Women translating purpose into action

Meet 10 women helping to create a playbook for rising leaders and entrepreneurs as part of In Her Words digital conversation series

Meet 10 women supporting leaders and entrepreneurs as part of In Her Words digital conversation series

(CBC Ottawa)

This week, we explore the idea of translating purpose into action with a group of women who are building community all around them. As role models, collaborators, and mentors, these women support and demonstrate to rising leaders and entrepreneurs that their biggest career aspirations are within reach.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Tasneem 'Tas' Damen, technical architect and co-founder of Connected Canadians

(photo by Lindsey Gibeau)
In Her Words by Tasneem 'Tas' Damen: "I am a content workaholic with an honours degree in Computer Mathematics from Carleton University.

My family story is of immigration in pursuit of freedom and progress. My grandparents migrated from India to Pakistan in 1947. My father, the only educated one out of his siblings, moved to Saudi Arabia to pave the way for his daughters' future. 

In the '90s, I knew North America was at the forefront of computer innovations. Even though my parents were not too keen on the idea, I sold all my jewelry and used all my savings to pay for SATs, university applications in both the US and Canada and reserve a dorm spot upon admission. This process made me realize the inequities that existed for women in my community. Opening a bank account in the female-only branch, accessible by car where women couldn't drive, was a pretty big first hurdle.

Growing up in a community where women couldn't be independent, convinced me that I wanted a different future. I am now an independent full-stack Technical Architect, and I consult for the private sector, mainly in the retail and healthcare domain. I am also the co-founder and CIO of the tech-focused, volunteer-based nonprofit, Connected Canadians."

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision and path to this line of work? 

Damen: No, not at all. I am a failed mathematician whose dad wanted her to be a doctor and mom to be a boy! 

Growing up, I liked puzzles, enjoyed the research process, and found objective conclusions quite thrilling. In Grade 9, Hawkings inspired me, and I wanted to be a particle physicist, then in University a Cryptographer, and finally ended up being a software programmer. Software development practice itself is reasonably vast, allowing me to pick the right complexity mixing in theoretical and applied principles. 

CBC Ottawa: When it comes to your work, what is one thing that you wish had more of?

Damen: Time and Caffeine! I firmly believe positively impacting the community is a shared responsibility, not only reserved for the saints and heroes. 

Three years ago, starting Connected Canadians with Emily was the start of that. We began pre-pandemic, focusing on connecting seniors digitally through a human-centred approach. Digital literacy is a fundamental need of modern society, and the current pandemic has brought the criticality of it into focus.

It is challenging, of course, with young kids, a high-pressure technical workload, and time-sensitive senior projects. However, the outcomes are great reinforcers for my mental health and inspire me to go on! 

Currently, I am surrounded by intelligent folks who respect and challenge me every day. However, starting my career with more relatable and celebrated female role-models would have helped my sanity.

Emilie Darlington, muralist and creator of In Her Words artwork

(Submitted by Emilie Darlington)
In Her Words by Emilie Darlington: "I am a freelance muralist, painter, and illustrator specializing in artwork that expresses connections with nature.

Having grown up on a Bruce County farm, I learned to value and appreciate the wonders of nature at a young age. Throughout elementary and secondary school, I enjoyed exploring the area's vast artistic opportunities, including local fairs, art camps, and artisan markets.

I now identify as a botanical artist, paying homage to my nature-based roots and collecting inspiration from my garden.

As a Canadian muralist, I tend to shift my practice with the weather, so while summer sunshine brings long days of painting outdoors, chilly winters bring studio work, proposal writing, art markets, and live painting events.

Both my botanical and abstract series are aimed at creating a targeted sensation for viewers, whether it be by scale, distortion, or immersion. My illustrative works have central themes of animals, patterns, and bright colours. The use of vibrant colour communicates strong positive energy, and a secondary layer of patterning is added when filling in colour using dots."

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision, and path to this line of work? 

Darlington: I've always been drawn to painting on a large scale, and have found murals especially impactful.

I didn't seriously consider it as a career path until I had already completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) at the University of Ottawa. Throughout the program, I was building increasingly larger canvas. For the grad show, I created a large canvas box (or technically a small room) that could comfortably seat 2-3 people inside, so, murals eventually became a natural next step for me.

CBC Ottawa: If you were not doing what you are doing today, what else would you be doing with your career? 

Darlington: I think the starving artist stereotype is so ingrained in our world that it's hard to imagine anything but financial struggle. So, growing up, I pictured myself working a part-time job in addition to being an artist – something social and lots of fun.

