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Are Canadians investing in women?

March 8 is International Women’s Day. During this time, it’s easy to think back to all of the trials and tribulations women have experienced. Just last week, there was a tragic case in Halifax in which the victim of sexual assault was wronged thanks to an outdated definition of consent. There has been a large investigation into “unfounded” sexual assault cases by the Canadian police. And of course, there is the incredible sexism women are facing in the United States from their own politicians.

No, Women’s Post is not going to focus on that this March 8 (at least, not too much). Instead, Women’s Post is choosing to celebrate this important day by speaking with successful business women, gathering their advice for other women, and learning about who they invest in. Here is a teaser with some of the results:

 

Visit our women of the week page for profiles of successful Canadian women.

Roundup: 2016 Women of the Week

Every week, Women’s Post publishes a profile of a Canadian woman that has done something truly extraordinary. Our staff has spoken with a large number of inspirational human beings — some are volunteering their time, some have founded their own businesses, and some are trying to break down barriers in male-dominated industries.

Let’s start 2017 off right by rounding up all some of these amazing women into one post. Each one will include a link back to their original profile. Do you have a recommendation or suggestion for a Woman of the Week? Send it to kate@womenspost.ca.

Emily Ridout: Co-founder of 889 Yoga

Sometimes an idea just comes to you. In fact, it calls to you — and it can’t go unanswered. That’s what Emily Ridout said when Women’s Post asked her why she started 889Yoga, a yoga and wellness studio on Yonge Street in Toronto. For her, it was about bringing the practices she learned during her travels to the city she loved.

Marni Dicker: VP Infrastructure Ontario

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.

Miriam Verburg: CEO of Bloom Digital Media

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.

Ana Bailão: Toronto City Councillor 

Ana Bailão moved to Canada, specifically to the Davenport area in Toronto, from Portugal at the age of 15 — and she hasn’t left. In fact, she now represents the ward as a city councilor. “It’s a part of the city that feels like home,” she said during an interview at city hall.

Jennifer Flanagan: Founder and CEO of Actua

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.”

Chantal Kreviazuk: Canadian Musician

Chantal Kreviazuk. Photo provided by Chantal Kreviazuk.

Singer and song-writer Chantal Kreviazuk is a Canadian icon who never fails to bring her listeners home. She is someone who loves the euphoria of performing, which is why after a seven year hiatus, she will be back to touring, promoting her new album Hard Sail. “To get to that moment [on stage], it is what we call enlightenment. It is so outer-worldly for me. It is like Christmas every day when touring. It’s scary as hell and exciting,” Kreviazuk says.

Kimberly Caroll: Body/Mind/Spirit Coach and Animal Activist 

Body/Mind/Spirit coach Kimberly Carroll has a voice that is calm, but focused. It has a powerful quality to it that helps each person she speaks with realize how important it is to care for themselves in order to impact change in others. After listening to her speak, it’s easy to understand her transition from a career in radio and television into a profession that allows her to motivate and help people.

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.”

Erin O’Neill: Chief of Planning, Regional Emergency Operations during Fort McMurray Fire

Erin O’Neill was in Red Deer when she heard about the fire, accepting her new role as president elect of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute. She couldn’t go home and couldn’t get any information. “I was following twitter. I watched the news like everyone else,” she said. “I remember going to sleep thinking I would wake up and not have anything.” Her official position, Chief of Planning for the Regional Emergency Operations Center, meant she was in charge of all re-entry procedures — creating a Recovery Task Force, getting critical businesses like pharmacies and grocery stores up and running, and eventually helping people back into their homes.

Anita Krajnc: Founder of Toronto Pig Save

Anita Krajnc, animal rights activist and Toronto Pig Save Organizer.

Tragedy struck in Burlington last week when a truck carrying pigs to slaughter overturned on the highway. Forty pigs were killed in the accident. Fearman’s Slaughterhouse then walked the 100 remaining pigs to be killed in their facility. Animal rights protesters were on the scene to witness a terrible lack of mercy on the part of the slaughterhouse workers. Anita Krajnc of Toronto Pig Save tried desperately to save any of the traumatized pigs from being murdered. She was arrested for crossing police lines and trying to see the pigs that were being hidden from sight behind cardboard barriers. Krajnc was charged with obstructing a peace officer and breach of recognizance. This is the second time she has been arrested for her humane acts towards these animals.

Jazz Kamal: Boxing Coach, Spoken Word Artist, Musician

Kamal destroys the boundaries of what it means to be a repressed woman, and instead lives a life of truth and integrity. Her story is reminiscent of the fiery phoenix renewed, rising from the ashes stronger and ready to help others find their own light in a time of darkness. Kamal is a boxing coach and helps create a space for women to embrace their power and strength at Newsgirls, a women-only boxing studio in Toronto. She is also a profound lyricist and musician, creating political word-spins worthy of the hip hop greats.

Jennifer Keesmaat: Chief Planner for the City of Toronto

Photo provided by Jennifer Keesmaat’s office.

As Toronto’s first female chief city planner, Keesmaat is keenly aware of the importance of mentorship and constant learning. Of the directors she works with, only two are women. This gender gap is difficult to break. As Keesmaat explains, when you are in a meeting and 90 per cent of the people around the table are male, it can generate stress for women.

 

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Celebrating Women: Chynna Howard

Chynna Howard is a defining example of what is possible when courage and selflessness are the primary qualities of a person’s make-up. This millennial woman is going to change lives with her accomplishments, and has already made an integral space for herself in Edmonton’s affordable housing community.

Howard, 27, is tackling the housing crisis head on through the founding of ‘Jill’s Place’, a rooming house located in Edmonton that she named after her mom. The rooming house will help homeless women that are in desperate need of housing in the city’s core, and is set to open in January 2017. While most people feel powerless to change the homeless crisis in Canada, Howard’s absolute selflessness is nothing short of mouth-dropping.

Howard started working in housing as a social worker at the Bissell Centre, a non-profit that provides a variety of services for the homeless, working for the outreach housing team in Edmonton. She began to notice a gap for women looking for housing in inner-city Edmonton and decided to tackle the issue herself. “The waitlists for housing are ridiculous. I was finding that these women didn’t have enough money and couldn’t find housing just for women,” Howard says. “They didn’t fit under the ‘domestic’ umbrella and didn’t want to be in a shelter. There was a lot of discrimination finding a roommate due to being aboriginal and homeless.”

Jill’s Place will provide a clean and safe home to women who are homeless in downtown Edmonton, and will help marginalized women with a place to live. Howard plans on using her skills as a social worker to help women in the home meet basic needs such as meal planning and groceries. She is also considering starting a crowdfunding campaign to help fund a welcome package for each woman that would include a towel, and other products. “I’m trying to benefit inner city women by providing safe and clean rooms. I know it is a really tough work, we need to provide clean and safe rooming homes,” Howard says. “I can fill out a rent report for them [the women who need help with rent living in the house] and take it to Alberta Works. For the most part, it will be a home. There will be a resource room with internet and a phone.”

Howard also decided to purchase the rooming house as a way to honour her dad’s memory, a high school teacher from Kelowna who passed away from cancer in 2014. “When he passed away, I was left money from his pension. I thought this would be the perfect way to use and honour that. It never felt like my money so I’m glad I found a way to honour it. I use everything he taught me to make this community better,” Howard says. “I wanted to make sure my dad’s legacy is carried on. People wonder how I’m able to financially do this. I’d give it back if I had him, but it isn’t that way so I will do this.”

In honour of her dad’s memory, Howard began the annual Clyde Howard Memorial Bursary intended for a female student in the Okanagan area entering post-secondary education.

Howard’s portrait of her father, Clyde.

Howard also happens to be a great artist and hopes to integrate an art studio into the rooming house for the women to use. “ I really like making art that has a message and makes you think,” Howard says. “I want to start making art that reflects this community. They also have an art walk in Edmonton and the women could show their work.”

Shadow Puppets and a Rogue Imagination. Artwork by Chynna Howard.

