Meet Heather Barnabe, CEO of G(irls)20

Earlier this summer, Heather Barnabe was named CEO of our charity of choice, G(irls)20. With over a decade of experience in the not-for-profit sector, Heather knows what it means to manage complex, multi-country education interventions. Her career has thus far taken her across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America for Right To Play, advocating for women’s and girl’s rights around the world. 





My first job ever was… Working at the movie theatre. We were allowed to eat popcorn on our break and after our shift. It was heaven.


I decided to start my own thing… I was fortunate to move into this role after Farah Mohamed, now the CEO at Malala Fund, started G(risl)20.


My education prepared me for where I am now by… Teaching me multidimensional thinking, reasoning and analyzing… the good, the bad and the ugly. It also opened me to the world of political, economic and feminist theories that have, in many ways, shaped my values and guided many of my career choices.


My proudest accomplishment is… Having worked around the globe, I’m proud of the incredible network of colleagues and friends that teach, motivate, inspire, amuse and push me to do awesome things. 


My boldest move to date was… I’d say bold is a character trait many of my friends would use to describe me. Whether that be my career choice, my statements, my values, the type of wine I bring to a dinner party, or my strong eyebrows: I’m no stranger to bold moves. In fact, jumping into this CEO position felt bold – it’s exhilarating and terrifying and incredibly rewarding, like any bold move.


I surprise people when I tell them… How many countries I’ve visited.


My best advice to people starting in their career is… Understand this is a long game and adjust accordingly. Find a mentor, have a strategy, seize opportunities when you can and, most importantly, speak up.


My best advice from my mentor was… Go into every meeting, job interview, sales pitch, whatever it is, with a few well-formulated, critical points you want to make and don’t leave until you’ve made them. It seems obvious and simple but it has helped me stay focused when articulation and brevity are key.


My biggest setback was… I once found myself heartbroken, with a job coming to an end and living in a city I didn’t love. When everyone else seemed to be moving farther ahead in their lives, I felt lost, stuck and heading in the wrong direction.


I overcame it by… Besides leaning heavily on family and friends (and wine), I focused entirely on my career. I worked hard, ended up in a job I loved and found a fulfilment in my career that I hadn’t had in my personal life. When I look back at that time now, I feel like I dodged a bullet as that life was never going to be a satisfying one for me.


Work/life balance is… Finding time for self-care and fun. Self-care for me means exercise and proper eating. Fun is Greg, friends, family, laughter and getting outside. The balance is easier when you have a job you love and you find joy in work.


If you google me, you still wouldn’t know… That I’m a Jeopardy fanatic and my bucket list consists of one thing: becoming a Jeopardy contestant.


I stay inspired by… Look what I do for a living! I’m inspired every day by the young women who come into the G(irls)20 family to grow their leadership skills and give back to their communities in the most amazing, innovative and meaningful ways.  


The future excites me because… When everyone else is complaining about millenials, I think they are the greatest generation. They care about the world around them, they are less prejudiced and they have innovative, creative minds that we already benefit from daily.


My next step is… To take G(irls)20 to the next level, growing existing programs, creating new programs and continue to raise awareness about the importance of access, resources and agency girls and young women need to reach their potential.



Like this? Meet Caroline Riseboro, a CEO leading another one of Canada’s leading organizations advocating for the advancement of women and girls.


Meet Sarah Kerr, Executive Director of SchoolBOX

Sarah Kerr got involved in the grassroots charity SchoolBOX at the young age of 19, when she helped to raise funds to build the organization’s very first classroom in Nicaragua. She was humbled by the extreme poverty she witnessed there, and propelled by a strong desire to change the world by giving children access to a basic education. At the age of 25 she became SchoolBOX’s Executive Director, leading a team of 15 local Nicaraguan employees and 3 Canadian employees to fulfill its mission of ‘making education possible’ for all girls and boys. Now a working mother, reporting to a Board of Directors comprised of 85% women, Sarah firmly believes in championing women and girls to reach their full potential, starting with a basic education.