In 2018, I made serious steps in that direction with a post-graduate certificate in event management, securing a position as Production Manager of the company A Social Affair Event Management (ASA). I had a lot of fun with ASA! I am fortunate to have been involved in planning intimate weddings, trade shows, Ottawa's inaugural WinterPride, and more. I had intended to work with the company for a few years, but when the pandemic hit last March and events were put on an indefinite hiatus, I was presented with the opportunity to work harder than ever at pursuing art full time. Now, I can't imagine doing anything but my passion!

Andrea Winter, Vice President of People for Matello Technologies

(Submitted by Andrea Winter)
In Her Words by Andrea Winter: "I was raised by a single mom of four girls who was a nurse and often had to work long hours to cover our needs. Some days I had to stay home from school to take care of my sisters because my mom couldn't arrange child care. Living through those times taught me a strong sense of responsibility, determination, and resiliency – all traits critical to my professional success.

As the Vice President of People for Matello Technologies, I enable employees, at all levels of my organization, to be the best version of themselves – from coaching to mentoring and leadership. Professional growth, personal connection and a strong connection to the company mission are all important components to a great employee experience.

Personally, I'm a wife and mother of two kids aged 18 and 11. I am passionate about challenging myself both physically and mentally which has led me to compete in multiple triathlons even though I'm terrified of swimming in deep water. 

Challenging myself helps me put into perspective the problems I encounter at work or at home which are easy in comparison. Even amid the pandemic, I continue to challenge myself. In January, I started to compete in virtual races. To date, I have completed four challenges and a total of 201km."

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision, and path to this line of work?

Winter: The path to my current career was far from clear. When I was in high school and post-secondary education nothing really clicked.

I first discovered Human Resources when I began working at IBM. Once I did a little digging into the HR profession, I knew it was the path for me. Over the years, I have been fortunate to have a number of opportunities to do different roles in HR. Some opportunities were the result of being in the right place at the right time and others came as the result of past connections I had made. However, all of them required me to believe in myself and my abilities and to take a leap of faith.

CBC Ottawa: When it comes to your work, what is one thing that you wish had more of? 

Winter: Confidence. Some may be surprised by this answer. While I'm always confident in the final decisions I make, the time I spend second-guessing myself and over analyzing a situation before I make that final decision is agonizing.  I wish I could fast forward the process and get to that final decision with confidence.

Katie LeClair, Corporate Communications Manager at Invest Ottawa

(photo by David Kawai)
In Her Words by Katie LeClair: "I live in Carp, Ontario, and I would describe myself as a 'hugger,' so naturally, I've been questioning that aspect of my identity since March 2020.

When I'm not enjoying a bonfire in my backyard, you can find me engaged with local charities like Habitat for Humanity Greater Ottawa and the Run for Women with the Royal – two organizations with brilliant champions leading their charge.

In 2013, I received a Bachelor of Business Administration from Bishop's University – go Gaiters! I then went on to complete a Master of Communications at the University of Ottawa, with a few great years of professional growth and travelling for work in between.

Today, I'm the Corporate Communications Manager at Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards, and I have the distinct pleasure of being a part of the Female Founder and Womxn-Owned Business Subcommittee of the Board. Part of my responsibilities includes co-leading International Womxn's Week and working on programs like SheBoot."

CBC Ottawa: Could you identify one challenge and one reward that you experience with the work that you're doing?

LeClair: One challenge is wanting to do too much too quickly. Real, long-lasting results take a lot of work and time.

One reward is connecting with people, much smarter and more experienced than me, who I admire and are making things happen. I've met some amazing – I mean, truly amazing – folks in Ottawa.

CBC Ottawa: Could you tell us about other communities that you are passionate to work with (past/present/future)?

LeClair: Youth engagement is very important to me. Engaging youth through leadership has a ripple effect. 

During my undergraduate degree, I had a job at the campus convenience store down the hall from the council member's offices. One day, an experienced member recognized my potential and encouraged me to get involved in student government. I ended up launching a campaign, running and winning a vice-presidential position.

I can honestly say, this is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I'm proud of the impact I had and so appreciative of the invaluable experiences and connections I made. It built up my confidence; it taught me what passion and good people can do and how to hold responsibility for others.

Reflecting on it now, and arguably most importantly, it showed me the responsibility we all have to see other's potential, to take interest and to encourage them to get involved.

Investing in the personal growth of young people will only benefit the collective good.

Chinelo 'Chi' Houron, founder of The Thirsty Maiden.

