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Melania Motta

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Woman of the Week: Eva Wong

 

When I first started giving some thought as to possible profiles of women of excellence to feature in the Woman of the Week section, I decided I wanted to write about women working in the technology space in Canada, namely Eva Wong. This is a very vibrant and growing sector, with the Toronto-Kitchener-Waterloo corridor nicknamed the “Silicon Valley of the North,” including innovation, AI, and fintech startups.

Eva Wong, is one of the co-founders and COO at Borrowell, a financial technology (fintech) company whose mandate is to help Canadians make great decisions about credit. Their service offering includes free credit scores and credit reports, advice and recommendations to improve customers’ financial well-being and personal loans.

Founded in 2014, Borrowell has grown to a 50-employee firm with 700,000 users to date, making it one of the largest fintech companies in Canada.

Eva’s professional background in business and years spent working for a non-profit prepared her for the creation of her present venture. Being a woman who was told that she did not have the ‘right’ background, she faced the prejudices of those who thought she was not qualified enough. However, thanks to her growth mindset, and memories of how she had faced challenges in the past and overcame them, she kept going to achieve her current success.

One of the things that she acknowledged as being a great help when she first started was not being afraid of asking questions, which in turn allowed her to build confidence over time and considers herself very fortunate to have  had of a strong co-founding team. She has had the opportunity to work in a team of people committed to the project and bringing different experiences and insights to the process. The founding team, embedded in the tech community, were part of an accelerator at Ryerson DMZ as well as the One Eleven scale-up hub. Therefore, “there were many people to connect to and talk to with similar experiences,” Eva said.

A lot of lessons were learned along the way, one of them being that success results from continual testing and trying new things.  “There are a hundred small things you have to do as opposed to one big thing. We were data driven in everything we have done, organizing, collecting data and making decisions.” said Eva.

Although Eva stresses the importance that a great team of people makes a huge difference in the level of productivity, and that great people are great people no matter the gender, she also emphasizes that one of her company’s goals is to reach gender balance. “Currently 40 percent of our team identifies as female.  It’s important to build diversity.”

Many startups have a reputation of being male-centric, Borrowell is an exception, striving to create a more inclusive culture and a more appealing environment for women and other under-represented groups to work in.

Eva acknowledges that it is a great moment to be part of the technology community in Canada. She continues, “We are on the cusp of something that can be really big. The community is still small enough that people want to be helpful and a sense of collaboration pervades the community. It’s very exciting!”

In her youth, Eva used to keep a scrapbook where she collected articles and photos of people who inspired her while growing up. She always wanted to make a difference. She recalls ,“I remember reading an article about some high schoolers belonging to the Junior Achievers group who had started their own business. Years later, I went to university with one of the people featured in the article.”

Being a young industry, technology holds a lot of young talent who are very helpful if you want to stay current and up to date. Eva said, “I am fortunate to work with people who are much younger than I am. Also, there is a news media company I’m subscriber to and found that it’s a really good source of information providing in-depth knowledge .”

As a woman and as a woman of colour, she believes that this is the best time for women to break through in executive roles and in traditionally male-dominated sectors.

Not only a co-founder and senior executive, but also a mother and wife, Eva’s hardworking attitude and strong work ethics may have led to spending too many hours at work. However, the pull of the family is strong and drawing a line between professional and private has become an imperative. With so many hours in a day, she wishes she “didn’t need to sleep to have more time to do things” and that is the superpower she wishes she had. In the absence of a real superpower, she is quite content with exercising the daily power of making things: she enjoys cooking and baking. Lately, she has experimented making sourdough bread and pizza.

Eva warns against a misconception that revolves around technology that a career in this sector is impossible without the necessary background. Just like any other sector, there are a lot of jobs within tech companies that are waiting for smart people to do them. She said, “I would encourage people who are interested in a career in tech, whether it’s founding a company or joining a startup. It’s been the most exciting time of my career. There are great opportunities, meaningful work, and a real chance to make a difference.”

Woman of the Week: Peggy Van De Plassche

 

Peggy Van de Plassche is a finance professional by trade, who after a varied career as an investor, bank executive, consultant, and entrepreneur decided to bet on herself and set up her own venture capital firm in July 2018.

