Feature – Empowering Change
By Jeff Buckstein
Diversity has enhanced the strength of the National Capital Region as a major influence on Canadian business, politics, and culture. Many of today’s leaders are women who have had to overcome adversity to reach the level of success they enjoy today.
Lisa MacLeod, MPP for Nepean-Carleton and Ontario’s Minister of Children, Community, and Social Services and the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, says a lot has changed in terms of gender issues over the past 14 years since she first ran for political office.
“Back in 2005,” she says, “I had just given birth to my daughter, and I had a number of people tell me I couldn’t do it because I was a mother. That was the criticism that people would send my way. It was a signal about how out of touch some people could be.”
After having won a seat in a 2006 provincial by-election as a new, 31-year old mother, she recalls bringing her daughter Victoria toQueen’s Park only to face an “un-family friendly legislature” that would sit from one o’clock in the afternoon until nine o’clock in the evening most days, sometimes until midnight.
“Those of us with small children weren’t able to put them to bed. I advocated for making Queen’s Park family friendly. Now we sit between nine and six during the day. We have a high chair in the dining room, and there are change tables in the bathrooms,” she says.
MacLeod is also proud that she has been able to recruit more women who are, like she was starting out, moms with young children.
Lise Bourgeois has been president and chief executive officer of La Cité, the largest French-language college of applied arts and technology in Ontario, since 2010. But in the late 1990s, when she decided to move from the classroom into management, there were only a handful of women in executive leadership positions in education.
“I looked at them as confident, determined, and inspiring women who had all this resilience. I looked up to them knowing that if they could do that, I could also,” she says.
One of the key aspects of her leadership style is that she is never willing to accept the status quo, and seeks to innovate. She recalls the influence of her mother, Rita, who taught her the importance of being a strong and visionary person, but also a fair and committed leader determined to always improve and strive to move forward.
For Komal Minhas, a member of the millennial generation, the biggest challenge in her young career has been personal.
Minhas, who was born and raised in Grande Prairie, Alberta, moved to Ottawa in 2007 to attend Carleton University, and then lived in New York City after graduating with her degree in journalism, political science, and human rights. In 2016 she produced and funded the feature documentary film Dream, Girl, through her consulting company KoMedia, about female entrepreneurs in and around New York. That film premiered at the White House under President Barack Obama.
During the film’s launch, Minhas, at only 26, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She was deemed cancer-free a few months later, following treatment. However, in early 2017, as the film continued its global tour, she was diagnosed with a neurological illness that forced her to move back to Canada.
“During that recovery when I was in a medically needed isolation, I realized there wasn’t a community online that reflected my experience as a woman of colour, as someone who was highly ambitious, who wanted to feel a sense of community, even though I couldn’t physically be in spaces because I was limited by my illness,” she says.
Minhas recently launched kaur.space, a digital magazine and online community focused on work, wellness, and impact, or legacy. That brand will expand into a physical community workspace in Westboro later in 2019.
Co-work spaces provide a network upon which entrepreneurs, including a growing number of female entrepreneurs in Ottawa, can access critical resources like funding and legal services.
Ruby Williams has seen significant improvement in professional acceptance of gender equality in the workforce and leadership opportunities for women.
“When I first started, I was probably one of the few women in my field. Most, if not all, of my clients were male,” says Williams, a chartered professional accountant and senior manager with Deloitte LLP. “Over time things have changed. We have more women interested in the field. We have enhanced our hiring policies. We focus on diversity. I think that brings in more perspectives and allows us to service our clients better.”
Williams, who was born in Edmonton but grew up in Hong Kong, arrived in Ottawa in 1996 to attend Carleton University. She is now firmly ensconced as a member of the community. Williams sits on the Ottawa Board of Trade as its treasurer, and is also co-chair of the Board’s Capital Build Task Force.
Like MacLeod, Williams has had to balance a career rise with being the mother of young children (Ben 8, and Matt, 5), for whom she prioritizes quality time whenever possible. She credits her family with providing critical support.“I wouldn’t have advanced this far in my career without the support from my husband, Doug, and my extended family, especially my mother, Connie. I’m lucky that everybody’s willing to chip in when needed,” says Williams.
MacLeod also credits her family for making her career rise possible, and the importance of having time to enjoy family. “I couldn’t be doing this without my husband, Joe Varner. His flexibility, his support, his unwavering love and devotion to me and my daughter, has allowed me to have a strong foundation from which to serve,” she says.
In advising young women who aspire to leadership roles, Bourgeois says, “my first piece of advice would be to have a dream of where you see yourself and what you want to accomplish. Second, visualize and take the steps to make it happen. Believe in your potential. Do not take no for an answer. Have a mentor and role models that you can relate to as guides.”
Having a professional mentor was another common theme behind all of the successful women profiled. MacLeod credits city counselor Jan Harder (Ward 3 – Barrhaven), who MacLeod once worked for shortly after arriving in Ottawa from Nova Scotia in 1998, as a mentor. She also notes how the late Jean Piggott, a former member of federal Parliament, as well as Piggott’s sisters Grete Hale and Gay Cook “always provided me with their support.”
Williams notes there are “many great people at Deloitte who have helped mentor me at critical parts in my career. Susan Mingie, a senior partner, leads by example with her hard work and passion, and has shown me how to achieve a successful career. David Boddy, the partner who hired me into mergers and acquisitions, is never short of wisdom. And Bruce Beggs, whom I have worked with for many years, offers kind words that have always motivated me to do better every day.”
“Since I’ve come back to Ottawa, I’ve noticed there are a lot more networking groups of women who come together to discuss entrepreneurship, to discuss business, and discuss the future of the city,” says Minhas.
Minhas cites the support of two local men who have been mentors in her career, emphasizing the importance of having both men and women championing the advancement of women in business: Adam Miron, the co-founder of Hexo Corp., a billion-dollar recreational cannabis company, and Paul Dewar, former member of federal Parliament who recently passed away.
“When I think of Paul, it’s in that light of how he tended to see the potential in others. He encouraged that, especially in young people. I want to do the same for other young people in our community to help them really see what they’re capable of doing in the world,” she stresses.
Businesses in the NCR can also play a role in empowering local women to seek leadership positions, says Williams. “Tone from the top is important and leaders need to walk the talk. Businesses need to foster an open culture that encourages flexibility in the workplace—that could be in a form of less conventional working hours, schedules, telecommuting, etc.,” she elaborates.
“Deloitte offers exactly that to allow me to advance my career— knowing that I can continue to have interesting and challenging work with the flexibility when I need it,” Williams adds. MacLeod attests to the concerted effort by all in society to ensure that gender diversity remains front and centre.
“We need a coordinated effort by government, businesses, and social organizations across the province to support initiatives that…promote women’s economic empowerment. We need leadership from all sectors to encourage women to achieve their full potential,” she stresses. The encouraging stories of MacLeod, Bourgeois, Minhas, and Williams are a testament to the leadership mantle that women throughout the NCR, in all facets of the workforce, have seized. And there are many more encouraging stories, like that of Huiping Zhang, owner and president of Wintranslation, an award-winning local translation company.
Like many in the NCR, Zhang is an immigrant, and she offers a compelling story on how she grew her business to become a successful entrepreneur. That story will appear later in this issue.