(Submitted by Chinelo Chi Houron)
In Her Words by Chi Houron: "I'm an African-American woman born in Nigeria. I grew up primarily in Mississauga and landed here in Ottawa nine years ago after living up north in Sudbury Ontario for a couple of years. I graduated from Laurentian University and Algonquin College.

As a non-french-speaking "newbie" here in Ottawa, it quickly became evident to me that my path into the career world wasn't going to be won by my charming personality and hard-working mentality in this 'government town.'

After spending some time in the restaurant industry and stepping into the private business sector for a couple of years, I knew that my time here in Ottawa would be short-lived if I didn't find something to ground me. I needed to feel a connection to the people and surroundings around me. I need to feel a sense of community, so I decided to build one in my community of Stittsville/Kanata, called The Thirsty Maiden."

CBC Ottawa: Did you always have a desire to turn your passion into your business?

Houron: I always thought my path was to climb the corporate ladder but it didn't fulfil me.

My passion was connecting with people and I knew I had to find a way to do that in an organic way. The Thirsty Maiden was born of that desire and I'm excited to continue down this entrepreneurial journey of connecting communities and self-discovery.

CBC Ottawa: Could you cite one challenge you faced in your journey?

Houron: Creating the concept that is now The Thirsty Maiden was and continues to be a labour of love. Its design was meant to connect people from all walks of life in a safe, inviting space. After our induction in April 2019, I knew we were well on our way to building this sense of community, but the events that unfolded in March 2020 would challenge everything.

As many businesses struggled to find purpose and meaning in 2020, The Thirsty Maiden leaned on the support of the Kanata/Stittsville community and came out swinging. They really showed up for us and the support was astounding, to say the least.

Here, we continue to stand, faced with ongoing challenges of this pandemic like many in our industry but we continue to persevere because we are more than a coffee shop to this community. We're a safe place that represents comfort, comradery, community and home.

Marilena Gaudio, Programming and Rentals Officer at the National Arts Centre

(Submitted by Marilena Gaudio)
In Her Words by Marilena Gaudio: "At a very young age, I was inspired by music and what it means to people. I have always wanted to have a purpose and passion in my work and so it was important for me to incorporate music into my career somehow.

My journey in live music began at the University of Ottawa with a bachelor of arts majoring in arts administration, this education led me to an internship at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

Most recently, working with the local band The PepTides and programming music at the local venue Mercury Lounge, instilled in me a great interest in the local music scene which is what makes up the fabric of the Canadian live music scene.

Currently, I am the Programming and Rentals Officer at the National Arts Centre in the Popular Music and Variety department. I'm a passionate supporter and advocate of the arts. Through my work, my goal is to help support and encourage more Queer artists who are building their careers in the music industry.

Outside of work, I sit on the Board of Directors of Girls+ Rock Ottawa – an incredible organization using musical programming to foster empowerment, inclusivity, and community. And I am excited to begin a new volunteer journey with the Ottawa group Axé World Fest – a creative platform celebrating Brazilian, Afro, Cuban, Caribbean, Folk, Indigenous, Funk, and Soul music through cultural events, workshops, and programs."

CBC Ottawa: Has it always been your purpose to work and connect with the communities that you currently work with?

Gaudio: I personally never learned to play an instrument, but I have always been very intrigued by the process from the point in which an artist starts making music, to booking a show, to making an album, and reaching an audience.

Supporting artists has always been my primary focus. It is their art and passion that we, the audience, get to experience and feel; and is what allows us to connect through art to each other.

I knew from early in my career that I wanted to work "behind the scenes" of the performing arts and music.

Being a resource to creators and helping them access and navigate their platform is my way of contributing to the local art community.

CBC Ottawa: In the future, how do you see the work you're currently doing?

Gaudio: Live music gives people an experience and connection like nothing else. Due to the restrictions around COVID-19 and not being able to attend live shows, like everyone, I certainly miss the in-person experience, but there is also something very refreshing and exciting about connecting with artists around the country virtually, in their space, in their venue. It gives us a different way to discover and connect with new music and artists.

This period of moving to a virtual platform has marked the beginning of an evolution in the performing arts. I believe that in the future, there will be a permanent and consistent video live streaming component to live music.

Natasha Hiltz-Commanda, co-founder of Indigenous Face Masks

(Submitted by Natasha Hiltz-Commanda)
In Her Words by Natasha Hiltz-Commanda: "I am Algonquin and Ojibway from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. I also have roots from Grassy Narrows on my mother's side. My mom was part of the 60's Scoop and she is a courageous Ojibway woman. We both look toward helping out young Indigenous folks, she works with children and youth in-care at an Indigenous women's organization in Ottawa and I founded my own business.

I am the co-owner of Indigenous Face Masks, where we send a mask to an Indigenous child or youth for each mask purchased. The goal is to encourage Indigenous children and youth to stay safe, be proud of who they are, and embrace Indigenous art.

We started our face mask initiative on October 13, 2020, with the intent to bring 600 face masks to remote Indigenous communities – we have now delivered over 30,000 face masks to Indigenous communities across Canada in a span of five months.

We hope to inspire Canadians to help contribute to Indigenous peoples."

CBC Ottawa: How did your personal story shape your professional path?

Hiltz-Commanda:  My Indigenous community has helped shape my path. Community is important to our Indigenous peoples and it is important to contribute back to our youth and support them as we are all in this together. I have learned from many powerful Indigenous women in our communities, who I consider to be my aunties. They have allowed me to have the confidence in building up other young folks and now, I am strongly passionate about supporting Indigenous youth advocacy, leadership, and community involvement.

When we started Indigenous Face Masks, it was created to help our Indigenous children and youth in remote communities that had limited access to child-size face masks.

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision, and path to this line of work? 

Hiltz-Commanda: I do work with Indigenous youth in the Friendship Centre Movement – a community of urban Indigenous peoples through cultural programming. There are many Indigenous communities who are in need of support during this difficult time, so Indigenous Face Masks was created.

Creating a business through the pandemic has been a great learning experience. We had $5,000 in savings and we had an idea. Then, took the leap and went with it while learning to navigate through the pandemic. It has been exciting and empowering to learn how to scale our business from 600 to 30,000 face masks over five months. Our contributions are a way to directly help Indigenous communities during this difficult time.

Sheena Brady, founder of Tease Tea

(Submitted by Sheena Brady)
In Her Words by Sheena Brady: "Following nearly a decade in hospitality leadership, I was given the opportunity to build the most comprehensive tea program in Toronto, at the Shangri-La hotel. The kicker is, at the time, I didn't even drink tea! I was surviving off of six-plus cups of coffee a day to get through the hustle of the hospitality lifestyle and handle the over 10-hour long days.

The world of tea was so much more complex and beautiful than I could have ever imagined. I developed a deep admiration for the process of growing and producing tea, the nuance in the flavours and the incredible wellness benefits that come with each variety and blend. With that realization, it wasn't long before I was swapping my coffee habits for tea.

Now, I am an accredited Tea Sommelier and founder of Tease Tea. We are an e-commerce company with customers around the world creating unique tea and herbal blends that invest in well-being while investing in women. To date, we have raised over $100,000 to support women-owned businesses and provided mentorship opportunities to 500+ founders through our sister organization, Founders Fund."

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision, and path to this line of work?

Brady: There was no clear path to starting my business. Ironically, I did grade 9 math three times and actually dropped out of my college business program before graduating in Hospitality Management.

I really had no interest in starting a business but I went for it and committed to learning as much as I could. Fortunately, my career in hospitality gave me a strong work ethic and the ability to be relentlessly resourceful which helped a lot when I eventually launched Tease Tea with only $500 and a Shopify store.

Today, Tease Tea is a seven-figure company that is women-owned, led and operated serving customers in over 30 countries around the world.

CBC Ottawa: If you were not doing what you are doing today, what else would you be doing with your career?

Brady: I've developed a deeply rooted passion for not only building purposeful socially driven businesses but also mentoring and supporting early-stage founders who are following a similar path.

If I wasn't doing what I am doing today, I'd be fully investing time and personal capital into helping support other women-owned businesses reach their full potential. This is something I think about a lot, and my plan over the next few years is to become an Angel Investor and advisor in a formal capacity to a select portfolio of women-owned businesses.

Meera Aggarwal, economic student and community volunteer

(Submitted by Meera Agarwal)
In Her Words by Meera Aggarwal: "From a young age, I have always been interested in business as I watched my father build a successful pharmaceutical company. As a result, I joined my high school's DECA club,– an organization that promotes the understanding of business concepts to students.

As a young girl, I don't think I really realized just how lucky I was to be in such a comfortable situation. However, seeing my parents' philanthropic efforts as I grew up showed me how rewarding and important it is to be involved in the community and make positive change.

In grade 12, I was drawn to Hearty Tails, a social enterprise that manufactures dog treats while employing individuals with developmental disabilities. I worked actively with their team to develop effective social media content and build strong relationships with potential retailers. Today, Hearty Tails is experiencing a newfound success as it was recognized as the Best Ottawa-Based Pet Brand at the 2021 Ottawa Awards! All in all, this experience has made me more excited than ever to learn about how I can make a positive difference in the business world.

I am currently a first-year Economics student at Western University."

CBC Ottawa: Has it always been your purpose to work and connect with the communities that you currently work with?

Aggarwal: I have always been a keen learner and leader at heart. I can still clearly recall the genuine gratitude that filled the room when I delivered snowsuits and food for the Youth Services Bureau drive. It was at that moment that I realized there is no better feeling than giving back to a cause that you are truly passionate about. From then on, I made sure that even as life got busy with academics, sports, and other extracurriculars, I would always take time to give back to the community that had given me so much.

The opportunity to work with Hearty Tails was especially important and eye-opening for me as it fulfilled my passion for philanthropy along with the business.

As I continue to navigate the next steps in my life and career, I would love to be a part of an organization that works to fight mental health stigma or maybe even start my own entrepreneurial venture that addresses this issue.

CBC Ottawa: Could you identify one challenge and one reward that you experience with the work that you're doing?

Aggarwal: When it comes to making the world a better place, there is no end – improvement is always possible. It can be challenging, and at times stressful, to feel like there is so much more work to be done. While this can be motivating, it is also hard to prioritize resources and time. The pandemic also definitely made fundraising a more difficult process.

On the other hand, I believe the most rewarding part of the work I do is seeing how my efforts are translated into real, tangible change. After my first year of fundraising for the non-profit organization, Operation Smile, we were sent a photo of a young girl that received life-changing cleft-palate surgery because of our fundraising efforts. She held a sign that said, "Thank you Bell High School." It is moments like this one that drives me to work even harder to help more girls like her.

Tiffanie Tri, chair of Girls+ Rock Ottawa

(photo by Kyla Hidalgo)
In Her Words by Tiffanie Tri: "I'm the Chair of Girls+ Rock Ottawa, an award-winning organization that provides professional development programming, community engagement, and advocacy support for girls, women, and gender-diverse individuals to create equitable access to opportunities in music. Through my work with the community, I also recognized that lack of representation affects our youth today.

Women and gender-diverse individuals are not well-represented in music, and particularly in behind-the-scenes positions that shape the creative or business direction. This means we are missing a whole range of perspectives in music. Music is so important for self-expression and for creating a sense of belonging, and right now, many communities do not see themselves reflected.

My lived experience as a musician and a person of colour has given me first-hand experience and understanding of the inequities and the lack of resources, opportunities and safe spaces within the music scene that leads to many people being excluded.

I'll never forget the time a camper came up to me and said 'I see you everywhere, and I'm always like 'she looks like me!'' This validated how important it was for me to even be in these spaces, and drove me to advocate for equitable access to resources, opportunities and safe spaces for underserved communities."

CBC Ottawa: Has it always been your purpose to work with the communities that you are currently with (Ex: Girls+ Rock)?

Tri: I feel as though I stumbled onto my purpose. I started volunteering with Girls+ Rock Ottawa as a keyboard instructor in 2014. My main motivation at the time was to get back into the community and music.

The more involved I got with running programs and talking to musicians, the more I kept hearing the same stories and the same challenges for people from historically underserved communities. What I ended up discovering was a complex world with a lot of inequality and systemic barriers. It was like I looked behind the curtain at the industry that was churning out music and I didn't like what I saw. So, I began to be driven by this sense of injustice that I couldn't accept. 

Of course, this isn't unique to the arts – these inequalities are mirrored in many other industries. I'm choosing to focus on music for now since this is where I have a lot of experience and expertise.

CBC Ottawa: Could you identify one challenge and one reward that you experience with the work that you're doing?

Tri: One major challenge for me is burnout. Trying to drive social change and build up an organization takes a lot of work and there are times when I just feel exhausted. This is usually compounded by the issues with capacity and funding associated with trying to scale up an organization.

One reward is seeing the community we are building in safe and inclusive spaces. It's also motivating to see more and more change taking place. The public is becoming more aware of issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, and consumers are realizing that they have so much agency and so much power. They can choose to support the organizations and artists that reflect their values. To be a part of that movement is really rewarding and also pushes me to keep doing the work.

In 5 to 10 years, I hope to see our alumni campers being leaders in our community. I believe the work we are doing now can set the foundation for this type of feedback loop where we continue to strive for more progress and clear the path for future generations.

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