Peggy is the Managing Partner of Roar Ventures, whose focus is on early-stage data and AI startups that are targeting the financial services industry. Her beginnings in technology go back almost 15 years, well before FinTech broke through in public awareness.

Aside from running Roar Ventures, Peggy sits on a number of boards including Invest in Canada, is a senior advisor to Portag3 Ventures, guest lecturer at Rotman on AI in financial services and she is also involved in the community via Hackergal and the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

Born in Lille, France, Peggy’s French native accent carries the classic elegance of the language. She left France when she was 26 to relocate in Montreal where she joined CGI and contracted the technology bug.

Following seven happy years in Montreal, she and her husband decided to relocate to Toronto to get closer to the financial services centre. After working at BMO as a Director Strategic investments, Peggy joined a wealthy software entrepreneur with the mandate to seed/launch fintech startups and used the countless experiences she gained to become a freelance consultant working with the likes of Omers VC. Subsequently, she spearheaded innovation initiatives at CIBC as a VP in 2016-17.

This July she started fundraising for Roar Ventures with a target close of $35 million. She focuses her efforts on strategic corporate investors – banks and insurance companies aiming at accelerating their transformation. Her fundraising is global with a significant traction coming out of Switzerland where she will be joining the Canadian delegation to present her fund on the stage of Fintech+.

She is collaborating with a team of professionals that she is proud to call “The most creative, bold and energetic people in the industry”. Peggy admits that like anyone starting something brand-new, she has encountered some challenges along the way. First of all, the act of raising money is a notoriously hard task as “Canadian investors tend to be very conservative and funds are allocated to people who are well known in the industry” she said. In addition to that, “being a female immigrant in a very male-dominated area of work does not really play in my favour” Peggy continued.

On the bright side, she has applied to a government initiative called Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (VCCI) that supports VC firms financially while also addressing gender imbalance and diversity in VCs. While still waiting for the results, Peggy was happy to mention that this initiative was really the catalyst for her to decide to go on her own.

The companies Roar Ventures focuses on are “gender-diversity friendly” startups, with women in the management team, on a Board or as founders. Empirical research shows that greater gender balance generates superior returns.

The person who inspired her the most is her mother. Peggy describes her as a dedicated and hardworking woman with a strong work ethic and the ability to build good relationships. She taught Peggy a love for learning and always pushed her boundaries. Outside of home, she finds inspiration through reading biographies of people who from humble beginnings, took risks and managed to get through life challenges and turn their life around — Andre Agassi, Serena Williams, Sam Zell, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few. A European immigrant like her, Schwarzenegger has done it all, from champion bodybuilder, to a successful actor, to governor.

Peggy acknowledges that it is a more empowering moment to be a woman in business now than ever before. This is due to a radical transformation that is taking place within individuals as well as the within the community as a whole. This transformation is shifting everyone’s views to a higher level of awareness. As she states, “For many years, we accepted certain behaviours as normal. Now we need to relearn a new model and reject the old one which does not work anymore”. Peggy thinks that the patriarchal model of society takes a toll on men as much as on women. She has known many successful men who suffer from a tremendous pressure to support the whole family and a wealthy lifestyle.

Aside from work, Peggy reads, spends time with friends and family, and enjoys cultivating her spiritual side through meditation, brain, and energy work. She said, “I’m very intuitive, but I am well aware that I only use a small percentage of my brain. I’d like to access more of my brain and increase my capability to be in a state of flow.”

When asked what tips she would give to women who want to embark on similar ventures, recalling her own path, she recommended, “Prepare, take action, and network.” She warns that fear of not being ready may delay action. “Women tend to be more cautious in business, due to lifelong social conditioning. But you need to believe in yourself, avoid anyone who is negative especially when you start a business because you’re at your most vulnerable” Peggy continued.

Last, she added that networking is more about building relationships with people over the years than having ten-minute conversations at conferences. “You must allocate time to meet people who matter to you. It has to be a deliberate choice. You need to build that precious time in your schedule.”

