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Women CEOs on How to Drive Change in the Workplace

These leaders offer advice on how empowerment fosters growth and innovation in the workplace.

Women CEOs on How to Drive Change in the Workplace

Being a leader is tough—particularly when you’re dedicated to building a culture of diversity, inclusion, and innovation within your company. To truly lead, you must try new approaches, think outside the box, and know when to ask for help. Luckily, there’s a wealth of experience out there to guide you in your efforts. Here, some of Canada’s top women leaders provide their insights on how to build engaged and empowered teams to help businesses thrive.

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Recognize Toxic Work Environments

Morva Rohani, co-founder of CommuniHelp, a matching platform connecting professionals with skills-based volunteer opportunities:

Always know your worth and maintain your integrity. Recognize toxic work environments and when an employer may be setting you up for failure. If you’ve had candid conversations with your employer on how to improve the situation and nothing has changed, then it may be time to walk away. It is easy to get caught in a cycle of trying to prove yourself despite the odds, so remember that your goal should be your professional growth, not trying to “make it” in a toxic environment.

Empower Your Team to Lead

Arlene Dickinson, managing general partner of District Ventures Capital, a venture capital fund focused on investing in food, beverage, health, and wellness consumer goods businesses:

Driving positive change in the workplace requires empowering employees to lead. But I’ve learned that empowering your employees to lead also means empowering them to fail. Innovation and positive change entail some measure of risk, and if you don’t empower employees to fail, you’ll never fully cultivate a culture of innovation.

Take a Proactive Approach to Problem-Solving

Prem Gill, CEO of Creative BC, British Columbia’s creative industry catalyst, which provides expertise and support to the province’s motion picture, interactive digital, music and publishing sectors:

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While studying communications at Simon Fraser University, I started critically looking at mass media and asking myself, “Why am I not represented? Why isn’t there a diversity of voices?” The way I saw it, I could simply complain, or I could find ways to be proactive. For me, it is about leading the conversation, collaborating with others and driving change. You have to be relentless and strategic and truly believe there can be shifts and changes. 

Ensure that Everyone’s Voice Is Heard

Stephania Varalli, co-CEO and head of media at Women of Influence, an enterprise that produces executive leadership courses and high-profile events:

We’ve all heard the business case for diversity, but building a diverse team is only the first step in realizing the benefits—it’s critical that everyone’s voice is heard. Getting your ideas heard in a meeting is often a matter of confidence. It starts with the physical: sit tall and speak loud enough to be heard. Don’t be apologetic about taking up space. That means ditching qualifiers and resisting the urge to explain every detail.

Foster Individuality within Your Team

Alicia Close, founder and CEO of Women in Tech World, a non-profit dedicated to creating community-driven plans and programming to support and advance women in tech:

Fostering individuality is important in any organization. We all think differently, and this is a good thing for innovation. However, the trick is ensuring everyone—disparate individuals—still feel like they are working towards common goals and are accepted and valued within the organization. Practically, this means listening more; judging less.

Include Your Team in the Learning Process

Valerie Song, CEO and co-founder of AVA Technologies, an agricultural tech startup that creates AVA Byte, the world’s smartest indoor gardens:

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I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be a “SheEO” within a diverse and inclusive community. Our startup company reflects these core values. We found that the best way to establish a happy, driven, and high-performance culture is to ask your team to build it with you, test it, and improve it. At AVA, our team is family. We organize potluck meetings and encourage everyone to cook their own ethnic cuisines. We allocate budget for fitness, meditation, and education. We build benefits plans with families in mind and trust our employees when they need to leave early to take care of their kids. We send team members out to take courses that they are excited about. A team that thrives is a team that grows together.

Focus on Equality and Respect

Natalie Cartwright, COO and co-founder of Finn AI, a white-labelled virtual banking assistant powered by artificial intelligence:

I view equality from a gender-agnostic perspective. I have seen inherent biases in the workplace that are impactful to women and men. So the companies I build will always focus on diversity and equality for every employee. Rarely will a workspace be perfectly balanced across gender and diversity lines. But so long as the overall objective is one of respect and equality (which in my experience is a constantly evolving target), the business will thrive—and more importantly, so will the people.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Melissa Sariffodeen, cofounder and CEO at Canada Learning Code, an organization that offers learning experiences across Canada for women, teens, teachers, and others:

One of the strengths of Canada’s tech community is how collaborative it is. To aspiring women, do not be afraid to ask for help. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give you a hand. Surround yourself with friends and mentors that will give you the confidence to take the initiative and help guide you along the way. If you are willing to put in the hard work, people will respond to that positive initiative and want to help you succeed however they can.

Ensure Women Thrive, Not Just Survive

Dr. Sarah Saska, cofounder and CEO of Feminuity, a global consultancy working with companies to embed diversity, inclusion, and belonging into their cultures:

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Many companies are working to diversify their workforces, but they make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on their recruiting processes—diversifying their pipeline and de-biasing their screening—they forget to focus on what happens when they get the new “hire” through the door. That new “hire” is a human, and if companies don’t invest their time and energy into building a culture where everyone can feel included, they’ll be no further ahead.

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