as well. Gender inclusion creates a better work environment, helps us to better reflect our customers and creates a stronger relationship with our community.”

Santiago also encourages others to lend their voice to the cause. “It’s important for men to be champions of gender inclusion because regardless of gender, anyone can be an advocate for gender mainstreaming and the equitable treatment of all,” he says.

Scotiabank, Banco Colpatria’s parent company, has long been committed to achieving gender equality through its support of programs and initiatives aimed at the empowerment of women and girls, and young people in communities around the globe. On October 11th, Banco Colpatria and Scotiabank were recognized by Plan International for their participation in the #GirlsBelongHere campaign and their commitment to gender equality, receiving the Corporate Recognition Award at the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Campaigns like #GirlsBelongHere are important to move the dial toward gender equality, says Santiago, but he points out that girls also need resources, knowledge and power to overcome the barriers they face. That’s why he and Banco Colpatria presented Sindy with a new laptop, a one-year scholarship for English lessons and an ongoing mentoring relationship with Bibiana Roa, a female manager in commercial banking.

With memories of her special day still vivid in her mind and powerful ambitions for her future, Sindy has this message for business owners: “Trust in women, just as Colpatria has done. Women need the support of private enterprise and of society as a whole.”




The Story of Project Her: the first Canadian crowdfunding platform for female entrepreneurs



Launched this week, Project Her is a crowdfunding platform for female-led businesses. But it’s not just the gender focus that sets it apart. Founders Donna West and Shelly Lynn Nellis have a vision to build a community of support, enabling women entrepreneurs to face their unique challenges, and create success on their own terms.


By Hailey Eisen



Donna West has worked in the corporate and small business world for most of her career. She paved her way with an entrepreneurial mindset, but always channeled her energy and drive into someone else’s business (save for a few tiny startups, including an organic produce delivery in the late 1990s and a dog treat company in 2008).

“I’ve never fully taken the opportunity to throw my passion, knowledge and education into something that’s my own,” says West, who was born in the US and lives in Vancouver.  

When her friend Shelly Lynn Nellis approached her with the idea of starting a business together and mentioned crowdfunding, Donna was intrigued — even though she admits she didn’t know much about crowdfunding at the time. So began their journey of creating Project Her, a perk-based crowdfunding platform targeting female-led business. Their vision was to provide an opportunity for women to raise more than just funds by creating a community of fellow female entrepreneurs, and offering support in building and growing their businesses.

“I know that what’s really missing out there for entrepreneurs is the proper guidance when it comes to investment and raising funds,” says Shelly, who has been an entrepreneur herself for 15 years. “While I do think women need to invest in their own ideas, I don’t think they need to do it all by themselves.”

As the founder and editor-in-chief of Fresh Magazine — a Vancouver-based beauty and lifestyle publication created to inspire and empower real women — Shelly has been sharing the stories of successful Canadian women for nearly seven years. Beyond the magazine business, she’s also been a partner in two skincare lines and launched the app EpiAlert, inspired by her own daughter’s food allergies.

Donna and Shelly are hoping to use their personal successes and mistakes to help guide the entrepreneurs in the Project Her network. They each bring their own skills and expertise to the partnership — while Donna has a strong background in finance, Shelly’s strengths are more in marketing. The women say sharing this journey has been an incredible experience; one filled with mutual respect and admiration. “We both answer to each other as if the other owns the company,” Shelly says. “We are respectful of each other’s strengths and knowledge, and work together to come up with solutions.”

Over the past few years they have worked tirelessly fleshing out their ideas for Project Her, while researching and developing the platform upon which it will operate. Officially launching this month, Project Her will use a reward crowdfunding model, with campaigns providing contributors with ‘perks.’ These are most often early access to products, but they could also be other coveted rewards. The entire process has been designed to be simple, not only for the consumers exchanging pledges for perks, but also the female-led businesses who will be using the platform to raise funds.

While there are a number of big players in the reward crowdfunding space, they say there’s nothing in Canada right now that’s just focusing on women. “We don’t look at the big guys as competitors,” adds Donna. “They’re just paving the way for us.”

Plus, Donna and Shelly plan to set Project Her apart by providing an all-encompassing experience for entrepreneurs — everything from a private community for the sharing of advice and ideas, to a well-established referral network, to access to value-add services such as writing, social media, video production, and more. It’s a vision that goes beyond crowdfunding, offering valuable — and often much-needed — support.

“This is really about women helping other women,” says Donna, “something we’re both very passionate about.”



Project Her is partnering with Women of Influence as part of our commitment to supporting women entrepreneurs across Canada, helping them to get what they need for their business to thrive — from funding to guidance to inspiration. If you’re a female business owner, visit projecther.com to find out if Project Her is right for you, and how to get started.

How Dr. Lorraine Lipscombe is creating better care for women with diabetes


As the director of endocrinology at Women’s College Hospital and a physician-scientist at Women’s College Research Institute, Dr. Lorraine Lipscombe dedicates her time to studying diabetes in women from identifying risk factors to improving access to care.


By Sarah Treleaven



Dr. Lorraine Lipscombe has long been part of a tradition of female trailblazers. “My medical school class was the first class in the history of McGill University that had equal numbers of women as men,” she says. “When I graduated, we were still in the early stages of women being leaders in this profession.”

Since graduating in 1998, Dr. Lipscombe has become a leader in her own right. Today, she is the director of endocrinology at Women’s College Hospital (WCH) — Canada’s leading institution dedicated to advancing healthcare for women — as well as a physician-scientist at Women’s College Research Institute and a passionate advocate for women’s equitable access to healthcare. Her primary research focuses on the prevention and care of diabetes in women, for which she was awarded a 2015 Goldie Award for Research from the department of medicine at the University of Toronto.

Having joined WCH in 2006, she points to the hospital’s own trailblazing path in healthcare for women as a major factor in her decision to join the institution. “Women’s College had and still has a reputation to not just promote women’s health but also to support female academic physicians. That was really important to me.”