Tia Brazda sparkles at CBC’s Jewel, the Glenn Gould Theatre

 

Canadian singer songwriter, Tia Brazda, performed at the Glenn Gould Studio last week, where she wowed the audience with songs from her latest labour of love, Daydream. This album reflects her natural evolution as a songwriter from the vintage sound of her previous albums Cabin Fever and Bandshell, to a more pop sound. Tia’s performance at the ‘Jewel of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’ is part of a long tour that will take her to various stops in Canada and the US. In the past she has taken her original sound to many cities around North America and Europe.

Born in Vancouver, Tia’s style is a balanced mix of jazz and pop, “sort of Ella Fitzgerald meets the Everly Brothers” to quote her. “I really have an appreciation for that old era, the music and the fashion mostly,” Brazda went on to say. The sparkly silver dress she performed in certainly supports her style preference.

After the performance I was lucky enough to sit down to talk with this rising star of Canadian music.

You seem to be moving slightly in a different direction from your previous albums more into a pop sound than before and less vintage?

Yes, as an artist you want to be growing, it’s a natural evolution. I don’t want to sound the same in every album. I like to expand, so for this album, I tried to make the best songs I could make and this is what came out. That was the sentiment behind it.

You have a tour coming up soon, where is it taking you?

I’m in New York state next week and the following week I’m in Nashville. As a songwriter I’m excited to go to Nashville as it is a major songwriters’ hub. I plan to spend some extra days there, so hopefully I will have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists.

Your album was released on September 7 and it is already no. 1 on iTunes jazz charts, how does it feel?

It’s pretty exciting. It was in BC when I got the news. I hadn’t realized that iTunes was on eastern time, so being behind in time, I thought the album was going to be released the day after whereas it had already been released. When I found out, I could barely contain my excitement to break the news. I knocked on everyone’s door — they had all just gone to bed — and we had a midnight celebration.

Who are your main musical influences?

I come from a musical family. My dad was a folk musician. He and my uncle had a band called The Brazdas Brothers. My mom would write songs. They always wrote their own stuff. The music that we listened to the most were bands like the Everly Brothers. They were one of my favourite bands when I was a kid, along with Simon and Garfunkel. I have always listened to songs with harmony and a strong chorus. Then I started listening to jazz, a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. I wanted to write songs that incorporated all those influences, sort of Everly Brothers meets Ella Fitzgerald.

At what point did you realize that music was your calling?

I wasn’t sure how to make a go of it. There didn’t seem to be a set program for it. And you don’t necessarily go to school to become a musician. At the same time, I needed to get a job that was practical. So, I went to university where I studied literature and some journalism. I was a student at Glendon College and became editor-in-chief of the student paper there. In fact, I am very familiar with your magazine. When I was looking for an internship, Women’s Post was actually one of the publications I wanted to work at. Anyway, I was writing articles for the campus paper on tight deadlines (as you know!) creating catchy headlines and writing the stories to go with them. Actually, if you think about it, writing an article is similar to writing song. A headline is a lot like a chorus, it has to grab the audience, and the verses are the actual story. Journalism helped me to become a better songwriter. However, I felt a bit depressed because I wasn’t playing any music at all. So, as I was preparing to do my internship, I got a musical opportunity and took it. I found that music always kept pulling me back. Then I decided that I didn’t care if I was going to be poor or if it was impractical and that I was going to do it anyway.

What is it like to perform at the Glenn Gould Studio?

Oh, it’s wonderful and such an elegant venue! CBC has been very supportive of me. My first serious jazz gig was as a back-up singer for another artist. CBC saw my name in the credits then found my music online and they played my song “Wild Jack”on the radio. When I heard my music on the radio for the first time, it was so exciting and now playing in the CBC building is great.

When did you start making music?

I have been singing since I could speak. I was five years old when I sang my first solo publicly. Coming from a musical family, I received a lot of positive reinforcement for it and it was something I seemed to be able to do. During the teen years, I sang in choirs where I received coaching and performed solos too. In high school, I was in a band and began performing my original songs. Writing lyrics is so important to me and something I love to do.

For all those budding musicians out there, what do you reckon it takes to make it as an artist?

Determination: sometimes you will struggle and make mistakes but you need to keep going. It’s a live show and anything can happen. Learn from your mistakes and just do better next time. Perseverance: There will be roadblocks and people who are better than you in some areas. You need to find what unique thing that you bring to the table and build on that. Finally, study and put in the work: Find the people that you admire and learn everything you can fr om them. Take all the workshop you can. Ask for help and advice from other women in the industry. Make a five-year plan and don’t be afraid to dream big!