Howard is also an avid reader. She is currently reading “Starlight Tour” by Susanne Reber and Robert Renaud, the story of Neil Stonechild and the ‘Starlight Tours’ in Saskatoon. Howard claims it is a must-read for all Canadians. She enjoys listening to Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in the midst of a busy life.

When I met Howard, I had this feeling that she was one of those beautiful people that seem to be put on the planet to make it a better place. I had once heard the term ‘indigo child’ used to explain people who have an almost ethereal power to rid our society temporarily of its ugliness, and leave it with just a little more beauty. That is most definitely Chynna Howard and the future success of ‘Jill’s Place’ will surely help many women in need.

Donna Green: Founder and President of Stella’s Place

Last week, I sat down with Founder and President of a new mental health treatment assessment center for young adults. Donna Green, as quoted by the executive director of the organization,  is ‘an inspiring visionary philanthropist who is leading the charge to change the landscape of mental health services with the many young adults we are working with.’ Her organization, called Stella’s Place is looking to launch early next year. Being a student myself, I knew I had to find out more from Donna about this unique initiative:  

What is Stella’s Place?

Stella’s Place will be Canada’s first treatment and assessment centre for young adults with mental health issues.  We are creating a hub that will be based in the community – the first location will be in Toronto’s downtown core –making this facility accessible and welcoming, which is different from the very few services that are offered today.

Another thing that makes Stella’s Place different from other facilities is that we are creating all our programs in partnership with young adults. We have a young adult council with more than 100 members. We are also working with professionals, and executed three years of research into what is available internationally so that we are able to draw on all the best practices while creating our program. But because our young adults have lived experience of the mental health system, nobody knows better than them what was really good, what was really bad, or what was really missing.

It is very important that we are based in the community, close to the subway line, which, again, is very different from going to a hospital or to an institution. What the research shows is that young adults who are not experiencing an emergency cannot even get into a hospital or institution. This is why we have designed a café storefront where you can come visit us. Behind this café is a full service of different treatments for kids struggling through various disorders.

Do you have any advice for those who are having trouble coming to terms with their mental health?

One of the things that our program has been very big on is peer support. We developed a Peer Support Training Program to train young people with lived experience to go out and actually speak with, or be available to, young adults who are not sure how to move forward or ask questions. When we complete our website, you will be able to go online to find support – we are not only going to have peer support workers but we’re developing an online platform for engagement. Then, as a young person, if you’re wondering how you feel, and what you should do, and where you should go, and how to ask questions, and who you can ask these questions to, you can get online to find help. Once we launch our online café, young adults will be able to speak to peer supporters, with lived experience, online and be part of a chat-line, but also find guidance to seek the clinical help you need.

What inspired you start this initiative?

Our daughter, Stella. When she was a teenager, she suffered a sudden bout of depression and anxiety. And it was then, in the middle of her high-school career, that we experienced first-hand the lack of appropriate services, coordination, and age appropriate treatment that is available in Canada without private dollars. When we were faced with all these situations first-hand, we then proceeded – for the next 3 or 4 years – to get the help she needed. We rallied around her as a family and did what we could until she was more stable.

When she was feeling better and getting on her way, I knew something had to change. I just felt that as a woman who has been involved in the community in other initiatives, this was something that I was really committed to taking on, to help the 1 in 5 young adults suffering with the same issue.  We can’t afford to lose our kids and not give them better support than they’re getting now.

What can schools do to help their students with their mental health?

There are a lot of news article and traffic around mental health, especially for those in this age group (16-29). I know that there are some programs being offered that allow kids to either talk about it, or teach mindfulness or yoga-type exercises. Generally speaking, it’s become less of a stigma so kids can now start talking to each other about these things. We’re hoping to, at some point, partner with schools so that they understand that we are available to them.

What can the youth do to help themselves?

Talk to your friends! It’s a double-edged sword – on one hand, if they speak to the wrong person, they might get stigmatized. But if they have a close friend, speak to them. If they can’t, speak to their parents and say ‘I’m not feeling great, and I don’t know what to do.’

Go to your guidance counselor at school to find out what support you can get if you’re feeling too much pressure, can’t get out of bed anymore, or have too much anxiety. Some kids are self-harming and this is a sign of something that is more serious, and you should seek help.

How do you plan on achieving your goal of reaching thousands of students across Ontario?

We are building incrementally. Once we launch our online portal, in 2016, it will be a good way for people from across Ontario to connect with us. We have to establish the back-up clinical support for the online chat groups and peer support, so we are being very thoughtful about how we set it up. We’re hoping to have kids contact us earlier on, to try and use early intervention and support to prevent more serious issues from coming up.

It’s going to take a lot of work. We’re launching our first program this June, training about 30 peer support workers, who we hope can then go out into various communities and start providing peer support to young adults that need someone to talk to. Sometimes just having someone to talk to and answer their questions can be of help, especially when it comes to dealing with preventive strategies before they get more involved in deeper issues.

How did George Brown get involved? 

We decided as a community service to partner with as many community agencies as possible. We didn’t want to duplicate any good services that were there and we knew that George Brown was doing some very innovative things. So we approached them to partner with our Peer Support Training Program and with the online café. The Peer Support Training Program just launched this week, and these students will graduate in August. We are working with all types of organizations and people to form a collaborative team.

When is the online café launching? 

It’s in development now. We’re hoping to begin some trials in late 2015 with a plan to officially launch in 2016.

What are you looking most forward to with this project? 

I think we’re really excited by the new model of this initiative. The idea that Stella’s Place is giving young people with lived experience a voice, a way to give back after their own experiences, is not being done anywhere else. We are developing our programs from the inside out instead of from the top down. We just don’t believe that senior adults with professional experience can accurately dictate what is best for young adults. We need to share the voices of young adults. We’re really proud to be working with such a wonderful group of young people who have helped get us this far.

We will continue to speak to our government officials and make it clear to them of the desperate need out there. The Stella’s Place model is unique and they cannot continue with the same old strategies and medical support, because it’s not working very well. We’re really excited about reaching out to kids in a whole new way, ideally before they get into the deeper issues. Stella’s Place will help the kids get what they need in a very recovery-based fashion.

Women of The Week: Amy Cross

Promoting gender equality and supporting women-held businesses? There’s an app for that. Amy-Willard Cross, founder and editor in chief of VitaminW is set to release a new phone application, BUY UP Index, to encourage companies to serve female consumers better and promote gender equality in the workplace. Essentially a consumer report for women, Buy UP Index rates consumer-based companies on how they serve women as employees, as leaders, and as consumers. It gives them a score out of a hundred based on their treatment towards female employees, and whether or not they have positive marketing messages and women in leadership positions.

With about 140 companies involved, including ones that sell cell phones, cars, athletic apparel, and even banks, the app is already creating major buzz in the press and has even caught the attention of Forbes magazine. I spoke to Amy Willard-Cross and asked her a few questions on her great initiative. Here’s what she had to say:

Why did you begin this initiative?  

The whole point of this is so women can support companies that serve them well. It’s how we’re using consumer power to create social change. The Human Rights Campaign launched a similar initiative a few years ago to rate companies on their LGBT policy. At the time, only 14 companies met the standards of these policies. Now, 8 years later, 366 do. Just putting transparency on these types of topics helps move the needle. We’re currently waiting on the App Store trying to get final approval so we’re hoping it will be in consumers’ hands soon. I hope that lots of women download it and use it so they can choose what to buy.

What are some trends you’ve noticed within the market?

The results are quite stunning. When you look at it more thoroughly, you find interesting trends in more US-based products. For example, when we look at US maternity leave policies, we already know how shockingly absent this concept is in the workplace for Americans.  Only a few companies offer it and you can’t really get a good grade on our index unless you have at least 8 weeks maternity leave, which is the benchmark in the United States. Very few companies do. I think the beauty industry and the bank industry pay for most maternity leave. Only one company in the household goods sector does. And only one car company does. Information like this can really make or break consumer perception about the company.

How do you plan on marketing BUY UP Index?

That is the hardest part. We’re the only app in the app store with feminist economic content. In the United States alone there are 12 million women and hundreds of women’s organizations. We know there’s a big population of women that want to see change.  We have partnerships with those organizations and additional partnerships created through VitaminW. We used to BUY UP methodology to rate women’s organizations such as Women’s Parenthood, Girls Scouts, Mom’s Rising. So I’m hoping that they’ll help us spread the word. In addition, we’ll be doing a crowd funding campaign this summer with women’s businesses to include them on the app.

Several people have thought of the idea but no one spent the time and money to do it. My partner and I have, and we’re really happy too because these days. I want to offer the world real, hard hit facts instead of just my opinions.

How will this app benefit the feminist movement?

I’ve been a feminist since I was nine years old. I wrote a play called Men’s Liberation. I’m actually a fourth generation feminist. My great grandmother was a feminist. I thought that everything was done when I came out into the real world. I went to a women’s college called Wellesley. I thought everything was over. And then, I get out in the world and the older I get, the more barriers I come across. I see a lot of political movements trying to occur but we still have only 20% representation in congress. So I realized that we could help the feminist movement with the market, instead of with political change. I’m no economist, but I believe we can create economic change by either using our capital power or creating capital. If you look at women’s consumer spending, that’s a huge amount of capital. When we add up women’s consumer revenues, business revenues and women’s assets, it’s a really big trillion number.

Was feminism your inspiration behind this app?

Sure! You try and be useful to the world and I had a career in magazine, wrote books, and then I thought, “What can I do that’s useful” using my skills as a writer or journalism and that is for the women’s movement. There’s a definite feminist agenda behind what I’m doing. I’m hoping that its useful to consumers as well as companies, such as L’Oreal, who are doing things right for women. There’s a big push towards what they call ethical marketing and purpose marketing – a buzzword these days- and McDonald’s even created an app to show their customers their ethical practices. I think this might be a good and an objective way for companies to communicate their good practices. Millennial consumers really care about this. People are starting to switch brands. Canadian studies show 40% of people making 100K a year have switched brands due to their ethical practices.

Do you foresee any challenges with the release of the app?

The larger companies who don’t score well will definitely be upset with me. That’s a possible challenge we may have to face. However, the main challenge is getting it out there and seeing if people want to use the app. My goal is to keep it important and interesting enough that people will keep coming back. I’ll be putting out new content and providing alternatives to other women-held businesses. Essentially, keeping it lively will be an ongoing challenge.

What do you hope to accomplish with the release of this app?

What we hope to accomplish is encouraging companies to make the right decisions. When you see a company that has no leadership programs and see that you have a low rate of women managers, you see that they can maybe fix that by adding a leadership program. We want the companies to score well and say, ”Oh, look what they’re doing right!” I’m hoping to create change and I’m hoping to reward companies that do it well. Eventually we’ll be adding coupons and transactions to the app. This is our way of working with companies that serve women well. That’s my dream!

For more information, visit http://www.buyupindex.com/.

Women of the Week: Jelena Pticek and Karen Carrillo

What would you consider an empire?

If you ask Jelena Pticek, she and partner Karen Carrillo do not own an empire “in the material sense of the word.” This despite the fact that they collectively oversee multiple companies: Koocoo Carrillo, Poppyseed Creative Living, Freedom Clothing Collective and Freedom Reconstructed.

Koocoo Carrillo, run by Karen, is a clothing line featuring hand-crafted, limited-edition pieces; Poppyseed Creative Living, run by Jelena, is a “furniture ‘reinterpreting’ business,” using yard or antique sale finds; Freedom Clothing Collective, a joint project, is a co-op for local artists; and Freedom Reconstructed, also a collaborative venture, is a line of refurbished goods.

Before joining forces, both women originally worked corporate jobs. According to Karen, “it was depressing not to be able to illicit helpful change, or not having a say or, worst of all, seeing all the waste (garbage and time).”

Jelena, too, never felt at ease in the corporate world.  “I knew that the only way I would be able to correct this is if I changed something about it,“ Jelena explains.

Not surprisingly, both call their decision to quit and become entrepreneurs as the highlight of their careers. It would prove to be a great decision, both from a personal and work-related standpoint.

“We both often stop to admire the store and how far it’s come. The we-made-this bit is pretty thrilling, and everyday at least one customer tells us what a lovely store we have, and it never gets old!”

Not stopping at just running a successful independent business, Jelena and Karen are working to ensure their company is one with the proper social mores.

“We strive to be Locally and Environmentally focused,” says Jelena. “With Poppyseed Creative Living my goal was to appeal to the audience with strong environmental sense but also with the desire to surround themselves with items that are unique in their nature.”

By selling products that are refurbished or, at the very least, eco-friendly, Jelena and Karen can feel good about their company, knowing that they are making a difference. This is vital in a society that is becoming more and more eco-aware.

As Karen, the driving force behind the company’s environmental focus, explains, “Newcomers love to hear about how we are affecting change.”

This eco-friendly attitude extends across the company, from the products to the marketing. “Via marketing we often do small craft shows and we always use recycled or reused objects, either paper for printing business cards or flyers (which we keep to a minimum) or packaging, or displays, our toilet paper is even post consumer,” Karen says.

Clearly, the brains behind the Freedom Clothing Collective have created a company that will flourish in the coming seasons. Yet even as they work to save the world (and run a successful business), both women manage to balance their priorities and keep their heads on straight. The secret?

Although life will get chaotic, says Jelena, “It comes down to identifying priorities, making compromises with yourself and adjusting your own expectations.”

Women of the Week: Patricia Bebia Mawa

As a child, Patricia Bebia Mawa dreamed of being a lawyer. Her current job is quite far from that dream, but considering she calls her media career “a divine orchestration,” I don’t think her inner child is kicking up that much of a fuss.

Raised in Nigeria, Mawa learned early on that “success is never presented to you, but comes as a result of what you present to the world.” In 2000 she got the opportunity to come to Canada thanks to a training program run by CBC television, and chose to stay here to pursue further education. While studying at the Algonquin College of Science and Technology, she met the man who would become her husband:  Moses A. Mawa. Together, they produced the pilot for Planet Africa and, in 2002, signed a deal with OMNI TV. Now syndicated worldwide, Planet Africa focuses on “success stories, unity a well as to enlighten and entertain the world about the experiences and aspirations of people of African Heritage, wherever they live on the planet.”

In 2004, they created the Planet Africa Awards program. Broadcast by the Planet Africa Network, these awards honour those who prove to be excellent role models. In 2010, they created the Diversity Awards, “to recognize individuals who further harmony and innovation as well as harness the benefits of diversity.”

The Mawa empire also extends into the publishing industry. The first publication,Planet Africa Magazine, launched in 2005. “We started Planet Africa Magazine to document our history, share our stories and inspire the African Diaspora to aspire for excellence,” Mawa explains. Then, in 2012, came Diversity Magazine, a publication “to inspire, transform, empower, showcase, celebrate and integrate exceptional elements of our mosaic.” Up next: Destiny Magazine. Obviously very dear to her heart, Mawa says she wept when she saw the final design. To make the whole situation even sweeter, on the day of its launch, Mawa and her husband will be presented with Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Medals.

With so many projects on her table and many more in the pipeline, plus a family at home, how does Mawa keep going? “I love what I do,” she says. “It is a blessing to have platforms that inspire and empower.”

Mawa’s devotion to her current line of work shines through in every word she says, and it is easy to believe her when she refers to it all as a preordained plan that she has wholeheartedly accepted.

“The greatest misfortune that can befall a person is walking this earth without leaving their mark on it. What has kept me going is doing everything I do with a sense of purpose.”

It is safe to say that she has left her mark on this earth, and that she will continue to do so in the future.

Women of the Week: Heather Payne

It started with a tweet.

In June of 2011, Heather Payne asked who was interested in learning about coding. From that simple 140-character question—I want to learn to code (a bit) and I want other ladies in #Toronto to join me. Anyone at #swtoronto know any women who might be interested?—an empire was born.

As it turns out, a lot of women were interested. Instead of the expected “dozen people meeting in a coffee shop once a month to work through tutorials together,” the first workshop sold out in a day. Subsequent workshops would prove to be just as successful and would lead Heather to turn the idea into a business.

Now an official non-profit organization, Ladies Learning Code offers “one-day workshops to women (and men) who want to learn beginner-friendly computer programming and other technical skills in a social and collaborative way.”

About a year after Ladies Learning Code was created, the organization expanded, adding HackerYou. Still following the original design of hands-on learning with a solid amount of instructor/student interaction, HackerYou was created to offer a more extensive education than the one-day LLC workshops while still allowing its students to maintain full-time jobs.

HackerYou is “focused on created the best part-time programs for people who want to learn to code,” Heather explains. Rather than offer another version of education that already exists—online tutorials, college or university courses attended by numerous frazzled students—Hacker You offers “hands-on, project-based learning from industry-leading professionals, small classes with a 10:1 ratio of students to instructors, and a beginner-friendly, social and collaborative learning environment.”

The business continues to expand, now offering classes in other Canadian cities. Heather is also reaching out to a younger generation—and, by doing so, potentially changing the future dynamics of a male-dominated industry—by offering Girls Learning Code. Running primarily on school breaks, these courses are designed to get young girls more interested in code. And it’s working.

“We hear from parents how much of an impact Girls Learning Code is having on their daughters, and I am confident that in 10 years, there will be an awesome group of women joining the tech industry, who can look back and point to Girls Learning Code as the place where they got their start.”

Considering her ever-growing empire, it is interesting to note that this was not Heather’s original plan.

“It’s surprising to me now, but back when I was in university, entrepreneurship wasn’t part of my plan. I didn’t even really know what it was. My plan back then was to graduate, get a job at a Fortune 500 company, and work my way up.”

Luckily for her, and her numerous satisfied students, that plan never came to fruition. Instead of taking the typical road, Heather is carving out her own path—and having a great deal of fun doing it.

“I’m sure my career will unfold in ways I can’t currently imagine over the coming years, but for now, I’m really enjoying waking up each day and feeling incredibly empowered and engaged.”

Women of the Week: Mary Jane Conboy

Mary Jane Conboy’s foray into science began with curiosity. In her youth, she spent many hours outdoors wondering how things worked, how certain elements in nature functioned.

“Some things in nature are just so beautiful that it just compels you think more deeply about it,” says Conboy.
Having studied biology and geology at the University of Toronto, Conboy went on to complete a PhD at the University of Guelph. Her expertise is in hydrogeology, the study of rock and underwater processes. She specialized in bacterial contamination of drinking water in wells.

“It really got into an area where you’re looking at how what we do on the top of the land can affect the water quality down below,” she said. “It really emphasizes the interplay of what we do and the impact on nature. And then sort of that impact back on us.”
Today, she’s the director of science content and design at the Ontario Science Centre. For the last two and half years, Conboy has stepped into the shoes of a visitor, creating compelling exhibits. Her method is quite unorthodox in that she strays from the traditional use of blocks of text and stories.

“That’s not really the standard approach here,” she said. “You really have to get people to learn, and really get immersed into the subject. Be compelled by basically having had some experience that really shows them. And then they kind of inquire afterwards. You will sometimes see that there are text and stories near the exhibit, but the idea is that you’re doing the exhibit and there’s something about it.”

Essentially, the visitor leaves the Science Centre filled with awe, bottled with more curiosity about the world.

Last June, Conboy and her team finished an exhibit about innovation, presenting visitors with open-ended experiences. In order to do so, Conboy deconstructed the skills an innovator has, such as being persistent, the willingness to test and tweak and the tenacity to try it over and over again. Another skill is not being afraid to make mistakes.

“Basically, we know as a society we have to change the way people are thinking. Develop different problem solving skills. That’s how we get solutions to today’s problems, by having those innovative ways of looking at the same thing but coming up with something different. The goal of the hall is really to inspire innovative behaviour.”

In the fall of 2013 the Science Centre will unveil the Human Edge, its newest exhibit. It takes the Human Body Hall to a whole new level.

“If you tell the story [of the human body] by looking at it in the context of somebody who’s pushing their physical abilities to the limit, you start to learn a lot of new science,” she says.

Part of The Human Edge focuses on the respiration system and a sport called free diving. It’s where the diver holds their breath for about three minutes, swimming deeper into the water. This portion of the exhibit, narrated by a champion diver, explores what the dive feels like at specific time intervals. At the same time, it looks at the respiration system.

“It’s a really different way of focusing on one of the core systems in the human body, but doing it in a really compelling way.”

Women of the Week: Mindy Berkson

For Mindy Berkson, a fertility expert, life and work have collided. Hailing from the Chicago area, Mindy was initially destined for a life in venture capital, attending the University of Michigan for Economics and later working for a venture capital company. “My first job out of college was writing business plans for start-up companies in the 1980s,” she says.

While she was content in the industry, she found herself going in a new direction after the birth of her first daughter, initially intending to be a stay-at-home-mom. “The day my daughter was born, I said, ‘thank God I never have to write another business plan,’” she chuckles. Upon attempting to expand their family, Mindy discovered she was infertile. She was plunged into the world of fertility treatment. “I spent three and a half years as a patient in the industry [which] stymied me. It was so difficult to navigate. I didn’t know what questions to ask, I didn’t know how to locate the right resources.”

The frustration of the industry ignited something in Berkson; she had found her passion. After her twins were born, she returned to the industry, this time as a professional. She worked in a fertility centre for eight years, recruiting egg donors and surrogates on a national scale. Her previous experiences as a patient gave Mindy a unique edge in the industry, helping women, men and couples finally conceive and accomplish their dreams of becoming parents. Her goal is to help intended parents explore their options for biological families and serve as a guide through the often-stressful financial, physical and emotional demands of the infertility process.

“It was at this point of my life when I took my venture background and married it with my experience [in with the fertility industry] and wrote a business plan for Lotus Blossom,” Mindy explains. Lotus Blossom Consulting was born in 2005 and has helped myriad people with a range of fertility issues.

Though the company has grown exponentially in the last eight years, Mindy still personally meets with her clients, regardless of their location. “My approach is very individualized; there is no cookie cutter consultation. Each client comes to be with very different needs and I always work one-on-one with my clients,” she explains. Berkson and her team of multi-discipline professionals work with clients to fulfill financial, emotional and physical needs, which vary with each client.

Although her consultancy is located in Chicago, IL, Mindy works with clients all over the globe. She’s worked with couples and individuals from Canada, Europe, Australia and Latin America to make their dreams of parenthood a reality. While many clients travel to the U.S. to personally meet with Mindy and her team, she travels the world to meet with doctors, lawyers, immigration officials and translators to ensure her clients have the best possible experience. In addition to the in-person consultation, Mindy meets with international clients via Skype for continued support.

Although her professional and family lives are demanding, Mindy still devotes much of her time and energy to charity. She founded the Jude Andrew Adams Fund in 2007 in honour of her stillborn nephew of the same name. “The grief [of his family] expressed reminded me of… my clients suffering from infertility. The grieving process really meshed for me,” Berkson says. The fund helps financially needy couples overcome their infertility issues, typically helping 2-3 individuals or couples per year. “10% of profits from Lotus Blossom go towards the fund.” Mindy is also a newly elected board member of Fertile Action, an organization that raises awareness for fertility preservation for cancer patients, often taking measures to help cancer stricken women preserve their eggs before they begin treatment. “Another goal of the organization is to [educate women] about options after their cancer is in remission, such as egg donation and surrogacy.”

Mindy credits her own experiences in finding her passion for the fertility industry, saying, “my three and a half years as a patient [helped me] find my passion for the industry.” Now a happy mother, Mindy helps others overcome what she did 16 years ago. She hopes that, in the changing landscape, anyone dreaming of becoming a parent can achieve their goal. “There are so many different families out there today. Thank God we have all this advanced technology to help these people achieve their aspirations of parenthood,” she smiles.

For more information, please visit the Lotus Blossom website or contact Mindy directly for a complimentary consultation at 1-847-881-2685.