How did she reach the top of her field? Her journey began while growing up in Montreal. Dr. Lipscombe was always interested in the workings of the mind, and so decided to study psychology as an undergraduate at Concordia University. But an unexpected turning point came in a course about the physiology of behaviour, which tied body and brain together into a fascinatingly complementary system.

Dr. Lipscombe started working on a professor’s project looking into how hormones affect maternal behaviour in rats, and she found herself smitten. She continued to “love hormones” while at medical school, and moved onto research related to diabetes and insulin production, which led to a specialization in endocrinology. “I realized pursuing medicine would help me to help others change their behaviours for a better health outcome,” says Dr. Lipscombe.

An early breakthrough helped Dr. Lipscombe chart her ultimate career course. While she was working on her master’s thesis at the University of Toronto, completed in 2005, she was able to show not only that women with diabetes have a higher risk of breast cancer, but also that women who have survived breast cancer have an increased risk of developing diabetes. “We were the first to show that there’s a bidirectional relationship between breast cancer and diabetes, and that there are implications for both populations of women,” says Dr. Lipscombe. “That was really exciting for me.”

She was invited to present her research at the American Diabetes Association, which helped her to secure funding for her further landmark research that has determined that diabetic women receive fewer mammograms and have a higher mortality and more advanced stage of breast cancer at diagnosis. As Dr. Lipscombe explains, this female-focused research is much needed. “There are still a lot of research gaps when it comes to women, and we’re still applying much of what we know about men and chronic illness,” says Dr. Lipscombe. “We need research that fits.”

Dr. Lipscombe has also married her research and clinical care with a particular eye to women’s healthcare experiences and accessibility. “Diabetes disproportionately affects women with lower incomes and ethnic minorities, including more recent immigrant groups,” she says. “For women with low incomes, it can be challenging for them to engage in some of the healthier recommendations we have, such as exercise and healthy diets, especially if they’re already juggling responsibilities. With newer immigrants, we often see mistrust in the Western medical system and we have to break down barriers and earn the type of trust they typically reserve for family members.”

The trick for Dr. Lipscombe is to help these women navigate available resources while keeping an eye on cultural and social circumstances. With that in mind, she is currently testing a home-based intervention program to improve outcomes for women with recent gestational diabetes in order to reduce their elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “New mothers are busy and it can be very hard for them to step out of their schedules and competing responsibilities to seek out care,” says Dr. Lipscombe, who has three children. “We found that a lot of women couldn’t just come into the hospital on a schedule.”


“I started my career in the wake of some wonderful trailblazers who paved the way for women like me.”


So they decided to try a different approach — modeled, in part, on Women’s College Hospital’s telephone-based cardiac rehabilitation coaching program. The program involves one 10 to 20-minute phone call per week in order to set goals related to diet and exercise. “We found that women loved the program and many were able to accomplish their goals after six months,” says Dr. Lipscombe.

Along the way, as she has refined her practice, Dr. Lipscombe has relied on the examples set by and encouragement of her female mentors. “I started my career in the wake of some wonderful trailblazers who paved the way for women like me,” she says.

Dr. Barbara Woodside, professor of psychology at Concordia University, was the researcher who introduced Dr. Lipscombe to rat hormones in her undergrad and was highly influential as one of very few female neurobiology scientists. Dr. Janet Hux, Dr. Lipscombe’s master’s thesis supervisor and a diabetes researcher, encouraged the budding endocrinologist to ignore any inklings of imposter syndrome and serve as a panelist at the Public Health Agency of Canada. And Dr. Gillian Hawker, previously physician-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital, taught Dr. Lipscombe to set lofty goals. “She taught me to look at my burning questions and then develop the skills to solve those problems,” she says. “She taught me that I could dream big and not be afraid.”

Dr. Lipscombe now finds inspiration in both her workplace and her patients. Women’s College Hospital has been highly supportive of initiatives to test innovative models of care, including pilot programs that leverage existing resources in order to apply them to new populations. “We get a lot of support from the department of medicine, from the cardiac rehabilitation program, which is the only program of its kind in Canada specifically designed for women, and from the hospital’s foundation,” says Dr. Lipscombe.

She is also fortunate, she says, to have patients who are willing to share their experiences, becoming partners in providing better care. “They help me identify the needs and gaps in their treatment so I can turn that into research that helps improve outcomes,” says Dr. Lipscombe. “I’m very blessed to have the skills and resources to do that.”


For more than 100 years Women’s College Hospital (WCH) has been developing revolutionary advances in healthcare, and working to close the health gaps that exist in healthcare for women because their unique needs are not taken into consideration. Today, WCH is a world leader in the health of women and Canada’s leading, academic ambulatory hospital. It focuses on delivering innovative solutions that address Canada’s most pressing issues related to population health, patient experience and system costs.

For more information about how WCH is transforming patient care, visit www.womenscollegehospital.ca. To find out how you can give and get involved, visit www.wchf.ca.

Beside Every Man: The founders of Earth Inc give credit to their wives for their early success


Kennedy McRae and James Dale are the co-owners of Earth Inc., a successful landscape design firm. They are also the husbands of Rajini and Sandra — two accomplished women who played an integral part in that success, offering emotional and financial support as well as hands-on help, especially in the early days of the business.


By Hailey Eisen



Looking back nearly 20 years since they first started their business, Kennedy McRae and James Dale — co-owners of Earth Inc., a Toronto-based landscape design firm — agree that the real credit for their success should go to their wives. While there’s no doubt that Kennedy and James are the creative brains behind the operation, they recognize that without their wives, their foray into entrepreneurship would likely have not made it past the first year.

Both women have impressive careers of their own and over the years, especially in the first few, were relied upon for emotional and financial support, as well as their business acumen.

From providing “office space” in their small two-bedroom apartment, to managing the books and developing financial projections for the company, to covering the expenses at home until Earth Inc. became profitable — both women stepped up to ensure their husbands were able to make their creative vision a reality.

Having been raised with the belief that a good husband “provides for his wife,” Kennedy says deciding to leave a secure job with a salary to start a business from scratch was quite stressful. “That jumping-off point is catastrophic and often stops people in their tracks,” he says, “because if you don’t have the support and backing — which, in our case, was provided by our wives — then how can you take that leap?”

It was their ambition and a vision for a more creative and innovative form of garden design that pushed James and Kennedy to leave the design studio they were working for and start out on their own. Their wives recognized their passion, and believed in their ability to transform it into a successful venture.

“Our wives are powerhouses, unwavering to the core,” says James. Kennedy agrees, and adds, “We wanted to impress them as much as we wanted to impress ourselves. But we never had to question their confidence in us.”

Like in any new business venture, the early days brought their share of challenges. “Starting their business in the small rental apartment where James and I lived at the time was a great decision, as it allowed the guys to focus on building the business without worrying about finances,” says Sandra Dale, James’ wife. As James explains it, “Kennedy and I set up shop in our small second bedroom, and Sandra was basically footing the bill for us — paying our rent and letting us work in the apartment, as long as we agreed to clear out by 5pm when she got home from work.”


“Our wives are powerhouses, unwavering to the core.”


Sandra was busy in her own right. Her days were spent operating Forest Hill Montessori School, which she’d co-founded a few years prior to provide education for preschool through Grade 8 students. While she shared her husband’s entrepreneurial spirit, she knew there would be sacrifices if they were both running their own businesses. This give-and-take has become a big part of the couple’s life, each handling different responsibilities in order to ensure the other’s success.

“My own children have always been my priority and I have always arranged my work schedule to make sure I could be there for them,” says Sandra. “But, as two entrepreneurs, we know that the success of our companies depends on what we put into work. We support each other whenever there are obstacles and when there are successes.”

When Earth Inc. was starting out, Kennedy’s wife, Rajini McRae, worked in Finance for IBM. An MBA grad with a background in finance and math, Rajini had a great understanding of what it would take to build a profitable business. She recognized the unique talent the men brought to the table, but knew where their struggles would lie. “They’ve always been extremely good at what they do, from a design perspective. They’ve both got passion, and they always have the client first in their minds,” Rajini says.

Fortunately for the duo, Rajini stepped in as a virtual CFO early on, driving the financial and strategy side of things. As Earth Inc. grew, they hired people to take over for Rajini, but she’s always stayed involved in the company’s progress and growth. Her goal has always been “to bring some structure to the creativity.”  

Rajini and Kennedy have also established their own version of balance. “Kennedy does a lot with our kids, he drives them to their programs, and loves to cook,” Rajini says. “And I organize the kids’ schedules, manage the finances, etc. — we just partner where it makes sense.”

Fortunately for James and Kennedy, their wives and children (the Dales have two girls and the McRae’s have three boys) have always gotten along very well. They meet regularly to discuss business decisions, but they also travel together, spend holidays together, and support each other through life milestones.

These days, as Earth Inc. approaches its 20-year anniversary, Rajini’s got scalability and growth on her mind. She’s excited to see where they can take Earth Inc. in the next 20 years. “It’s a journey,” she explains, speaking about merging two families together for the purposes of a shared passion and business. “There will be ebbs and flows and the key to a good partnership is to support each other through those, and maintain that deep level of trust.”



A Fresh Start: How Rania Llewellyn is helping Canadian immigrants kick-start their career

When Rania Llewellyn first immigrated to Canada, she found herself in the same predicament as many newcomers: educated and talented, but unable to find work. Now Senior Vice President, Products and Services, Global Transaction Banking at Scotiabank, Rania tells her incredible story of how she got her start, and how she’s helping other immigrants to do the same.

When Rania Llewellyn graduated with an undergraduate degree from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, she faced a challenge many newcomers to Canada had faced before her; she was a well-educated immigrant who couldn’t find a job.

Born in Kuwait City to an Egyptian father and Jordanian mother, Rania had grown up in Kuwait and Egypt, completing the first two years of her commerce degree at the American University in Cairo. But then the Gulf War erupted, and Rania’s parents decided to emigrate to Canada in 1992, where she completed her degree.

“When I graduated from my undergrad, no one would hire me because of my name,” recalls Rania, now Senior Vice President, Products and Services, Global Transaction Banking at Scotiabank. “I had no Canadian experience, I didn’t know anybody, and so I started off working at Tim Horton’s with my bachelor degree from Saint Mary’s University in marketing and finance.”

Rania managed to land a job as a bank teller at Scotiabank while she completed her MBA, hoping that adding a “few more letters” after her name would give her an edge.

Her big break came on the day she was being sworn in as a Canadian citizen at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. The citizenship administration announced there was a special guest at the swearing-in ceremony that day — then Senior Vice President of Scotiabank for the Atlantic region, Jack Keith.

“My mom told me, ‘You go and you ask him for a job,’” says Rania. “So I went up to Mr. Keith and I said, ‘We’re having a wine and cheese reception at Saint Mary’s University. I work for you in a small little branch and I’d be delighted if you’d come as my guest.’ He said, ‘Actually, I sit on the board, I’ll see you there.’”
At the reception, Rania seized the opportunity to approach the senior banking executive for a job.

“I went up to him and I said, ‘Listen, Mr. Keith. I was born in Kuwait. I’m half Egyptian, half Jordanian. Scotiabank is Canada’s most international bank and the only bank I want to work for.’ He asked, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ and I responded, ‘I’ll speak whatever language you want me to speak.’”

A month later, Rania called his office and was able to set up a meeting. “He asked, ‘Where do you want to be in 10 years?’ I said, ‘I want your job in 10 years.’ He laughed and then sent me to speak to HR. I stopped being a teller on a Saturday and became a commercial officer in development on a Monday.”

It was the bold beginning of an impressive upward trajectory for Rania. After three years as a commercial account officer in Halifax, she moved to Toronto and soon landed a full-time associate position in corporate banking.

“That role was life-changing,” recalls Rania. “That culture was so conducive to my skillset and my cultural background. You had to be assertive; you had to get yourself out there and that’s exactly what I was looking for.”

After seven more years in corporate banking (plus a husband and two kids), Rania found a new niche she was passionate about. She pioneered a strategy for Scotiabank to build out its multicultural banking services, creating a customized banking package for newcomers to Canada.

Soon after, Rania became the Vice President of Multicultural Banking at Scotiabank. The role was a continuation of a career-long commitment to helping new Canadians get a leg up, whether as a banking customer or as an employee at Scotiabank.

“I had experienced it firsthand and understood the complexity — not all immigrants are the same,” explains Rania. “You’ve got refugees, you’ve got field workers, you’ve got entrepreneurs and professionals. They all come with very different stories.”


“Not all immigrants are the same. You’ve got refugees, you’ve got field workers, you’ve got entrepreneurs and professionals. They all come with very different stories.”


Rania and her team created the StartRight for Newcomers program at Scotiabank, which launched in May of 2008 and still flourishes today. “It’s one of the top programs in the market, sold through our entire branch network,” she says.

“There are roughly three hundred thousand immigrants that come to Canada every single year,” Rania explains. “So not only are they potential customers, but they’re also potential employees of ours. Scotiabank is a huge supporter of that segment.”

One of the key sponsorship programs that Rania introduced during her time in multicultural banking was TRIEC — the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council. TRIEC helps immigrants connect to employment that fully leverages their skills and talents. Through their Mentoring Partnership program they connect skilled immigrants from professional backgrounds with mentors in the financial institution space. As a vocal advocate for TRIEC, Rania encouraged her staff to become mentors so they could develop their leadership and coaching skills while helping new Canadians reach their full potential.

“In many cases, we’ve been able to find great talent,” she says. “And it’s great to be able to give back because I think we often take our experiences for granted.”

In her current SVP position, Rania is responsible for the development of products and solutions for the business banking segment — this includes small business, commercial, and corporate customers. Heading a team of 200 employees, she’s also responsible for developing the digital channel that customers use to access products and services.

When it comes to opportunity for immigrants and women in the banking field, Rania states “the road has been paved, but there is still more work to be done.”

“I think we need to take a leap of faith. Just because someone doesn’t have Canadian experience or education doesn’t mean that they don’t have the skills and talent,” she says. “All corporations should be encouraged to go out there and hire people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ways of thinking.”

Rania sees diversity as a business imperative – a potentially huge competitive advantage for Canadian businesses to compete globally.

“We need to take chances on people, just like Mr. Keith took a chance on me,” says Rania. “That’s why I never turn down anybody who wants to talk to me for 10 minutes, because you never know when the next new talent is going to walk through the door.”



Breaking Barriers: How Ginella Massa became the first hijab-wearing Canadian news anchor


In 2016, Ginella Massa made headlines as the first hijab-wearing woman to anchor a major Canadian newscast. The long-overdue representation of a Muslim woman thriving in her profession was not just a career milestone for Ginella, but also the culmination of a childhood dream — and an inspiration to those that hope to follow her.


By Teresa Harris



Ginella Massa never set out to become a recognizable name in Canadian television. From a young age, her only goal was to be a good reporter. Never in her wildest dreams did she anticipate what would ensue once she became Canada’s first ever woman in hijab to anchor on a major newscast.

“I talked about being a hijab-wearing woman on TV when I was a kid as a pipe dream,” she remembers. “I don’t know if I ever believed it was going to happen.”

Ginella spent the first half of her career behind the scenes as a news writer and producer. However, she felt a strong pull to be on screen, providing a voice to those who are underserved by current news media coverage.

“Being on air was something I really wanted to do. To tell stories, and to be able to have some visible representation of people who look like me.” With much of the upper management running Canada’s media hailing from mostly white, upper-middle class upbringings, another perspective felt necessary. “If you’re disconnected from the realities of your readers and viewers, how can you truly be doing them a service and understand what’s important to them?”

Knowing her ultimate goal was the easy part. Making it happen, on the other hand, took a leap of faith. In 2014, Ginella quit her full-time producing job in Toronto and spent several uncertain months working on her demo reel and freelancing in order to stay open to broadcasting opportunities. When the chance to report in the smaller market of Kitchener-Waterloo came along, she knew it was the beginning of the next phase of her career.

The first time Ginella appeared on-air in hijab as a reporter in 2015, she recalls there being little fanfare.

“My news director felt that it was better for me to continue focusing on my work as opposed to becoming the news,” she explains. “He shied away from us tooting our own horn, and in many ways that was a good thing because it allowed me to really learn and grow my skill, and feel like I belonged in that industry.”


“When I’m on air, I’m not talking about my religion, I’m not preaching to anybody. I’m just doing my job, and I happen to be doing it with my hijab on.”


The following year, Ginella graduated from the medium-sized market and landed a job at CityNews Toronto, becoming the city’s first reporter to wear a hijab. Her bosses immediately recognized her hard work, talent, and the ease and confidence with which she led the newscast as a reporter, and were open about their desire to one day transition her to a part-time anchor position.

“They gave me important stories and saw that I was more than capable of being a fair journalist, of drawing in our audience,” Ginella explains, and plans for her to fill in as an anchor over the 2016 Christmas break began to take shape. “The beauty of being in a diverse newsroom is that there are folks that celebrate Christmas who don’t want to work, but someone’s gotta do it!”

When she was unexpectedly asked to fill in for the regular evening news anchor one night in November, she eagerly accepted the spot. “It was a career milestone to be able to anchor. I posted a picture on Twitter, I was so excited, saying ‘This is really great and fun and exciting for me and my career, but also a big achievement for Canada.’ I didn’t realize that tweet would take off the way that it did.”

Take off is an understatement. Ginella’s visible presence on a major Canadian news station prompted media coverage around the world, her story appearing in The New York Times, Vogue, FLARE, Aljazeera, and The Washington Post, among others. Viewers and readers celebrated the long-overdue representation of a Muslim woman thriving in her profession — particularly one where appearance is so paramount.

“When I took that picture and posted it to Twitter, I thought, wow, imagine telling 11-year-old me ‘You’re going to do it, this is going to happen, don’t give up.’ It was an emotional moment in my personal journey. For it to take off internationally was incredible.”

Sensing the lack of diversity in Canada’s media landscape, Ginella recalls doubting at a young age that there was a place for her on-screen. “I said to my mom as a kid, ‘Maybe I’ll go into radio because then it doesn’t matter what I look like.’” Her mother — who relentlessly carved out spaces in the community for her young Muslim daughters — didn’t buy it. “She was like, ‘Why would you want to change your dream to accommodate other people? Just because nobody else has done it before doesn’t mean you can’t be the first.’”

It’s this encouragement that has allowed Ginella to stop worrying about being the first, and instead focus on becoming the best. And while her newfound status as an international role model feels overwhelming at times, Ginella is proud to have broken ground for Muslim women with ambition to be perceived as more than passive and submissive.

“We’re not given opportunities to be seen as people, with dreams, skills, and intelligence,” she says. “When I’m on air, I’m not talking about my religion, I’m not preaching to anybody. I’m just doing my job, and I happen to be doing it with my hijab on.”


*Photo by Robin Kuniski


Hear Ginella open up about breaking barriers at our season-opening Evening Event on September 6 in Toronto.


Meet Ginella Massa, Canada’s first hijab-wearing news anchor

Ginella Massa had dreams of becoming a news reporter since she was a young girl, despite fears that her appearance didn’t fit the typical mold. Decades later, she realized that life long dream when she became Canada’s first hijab-wearing reporter, and then the first anchor of a major Canadian news channel to wear a hijab on-air. Find out how she broke those barriers to realize the career of her dreams. 





My first job ever was… As an usher at the theaters at the Harbourfront centre in Toronto. I held that job on and off through high school and university for almost 9 years!


I decided to pursue television because…  I loved to talk and be the center of attention when I was a kid. My family couldn’t get me to shut up. The first time we realized that could translate into some sort of career in broadcasting was when I was in the third grade and won a speech competition at my school. I felt like I had something interesting to say and people were actually listening.


My proudest accomplishment is… Becoming Canada’s first hijab-wearing reporter and anchor, not only because of the personal career milestone but because of that doors it might open up for other young women like me.


My boldest move to date was… Quitting a full-time producing job without another job lined up. It was the scariest thing I ever did and people thought I was insane. But I knew I was spinning my wheels where I was, and I wanted to focus on taking my career on-air. It was the best decision I ever made — 8 months later I landed my first on-air gig.


I surprise people when I tell them… I was born in Panama and I speak Spanish.


My best advice from a mentor was… Don’t be afraid to talk about what makes me different. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, see it as an asset instead of a hindrance.


A public figure I look up to is… Malala Yousafzai


My biggest setback was… Being turned down over and over again for on-air positions. Even though I had worked in news as a producer for nearly 4 years, I was constantly told I didn’t have enough reporting experience to be on-air.


I overcame it by… Persistence. I landed my first reporting gig in Kitchener after applying for the same position 3 different times over the span of a year and a half. After the first time I was turned down, I started volunteering at a local community TV station to build up my reporting and videography demo reel so I could have some concrete samples of my work offer them. I guess eventually I wore them down and they hired me!


“There is a lot of pressure from all angles to do things a certain way — from the way I dress, to how I tell my stories. At the end of the day I have to be able to look in the mirror and be satisfied with myself and the decisions I made.”


Work/life balance is… A daily struggle! I have to really focus on leaving work at work. When I get home, I’m allowed to talk about my story from that day for 10 minutes, but then I have to put it away and be present with my family and friends. I try really hard to minimize how much news I consume on my days off, and sometimes I even turn my email notifications off, but I’m not always able to detach myself from what’s going on in the works. The journalist in me is always looking for the next interesting story to tell, much to the annoyance of the people around. They get wary when they see me get that look in my eye and start asking lots of questions.


Authenticity in my career and life means… Striving my best to do things with integrity and not compromising who I am. There is a lot of pressure from all angles to do things a certain way — from the way I dress, to how I tell my stories. At the end of the day I have to be able to look in the mirror and be satisfied with myself and the decisions I made.


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I was home schooled in the 7th and 8th grade.


One word I’d use to describe myself is… Optimistic.


One word a friend would use to describe me is… Loyal.


I stay inspired by… The stories of people whose voices are often silenced.


The future excites me because… I have no idea what next year will look like.


I want young women who represent a minority culture or religion in Canada to know… Their voices and their experiences matter and they should demand to be heard.


My next step is… Anyone’s guess!


Photo credit: Robin Kuniski


Want to hear more from Ginella? Get your ticket to her inspirational keynote at our Evening Series season premiere on September 6!

To Close the Gender Gap, It’s a Matter Of Degrees

In Canada, less than a quarter of senior management positions are held by women, and that figure drops significantly looking up to the board level. The MBA has long been seen as a key enabler to improve these numbers, both for early- and mid-career women, but “age and stage” issues often drive decisions for women considering the degree.



With her engineering background, Christina Waters thought she would have to invest 20 years establishing herself before getting a high-impact management position. She was only six years into her career, though, and looking to speed up her progression. She figured a Queen’s MBA would do the trick, but then doubts began to creep in.

“I had to get over the impostor syndrome,” says Waters, now a Senior Director of Digital Transformation Services at GE Oil & Gas. “There’s this voice that says, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’”

In the end, Waters worked through her self-doubts and took the MBA plunge, much to her delight. “It was interesting talking to some of the other females in the program because you get to really know them in that one-year experience. We all went through this. We all hesitated. We all didn’t really believe we could do it, for whatever reason. I was glad I had that support network.” 

It is a common refrain that Gloria Saccon, director of Queen’s Executive MBA, hears often when she conducts information sessions with prospective students and alumni. “The guys talk about confidence but the women bring it up sooner.” For many, she says, developing a “humble confidence” is the biggest gift of completing an MBA. “It’s the ability to converse with other functional areas of the organization, add value to that conversation, and extract what they need to make their strategic decisions,” Saccon says. “It enables them to be more nimble and adapt in a very fast-paced business environment.”


“The guys talk about confidence but the women bring it up sooner”


In Canada, women fill roughly 35 percent of all management positions and just under 25 percent of senior management positions. According to one study, women hold only 16 percent of board seats at Financial Post 500 companies; 40 percent of companies have no female board directors.

The MBA has long been seen as a key enabler to boost these numbers, both for early- and mid-career women. Business schools are working hard to make their programs more flexible to attract a greater number of female applicants, ever mindful of “age and stage” issues. 

“The full-time MBA individuals tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s, some married and some single, the minority with families,” says Saccon. “With the EMBA, fast forward 10 or 15 years, and you’re working with people in senior management positions who have significant professional and personal commitments, such as raising young children or teenagers or looking after aging parents. For women, it can be complicated when they’re raising families. It’s a different conversation we’re having with them.”

Queen’s School of Business offers four MBA programs: a full-time MBA program in Kingston; an Accelerated MBA for those with an undergraduate business degree; an Executive MBA; and the Cornell-Queen’s dual degree EMBA.

In Queen’s full-time program, 42 percent are women, while in the EMBA program female representation is 22 percent. Saccon says there are three challenges for women considering an MBA program: achieving work-life balance; financial constraints; and return on investment, or “Will this help me to get to where I want to go?”

Saccon sees organizations being more proactive in bringing women into senior leadership positions and making allowances for those pursuing a graduate degree. “They understand that there’s more on the shoulders of someone who is in an EMBA program; that employee has a hard stop at 5 p.m.,” she says.

A small number of organizations offer financial assistance as well; in the case of the Queen’s EMBA, at most 25 percent of students have part of their tuition covered by their employers. “The full ticket is rare,” says Saccon, “but even if it’s half and the employer says, ‘Take the time you need for classes on our time,’ that’s golden. It shows they have some skin in the game.”

Women who have gone through the Queen’s MBA programs emphasize the support Queen’s provides in the way of tools, resources, and advice. They also highlight the importance of support from other women in the program and, particularly in the EMBA program, peer-to-peer learning.

That was certainly the case for Christina Waters. Her MBA experience “allowed me to go from my old company, a firm with annual revenues of $500 million, to GE’s start-up software company, GE Oil & Gas Digital, which is focused on fullstream oil and gas digital solutions.” 

“It’s amazing that you don’t know what doors are open to you until you go into this program and see how your thinking changes and how you change as a person and start to believe in yourself.” 

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

Meet Lylee Horn, an indigenous soccer player finding focus and unity through the game

The North American Indigenous Games is the largest continental sporting and cultural gathering of Indigenous people. This year from July 16 – 23rd, Toronto will host more than 5,000 athletes, 2,000 volunteers and a countless number of spectators and dignitaries from across North America. In celebration of the thousands of Indigenous women representing Canada on the ice, court, and field, we’re profiling a few young athletes who are proving what Canada’s Indigenous young women are capable of. Meet Lylee Horn, a young soccer player who, much like her older sister, Melody, is ready to hit the field at the Games and show the country what she is capable of.





My chosen sport is… Soccer. It’s always been and always will be my number one passion. It taught me many values like modesty, determination, discipline and respect, which have helped mould me into the person I am today.


I decided to pursue athletics because… Sports keep me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually well. Whenever I’m on the field, I don’t think about anything else but that moment. Just like my family, sports have always been there for me when I’m going through a rough time.


My proudest accomplishment is… Winning gold in Palmas, Brazil at the first ever World Indigenous games in 2015. What made it extra special was being able to share that proud moment side by side with my sister.


Participating in the NAIG is important to me because… It creates unity for Indigenous athletes coming from all across North America, as well as providing the opportunity to not only connect, but also showcase our skills in the sports we’ve been working hard training for.


I surprise people when I tell them… About my secret box of snacks under my bed. It’s a medium sized box that passes as a makeup box so I can ensure the protection of my snacks. It’s where I keep all my candy and chocolate bars so I can quietly pig out in the middle of the night without leaving my room and waking anyone up. What really surprises people is the part where I have a little hand-made “snacktionary” which is basically a snack dictionary with all the snacks that I have in alphabetical order and categorized by type of snack.


My best advice from a coach was… “Focus on your own game”. That really stuck with me throughout the years because I have faced players who will do or say whatever to get you off of your game, but the most important thing is to stay level headed and remember to focus on your own game because in the end, the best revenge is the score on the scoreboard.


My biggest setback was… Getting bullied out of high school my senior year. It was a very emotionally tough time that affected me greatly.


I overcame it by… Taking all of the negativity from that experience and channeling it into my soccer performance to try and turn it into something useful and beneficial. Just being out on the field whenever times are tough is a nice way to not just escape, but release stress and worries about problems.


I stay focused by… The continuous support of my family, as well as keeping my goal of wanting to make it to the Olympics in mind.


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I’m obsessed with board games. Mainly Monopoly and Scrabble, but I pretty much love all board games. I find myself playing them on my phone more though because not really anyone I know wants to sit down and have an old-fashioned game anymore.


I stay inspired by… The continuous love and support of family and friends. Nothing helps me stay inspired and motivated like the power of positivity from loved ones.


The future excites me because… Anything can happen. I’ve been trying my best not just on the field but off as well. I’ve been trying to be the best daughter, sister, auntie, friend and coach I could be in order to help people and keep positivity flowing.


I want to show the world… Who I am and my path to getting to where I am today, in the hopes of inspiring and motivating others to just persevere and push through every obstacle they encounter with a brave face and strong heart.


My next step is… Getting through college with high grades, and then hopefully earning a scholarship for soccer to a top-notch university along the way. I would also like to continue coaching alongside my sister, and raise a team in Kahnawake to the AAA level.


Meet Bailey Thomas, another indigenous athlete who’ll be hitting the ice at this year’s North American Indigenous Games. 

Meet Erick Vandewedge, Challenging Unconscious Bias to Change the Face of Technology Consulting at Deloitte

Even with over 18 years’ experience providing technology advisory and implementation services, Erick Vandeweghe was surprised when he learned during an Unconscious Bias training that many male executives unknowingly favour men over women for analytical tasks. As the leader of Deloitte’s Canadian Technology Consulting practice, Erick has become more attuned to biases within the organization and encourages equality throughout his national team. Erick believes that we all need to take an active role to continue to recruit, engage and develop our most talented women so they are able to maximize their impact and bring their voices to the business. Meet him here.




My first job ever was… Working in the fields around Blenheim, Ontario, learning the hard way what a dollar is worth.


I chose my career path because… I had the benefit of experiencing different corporate cultures and environments through co-op experience while at the University of Waterloo. I realized that working in a hierarchical organization would not meet my personal needs or give me the sort of professional fulfillment and development I was looking for. I wanted a fast paced, rapidly changing, highly entrepreneurial environment. Consulting was the calling for me given the pace of change and the requirement to continue to be better and at the forefront of the latest trends and industry issues. Combining Deloitte, which has a great collaborative, competitive, and supportive culture, with the Consulting business model was the perfect set of ingredients for what I was looking for and I’m as energized and committed now as I was the day I started.


The best part of my job is… I often tell people that I have the best job in Canada. Technology is at the centre of so much in today’s economy. In my role, I have the privilege of seeing the many ways that Technology is having an impact to help our clients excel. Choosing where and how we focus as a business based on where the potential for impact is greatest.  


My proudest accomplishment is… Making Partner at Deloitte and doing it on my terms by focusing on the clients and issues that I thought were important, and developing my skills in order to become the type of leader that I wanted to be.


My boldest move to date was… Relocating to Melbourne, Australia for two years without a job lined up. It was unnerving getting off the plane with my wife, two suitcases and no return ticket. The next two years were some of the best experiences of our life.


I surprise people when I tell them… I am an avid cyclist.


My best advice to people starting their career is… Do something you love. Life is too short to be unhappy professionally. In the past, I have worked for an organization where I wasn’t having an impact, wasn’t valued, and wasn’t progressing. Work is such a big part of our adult lives that it can have a profoundly negative effect on so many aspects of your life if you don’t love what you do.


My best advice to people looking to advance their career is… Put people first. Apply the same principles when engaging with clients, peers and staff. Followership and teaming is critical in order to magnify your impact and meet the myriad of demands we face each and every day.


Sponsorship is important because… You never have all of the answers. You need guidance, inspiration, encouragement and endorsement at many points in your career. It propels us forward, opens new opportunities and keeps us challenged.


My best advice from a mentor was… Your clients are your currency. Always suspend self interest and find ways to go above and beyond to make your clients successful in all of your interactions, and good things will follow.


My biggest setback was… I’m a very shy person by nature, a personality trait that doesn’t fare particularly well in the notoriously Type A culture of consulting organizations, nor in the requirement for adept business development skills as a partner in a Professional Services firm. When I first started in the business, I tried to model my own personal style after those around me whom I thought to be successful. This was not being true to myself. Being confident in my own abilities and realizing that I needed to be true to myself allowed me to play to my own strengths. This was critical in centering myself and thriving professionally.


I overcame it by… The other half of overcoming that innate challenge was getting married. It may seem odd, but in many ways my wife Tara is the opposite of me. She challenges me in so many ways that she makes me a better person and professional by helping me soften the rough edges.


Work/life balance is… Different for everyone. What works for me may not work for the next person. You need to be confident in your impact at work, and learn how to pivot the focus between yourself, your family and your career.


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… Very much about me. I deal with Technology every day professionally, so being disconnected in my personal life is my release. 


I stay inspired by… The talented people we add to our business each and every day. The new ideas, the new way of doing things, and the new approaches keep me motivated and inspired.


The future excites me because… We are working in a time of unprecedented change and extraordinary opportunity. The opportunities we are presented with now and the choices we make in responding to them will be defining moments for our organizations and our economy for decades to come.  



Want to hear more from Erick Vandeweghe? Get your ticket to The Sponsorship Summit today.



Built from the Ground Up: Meet the Woman Who Has Made a Career Out of Defying Expectations

Amanda Shuchat was given the keys to Vision7 International’s newest PR agency, The Colony Project, at an age when many doubted her capabilities. Yet in just over a year as Managing Director, she has made a name for the shop as one that offers something the big guys simply can’t compete with. Which to those who know her well comes as no surprise  — Amanda’s career is defined by exceeding expectations, and bringing those she leads along for the ride. 


By Teresa Harris



“I like to think of The Colony Project in terms of Goldilocks — we’re not too big, not too small.” Amanda Shuchat says with a laugh.

It’s an apt description from the Managing Director of the year-old Toronto-based public relations agency, which combines the tight-knit, personal service of a boutique shop with the backing klout of a large parent company, industry heavyweight Vision7 International. With access to the resources of a global network of agencies, and the trailblazing, creative mindset of a smaller firm, The Colony Project provides a blend of services that many agencies by nature can’t compete with.

“We’re a full service PR agency, but we’re not your traditional PR agency,” she emphasizes. “We focus less on niche markets, and more on bringing brands to new people, using innovation and out-of-the-box thinking to stay one step ahead. Every campaign we tackle begins with one question: How can we help this brand reach a new audience?”

This unconventional approach is clearly working — having already won over global brands like Nando’s and La Roche Posay, The Colony Project has flourished since its inception in January 2016, with Amanda at the helm.

And as she reflects on where the last decade of her own professional life has taken her, Amanda acknowledges her own quick rise in the ranks was also pretty unconventional — she was hired to start the agency with little more than ten years of industry experience to her name. But one thing she has learned, both in watching The Colony Project and her own professional trajectory change and grow, is that our paths are rarely expected.

“Success doesn’t have to be in a straight line — with every opportunity, you never know what you’re building towards.”  

IMG_9924Amanda graduated university with a degree in journalism, yet quickly realized that an extroverted, business-minded, people person like herself would be a better fit for the world of PR. So she secured an internship at a boutique PR agency, and kicked off her career promoting consumer brands. A change in focus led her to technology, then to the U.S. where she worked with Gwen Stefani’s fashion team and pitched Canadian natural resource products south of the border. Upon returning to Canada, she joined Citizen Relations. Five years and five promotions later, she became Citizen’s youngest-ever Vice President, was named one of PR in Canada’s Top 30 Under 30, and was ultimately appointed to launch and lead Vision7’s newest PR shop.


“Success doesn’t have to be in a straight line — with every opportunity, you never know what you’re building towards.”


Amanda always knew that experience was relative, and that with hard work and an entrepreneurial mindset, anything was achievable. “It’s about being hungry, taking advantage of what’s in front of you and making it your own.”

She credits much of her hustle and drive to her upbringing. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and my dad always pushed my brother and I to pick what we liked and do whatever it took to make a career in that happen.”

Beyond her formative family ties, Amanda is also able to recognize how influential professional mentors — even “unofficial” ones — have been in shaping her work ethic and future aspirations.

“At each agency, I identified someone who was driven and dedicated to growth and advancing their own career,” she explains. “Someone who has their ear tapped to the ground and is always thinking of innovative ways to do things is a great person to model yourself after. Someone with emotional intelligence. At the end of the day, a mentor should leave you thinking, ‘This person gets it’.”

Amanda now focuses on being a role model for her own team, aiming to instil in them the same confidence and ambition that led to her own success. Developing a strong team is both personally rewarding and of great value to the business, not only in delivering the best possible outcomes to clients, but also in creating a working atmosphere that feels nurturing, exciting, and — most importantly — collaborative.


“At the end of the day, a mentor should leave you thinking, ‘This person gets it’.”


“Culture is a big thing in an agency. In a lot of cases, you’re with these people more than anyone else in your life,” Amanda explains, describing the natural camaraderie that agency life often catalyzes. But this emphasis on fostering interpersonal relationships within the office speaks to more than just ensuring everyone gets along — although she’s the first to encourage birthday celebrations, communal lunches, and grabbing a drink together later in the week.

“If you don’t have a sense of real, day-to-day, in the trenches collaboration and support from the people you work with, you get burnt out.” She has seen the impact a toxic and over-competitive workplace can have — not only the people, but on the bottom line — and is dedicated to preventing that environment at The Colony Project.

“It’s so crucial that as a company, we have each other’s backs. Nobody is above any task. We’ve created a strong team full of talent, because that’s what serves our clients best.”


Meet Yana Barankin, a Woman Challenging the Fashion Industry to do Better for People and the Planet

Yana Barankin is the female lead of TAMGA Designs, a clothing line with integrity at its center. Before embarking on this journey, Yana and her business partner asked themselves two simple questions is it too expensive to produce a socially and environmentally responsible piece of clothing? Does style have to be sacrificed for accountability? The obvious answer was no  so they set out on a mission to prove it. Here’s her story.



My first job ever was… sales clerk at a clothing store!


I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I realized that I can have much more of a positive social and environmental impact by pursuing my passion rather than sitting at a 9-5 desk job. 


My proudest accomplishment is… Getting my Masters in International Development from Kent University.


My boldest move to date was… Taking a leap of faith and buying a one-way ticket to Indonesia with my fiancee to set-up a responsible and transparent supply for the company.


I surprise people when I tell them… I lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh for 2.5 years working in international aid.


My best advice to people trying to get an idea off the ground is… Surround yourself with creative and like-minded people! Know what your weaknesses are and don’t be afraid to ask for help and inspiration!


My best advice from a mentor was… It’s a marathon, not a sprint.


“Know what your weaknesses are and don’t be afraid to ask for help and inspiration”


My biggest setback was… My personal biggest challenge was moving to Canada at the age of 12 and what felt like at the time adapting to a whole new world.


I overcame it by… Giving it time.


Work/life balance is… Knowing when to a call it a night (laptop and cellphones OFF) and enjoying the weekend with family and friends.


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I’m a self taught photographer.


I stay inspired by… Being outdoors.


The future excites me because… There are endless possibilities! We’re starting to see a shift where businesses can’t just take away from people and the planet — to get customer loyalty they have to show how they’re giving back. Combining profit and purpose is the challenge of our generation, and there are so many amazing entrepreneurs and companies working on it.


“Combining profit and purpose is the challenge of our generation”


My next step is… My next steps are all about TAMGA at the moment! We’re developing some amazing new pieces and prints with our team in Indonesia, and will be introducing some awesome new eco materials to our line. This summer we will be doing lots of in-person festivals, pop-ups and markets in the Toronto area. And we can’t wait for lots of sunshine, TAMGA clothing, and meeting all our amazing customers.


Meet the founder of Lucky Iron Fish, a company with social responsibility at the heart of its business model.