An uber movement: Women share their journeys

 

Share Her Journey’ is a five-year TIFF initiative, which aims at reversing the current situation of underrepresentation of women in the film industry through a mix of concerted advocacy and fundraising efforts to achieve gender parity in film both on screen and behind the camera.

Last year’s data show that of the top 250 films, only 18 percent employed women directors, writers, producers and editors. In the same year, of the top 250 films 30 percent employed women in technical jobs behind the scenes.

Yesterday, I attended the ‘Share Her Journey’ rally where a few thousand people gathered on King Street to hear a panel of well-respected women in film speak in the name of all the women in the industry to advocate for gender parity and diversity. According to one of the speakers on the panel, Geena Davis, who looked out from the stage, the crowd was full of men, which is significant evidence that change is actually happening. Men are listening and perhaps rethinking behaviours that may not have not violated basic rules of consent, decency, and respect, but were still a reflection of gender inequality.

Geena Davis delivered a very inspiring speech which can be summarized by her statement “no more missed opportunities.” Since 2009, Geena has devoted herself advocating for more gender equality on screen through the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She said that in order to move forward and in the right direction, the leaders in the industry need to shift from an “unconscious gender bias” to a more “conscious gender bias”. The gender imbalance issue can be solved very quickly almost instantly by changing male first names into female first names in scripts, turning male characters into female characters, “If a script says ‘a crowd gathered’, add comma, ‘half of which is female’.”

Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Founder and Director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, took the stage later “to depress” the crowd with some more stats that confirm a lack of inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry. Stacey describes the steps that she feels need to be taken in order to move forward. The first step is accountability: “Companies need to set inclusion goals, and the public needs to hold those companies accountable.”; second is community: She has worked with the Geena Davis Institute for a number of years and she knows that connection is empowering. The third step is tenacity: in other words, never give up. “We must feel that our voices and our stories matter” Stacey said.

Other speakers on the panel included director Nandita Das who shared her experience as a “female director”. She explains that after years of taking offense about being addressed as a female director, she started to own it.

Mia Kirshner, Canadian actor and co-founder of the #AfterMeToo movement, talked about the lack of resources available to survivors of sexual harassment.

Amma Asante relays her experience as a director of colour being told that her project to make a film about World War I was too big for her.

Actress Amanda Brugel brought in the perspective of a mother and the necessity to teach young boys the proper way to behave so that they will not have to unlearn later on in life. She calls herself a “male mobilizer” as opposed to a “male sympathizer”. She urged everyone to call out inappropriate behavior, not to support the work of people who have been found guilty with sexually-related charges, and to support the work of women.

Finally, another accomplished woman took to stage, Cathy Schulman, film producer and winner of an Academy Award for Crash in 2004. Cathy urged artists to create art that makes a difference and executives running companies, to hire people who reflect diversity.

Sharing ideas and stories with others on social media has helped to create powerful movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp which have forced everyone to rethink, refocus, regroup, reframe, and relearn. In other words, let’s keep talking about it, let’s make some noise and let’s share the journey.

#MeToo must broaden to include males too

 

Since actor Jimmy Bennett accused Italian actress Asia Argento of sexually assaulting him when he was 17, the discussion over sexual harassment has shifted and broadened. It is very clear that men can be victims too. To complicate matters further, men may not come forward with their stories because of the shame associated with being a male and uncomfortable admitting to being vulnerable to women with perceived power and privilege.

Bennett spoke to the New York Times last month stating that he decided to speak out after Argento claimed she had been raped by Harvey Weinstein. Bennet said that when his story first came out, he felt ashamed and afraid especially because, as a man, he feared his narrative would be received with “stigma”. Bennet and Argento first met in 2004 when he played Argento’s son in the film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.

Argento, who has been one of the leaders of the #MeToo movement, paid Bennett $380,000 after he accused her of assaulting him. She admitted that the payment was made by her late partner Anthony Bourdain in October 2017 after she publicly accused Weinstein. In an Instagram post Bennet wrote, “My trauma resurfaced as she came out as a victim herself.”

Argento has denied any sexual misconduct stating being “deeply shocked and hurt by having read news that is absolutely false”. She said the two were just friends and that their friendship ended when Bennett “unexpectedly made an exorbitant request of money from me”. She has claimed that celebrity chef and TV personality, Anthony Bourdain, who died last June, made the payment to avoid any bad publicity, and out of compassion for Bennett who seemed to be in a difficult financial situation.

Since the allegations against Argento broke, the actress has suffered a number of setbacks. Rose MacGowan has spoken against her stating feeling “betrayed” by her fellow #MeToo movement leader. CNN has yanked episodes of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” that featured and were directed by her. X Factor Italy fired her as a judge in the program. An attorney for Weinstein criticized Argento’s “stunning level of hypocrisy”. Just recently, McGowan’s partner, model Rain Dove, leaked text messages from Argento to the media. The texts reveal that she slept with Bennet and that he in turn sent her unsolicited nude photos since he was 12.

To those who used the Argento’s story to discredit the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, who launched the movement in 2006, in a tweet stated “I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward.” Burke stated that the discussion needs to shift from the individuals to power and privilege.  She continues that in order for the male-female dynamics to really change, it is imperative that everyone becomes “comfortable with the uncomfortable reality that there is no one way to be a perpetrator … and there is no model survivor”.

Turning over a new leaf: Cannabis lights up the comedy scene

 

With the legalization of recreational cannabis coming up on October 17, the Cannabis Comedy Festival is a timely event to prepare the community for what it may well be the most anticipated and yet the most feared piece of legislation in Canadian politics. The Cannabis Comedy Festival took place in August at the Regent Theatre in Toronto. The choice of a mainstream and a smoking-free venue reflects the intention to open the event to everyone, stoners and not.

The impending legalization is surely generating a well of discussions within the cannabis users’ community as well as outside. The implications for  the day-to-day life of Canadians are so numerous that, whether consumers or not, it is giving everyone some food for thought as to the pros and cons of legal recreational marijuana.

As I explore the topic, I learn that Toronto is full of cannabis comedy lounges where people can enjoy a joint as well as a comedy show. Ronen Geisler, Producer of the festival says, “Toronto has a large cannabis comedy community. There are cannabis lounges all over the city that host cannabis comedy shows on a nightly basis. We believe that both cannabis and laughter are the best medicine one can have.” Ronen hopes that the festival will grow and spread to other cities and provinces throughout Canada. In the meantime, a major cannabis comedy show is in the planning for October 17.

Since these clubs have been operating mostly underground, their status is currently in a grey area. Their future is also uncertain as the by-laws that regulate cannabis might change in the future. However, it’s not hard to predict that they will likely multiply in this day and age when they are no longer ruled by prohibition.

Cannabis lounges have been very popular in Toronto for the past ten years offering a platform to comedians to practice their art and a positive and non-judgmental space for cannabis users. These weed lounges have played a big part in the stand-up community in Toronto. There are many long running shows, among these, Jeff Paul’s “Dopen Mic”, Puff Mama’s Underground Comedy Club, Amanda Day’s, “Stoned up comedy” at Kensington Market’s Hot Box, and Brian O’Gorman’s and Mike Rita’s show at Vapour Central. Regardless of whether comedians are 420 friendly or not, these venues are inclusive, supportive, playing a key part in the development of many stand-up comedians.

I was in the audience that night, pushed by the curiosity to attend a show that constitutes a genre of its own, the cannabis comedy festival was a lot of fun. I am not a cannabis user, but I believe that it’s time to remove the outdated stigma that weed carries, especially given the science-based benefits of medical marijuana. I laughed at some of the jokes and didn’t at others, but that is normal with comedy; after all, making people laugh is a tough trade. One of the performers, Lianne Mauladin, a stand-up comedian for ten years, comments “It’s an exciting time to be in comedy! Comedy shows and festivals, targeting different groups of people, are popping up everywhere.”

Lianne runs her own show Merry Jane of Comedy which features the best in female stand-up comics. She continues, “The show has become a rite of passage for women in the community and a fantastic way to network with comedians.” Lianne does not define herself a “cannabis comedian”. “I have like one joke about an anti-drug ad. I think it’s my hippie vibe and my Canadian with a hint of ‘surfer’ accent that gets me booked on these things.”

Certainly, a discussion around cannabis and its implications in the life of users and the people around them is underway. The Cannabis Comedy Festival was an original way to introduce weed-inspired humour to a wider audience. What’s more, cannabis and comedy as a subgenre is likely to leave the fringe and enter the mainstream as of October 17.

6 Benefits of learning a second language

Ten people are sitting at the boardroom in their Montreal office discussing their day-to-day business. As I am sitting there attending for the first time, I immediately become aware that everyone is juggling between English and French with ease. One moment the conversation is in French, the next it switches to English for no apparent reason other than any given idea or topic may be better said or comes more easily to mind in one language as opposed to the other. I better get used to the way this meeting is going right away. Both official languages are used equally and interchangeably and find it so fascinating to be speaking Frenglish.

A linguist by background and speaker of three languages, I am used to being surrounded by other multilingual speakers, who whether by birth, studies or time spent abroad, have come to appreciate the resourcefulness that comes with multilingualism. Over the years, through reading on the topic and swapping notes with other polyglots, I’ve enjoyed the immediate benefits of multilingualism as a traveller—I can order a cerveza at the bar of a Cuban resort, I can ask and receive directions to la Tour Eiffel, I understood why the waiter in Italy laughed when my husband mistakenly asked for cane (dog) on his pizza rather than carne (meat). However, to know that there are many science-based benefits to speaking more than one language, fills me with a renewed pride. Let’s explore what they are:

  1. Improves perception: According to a research of the Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, speaking a foreign language changes the perception of the world. Speakers of more than one language view the world and think differently. In other words, the perception of the world is determined by the wealth of vocabulary one has in store: the more words, the better the perception.
  2. Makes you better at multi-tasking: This is something that really speaks to me. In fact, I’m a professional juggler. The ability to switch between different vocabularies mirrors the ability to juggle multiple tasks. Bilinguals seem to be more adaptable and flexible when it comes to shifting their attention on to a different task and refocus. In the corporate world, this skill is considered a sign of adaptability and flexibility.
  3. Improves your native language: This is not an obvious benefit when you think of it. English speakers rarely stop to think why we say things like “The dinner is on me”. This idiom immediately evokes the image of a clumsy waiter pouring chicken noodle soup all over you. If a speaker of another language asked you why you say that, when you mean you’re going to pay for dinner, you’d probably just say “because this is the way it is.”  In other words, you take what you know for granted. However, the moment you start dipping your toes into the unknown waters of a foreign language, you may find yourself pondering on grammar rules.
  4. Improves memory: A research from the Wallenberg Academy Fellow Umea University, states that being bilingual improves working memory. Multingual speakers often consciously inhibit words that are not relevant to the language they use in any given conversation. They draw from different vocabularies to make selections. I can say dog, chien, cane, and perro to mean a member of the canine family. It’s like getting a workout for the brain. That is to say, treat your brain like a muscle to keep your working memory alive.
  5. Helps make better decisions: This is in my opinion the most fascinating fact. A research has shown that people tend to make better decisions when they think in their second language; reason being is the native language is loaded of emotional content; therefore, decisions do not come from a place of rational thinking. I’ve always thought that I am more rational in English. Emotions like upset or fear suddenly bring me back to my roots in the Bel Paese. Research conducted by the University of Trento in Italy and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom suggests this is because the part of the brain that processes the native language is more intuitive while the part of the brain that processes other languages is more rational.
  6. Experience later onset of Alzheimer and dementia: This one gives me hope. Research conducted at the bilingualism centre at Edinburgh University shows that being bilingual staves off dementia and Alzheimer by four or five years. If that is true, and I still get Alzheimers, what excuses would I have?

So there is more to bilingualism than being able to order a beer in another language and quench your thirst.

Woman of the week: Sue Britton

 

Innovation is a very popular concept for today’s global businesses. Change, supported by technology, is occurring at an accelerated and unprecedented rate. Businesses all over the world are looking for tools to perform their transactions in a more innovative and efficient manner. Sue Britton, Founder and CEO of Fintech Growth Syndicate Inc. (FGS) describes herself as “passionate about innovation.” Founded in 2016, FGS helps banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions realize the changes that they want to make. Their clients can either outsource the whole project to them, or leverage from their experience, knowledge, and contacts. FGS, a 15-people technology firm, is deeply embedded in Canada’s fintech ecosystem.

As I talk to Sue, it is clear that she is very proud of her accomplishment—who would not be! And what’s more, she proves that it’s never too late to change career and start something from the ground up. Reflecting on her professional life, Sue says, “I’m turning 50 this year. I came to a point in my life where after a long career I felt like starting a new one late in my life. This is the first time I am doing something I love.” She holds a degree in commerce, worked for the Four Seasons for many years, then moved on to work for one of Canada’s leading financial technology firms before setting up her own business.

In a sector that is largely male-dominated, to find a woman who is a senior executive and owns her own firm is rare to say the least. Women are so underrepresented in the technology sector, even more so as executives of technology companies, that profiling Sue is an important and unique opportunity.

Mother and wife, Sue is quick to credit her husband for allowing her to pursue her career while he stayed home raising their three now grown children. She says, “It wasn’t the most popular thing to do at the time, but it worked for us.” After 25 years of experience in the corporate world, 47 years young, and driven by ambition, she felt frustrated with being limited in her professional life. She knew she was passionate about innovation. This passion led her to start her own company. Sue admits that setting up shop wasn’t as an easy enterprise to undertake as doing innovation within a company. However, “being an entrepreneur is an extremely rewarding experience.” Sue continues, “It’s what gets me up in the morning, solving problems that seem opportunities and making those opportunities in the financial services space happen faster.”

When addressing the issue of gender imbalance in the technology sector, Sue firmly believes that men and women need to be to committed to ensure that both genders are equally represented in public forums. Women have historically been off-stage more than on-stage. Sue believes that it is long overdue for that dynamic to change. Sue says, “When I am asked to speak at conferences, I will not entertain speaking if the female representation I’m with is less than 50 percent.”

Although, she is a living example that women can find their space in technology, there is still a long and winding road ahead. Her company tracks all the Canadian start-ups in the fintech industry. Out of thousands of them, female CEOs and founders can be counted on two hands. This is less a reflection of a dearth of women who have the right skills, as of the fact that women are doing other things and not working in the technology-oriented spaces. Men need to be part of the solution, and women must not be afraid of calling out on certain behaviours that perpetrate gender inequality.

That’s why her advice to women who want to pursue a career in technology is to behave as though they are equal to men and not to settle for a job that is not fulfilling. Also, Sue strongly recommends to reach out to the start-up community which is ”made up by a generous bunch of people” congregating online and offline in various meetup groups. There is even a Facebook group called StartupNorth whose members are heads of VC companies and entrepreneurs among others. Incubators and accelerators are also a good place to go, to talk to people who can make the right introduction.

Saudi female activist faces possible death penalty

 

Israa al-Ghomgham could be the first female human rights activist to be sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. On August 6, a public prosecutor in Riyadh recommended the death penalty for six political activists, including Ghomgham. She and her husband, Moussa al-Hashem who have been in prison since 2015, were sentenced to death on charges of protesting against the Saudi government and incitement to disobedience in the Shia-majority region, Qatif.

Ghomgham, 29, and her husband were arrested on December 8, 2015. She was one of the leaders of anti-government protests that started in Qatif in 2011, demanding the end of anti-Shia discrimination and the release of political prisoners.

At the final hearing, scheduled on October 28 2018, a judge will either confirm or reverse the recommendation for death penalty issued by the public prosecutor. If the decision is ratified by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Ghongham will be beheaded by a sword.

Noteworthy is the fact that none of the charges against Ghongham relate to the use of violence, which under Saudi law warrants the death penalty. This indicates that the death penalty is being used in Saudi as a weapon to suppress dissent. Ali Adubisi, Director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) stated “It’s largely a revenge against the Arab Spring, and a punishment for Qatif, which witnessed the largest protests since 2011.” Adubisi continues “Sentencing a female human rights defender to death is a dangerous precedent in Saudi Arabia.” ESOHR’s latest count of people on death row in Saudi Arabia is around 58.

The verdict against Ghomgham has resulted in a social media campaign asking for her release and the release of activists arrested in the past year. The Shiite minority that lives in Qatif has complained that Sunni authorities banned them from practicing their religion, and that they are not given the same opportunities for work and education. The government has denied the accusations. According to rights advocacy groups, Saudi Arabia has executed Shiite activists in the past for political reasons. A recent UN report issued last June said, “Those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression are systematically persecuted in Saudi Arabia, many languish in prison for years. Others have been executed after blatant miscarriages of justice.”

According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia where in 2017 alone, 100 people were beheaded, remains “one of the most prolific executioners in the world.”

She The People: Laughter is a women’s movement #too

 

Spending time at a comedy club can be an uplifting experience that leaves one with a warm glow, but The Second City show “She The People” is also absolutely hilarious and brings tears to the eyes. As the subtitle suggests, ‘Girlfriends’ Guide to Sisters Doing It for Themselves’ it is a show for women, and men—I took my partner with me and he shook with laughter—acted, written, directed by women. If the purpose of the show is to demonstrate that women can do it by themselves, they totally succeeded. Not only are The Second City women capable of writing, directing, acting, singing, dancing, and putting a show together without male input, but they are equally capable of making the audience shriek with laughter while making cutting political statements.

The show is an edgy collection of sketches—I counted at least 20—that portray situations that women live through on a daily basis, in the attempt to deconstruct and highlight the sexism that still exists in everyday life. The show was originally conceived and written for the Chicago theatre before the #MeToo movement broke. The Toronto edition has been updated to better reflect the present time, a different geographical context and to draw inspiration from the #MeToo movement. It is unquestionable that the sheer number of women coming forward to speak out against sexual harassment and various shades of sexism could no longer be swept under the rug. The vast explosion of incidents worldwide have made us all more receptive to conversations highlighting not only the injustice in a largely male-dominated society, but the stereotypes that revolve around women, including racism and misogynism.

Carly Heffernan, director of the show commented “I do think the #MeToo movement has made audiences more receptive to a show like She The People. More and more individuals want to support women telling their own stories with their own voices. For She The People, the movement also directly affected some of the show’s content. The Second City, being a satirical sketch comedy theatre, should reflect the world around us, no matter how tough, unfair, or just plain absurd that world may currently be. Shining more light on uncomfortable issues is how we move forward and more than ever audiences are craving the catharsis that comes from that light being shone.”

Carly’s words are reflected in a sketch that sees one of the six female characters waking up following a ten-year coma and learning that all her favourite actors are sexual offenders, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey. But that is not all! Donald Trump is President of the United States. Every shock from receiving such astonishing news was measured by the water she was sipping being spat into the face of the unwitting deliverer of the news.

Another sketch sees the character of a school girl who complains to her female teacher that a boy pushed her. The teacher tells her that no one will believe her. After all who else saw! An early warning to prepare the girl to the reality that women are not to be believed when they speak out. Although, as the teacher adds, things are getting better, which also means they are getting worse.

Many aspects in the present culture include stereotypes  of immigrant communities. In this sketch, the character of an Asian woman is asked where she is from. It seems still common enough to assume that non-white people are from a faraway land. However, as it turns out, she is from Scarborough.

Which woman has not feared becoming like her mother? I have and overcame it, and so did the character in another sketch. After being confronted with the realization that she is more similar to her mother than she likes to admit, acceptance kicks in.

A few sketches address the issues of women’s looks, body image, outdated beliefs of femininity, and how women are depicted in adverts. Advertising still relies heavily on gender stereotypes, pressurizing women to attain impossible standards of beauty and perfection. Women are still judged based on their looks rather than what they say, states the character hiding under the guise of a dinosaur. In another sketch, a strip tease performance never ends as there are multiple layers of spandex to remove.

In the penultimate sketch, an alien has taken all men away, aside from Justin Trudeau whose mother fought off the invaders. With no more men around, what are women to do? How do they envision their life to be? Will they stop wearing a bra? Perhaps even wearing pants will be optional! They could have their first elected female Canadian prime minister! They will even ensure that the Ontario’s sex ed curricula stays the same. With a finale that sounds like a hymn for women to find self-assurance and self-confidence, the possibilities seem endless.

As Carly stated “it was an absolute joy to work on!” It certainly was an absolute joy to watch!