My first job ever was… Was working at an independent bookshop and café.  My boss was an incredible model for community building and generosity. I can thank her for introducing me to SchoolBOX, my addiction to books, and snobbery for fair trade coffee to this day.


I decided to pursue this passion because… As the daughter of an amazing teacher, I always thought I would pursue the same path. When I started raising money for school supplies and literacy for schools in South America as a teenager, I realized I could impact kids by empowering their teachers.


My proudest accomplishment is… Championing women like Jazmin Lopez who broke the cycle of extreme poverty in one generation through education, was a founding member of SchoolBOX, has a decade of entrepreneurial experience in Nicaragua and a degree in international relations. Today she empowers 18,000+ kids in her country!


My boldest move to date was… I took a year off of university to work multiple jobs and raise funds for the first SchoolBOX library & school. I learned Spanish in Costa Rica and lived with local teachers in Nicaragua. Little did I know I would find a lifelong mission, my Christian faith, and meet my husband in the process.


I surprise people when I tell them… That I can do a pretty good front flip…off of cliffs, bridges, or accidentally on snowboard jumps!


My best advice to people starting out in the non-profit world is… This world needs your passion and energy! Focus your mindset on the mission, not trying to ‘get a job’. I would also suggest trying to learn as much about business as possible because non-profit work is ultimately running a lean and agile organization with high impact.


My best advice from a mentor was… Don’t be a perfectionist. Be brave.


“This world needs your passion and energy! Focus your mindset on the mission, not trying to ‘get a job’”


My biggest setback was… Postpartum anxiety. Having birth trauma, and later a miscarriage were some serious personal challenges as a working mom.


I overcame it by… Having great mentors. My executive coaches, who are amazing women filled with wisdom and encouragement, have been a lifesaver for me. Also having a support system to lean on including my family and friends, church community, neighbours, my naturopath and family doctor have been key.


Work/life balance is… Elusive! My work involves a lot of travel, which is very challenging with a small child with asthma, who got pneumonia twice this winter. Still working on this one.


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I love to travel and have explored cultures on five continents through food, dance, language and adventure. There are so many amazing places and people on this planet, it could take many lifetimes to experience all the diversity and beauty.


I stay inspired by… Visiting teachers in Nicaragua who are ‘making education possible’ for kids in unimaginable conditions. Last month, I met Gema Picado who just graduated from teachers college, built a dirt floor rancho in her home community that had no school, and is now giving classes to 54 kids each day. Her determination is inspiring!


The future excites me because… Kids are so open to using their imaginations to make our world better. Seeing young Nicaraguans leading SchoolBOX and the impact that Indigenous youth volunteers are now making in their communities in Canada, after helping to build schools in Nicaragua, is pretty incredible.


My next step is… Piloting our SchoolBOX model here at home to empower Indigenous youth to ‘make education possible’ for children in their home communities.


Meet Stephanie Boyd, a Canadian filmmaker advocating for those without a voice.



How Olympic gold medalist Natalie Spooner is inspiring the next generation of girls

As a young girl growing up playing hockey, Natalie Spooner felt she didn’t have much to aspire to within the sport of hockey. Now an Olympic gold medalist and Canadian Women’s Hockey League All-Star, she’s inspiring the next generation of girls through initiatives like Project North and Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest.



By Shelley White



In the hamlet of Gjoa Haven, NU, Olympic gold medalist Natalie Spooner was almost 3000 kilometres north of her Toronto home when she got the chance to meet two young girls who reminded her of when she was a hockey-crazed kid.

In collaboration with Scotiabank, Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, the National Hockey League, First Air and Project North, a not-for-profit organization, Natalie experienced the trip of a lifetime in helping bring hockey equipment and inspiration to Canada’s Northern communities.

“The girls’ teacher spoke up and said they were really into hockey and I got to take some pictures with them and speak to them. I could tell they were super excited that we were there and that we brought hockey equipment,” says Natalie, forward for Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) team – and 2014 Clarkson Cup champs – the Toronto Furies.

“It made me think of me when I was little – I also loved the game of hockey and it was my passion, so it was cool to be able to relate to them.”

It was one of many special moments for Natalie and her Project North teammates during their tour of six Nunavut communities in April. In addition to distributing 150 bags of new hockey equipment, the Rumie Initiative, a non-profit that makes access to free digital education possible for underserved communities, donated 150 tablets pre-loaded with educational content in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday. Community members also had the chance to see and touch the hallowed symbol of our country’s beloved sport, the Stanley Cup®, and meet Stanley Cup® champion, Lanny McDonald.

During her whirlwind tour, Natalie says it quickly became clear that hockey is just as popular in the North as it is in Canada’s more southerly locales.

“To meet the people and the kids up there, they might not have all the resources we have, but they love hockey. They have such a passion for the game,” she says.

As a kid growing up in Scarborough, ON, sports were a central focus in Natalie’s life. She says participating in everything from soccer to hockey to field hockey gave her a lot – physically, mentally and emotionally. Being on teams helped develop perseverance and responsibility, and hockey in particular was a great source of joy.

“I was a little bit shy when I was younger, and sports helped me have the confidence to go out there and play hard, and then feel accomplished after, knowing that I helped my team,” she says. “And I still feel like every time I get on the ice, it’s my happy place.”


“I was a little bit shy when I was younger, and sports helped me have the confidence to go out there and play hard, and then feel accomplished after, knowing that I helped my team”


Natalie began participating in organized sports at age four, playing on a boys’ team for one year before joining the Durham West Lightning Girls Hockey Association where she played for 12 seasons. Being a girl in hockey could sometimes be challenging, she says, knowing that she couldn’t aspire to reach the same heights as the boys, simply because a career in the NHL wasn’t available to her.

“I was pretty lucky because I played on a girls’ team growing up, so I was surrounded by a lot of other girls who had the same goals,” says Natalie. “But I also had three older brothers and I wanted to be just like them, and I figured out that I couldn’t exactly follow in their footsteps.”

She considers her gold medal win with Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, to be the pinnacle of her career. And it’s gratifying to know that girls can now aspire to play for the CWHL, says Natalie. She’s proud to think that her example is helping fuel the dreams of young women.

Natalie recently took part in Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest, a free event with the Toronto Maple Leafs aimed at creating a positive hockey experience for girls in the Toronto area. Young hockey fans had the opportunity to meet Natalie, learn some new on-ice techniques and take home a keepsake hockey jersey.

“Just to see all the girls come out to learn some skills – they are super-pumped to be there and they all want to learn,” says Natalie. “It’s inspiring for me, too, to know that I am making a difference to them. They are the future of women’s hockey.”

Even with all the strides women in hockey have made in recent years, it still can be a difficult choice for women to pursue their passion rather than go with a more lucrative profession, says Natalie.

“One of the toughest decisions for me when I came out of university was, ‘Do I continue with hockey or do I go to med school?’ I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make the Olympic team or not,” she says. “But I think it’s getting better, and it’s only going to keep improving if girls keep playing sports and we keep pushing for what we deserve.”


“It’s getting better, and it’s only going to keep improving if girls keep playing sports and we keep pushing for what we deserve.”


Natalie says she and her colleagues in the CWHL hope the sport will grow to the point that women can make a living playing hockey full-time, and that’s part of the reason they are more than willing to take part in charitable and promotional activities that will help grow the game.

“We love hockey and we’re passionate about it,” she says. “We know there’s a long way to go still to get to the level we want the game to be at, but hopefully by the time those little girls grow up, they can make a living by playing hockey. As long as we’re doing our part, it’s going to get there eventually.”



Photo Credit: MIV Photography
NHL and the NHL Shield and the word mark and image of the Stanley Cup are registered trademarks of the National Hockey League. © NHL 2017. All Rights Reserved.


Taking the Leap

Sara is a passionate champion for the rights of women and children, with nearly 20 years of experience as a senior leader in the non-profit sector. She is the founder and President/CEO of Children First Canada, a new national non-profit organization working to make this the best place in the world for kids to grow up.

By Sara L. Austin, Founder and President/CEO, Children First Canada

I began my career in the late 90’s, with a passion to change the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children. Starting out on the streets of Bangkok helping child labourers and victims of trafficking, my work has since taken me around the world and into the top circles of power—from the United Nations, to government corridors, and to corporate boardrooms. In the Spring of 2015, after spending 17 years with one of Canada’s largest charitable organizations, I resigned from my job.  

I had recently relocated with my family from Toronto to Calgary, and was ready to embrace a new chapter of life. Making the decision to move and to leave my job was difficult. I had to face my own fears, as well as all of the external noise from concerned colleagues or friends. I was at a career peak when all of this happened—I’d recently won a Top 25 Women of Influence award, and various other accolades—but I knew in my bones that it was time for change, even if I didn’t know exactly what it would be. Some have called it crazy, others called it courageous.

In my moments of fear, I’ve leaned on my experience of the flying trapeze, where the hardest part is climbing the ladder and standing on the platform. Once you take the leap, you’re flying. All of the fear is in your head, there’s always a safety net below you. The worst you can do is fall and get back up again.  

So I resigned from my job, and gave myself a couple of months to figure things out. I was itching to do something different, but rather than jumping immediately into a new full-time job, I deliberately pressed the “pause” button. I began meeting with leaders across the country, seeking advice on what the biggest needs were for kids in our country, and how I could use my skills and experience to have the greatest impact.

I knew I wanted to focus on improving the lives of kids in Canada.

While most Canadians tend to think of this as being one of the best places in the world for children to grow up, that simply isn’t true. Canada ranks as the 5th most prosperous nation, but when it comes to the wellbeing of children, we drop to 17th place. On key measures for child health and safety we rank 27th. As an advocate for children and as the mother of a 6-year-old boy, it makes me angry that a country as wealthy as ours is letting kids fall through the cracks. We can and must do better.

There are lots of great charities delivering programs to kids, but we haven’t seen progress on Canada’s child wellbeing ranking for over a decade. So I sought advice from the major children’s charities, formed an advisory board, developed a plan of action, and launched Children First Canada, a new national non-profit with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up.

I’ve learned a lot on my journey so far. If you’re interested in a similar path—whether that means starting a non-profit, or making a major life change—these five lessons could help you along the way:

Be bold and unique. It’s hard to set yourself apart in a very crowded and competitive landscape. Rather than compete with existing children’s charities, I’m working in partnership with them to build awareness and mobilize Canadians to get involved in making a difference for kids. Working together, we can achieve so much more for children. I’ve focused on building a brand that is bold and unique, and which adds value to the broader sector. Picture the children’s charities as the lifeboats that are keeping kids afloat, and Children First Canada as the tide that will lift all boats.

Embrace the mindset of a social entrepreneur. Rather than using traditional approaches, I’ve created a new social enterprise, Children First Canada, which is small, nimble, and able to take more risks. It has been a major adjustment going from working in a very large, well established charity to running this new enterprise on my own. I’m on a steep learning curve, and am learning to operate at a strategic level to set the vision and strategy, whilst being tactical and doing the hands-on work of fundraising, research, media and PR, and so on.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not alone—I’ve got an incredible advisory board, I’ve got great partners to work with, and there is no shortage of people willing to step up and help.  

Understand the nature of the journey. The task ahead is monumental and it will take years before we see widespread change, but this needs to be balanced with creating a sense of urgency to affect change for children today. I have to set short- and long-term milestones and persistently driving change day by day. Children’s lives are at stake, and we can’t afford to be incremental in our approach.  

Don’t let fear stop you.  I’ve come to embrace the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

If you had asked me a few years ago whether I’d be leading my own organization, I would have laughed – it simply wasn’t on my horizon. There are days when this role is incredibly daunting—tackling this big, hairy, audacious goal with a very small start-up organization—but it’s also incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. It’s much more than a job, it’s become my life’s mission.  

Children First Canada is a new national non-profit with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up. We are partnering with some of Canada’s leading children’s charities, corporations, and community leaders, with the aim of getting these issues on the public’s radar, and building a national movement that will drive change for children. To learn more about Children First Canada and get involved, go to: