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Woman of the Week: Lisa Martin

Lisa Martin is a testament to perseverance. After facing a hostile takeover of her business and a serious health scare, she returned with force, rebuilding and rebranding her business with immense success.

“When you think your worst nightmare has hit you — it can sometimes prove to be a blessing in disguise,” she said.

Martin is the co-founder and CEO of Hear for Life, a healthcare network that provides diagnosis and preventative hearing services throughout Ontario, including hearing tests, evaluations, hearing aids, and rehabilitative counselling.

It all started with Martin’s sister, Rhonda, who is in the hearing healthcare field and decided to open up a clinic in 1988. As Martin puts it, her sister is the “heart and the hand” of Hear for Life. She takes care of the patients while Martin takes care of the business operations.

In 2013, the company had what Martin calls a near-death experience.  According to Martin, their business associate abruptly and without warning gave away their licence to a competitor, with the support of a supplier. Martin lost everything — their telephone numbers, their locations, their website, but most of all, their money.  They lost about $14 million overnight and were given three months to leave the premises.

“They just gave away my licence agreement [to a competitor] – which is everything. It is where we built our business, housed our clinics,” Martin said. “Lots of my suppliers turned their back on me. They weren’t sure if I was able to make it.”

The worst part of this transition was the confusion. Most of Martin’s patients were seniors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and all of a sudden the clinic they visited was no longer the same.

“[Our employees] spent a year phoning people telling people we moved, sending letters with pictures of staff to remind patients who they are. That took, I would say, five to 10 different mail outs and thousands of phone calls to the patients. We even did robocalls to hit everyone, to remind them we have their file – because we owned all the patient files.”

It took Martin and her sister two years to stabilize the company in different locations. By the third year, they had managed to re-brand and recapture the values they held when they first opened the clinics.

“We managed working with our own brand and we were able to capture a whole bunch of new business. But, in the third year there was a little hiccup,” Martin said. That hiccup: she was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to undergo seven months of chemotherapy following a surgery.

Martin should have had a routine colonoscopy in 2013, but she waited three years until the turmoil with the company was over. During the transition, she was hardly sleeping and was plagued with anxiety. She didn’t want to bother with routine medical examinations.

“You can’t let your life get in the way of every of health issue and that means making sure you get screened when you need to get screened. Colon cancer — people don’t think they will get it.  If a girl like me — someone who eats organic, does world games championship-training, runs three times a week, can get it…I was fit, so how did this happen to me?”

“If you are 50, get a colonoscopy. No matter what — don’t miss it.”

But, with the help of her incredibly loyal employees, Martin was able to get better while still keeping her new business afloat.

Martin and her sister have now sold their new company, Hear for Life, and have retained their position and all their staff. “The company that acquired us is an amazing organization nation-wide. You get the same personalized boutique style care, but now we have the backing of a huge organization so people don’t have to worry about being here tomorrow. I get to continue in my role, and my sister continues to work. Nothing has changed except we were able to realize [the company’s] value and have our exit strategy.”

“The Hear for Life brand is here to stay,” she said proudly.

Martin hopes that once the new transition is done, she will be able to help the bigger company grow in the marketplace. She is considering writing a book about her plight with cancer, and she has been asked to do some public speaking events on business for women’s groups.

Martin continues to be active and is considering taking up hockey and running again for the first time since her chemotherapy.

 

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Woman of the Week: Manjit Minhas

Be concise and know your financials — that’s Manjit Minhas’ advice for young entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas.

Minhas is the co-founder and CEO of Minhas Brewery, Distillery, and Winery, and is one of Canada’s new Dragons on the hit CBC show Dragon’s Den. She is a straight-forward and blunt businesswoman with an incredible passion for innovative ideas. When she speaks of the new products she is constantly exposed to on Dragon’s Den, she does so with tremendous respect and excitement.

“I see myself in a lot of these entrepreneurs,” she says. “I know there is no book to map these challenges. I love that I can help guide them and, on the flip side, help people stop when I think they are dumping their own money, and sometimes other people’s money, on something that in my experience is not going to work.”

“If I can save someone’s livelihood, that’s necessary and my role as a mentor and venture capitalist.”

The 36-year-old started her own business at the age of 19 after her first year of university, where she was studying petroleum engineering. At the time, her father had been let go from the oil patch and decided, with much pushing from his friends, to go into the liquor business. He purchased three stores in Calgary. Minhas and her brother grew up in the industry and both realized there was an opportunity for growth.

The siblings sold their car for $10,000 and launched Mountain Crest Spirits. “I discovered that bars and restaurants were not brand loyal,” Minhas says. “They were looking for cheapest bar stock that week.” The idea was to create good quality spirits that, because of the low price, restaurants would become accustomed to and the result would be loyalty. Tequila and Irish cream were some of their best sellers.

“Our goal was, service, quality, and volume volume volume. That was the start of our real big empire story.”

In 2002, they launched into beers. Their first beer, a classic mountain lager, was made with only four ingredients and sold for only a dollar, which was unheard of at that time. They eventually purchased their first brewery in Wisconsin — the second oldest brewery in the U.S. — and since then, the company has grown immensely. Minhas and her brother now have breweries in Calgary and Mexico, as well as two wineries in Chile. Their products are sold throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as 43 states throughout the United States and 15 other countries in Europe, Asia and South America.

In 2016, Minhas’ companies made over $187 million in revenues. Minhas has been honoured with several industry awards for her success, including PROFIT magazine’s “Top Growth Entrepreneur”, Top 100 Women Entrepreneurs in Canada, Canada’s Top 40 under 40, and the Sikh Centennial Foundation Award, among others.

“I can say I didn’t have much of a typical university life, but no pain no gain,” she says. “My sacrifice was my 20s, and I guess I say my education because I could have done better. I had other dreams and passions and I’m glad that I did. I don’t regret the last 17 years.”

Minhas is constantly looking for ways to expand and grow her thriving business. They started to fashion new beer flavours, even appealing to the gluten-free crowds and the boxer beer enthusiasts. When Minhas purchased her first brewery in Wisconsin, she also happened upon the rights and recipes to the old-fashioned soda the facility owner made during prohibition. This inspired her to continue that business, selling soda and soda-inspired nano-filtration boxer beer. This summer, they are adding new flavours of boxer beer, including black cherry and ginger. Last year, they added hard root beer, grape, and cream soda to their repertoire.

“We had a great award-winning soda line that we added clear malt base too — a proprietary method we have discovered,” she says. “We clarify it and it becomes colourless, tasteless, odourless and we add alcohol to the soda. There is no bad aftertaste of beer because we’ve taken that taste out in order to taste the soda, unlike other brands in the market. Innovation is key to success.”

In 2015, Minhas was invited to appear in Dragon’s Den, a Canadian reality television show that allows entrepreneurs to pitch business ideas to potential investors — known as “the Dragons”. She prides herself on her bluntness and her honesty, but above all else, she loves the mentoring aspect of the show. Minhas says she was surprised by how many products she has seen that didn’t already exist in the market. Her investments are plastered proudly all over her website.

“I do believe it’s important for women to support each other and people in different industries to talk to each other,” she says. “In my industry, there is not a lot of women. It’s about guiding a newcomer, a new entrepreneur through the challenges everyone has — work-life balance, finances, regulation, all those things that are really generic to any business, human resources. That, I feel, is my biggest contribution.”

Minhas starts filming season three of Dragon’s Den at the end of this month.

 

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Woman of the Week: Dr. Vicky Sharpe

Dr. Vicky Sharpe can claim something many professional women cannot: “I basically follow my passion.”

Sharpe sits on the following boards: QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems for Tomorrow), the Alberta Energy Corporation, Carbon Management Canada Inc., and the Temporal Power Ltd. She is also a director on the board of The Capital Markets Regulatory Authority. Sharpe’s goal is to use her background in microbiology and energy to help inspire sustainable practices and encourage funding and investment in clean technologies.

“Board work, in my view, is really rewarding — if you get on the board that is right for you. I wanted to try and create more change.”

Sharpe always had a passion for the outdoors, in particular for the microorganisms that connect it all. These “tiny little simple genetic organisms” could affect so much change. They could digest oils, or remove hydrogen from the air. It was this interest that led her down an impressive and fulfilling career path in sustainability and finance.

She began her career studying science in Bath, U.K. and took her PhD in microbiology, or more specifically surface chemistry as applied to water pollution, at Trent University in Nottingham. She originally moved to Canada because there were more opportunities for women in her field.

“It’s a male-dominated system. In the U.K., I took a higher degree, a PhD, because I knew if I wanted to compete with the men, I had to be more qualified. People forget how hard women worked at that time to be treated equally,” she says. “There were more opportunities for women [in Canada]. It’s more receptive.”

Sharpe began her illustrious career as VP of Ontario Hydro International Inc. She was responsible for a community-based conservation program that helped retrofit homes, commercial buildings, shopping centres, and hotels in a small town with energy efficient technologies. The idea was for Hydro to become as utility energy efficient as possible. “There was a 90 per cent uptake in people taking at least one product that would be beneficial,” she says. “That was the highest level of adoption by society of energy efficiency.”

While at Ontario Hydro, Sharpe was involved with Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). She would travel to schools and talk with kids between the ages of five and eight about careers in science and technology. She also informally mentors women and helps connect them to other decision-makers. “I actually have taken some heavy hits working to support employment equity,” she says. “At the time there was a lot of negativity about that [but] I integrate it into my life. I give them advice.  We all need help. I had great people who help me.”

One of Sharpe’s other big accomplishments is the founding of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), an organization she helped run as CEO for 13 years. She describes the SDTC as an “unusual organization” that was created through an act of parliament as a response to the Canadian Climate Change Commitment in the late 1990s. Through this organization, she helped find and negotiate agreements with clean technology companies and start-ups. In total, she mobilized over $5 billion for clean tech companies in Canada.

“It’s so exciting to see these great Canadian companies growing and building, but now – I asked for this in 2006 — we need to get more capital to scale up these companies if we want to be world leading. We are still struggling with that. Investors tend to go with what they are used to.”

Throughout her experience and studies, Sharpe never had any formal training in terms of finances — yet now, she is one of the leading negotiators in the field. “I found I spend a large chunk of my life chasing money for these companies,” she says. “I just learnt it. If you are trying to persuade businesses to be more sustainable, they are designed to optimize financial returns. So if you are presenting opportunities, you have to take that into account.”

Sharpe has a variety of experience, but there is one commonality that drives her.  “I have to do something that does an impact,” she says.  She won the Purvis Memorial Award in 2016, which is given to those who have made a major contribution to development and strategies in Canadian industry or academia in the field of chemistry.

In the little free time she has, Sharpe does a lot of travelling. Sometimes it is to visit family in the U.K., and other times it’s to better understand a global issue or to use her skills as an amateur wildlife photographer. Travelling and reading helps her reconnect with her love of nature and the environment, and revitalizes her passion for the topic.

“Climate change is in the background and it’s a critical thing to deal with. It’s a threat. I … promote a better understanding of what this is and what it means to people’s lives, both business and personal, and try to influence it for the better because as a society. I don’t think we’ve embraced the positive angles of sustainability,” she says.

“But, when you want people to do stuff, you have to be able to help them do it. There are great Canadian technologies for those who want to build sustainability. They are carrying the torch.”

Woman of the Week: Maggie Habieda

Maggie Habieda has only one goal — to make her clients feel beautiful, like the “queens and kings of old.”

Habieda built Fotografia Boutique Inc., a photography studio that specializes in portraits, about six years ago during a time when photography studios were shutting down. It was one of her biggest challenges, but that didn’t deter her. Habieda isn’t the type of person to simply give up on a dream. With a certain amount of grace and charm, she fights, learns, and persists. She graduated with a Masters in Communication and Design from the Ontario College of Art and Design, but that didn’t include a lot of practical business experience, so she went to the library and took out every book she could find on finance and entrepreneurship.  Six months later, she hosted her grand opening.

Photo by Fotografia Boutique.

Habieda came to Canada from Poland at the age of 16. She knew she had the soul of an artist, but couldn’t get into any  art schools in her home country. She decided to move to a foreign country — Canada — despite the fact she didn’t know the national language, and proceeded to be accepted into art schools with a number of scholarships.

In college, Habieda painted and drew women – most of them as princesses. Eventually, she discovered a passion for photography and started her professional journey as a wedding photographer, capturing women on the happiest days of their lives. This type of photography changed how she viewed the term “princess.” She started to believe that every woman is a princess, and that’s something she wanted reflected in her work.

“I shifted away from weddings, I wanted my own environment where I could greet people and the whole place to be for them, to feel better for them. Where they could get their hair and makeup done and change clothes where no one is watching. Create their own world where they feel and look beautiful and walk away with something timeless.”

Photo by Fotografia Boutique.

What makes Habieda’s portraits so unique is her classic style, something she says she developed over the years to combat the “overdone” selfie craze. Her photographs are textured so that they don’t quite look like the traditional pictures you may keep on your phone. Instead, they look like classic paintings or drawings, something you may find in an old castle rather than a 21st century living room.

“In today’s world, everyone has a camera – there is sea of photographers taking photos and as soon as they are taken they are forgotten. I bring back the classics,” she says. “When I edit, I like it to be creative. I add textures, adding little elements, something that makes it more illustrative than just a photo itself.”

Habieda’s creativity and ability to focus on true beauty, rather than just point-and-shoot with a camera, is what separates her from others in the industry. She has been able to connect with high-profile celebrities, politicians, and community leaders, which has led to a very successful and thriving business.  She has won a number of prestigious awards for her work, including the Tiboor Horvath Award of Excellence, Wedding Portrait Best in Class, and Certified Glamour Photographer from the Professional Photographers of Canada.

And yet, she still hasn’t lost touch with her true vision — to capture, and inspire, beauty in others.

“Every day, I transform people’s lives. I spend time hearing people, their life stories. This is beyond capturing a portrait — its capturing people’s souls from the inside, how the world should see them.”

When she isn’t working in the studio, Habieda runs an annual concert called Colours of Love, which brings together six international artists to celebrate love, diversity, and the performing arts. This will be the third year Habieda organizes the concert, held at the Mississauga Life Centre, and hopes this year will be just as successful.

“Music is the universal language. I want to give and spread love with this world.”

To see more of Habieda’s portfolio, visit her website at fotografiaboutique.ca.

 

Woman of the Week: Criss Habal-Brosek

“What does it mean to be a member of Progress Place? It means you are not a patient. It means you are a person first.”

This line was spoken during an audio tour of Progress Place, a registered charity that specializes on recovery from mental illness. It is run using a clubhouse model, which means that staff work side-by-side with its members to keep the centre running. A variety of daily activities and programs are offered daily, focusing on wellness, health, employment, and education.

Upon entering Progress Place, I was greeted by a smiling man sitting behind the reception desk. He asked me who I wanted to speak with and called up to ensure the person I was meeting was ready to see me. He was friendly and kind, and when I left he wished me a good day — what I didn’t know until the end of my tour was that he not only works for Progress Place, but he is a member as well.

Progress Place has helped over 7,000 people since it was founded in 1984, and firmly believes that “empowering people can cure.” In fact, they claim that 90 per cent of their members are not re-hospitalized after being a part of the clubhouse for two years.

The success of Progress Place is thanks to its dedicated employees, including Criss Habal-Brosek, Executive Director and a veteran employee of 32 years.

“I feel like I can relate to the staff when they first start. The Progress Place model keeps you very humble and I think that’s really important for people to remember — everyone has issues and struggles and everyone deserves to be treated respectfully and equitably, and everyone deserves opportunities. The goal is to instill hope.”

Habal-Brosek was always interested in social work, but wasn’t sure which field she wanted to go into until she started at Progress Place. During her time at York University, she tried a number of different placements, including a contract working nights at a correctional facility, a halfway house for people on parole. “If someone came in and they violated their parole, and I was working by myself on nights, I was supposed to call and have their parole revoked and they would have gone back to prison.”

“I knew I didn’t want to do that, but I was very thankful for the experience because I think it shaped who I am, in regards to my street smarts.”

After over a year at the correctional facility, a friend of hers told her about a position that had opened up at Progress Place. Over the last 32 years, Habal-Brosek worked in about every single job available at Progress Place before acquiring the position of Executive Director. Her passion and dedication to the clubhouse is undeniable — every question about her personal life automatically circles back to her work.

Progress Place boasts over 800 members, about 200 of which work at the clubhouse itself on a daily basis.  Members help plan menus, run the café, perform clerical duties, participate in daily decision-making meetings, and even lead tours for the public. The clubhouse itself offers health and wellness programs, a boutique with low-cost new clothing, weekly “next step” dinners, young adult programs, as well as a peer support telephone and online chat service called the “warm line.”

The transitional employment program and double recovery program are unique to Progress Place.  Staff help members, who may have an uneven work history, train for and gain employment. This support includes covering the member at their workplace if they have a medical appointment. The double recovery program offers multiple anonymous meeting spaces and support for those with substance abuse or mental health issues.

Staff offer training programs to businesses or organizations like the Toronto Transit Commission, who want to learn how about the stigma of mental illness with compassion and understanding. Progress Place is also exploring modern avenues to help spread their message and educate people on the stigma surrounding mental health. Their goal is to become as well-known for mental health as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

The clubhouse has already expanded beyond their location on Church St. They opened up a pilot seniors day program and it has been quite the success. “As people age, depression sets in because people are lonely and isolated,” Habal-Brosek said. “Half of the seniors that go to the day program never knew they had a diagnosis and they have since been able to go to doctors and get medication.”

Habal-Brosek was incredibly excited to discuss Progress Place’s latest development in Mount Dennis, a program that is run in a retrofitted recreational space in a condo tower. They run March Break programs for teens, offer health services, and mental health workshops, and Habal-Brosek hopes it leads to other partnerships with developers throughout the city.

Their newest venture, recently launched on Jan. 20, is Radio Totally Normal Toronto, a monthly podcast that hopes to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. In their debut broadcast, hosts provide an audio tour of Progress Place and discuss how to stay mentally healthy.

 

 

The unfortunate reality is that Progress Place hasn’t received an increase in funding over the last four years, despite the increase in cost of living. The clubhouse has evolved immensely since it opened and hopes to continue to do so.

As for Habal-Brosek — she has no plans to leave Progress Place. The positive response she sees from the community and from her members makes it all worthwhile.

“You get to hear such positive stories, whereas in a hospital situation, I feel kind of sad for people that work there because they see people at their worst. What really is inspiring is getting to see people who have never worked go out to their first job, go back to school to finish their high school diploma, or go to university and graduate.”

And that’s what Progress Place is all about.

Woman of the Week: Miriam Verburg

Do you remember those teenage years — all of the confusion, the expectations, and the social awkwardness?

That’s one of the reasons why Miriam Verburg helped to create the LongStory Game, a dating sim, choose-your-own-adventure type game that helps pre-teens and teenagers learn the ins-and-outs of dating. Users get to pick a character —boy, girl, or trans — and must solve a mystery while navigating social scenarios. Some examples include, bullying, backstabbing friends, alienation and immigration, and experimentation with their own sexuality.

“I made it as a response to other dating sims, which follow boring storylines – you buy enough nice clothing and people will like you,” Verburg said. “LongStory is less appearance based and more ‘if I was 13 playing a game about relationships, what would I want to practice doing’.”

Verburg is modest to a fault. She is a self-affirmed feminist who wants to be a force of change and social good, but would rather work behind the scenes than in front of a camera.  She considers some aspects of business like advertising and monetization a challenge, as she wants her work to retain it’s authenticity and accessibility — something many other businesses can’t claim.

Verburg became interested in technology at a young age. Her father worked for the Bloorview Macmillan Centre in Toronto as a researcher, developing rehabilitation programs for kids. He often brought home weird-looking laptops and would let the kids play with them. Verburg caught the creative bug, and studied art in school, primarily print-making and digitization.

After graduating, she worked at Studio XX, an “explicitly feminist art studio” in Montreal, where self-taught women in technology could teach others. After a while, her interests changed to web development. She completed her Master’s in Communications and Media Studies at Concordia and got a job teaching kids digital literacy at a library in Montreal, something that inspired her to continue to work with kids and technology.

While doing all of this, Verburg started her own website development company with some friends called 3scoDesign, which focused on helping non-profits design and integrate their digital footprints. Verburg has maintained that entrepreneurial spirit and is now the founder and CEO of Bloom Digital Media, a “boutique gaming company” that specializes in user experience and project management.

LongStory launched two years ago through Bloom Digital Media and it’s quite the success. Verburg’s target audience at the beginning was young girls; she wanted to create a game that taught consent and allowed girls to experiment with their desires.

“It was 2012 — Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd — I found those stories sad and surprising,” she said. “It seemed to me, as a teenager, I was pretty convinced that the dating world was not constructed in a way girls can experience themselves fully with power and freedom.”

LongStory has since grown into a phenomenon that transcends gender, a game that appeals to young people across the board. Users can choose a character that accurately represents how they choose to be identified — “he”, “she”, or “they” — and can try things they may be embarrassed to try in public.  The challenge, Verburg says, is to keep the game authentic and available, so that teenagers are comfortable using it and parents don’t mind them doing so.

“There has been lots of pressure to make this educational and put it in schools, which is something I’ve resisted,” she said. Teenagers see devices as a place where they can be free to be themselves, and if you introduce it into classrooms, that whole idea changes.

Her team is also made up of an equal number of men and women — something Verburg says should be the norm no matter the company.

“The team is fairly evenly split and we also try to have a lot of LGBTQ members to represent that idea authentically,” she says. “People say it’s hard to have diversity in a company, but it’s not.”

One of the things Verburg hopes will change is the perception issue regarding male-dominated industries like hers. People say that more women should be involved in gaming or web development, but they don’t actually speak with women to find out what kind of games they would be interested in. That’s something Verburg has actively been trying to change.

“We spoke with a lot of girls during market research,” she said. “I want to explore how to create a community around that idea of gaming – how to help [girls] find better games and enjoy the experience more. There is such a strong community around building games and it makes me sad to see that if you ask girls if they want to get involved, they say ‘it’s still not meant for me’.”

Verburg was also involved with Dames Making Games, a not-for-profit feminist organization that runs events and programs for “women, non-binary, gender nonconforming, trans and queer folks interested in games.”  When she isn’t working or involved in the gaming community, Verburg enjoys doing circuit training, going for a walk outdoors, or playing a board game — anything that doesn’t involve analytical thinking.

Season two of LongStory was released a few months ago, and Verburg is excited to see where it will lead. “It’s like an Archie comic,” she said. “It can only go on.”

Woman of the Week: Marni Dicker, VP Infrastructure Ontario

Marni Dicker truly believes women can have it all, even if they work in a male-dominated industry like infrastructure.

The bulk of Dicker’s career has been in “a man’s world, with a hard hat on and steel toe boots.” A self-described “energizer-bunny”, she works full-time for Infrastructure Ontario (IO), chairs Women Build with Habitat for Humanity, is a distinguished visiting scholar at Ryerson University, is a mentor for the Women’s Executive Network, an executive sponsor of Women IO, and chair of IO Gives Back. All the while, she makes time to go to every single one of her sons’ football games.

“You don’t have to be ashamed to be a mother,” she says. “I almost over do it because I’m trying to lead by example. I have a young team with little kids. I want them to know it’s okay to go to your kid’s play at 11 a.m., because you don’t get those days back, and I get a better productivity from my team. Nothing is suffering. Work is getting done and family appreciates it.”

As Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary at Infrastructure Ontario, Dicker has a wide portfolio. She oversees six different departments — legal, procurement, strategy, communications, record management, and insurance — all the while being responsible for corporate governance. Essentially, there isn’t a file Dicker isn’t involved in.

Infrastructure Ontario is responsible for all major construction projects in the province, including the Eglinton Crosstown, which is part of a 12-plus billion dollar transit plan for the region. “That was my deal and transaction, putting the deal into market, procuring a partner who would be ultimately delivering the project.” she said.

The other big project she was involved in was the venues for the Pan Am Games, including the athletes village, which is currently being converted into a multiuse community.  For Dicker, the most exciting part of her work with the Pan Am Games was that they weren’t just creating a venue for a singular event; they were actually making a difference in people’s lives. “We aren’t only building infrastructure, we are building communities.”

Before joining the ranks at Infrastructure Ontario, Dicker spent 16 years with the SNC-Lavalin. She was recommended by a friend, and despite the fact that she didn’t know anything about engineering, construction, or real estate at the time, SNC-Lavalin recognized her capabilities and hired her anyway. They said they wanted someone smart and eager to learn — and that was Dicker in a nutshell.

She thrived in that environment, embracing every challenge. Twenty years later, she is one of the leading experts in infrastructure development and corporate counsel, something she would have been unable to claim if she hadn’t taken the extreme risk to leave her job in litigation for something completely out of her comfort zone.

Dicker’s heart and passion for the industry is revealed when she speaks of this difficult transition. She went from being a litigation lawyer to a businesswoman, but every new step has given her skills that make her incredibly successful in her field. As she says, she uses her legal training to provide excellent business leadership.

This dedication to the field  is noticeable when she speaks. She talks a mile-a-minute, exuding excitement over seemingly-small details of a project. You can tell she thrives under pressure and doesn’t back down from a challenge.

Dicker is very aware of how male-dominated her industry is, but acknowledges it’s changing, albeit slowly. “What I think we need is more examples of women who have been successful in those fields and we women need to actively mentor young women and take them under our wings to show them the ropes, because if we don’t they will be left behind.”

And that’s what Dicker is trying to do with Women IO and the Women’s Executive Network. She wants to be a mentor for other women seeking senior leadership and guidance. Some of the big topics during networking sessions include work-life balance and how to grow your career.

“We need to go out and show them [women] that working in the infrastructure world is no different than the female-dominated industry of nursing. If they see more women in the industry, it will incite them to joint the ranks of architecture or project finance.”

Dicker’s biggest strength is her ability to do it all, something she says is only possible “because I’m crazy.” She is one of those people who goes to the gym at 5:30 a.m., works hard throughout the day, and then still finds time to give back to the community. “I’m not happy sitting down, because I feel like I have so much to do and I have so much to offer, whether it’s personal to my family, professionally in the workplace, or in a volunteer capacity. It’s really gratifying to me.”

Dicker admits that this industry has made her a stronger person, but counters that it doesn’t mean you have to give up your femininity. And that’s something she hopes all women can begin to understand.

Last year, Dicker was recognized as one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women.

Celebrating Women: Ann Kaplan

Have you ever met a beautiful woman who seems to grow even more beautiful when she speaks? Ann Kaplan is a woman like this. She has an elegant business look and exudes a strong grace that I’ve only seen a few times in my life.

The more time you spend with Ann, the more her sense of humour and intelligence shines through. I was fortunate enough to meet her over a decade ago and since then I have watched as she built her business – iFinance – from the ground up in a predominantly male industry.  As I grew to know her,  I developed a sense of awe over the way she could think and handle hard, emotionally-exhausting life events and yet keep her sense of humour and desire to put others first. Her strength shone through at a time when others might have collapsed under stress of illness and family losses that saw her move from having six children to suddenly having eight.

When Olympic athletes talk about inner strength and endurance, my mind always turns to Ann, who seems to gain strength with each hurdle she jumps over.  I remember having lunch with her while she talked of all the pain and loss she had to cope with, and yet she could still smile and care about what was going on in my life. She draws strength from giving to all those around her.

Now, add to all of this the fact that she is one of the smartest women I have ever met and you start realizing that there are some great lessons you can learn from Ann. Just a few things I have learned from her are:  laugh as hard as you cry, focus on what you can give and not what it takes out of you, and always be able to laugh at yourself.

Ann Kaplan has become a success in business because she understands what is important in life.  She is the perfect example of someone who gives more than they receive, who values what she can do for others over what they will do for her. When thinking of what makes a woman beautiful, I think of Ann’s grace, her intelligence, and how her inside beauty seems to shine all the way through her.

I am lucky to have her as a friend. I think of her often and find myself thinking… now what would Ann do in this situation? I’ll never have her grace, but if I can try to come close to her level of kindness, I may just capture a small part of the beauty that surrounds her.

Woman of the Week: Jennifer Flanagan

Jennifer Flanagan, co-founder and CEO of the non-profit Actua, was exposed to science and technology at a young age, more so than other young girls in her class. Her father and uncle were both engineers, and as she says, “kids that grow up with engineers or scientists as parents are typically the ones that pursue it themselves.”

Flanagan’s plan was to go to medical school, combine her love of science and her affinity for helping people into one career. But, all that changed when she saw a poster on the wall asking the following question: Do you want to start a science or engineering camp? Her answer was a resounding yes.

That small group of students started up a few camps locally, but soon the model spread nationally among engineering programs at different universities. As of 1994, the camps had a policy for gender parity, with an equal 50 per cent divide between girl and boy participants. “That was unheard of,” Flanagan said.  “It was controversial, amazing, and it worked.”

The programs became more popular, and eventually the students started to receive funding from university chairs and Industry Canada. And that’s how Actua was formed — a national charitable organization that engages young kids and marginalized communities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). “We [engage] about 225,000 youth a year – that includes a huge focus on those underrepresented audiences, or the hardest to reach audience in Canada,” Flanagan explained. This includes a program called InSTEM, a customized, community-based educational program that engages First Nations, Metis, and Inuit youth, as well as a digital literacy program that transforms young people from passive consumers into real innovators capable of using and creating future technology.

Twenty-five years later, Flanagan is just as excited about her role in Actua as she was when she saw that poster on the wall. She says she has seen progress since the program went national.

“Big evidence of that progress is Actua,” she said. “When I first started doing this work, we had to convince people it was important. A summer camp was one thing, but no one saw the link to the future work force or economic development.”

More woman are getting involved in certain science, like medicine for example, but Flanagan says there is still a void in research and in technology-based industries. “Whether its health-based research that’s skewed because no women were involved — it affects research outcome. It’s really important to have those voices at the table. And so, that starts really early. Talking to girls – telling them that they can do science and we NEED them in science. We need to make sure women are designing the world of the future.”

Flanagan is working with a team on a special project meant to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary next year. Actua is building a “Maker Mobile”, a mobile workshop that will travel from one end of the country to the other in just over 18 months, stopping at schools and community centres along the way. “A maker space is a workshop that is filled with technology tools that allow you to build prototypes or allow you to build products,” Flanagan said. “We are celebrating past innovation by building skills for future innovation.”

The idea is to inspire young people to not only learn more about science and technology, but also to inspire them to innovate. The maker mobile will empower these young people and shift their attitudes. Too often, people tell kids to pay attention to math and science so they can do great things in the future, Flanagan explained. Instead, why not encourage them to do great things now?

“Today’s youth are incredible innovators already. They are amazing problem solvers and have natural abilities with science and technology.”

Flanagan’s passion often follows her outside of her work with Actua. She sits on the board of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, an organization that has a wide mandate, which includes empowering women, helping them escape violent situations, and ending poverty.

“The work with the Canadian Women’s Foundation is so fundamental — doing work that is creating the first generation of women free of violence requires more passion. The work that we do, engage girls in science and technology goes far beyond knowing there is enough female participation in these subjects. It’s about raising confidence.”

Flanagan is also a finalist for the Social Change Award for the 2016 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards. She is reading a newly released book called “Girl Positive”, which tells the story of hundreds of girls across North America and finds out what they need, something Flanagan says is critical reading for parents and policy makers.

 

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Woman of the Week: Julia Langer, CEO of TAF

The Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF) is celebrating its 25th anniversary — and with that milestone comes an opportunity to expand its mandate to include the greater Hamilton area. TAF is an organization that looks for urban solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and while it focuses most of its efforts on Toronto, Julia Langer, CEO of TAF, knows that it’s time to expand.

“It’s about recognizing that opportunities for solving climate change are not limited to the 416.”

A self-described “perennial optimist”, Langer thinks Ontario and Toronto have won a lot of battles on the environmental front, but in the end they may be losing the war.

“It can be solved,” she said in an interview. “[Climate change can] get waylaid with a bunch of things along the way, whether its political will, lack of capital right now, short term versus long term priorities…It’s all about where we work and where we play — making sure that we can live and work in a way that is a low-carbon lifestyle.”

Langer always had an awareness of the environment, as well as a passion for life. When she was 10, her parents would discuss social and environmental issues, often bringing their daughter along with them to clean up Don River and dredge through the garbage. This mentality was passed on to Langer, who developed a keen interest in marine biology.

“I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau the Second,” she said.  However, Langer learned early on that she would most likely end up in a lab, and she was more interested in integrating science and policy. So, she transferred to the University of Toronto and continued her studies in toxicology there.

“Academic and scientific work is super important in highlighting and understanding problems, but it was a bit frustrating that academics don’t do policy reforms,” she said. Her attention was focused on taking information provided by these scientists and experts, and enacting positive change — something she has been able to do rather successfully throughout her illustrious career.

After university, Langer landed a number of summer jobs, including a position in James Bradly’s office, the minister of environment at the time. Her work involved providing policy analysis and advice on files involving toxins, pesticides, and sewage treatments, among other things. She went on to work for Friends of the Earth in Ottawa and was hired by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) working with the toxicology program, where she was eventually promoted to Director of the Cuba EcoRegional Program. She also spearheaded the WWF Climate Change program.

At TAF, Langer has a wide portfolio. She is responsible for managing campaigns, defining strategy, working on policy, and communicating with the public about pollution and greenhouse gas reduction. Recently, she has spoken at a number of town halls about the impact of climate change.

While others may see this portfolio as daunting, Langer speaks about it with great fervour.  It’s all about focusing on three main things Toronto (and the surrounding GTHA) needs to do to reduce its greenhouse emissions, she said: improve the energy efficiency of our economy, decarbonize our energy system, and make smart land use decisions.

Langer also co-founded Eco-Babes in Toronto, an organization that facilitates networking among women who work in the sustainability industry.  Once a month, women interested in the environment or in energy can meet up, ask for advice, exchange business cards, and usually enjoy a good glass of wine or pint of beer.

At the same time, Langer says the demographics in the environmental industry are pretty evenly matched. “A challenge in the environmental community isn’t gender, but diversity,” she said. “It hasn’t yet permeated into the staffing within the environmental community. I think it is changing, but it’s not there yet.”

When she isn’t working, Langer is an avid vegetable gardener and recent canning aficionado. “There is something satisfying about growing and making food, and packing it away like a squirrel,” she said with a laugh.  Beyond that, she is quite active. During the summer, she goes canoeing and hiking with her husband and daughter, passing on the tradition of environmental awareness, as it were.

Langer is reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset.