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Sarah Thomson

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The Virgin Way: Inquisitive – Curious – Passionate

I decided to take Richard Branson’s The Virgin Way on holiday with me because a friend suggested I might find him a kindred spirit. I’m not sure if this is because I think having fun is just as important as making an income, but I did find that his attitude towards life is something a lot of people would do well to follow.

The Virgin Way: Everything I know about leadership reflects the positive attitude Branson has carried throughout his life. His ability to learn from failure and take risks are the foundations of a successful business leader able to adapt to any situation. Branson also believes in having fun, and some of his April fools stunts had me rolling off my beach chair in fits of giggles.

The Virgin Way and the choice of business name seems to pee all over the entire British class structure — fantastic, fun and edgy. Carefree and curious about life, Branson enjoys making people happy. If there is a secret to be learned from him, it is that true wealth comes from the happiness you create. Making someone smile, laugh, or even helping your staff excel is what  “The Virgin Way” is all about. The book is filled with stories about how offering good service and having fun go hand in hand.

I remember my first boss at a gas station telling me to smile until I felt it or I’d lose my job. He wasn’t exactly a great people person, but he taught me that serving people and smiling has a real impact on how you see the world.  I went on to build a multi-million dollar company putting convenient stores into gas stations, and I know that our success wasn’t just due to the fact that we were first in the industry to combine these two businesses. It was tied to the fact that staff had fun and took pride in providing terrific customer service. As I was reading Branson’s book, I couldn’t help nodding in agreement … when I wasn’t giggling.

Branson demonstrates that true success isn’t about being focused on making dollars, but more about creating happiness — happy staff, great experiences, happy customers. Taking risk, shaking things up, not taking yourself too seriously and above all making other people happy, is the key to true success — and Branson has a lifetime of experience to back it up.

He is a man that seems perpetually young because he hasn’t allowed negativity to affect him. While many people have tried to poke fun at him or scoff at his antics, he hasn’t allowed them to change him. And that is a true testament to his strength of character.

The Virgin Way is a book that every entrepreneur should read. If you want to leave the world better than you found it, Branson’s insights will inspire or rekindle the spark deep inside.

The Fountain residence – Anguilla

Warm breezes greet you as you exit the airport in St. Martin, add in a short 20-minute ferry ride and you will reach the white sand beachs and aqua-blue waters of Anguilla — pronounced AN-GWILL-A. We drove (on the left hand side of the road) from Blowing Point, the southern tip  of the island, up the main road to Shoal Bay on the north east side. The road was dotted with small homes, with free range goats and chickens everywhere.  The island is relatively flat, but the roads curved around small hills with beautiful ocean views visible with each turn. Once we reach the main turn off to Shoal Bay, the larger villas and hotels start to appear, followed by a beautiful view of the white sand and amazing blue water.

Fountain residences is located at the southern end of Shoal Bay Beach. There are two complexes, each with beautiful landscaping. The only difference was the view: one had an open ocean view and the other behind it was limited to a pool view. There is a hill to the west that blocks out  the sunset, but we were able to see the waves breaking on the shoal far out in the bay. It’s a short walk down a path to the white sand beach of Shoal Bay.

Our two bedroom unit was clean and furnished nicely with teak and wood trim. The appliances are new and our concierge, Whitney, was a terrific help. She purchased groceries and stocked our fridge for our arrival. Her advice on the best restaurants on the island was excellent. The villa; however, wasn’t truly big enough for six people. We found the sitting area on the deck outside a bit small for all of us, with only four chairs around the dining room table the space was limited. We had to ask the staff for chairs so that all six of us could sit around the table.

The windows lacked screens – this is a pet peeve of mine. I don’t  want to fly south and stay close to the ocean just to shut all the windows and blast the air conditioning. I’m not alone in wanting to have the windows open, but there were too many mosquito’s to do this without screens. This meant we had to leave the screendoors open all night, which made us a bit uncomfortable. It may be a small detail, but towel racks on the outside decks to hang up wet bathing suits are also needed.

The manager of the residences was extremely friendly – giving us access to the barbecue, extra dining chairs, and a free bottle of wine that we enjoyed immensely! The cleaners come everyday and were friendly and kind, providing us with extra towels and frying pans when needed. Given the location close to the beach I suggest they mop the floors daily as the sand fleas tracked in from the beach dotted our legs with bites.

Crocus Bay Beach.
Crocus Bay Beach.

Anguilla is a beach destination. Most of the beaches have restaurants with beach chairs out front. Crocus Hill Beach is by far the best for anyone wanting a calm peaceful swim in a protected bay. Da’Vida restaurant and its neighbouring beach bar occupy most of the beach and their food was exceptional. We stayed and watched the large sail boats come in during the afternoon, and rented some paddle boards to venture around the point to paddle through caves filled with birds. Small manta rays floating under the boat dock entertained the kids for hours.

Unfortunately, the Fountain Residences don’t supply beach chairs, but they suggest you hike to the other end of the beach where there are chairs to rent ($10U.S./day) at the Merriman Beach Bar. I’d recommend they invest in a few chairs and sun umbrellas, as it was impossible for my elderly mother to make the hike all the way down the beach. But, if you like playing in the waves and body surfing – Shoal Bay Beach is the place to go.

Anguilla has art galleries around every corner and a lot of very good restaurants – Cafe De Paris in the west end is a must for chocolate croissants.

We visited and swam at dozens of  perfect white sand beaches, surrounded by aqua-blue water. If it is a beach vacation you are after, Anguilla is the island for you!

SmartTrack is the fast track to relief

As the liberal government adjusts to leading the country, cities from coast to coast are scrambling to have shovel-ready infrastructure projects to pitch our new leaders. Prior to the 2015 election, the  Liberals spent months in public consultations and identified transit and infrastructure expansion as a top priority. In Toronto this led to our highest priority – relief line – made it onto their policy platform.

Most, if not all, transit planning experts believe that the relief line is Toronto’s highest priority transit line, and with growing density predicted the it will be absolutely vital by 2030. The relief line is a subway route that would run east-west across the core and then turn north at both ends to meet up with the Bloor subway line.  It was first introduced in 1910, and again in subsequent years ever since, with municipal politicians continually deferring the plan because of it’s cost and the time it will take to build.

I’ve spent over five years advocating, campaigning, and even singing for the relief line. I’ve ignored aging politicians who told me it was impossible, and media columnists who mocked my determination and campaign tactics. I’ve spoken to hundreds of planners, transit experts and historians and understand how easy it is for such an important subway line to be pushed aside by politicians wanting to garner immediate votes.

So when Mayor John Tory first announced his idea for SmartTrack, I was confused. Confused because I have grown to know and respect him over the years, and I know that he is a man of principle. He loves Toronto and he has given his life to this city. He isn’t a man who would simply cast aside the most vital transit line in Toronto just to garner a few votes. So, why would he suggest another plan that could risk delaying the relief line? The answer is simple. He isn’t deferring the relief line, but simply trying to provide a quick solution while we wait for the relief line to be built. He confirmed in a text message, “SmartTrack isn’t going to replace the relief line which will take over a decade to build, but by using existing transit corridors SmartTrack will provide a much quicker way to ease the overcrowding on the Yonge line.”

From planning studies, to land acquisitions, and environmental assessments the relief line will take almost a decade before shovels get in the ground, it could take 15 years or more to build. Now,  consider the fact that the Eglinton Crosstown will add even more people onto the Yonge Street corridor. It’s easy to see why Mayor Tory must try to provide another form of relief to bridge the gap between our immediate need and the time that it will take to build the relief subway line.  By using existing rail corridors SmartTrack will avoid the lengthy process of land acquisitions and environmental assessments that the relief subway line requires.

It should be noted that SmartTrack has forced the City, TTC, and Metrolinx (the provincial transit body) to work together in collaboration — a procedural success that many didn’t think possible. The fact that Mayor Tory has insisted that SmartTrack does not have a defined route, gives planning experts an opportunity to create the best and quickest way to create an east-west line across the city.

As Mayor Tory mentioned, “there will be issues with SmartTrack, as there are with all big transit projects,” but the idea itself is good and like all good ideas it must stand up to rigorous analysis. However is must also stand up to the politics of city council. The mayor has to bring city council together around a unified transit plan that includes SmartTrack and the Yonge relief line. The plan must focus on the priority lines that our transit planning experts have identified. It will need to create connectivity between all modes of transit, and address the shortage of east-west transit routes while providing alternative ways to travel north — a North x East x West transit plan. Mayor Tory has promised to consult the experts when it comes to all the transit Toronto is planning. And I know that he will, because he is a man of his word — and that is why I will back him every step of the way.

Tunnels and Tolls

Toronto’s Executive Committee is set to talk tolls and tunnels in the week ahead. With submissions being hear Monday we ask readers for their views. Do you believe we should bury the Gardiner Expressway? Toll the highways that Toronto residents are now paying the full cost to maintain? Please answer the survey below…
[socialpoll id=”2157172″ type=”set”]

The power of your purse…

Rosie

 

After a terrific summer free from make-up, pressed shirts and shoes of any sort, it’s time to get back into the daily grind. With the kids going back to school and a list of items to buy for the winter ahead, there is an app that my friend Amy Willard-Cross has created to allow people to use their purchasing power to create positive change in our communities. It’s called Buy-Up Index and shows which companies and brands support women.

The app allows shoppers to use their buying power to create positive change within our society.  The app grades companies in each industry based on 8 different criteria: The number of women on their board; employee diversity reporting; executive officers, leadership programs, maternity leave, paternity leave, philanthropy, special employee programs and supplier diversity reporting. Buy-up index uses openly available data on companies providing products to consumers. Buy –up Index allows the user to tell companies why they lost their business, and currently covers these four industries: beauty products, beverages, cell phones, household products.

There is no telling what an app like this might do to create better conditions for employees and equality for women around the globe. I encourage you to download the app and use it to send a message to corporations. Change requires that each one of us make an effort to see it through. Buy-up index is an easy way to contribute to positive change on a global level.

A flocking good book

Birding with Yeats

A Memoir by Lynn Thomson

 

Reviewed by Sarah Thomson

I sit still in the boathouse with all the windows open and listen. A huge storm hit the island this morning, the rain left large puddles on the deck, the leaves rustle as the sun pushes out, and the odd drop still falls on the roof. A man and a boy row past in a canoe. They are both shouting “row, row, row” in unison — too busy to notice the calm that has settled over the lake. A kayak rounds the corner of the island across from us. The rower dips his paddle in slowly, evenly, his motion in harmony with the calm around him – he has grace.

The book I am reading has me thinking about the way people choose to live – in harmony with the natural world, or in discord, blind to its rhythm and beauty. It is a memoir titled Birding with Yeats, written by my sister-in-law Lynn Thomson. While the title suggests that it is about birding, the book is about so much more. It encompasses her desire to shed convention and live in harmony with the natural world, and touches on the strong relationship she has built with her son, Yeats. Her book is shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Award for non-fiction (https://legacy.wlu.ca/homepage.php?grp_id=2529&pv=1.

Birding with Yeats weaves Lynn’s journey through life, her challenges and successes, together with her determination to raise her son differently and break free from convention. The book includes vivid descriptions of the places they visited to bird watch, and the beauty they found along the way. To use her words, it is about “hearing the stillness and feeling the light.”

The memoir will challenge the reader to think about the way they have chosen to live. It captures Lynn’s desire to be true to her inner nature and to live by her own set of values. Her reverence for the natural world gleams through the narrative, allowing the reader to feel the same sense of awe and wonder that she discovered.

Birding with Yeats describes the strong relationship that develops between a mother and son. It tells of how Lynn and Yeats grow and learn and share in the beauty around them. She writes about how Yeats pulled her into birding. The special relationship they have is strengthened by their shared love for nature, and their desire to live their lives with grace. She describes his unique way of looking at the world and writes, “he is grounded, like his grandfather, and connected to the rhythms of the natural world.”

But the memoir also wrestles with the issue of conforming to societal standards. Lynn explains her struggle to break free from an upbringing that pushed her to be competitive, to conform and have a career. Instead of struggling to carve out and shape her future, she chose to allow life to happen — to be true to the grace inside her. Without the expectations created by social conformity, she experienced the world at her own pace, and grew to understand the value and impact that the natural world has on her.

Historians believe that people formed structured communities, towns and social conventions to protect and shelter us from the harsh realities of the natural world. Birding with Yeats will cause you to question the value of our current social structure. From tribalism, to religion, to “Kardashianism,” social structures often blind us from an intrinsic understanding of our relationship with nature. Birding with Yeats is a reminder that while society may seem to offer protection, it also numbs us to the beauty and wonder that is just beyond our next career choice.

Bidr

The vivid description in Birding with Yeats takes the reader into the moments, allowing you to feel the wind blow the “scent of saltwater to the shore.” The narrative leads the reader along beside Lynn and her son on their journey out to the marsh at Point Pelee, the pebble shores of Vancouver Island, and the forests and lakes of Muskoka. But it also touches on the calm and light they are able to find in the heart of downtownToronto. Despite the traffic and noise of the city, they venture out to natural spaces where birds and beauty survive. From Ashbridges Bay, to Toronto Island, Riverdale Farm and the Brickworks, there are places they find solace and comfort away from the concrete and steel that dominates downtown Toronto. The memoir explains how Lynn is able to balance her life as a bookseller living in the heart of the city, with her desire and need to be constantly connected to the natural world.

Lynn has shared a beautiful and unique way for a city dweller to live life in harmony with the natural world. After reading it you may find yourself looking for the stillness and light that she has beautifully captured in her memoir. Without realizing it, Lynn has shared the beauty and grace that is deep within her. I sit on this island we share and her book reminds me to be still and listen.

Thank you Lynn.

***** For a signed copy of Birding with Yeats visit/call Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street, Toronto,ON. 416.361.0032

2015 Ontario Budget: A huge leap forward for Transit

Over the years  most Federal and Provincial budgets have carried huge promises, with little actual substance. The same funding sources get reused and regurgitated under different names, to make it look like the politicians are actually doing something.  But while the 2015 Ontario Budget has issued some big promises, it surprisingly backs up those promises with real funding streams.

Over the past century Ontario has lacked a Finance Minister with the courage to create a dedicated fund for transit and transportation, primarily because it allows the public to see the actual funds that exist for transit expansion, to evaluate, calculate and understand what is truly available – and question the validity of campaign promises.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa has set up the Trillium Trust, making him the first Minister of Finance in Ontario to create a dedicated and transparent transit fund. This not only an historic event but a significant leap forward for transit in Ontario.   By creating a transparent dedicated transit fund, the Wynne government has taken a crucial step towards setting up a credible and reliable process for funding transit infrastructure expansion. The next step is to create a dedicated funding stream and they have addressed this, albeit in a small way. By dedicating the estimated $100 million per year beer tax to the Trillium Trust, they are sowing the seeds to creating the dedicated transit funding that Ontario so desperately needs to fund the projects promised in this budget.

Ontario is struggling to come up with the funds needed to pay for the $52.5 billion, 25 year Big Move plan launched in 2008. With little additional revenues put in place over the years to fund the Big Move, and shovels in the ground on projects like the Eglinton-Crosstown ($5.3 billion) the immediate need for funding is crucial.

By selling shares in General Motors and Hydro-One and combining this with additional funds from the beer tax, the Wynne government has found a way to raise approximately $5.3 billion to cover the estimated cost of the Eglinton-Crosstown.

Metrolinx will need an extra $3.4 billion a year over 10 years to meet the additional project funding requirements that the Wynne government is promising to spend in this budget on transit projects. Add this to the $50 billion already committed over 25 years for the Big Move, ($2 billion/year) and the total annual investment the Wynne government is promising is approximately $5.4 billion per year over the next 10 years. It’s a significant investment with its first year of funding covered by the sale of assets mentioned above. But  where will the funding come from for the following 9 years? Will it get pulled from Education and Healthcare or will Wynne demonstrate her strength to stand up for the dedicated transit funding Ontario needs? (We are waiting on a response from the Ministry of Finance).

That said, the fact that this budget also addresses the need to electrify the GO lines, clearly outlined in Mayor Tory’s Smart Track proposal – specifically mentioning Smart Track – demonstrates a strong desire to work collaboratively with Mayor Tory.  Minister of Transit Steven Del Duca explained Friday that working collaboratively “with partners” is important to the Wynne government.

The key to building the transit (roads, bridges and rail) that Ontario needs to remain competitive on the world stage is dedicated transit funding and by setting up the Trillium Trust and dedicating the new beer tax to it, the Wynne government has taken a major step inbuilding our communities. The next step is to secure a basket of revenue tools dedicated to this fund to generate the $5 billion annually needed to fund the commitments made in this budget. Tolls, high occupancy toll lanes, sales tax, carbon tax, congestion charges, and parking levies are all tools used in other jurisdictions. A strong campaign designed to educate Ontario residents on the value they receive (positive economic impact/jobs) from infrastructure expansion is crucial to gaining support for the dedicated transit funding needed over the next decade. The 2015 Ontario budget is the right, reasonable and responsible approach to moving Ontario forward.

Public Transit Fund announced in 2015 Budget

The 2015 Federal budget announcement of a public transit fund is a huge leap forward for Canada and we tip our hat to Prime Minister Harper for finally having the kahuna’s to announce it. The fund won’t actually start until 2017, and the 750million – 1Billion annual amount is a drop in the bucket to what is needed across the country, but it is the first step to helping cities across the country become competitive on the global stage and it is a step that other party leaders will have to follow.

But the Prime Minister isn’t wading into a pond of alligators, he’s walking into a dry desert desperately in need. A federal Transit fund will allow municipalities across the country to finally look at long term transit plans and allow urban centers like Toronto to have a real opportunity to combat the growing gridlock.

Many transit advocates had hoped the Budget2015  would announce some form of immediate funding, but alas  it holds off  until after the election, starting in 2017-18 it will provide an additional $750 million over two years for expansion in municipalities, and $1 billion per year ongoing thereafter for a new and innovative Public Transit Fund. ” The fund will work heavily with P3 Canada to ensure that transit infrastructure investment is done in a manner that is “affordable for taxpayers and efficient for commuters.”

Specifics of the Federal Transit Fund suggest that funds will be awarded to projects that are based on the P3 model … “federal support will be allocated based on merit to projects that will be delivered through alternative financing and funding mechanisms involving the private sector that demonstrate value for money for taxpayers, including P3s.” Specifics on  the use of Canadian companies and workforce were not mentioned, which is important to ensuring that the Federal transit  fund has the the greatest economic impact on our communities.

For decades municipalities have called for a federal dedicated transit fund and this budget demonstrates that finally someone is listening. It will be interesting to see what the other parties announce as the election looms closer, but one thing is certain — they will need to have a dedicated transit fund in their platforms or risk losing voters in urban centres across the country.

It doesn’t matter what your political stripe, the 2015 Budget announcement of a federal transit fund for Canada is a fantastic step forward. It will transform our cities significantly and allow us to be much more competitive globally. It is the right, reasonable and responsible approach to building cities across the country, and it is long overdue.

Serda Evren – team builder extraordinaire

One of the most challenging years in Serda Evren’s life taught her to look hard at herself, find the value in everyone, be open to people, and have fun. It was a very productive eighth grade.

“Leadership is about making decisions and sometimes you have to make tough decisions but you make them full of heart; you make them with emotion but you don’t let your emotions make the decision,” says Evren, who recently added a North American communications mandate to her role as Vice President of Communications and Philanthropy for MasterCard Canada.

When she was 13, Evren’s parents emigrated from Istanbul to Toronto, and suddenly the outgoing and full-of-life teen was the odd girl out. “We moved, leaving home and friends, for this completely new place at this critical age,” she remembers. “English wasn’t my first language, I wasn’t into New Kids on the Block. I was bullied and teased, but I realized you either make it or you don’t, and I decided to make it.”

That experience during her formative years made her realize the importance of seeing people for who they are, and understanding who she is. As she has advanced in her career, she has built on that philosophy to include helping others understand what they are good at. “I thought of myself as a generous, thoughtful, loving person and all they saw was a new kid. I wanted people to see who I really was, and that motivated me to always try to see people for who they truly are.”

Life became better, thanks in part to Evren’s practice of reading the newspaper aloud every day, cover to cover, to practice her English. By grade 10 it was flawless, and she was also a master of current events, which launched her passion for politics.

The University of Toronto was even better. She ran for the student union office, and in third year volunteered for the federal Liberal Party. With two years of volunteer service and a brand new political science degree under her belt the Liberals offered her a paying job. Thus began several years of long hours, lots of travel and sometimes living out of a suitcase. “The biggest gift of politics, other than the opportunity to change the world, is the people you meet. You work long hours in the trenches, you share beliefs, living together, travelling together, not eating or sleeping well. These people are your lifeline, and you form life-long friendships.”

Working in Federal and Provincial politics during the Jean Chretien and Dalton McGuinty administrations and a 14-month stint in Washington, DC, where she interned with Representative Congressman Anthony Weiner (yes, the “sexting” congressman) gave Evren insight into what makes a good leader, and a bad leader. A big part of that is surrounding yourself with the right people. “You can be a genuine, incredible, person, but if you’ve surrounded yourself with the wrong people it’s not going to work.”

Building a good team requires recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses. It requires some thoughtful introspection. “You have to spend time on yourself to be self-aware. You have to really understand yourself… your strengths, weaknesses, motivators, demotivators. If you’re not self-aware how can you possibly build an effective team around you?”

That also means finding your purpose. She advises: figure out the value you bring, what you’re really good at, and harness it. Deliver on it every day. Show up every day to make the team or the organization function better.

One thing Evren’s team – and her bosses – will tell you is that she is fun to work with.
“Let’s have a good time. Let’s build something together we’re proud of, so you feel good about what you’re doing.” She is not a stickler for hierarchy. “It kills spirit and inspiration,” she says. “There have to be lines because you’re not doing the same job and don’t have the same responsibilities but … I’ve seen people who put 100 steps between them and junior staffers and there’s no reason that needs to happen. I’d rather be building the bridges, being collaborative.”

Her goal is to build inspired teams – where everyone has a purpose and a role in making something better, and making a real impact. “It doesn’t have to be something huge, like reinventing PR. It could be that at a moment in time you brought forward an idea that shifted a strategy or changed a perspective.” It also means she doesn’t have to pretend to be good at everything. Leaders who succeed in building teams of people with diverse skills create successful departments or functions.

“I have never had an ‘end goal.’ I believe in letting opportunities find me. Who knows what the future holds but if I help people find and develop the value they bring, that’s something that helps those individuals and the organization for a long time, and I call that success.”