9 Fearless Canadian Women Challenging the Status Quo
Inspiration comes from many places.
And while 2017 has proven to be pretty dismal, the silver lining behind it all is that this year’s chaos has inspired legions of people to stand up and confront the existing state of affairs. The fight for women’s equal rights has reached a boiling point with conversations surrounding reproductive rights, the gender pay gap, domestic violence, and a host of other issues moving straight to the top.
In our inaugural women’s issue, we gathered a group of bold Canadian women who are challenging the status quo (read: patriarchy) and living life on their own terms. They’ve started empires, raised their voices, fought for freedom, and, most importantly, paved a path for those behind them.
Read on. Get inspired.
Written by Tristan Bronca, Christina Gonzales, and Renee Sylvestre-Williams
Kavita Dogra and Deb Parent, Activists
Great minds think alike, and two minds were thinking the exact same thing in Toronto in late-2016. Kavita Dogra of We Talk Women and activist Deb Parent both applied for a permit to hold the Women March Toronto at Queen’s Park in January, compelled to raise their voices in support of women’s and human rights a day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Little did they know just how big the march would become.
Dogra and Parent are used to organizing events. Dogra was born in New Brunswick but moved as a young girl to India, where she came face-to-face with the effects of poverty. It was after she watched The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, that she began taking action. She joined Women for Women International (a non-profit humanitarian organization that provides support to women survivors of war) and after holding several successful events, founded We Talk Women in 2012, which works to raise awareness about local and global female rights issues. Parent, a self-defence instructor, has been an activist for 40 years. She has worked with Toronto rape crisis centres and fought for women’s and gay rights.
“Our expectations for that day started very humbly,” says Dogra. “When I filled out that form, I put down maybe 500 people.” Parent agreed. She originally planned to go to the US to participate in one of the marches. “I asked on Facebook for about a week if people wanted to go to Washington, but conversation turned to what was happening in Canada. The Conservatives were having their leadership convention and Kellie Leitch was there with her agenda.”
They applied separately on the same day but Dogra got the permit. Parent got a call from Queen’s Park security, letting her know that someone else had applied. They wouldn’t give her Dogra’s name so Parent asked them to pass on her information. Within hours, the women connected, talked, and together started a committee to organize the event.
That was in November 2016. The committee fundraised and pulled together the event in six weeks. Interest was growing in the event and more people followed their progress on Facebook. “On our page there were 10,000 and then 20,000 people who said they were attending, but those numbers don’t really mean anything. We were just excited at the thought of people showing up,” says Dogra. “I was doing interviews with the media prior to the speeches [at Queen’s Park] so I wasn’t facing the crowd. I turned around five minutes before [we] were going to start talking and I saw a sea of people. It was unbelieveable. I’ve never seen or addressed a crowd of that size before.” Those 10,000 people had swelled to an estimated 60,000.
While the march was successful, the women are not resting on their laurels. “It’s a really important time in Canada’s history right now,” says Dogra, referring to Canada’s 150th anniversary and the various groups that have called on the federal government to acknowledge their historical role in oppressing racialized and marginalized groups. “It’s time to let different issues that weren’t talked about take the front seat.” - RSW
Jen Agg, Restaurateur and author
Jen Agg is a standout in an industry dominated by vibrant, colourful personalities. Agg’s business resume, which includes Rhum Corner, Cocktail Bar, the fabled Black Hoof, and her latest, Grey Gardens, has made Torontonians rethink how and what they eat. But she’s not one to rest on her success. When she’s not launching the next hot dining spot or chatting with Anthony Bourdain, she’s tearing down the patriarchy and sexism that permeates the industry.
While Agg has always spoken about sexism in the industry, she was furious at the silence and lack of support from other chefs and restaurant owners when, in 2015, Kate Burnham, a former pastry chef at King West’s Weslodge, filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging sexual harassment in the kitchen. Agg took to Twitter (she has 15,000 followers), calling out the industry.
“It's difficult, because when you're an employee and your boss is the one making you feel uncomfortable, and the manager is nice, but pretends to not notice how toxic the culture is, who do you complain to?” she says. “The industry is a bit self-perpetuating that way, as in normalized. Bad culture gets learned and then comes full circle when the harassed becomes the harasser.” Agg turns a light onto the dark secrets of the industry that don’t want to be revealed, and it hasn’t made her popular. She doesn’t care. In fact, she used a oft-heard refrain in the title of her recent book, I Hear She’s A Real Bitch.
“Women, especially women in power, are 100 percent judged by a completely different set of standards than men are. It's total bullshit and I'm not going to sit idly by and tacitly approve an oppressive system,” she says. She uses her authority to push down the barriers facing women in the industry and if people don’t like it, that’s their problem. - RSW
Saadia Muzaffar, Founder, TechGirls Canada
In 2011, after a stint in finance, Saadia Muzaffar got a job at Toronto startup incubator, Research Innovation Commercialization Centre. That’s when she began to notice that she was often the only woman (and most certainly the only woman of colour) in boardroom meetings.
“In my first year, I never saw anyone like me as a founder, and that was so concerning,” she says. “I don’t need to see a person of colour in every room in order to feel like I can provide value, but you can’t help but feel, ‘Wow, nobody will understand if I bring a specific gendered or racial or migrant perspective to the discussion without me having to fight for [that perspective], because it’s something they’ve never experienced.’”
That’s why she started TechGirls Canada (TGC) in 2013, at a time when adding diversity was code for human resource departments hiring more women - with white women filling in as a monolith for all women. Muzaffar wanted to challenge that. Over the past five years, she’s turned TGC into a hub and community that champions women of colour, LGBTTQ2SI, and Indigenous folks in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
And while there are some people who are still on the fence about the diversity problem across STEM fields, Muzaffar says that needs to end. “If you were black or disabled or trans, I don't think that fence [would] exist for you, so there is an amount of privilege that allows you that protection of being ‘undecided’ about the serious pervasiveness of this problem.”
For Muzaffar, tackling the diversity problem at its source doesn’t mean hiring more of the groups you don’t have, like women or visible minorities. It means building an equitable and fair playing field in place from the get-go, at the startup phase, even if you don’t have a dedicated human resources team. So as the startup grows and balloons quickly (the same way that tech giants like Facebook and Uber did), those diversity values still carry through.
“[It’s] extremely hard to retroactively fix [a problem like diversity] if it wasn’t part of the fabric of your startup,” Muzaffar explains. “You have to remember that you can change your policies, but people you add to your teams along the way come in with a certain set of expectations. They're hired on a premise of permissiveness around certain kinds of behaviour, and that’s where the values of inclusiveness are either woven in or lost in the fabric of your company culture.”
In May 2015, Muzaffar partnered with Canadian software development company TWG on a year-long pilot to explore, test, and report on diversity strategies for startups. They dubbed it Change Together. From hiring to communication to cultivating a diverse work environment, Change Together is a startup or scale-up’s guide to diversity.
Since its release this past March, it’s been downloaded by over 1,000 startups across the world and featured in Fortune. For Muzaffar, it’s a win - another stepping-stone towards real change. - CG
Vicki Saunders, Founder, SheEO
One out of every 23 dollars that’s loaned goes to a female entrepreneur, and Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, didn’t like that statistic. As a serial entrepreneur, Saunders has decades of experience in the startup world in Silicon Valley. “The predominant investor is a male, and we tried to have men invest in women and it's just not happening,” she says. “So I think women have be investing in women to really solve this problem.”
That’s why Saunders created SheEO, a global innovation platform with the goal to finance, support, and celebrate female entrepreneurs, avoiding the traditional, male-dominated model. In 2015, Saunders had $500,000 to be split among five female entrepreneurs, and instead of turning it into a competition where the winner takes all, she asked the women how the money should be split between them. That led to the creation of SheEO’s Radical Generosity program, where 500 women or activators each give $1,100 as an “act of radical generosity.” The money is pooled and loaned-out at a low interest rate to five ventures, selected by and led by women. Loans are paid back over five years, creating a perpetual fund to sustain the next generation of women entrepreneurs. The selected ventures must be revenue generating, have export potential, and create a better world via their business model, product, or service. The model has been so popular, it has grown out of Canada to 150 regions including Australia, Mexico, and the Netherlands.
For Saunders, cultivating companies that are run and funded by women also helps nurture the next generation, and that’s close to home. “I have two nieces that are in high school, and there's no exposure to them of what kinds of businesses women are running, and the range and diversity of those businesses because no one's really writing about them,” she explains. “When they’re an activator with SheEO, they get to read hundreds of applications and see all these cool ideas that women have of these businesses that are flourishing. It gives them inspiration and also gets them to start imagining what are the possibilities.” - RSW
Dani Roche, Founder, Kastor & Pollux
Dani Roche says most 16-year-olds today are, in a way, entrepreneurs. They’re online constantly, cultivating a following, making a name for themselves. But when she was 16, growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, people didn’t do that sort of thing. Which is why Roche kept it a secret when she founded her first ecommerce store as a teenager, the precursor to her creative branding agency, Kastor and Pollux.
“I hid it from my parents for two years,” she says. She knew the familiar taboos about talking to strangers on the internet. She knew the stigma that came with posting pictures of oneself - especially a teenage girl - online. When she sold something, she would take the cash and stash it under her bed.
But for Roche, the risk was worth it. She needed those connections. “Growing up, I was surrounded by people who were, conventionally, very book smart, and I was always this obscure artsy kid,” she says. The web became a way to find kindred spirits, people who liked to create and could appreciate what she was creating. It didn’t really matter if they were in London or Australia.
And that’s why the online store never felt like work to her, even if looking back, the tedious hours spent teaching herself how to code should have.
In that sense, Kastor and Pollux has been no different. Roche, who is now 25, founded the company with a high school friend, and, in its first full year, brought in six figures in revenue. Despite being repeatedly told as a kid that creative types don’t make money and that there was a rigid formula to success, the market confirmed her instincts: that authenticity, a commitment to oneself, always plays better. She’s been gaining momentum ever since. Her abiding curiosity has pushed her into unfamiliar and often risky projects. She’ll forgo what’s safe if it means doing something interesting.
Her latest venture is a unisex clothing line called Biannual. The goal of the brand, which features “really quality function pieces” made from sustainable materials, is to get people to reevaluate what they wear and why. It’s a sort of antidote to a culture that incentives consumption - a culture of more. More clothes, more friends, more followers, more content. “It challenges societal expectations that women should want to wear conventionally flattering silhouettes,” says Roche, whose own wardrobe is full of men’s t-shirts, oversized trousers, tent-like dresses. And right now, she’s seeing a shift that suggests people are ready to dismantle the same conventions that she has. - TB
Ginella Massa, Journalist
On November 17, 2016, Ginella Massa became the first woman in Canada to anchor the news wearing a hijab. It was the 11 p.m. slot on Toronto’s CityNews and the regular anchor had left to watch a hockey game.
“It didn’t feel like that big of a deal,” Massa recalls. “I had heard my news director say in other interviews that they thought about the decision for like five seconds.” At that point, Massa had been working at the station for just under a year and she often opened the nightly newscast with one of her stories. “It was just like, ‘Why shouldn’t we let her anchor?’”
And yet despite the stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Vogue, the Q&As and TV interviews, Massa has had to reckon with that very question: why shouldn’t we let her anchor? She had aspired to a job in front of a camera from an early age but it always seemed out of reach. She remembers telling her mother that maybe she should go into radio because then it wouldn’t matter what she looked like or what she wore.
That’s the thing about discrimination: it’s rarely explicit. It manifests as self-doubt and ambiguous responses from people of authority. It’s the “We don’t think you’re the right fit,” or the “We’re moving in another direction.” Always, Massa needed to make sure they didn’t have another reason to say no.
She spent three years as a writer and producer before she landed her first on-air position with CTV News Kitchener in 2015. Massa never doubted her work ethic or news judgment, but she knew other people would. At first, she worried the network would get an influx of hateful emails. She worried that the people who hired her might think they had made a mistake.
That never happened, though. There was some hate, sure, but it was minor compared to the outpouring of support (less than a month after the election of Donald Trump, no less). It also brought greater attention to her work, both within Toronto’s Muslim community and beyond. For her, anchoring meant representing the diversity of the city in a way that had been lacking in the past. And in that, Massa sees some hope for would-be TV journalists. She had never seen a Canadian anchor on TV who looked like her, but the anchors of the future will. - TB
Jeanette Stock, Chair, Venture Out
Diversity in technology has an uneasy relationship. Much has been written about the lack of diversity in the tech world, and while a lot of discussion has been had about potential solutions, Pressly’s Jeanette Stock has taken action as the chair of Venture Out, the first conference for LGBTQA+ inclusion in tech and entrepreneurship.
Venture Out was created to help connect the LGBTQA+ tech scene in the GTA, and eventually across Canada, by creating more job and mentorship opportunities for young LGBTQA+ tech people to learn, grow, and strengthen the industry.
Stock started Venture Out in 2016 while working in Toronto’s tech sector because she often felt like she was the only LGBTQA+ person in the room. “Statistically I knew that couldn't be true, but it's not like there was an existing community that allowed me to connect with other folks who shared that experience with me,” she says. On the flip side, she would go to LGBTQA+ events from work and be the only person in the room not in a suit. “There was this awesome, really supportive, thriving career community for folks in business. But I think a lot of the times, folks in the tech and entrepreneurship space don't necessarily see themselves in that conversation either.”
Venture Out also addresses diversity, the big buzzword coming out of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. Stock mentions a Harvard Business School study that found companies that have diverse teams are 45 percent more likely to report an increase in their firm’s market share over the last year and 70 percent more likely to report the capture of a new market. “If you build a diverse team, people are constantly confronted with the reality that not everyone thinks the same as us,” she says. “I think that's a really powerful underlying aspect to have as a piece of your everyday work.” - RSW
Lorraine D’Alessio, Founder, D’Alessio Law Group
Before Lorraine D’Alessio founded her own legal firm, she was a model. She worked for Ford, Snickers, Lipton, and Volkswagen, all of which involved a lot of travelling.
“I had to get used to dealing with the man with the badge at the border,” she says. But she never really did. Even when she relocated to Los Angeles (where she currently lives and works), D’Alessio was often given advice that was plain wrong. Now, as a US immigration attorney who was recently named lawyer of the year by California’s Century City Bar Association, D’Alessio sees that she wasn’t the exception. It’s easy to get lost in the US immigration system.
The Mississauga native has built her small empire from the ground-up, working with artists, entertainers, investors, and some of the biggest firms in the film and television industry to help them immigrate to the US, and personally overseeing her firm’s employment-related immigration initiatives.
In Trump’s America, where policy is driven by nationalism, virtually all global industries (including the entertainment industry) have been hampered, so D’Alessio’s advocacy is becoming especially relevant. She speaks and writes frequently for media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter, and has written a book, Going Global: Investing in US Immigration, which was published this spring.
Success hasn’t come easy though, especially given that both her own legal niche as well as the entertainment industry are run, for the most part, by men. When she was looking to set up a new business within her firm for athletes, she went to a fellow lawyer for help with referrals. “The next thing I know, he is telling me that we should give up a whole area of practice and refer our clients to him,” she recalls. He insinuated that because he hadn’t seen her at any sporting events, she “must not be a big deal.”
But D’Alessio didn’t dwell on the episode and today her law firm has more female decision-makers per capita than any of her competitors. “There have been a number of very cool female powerhouse attorneys who have wanted to work here,” she says.
When asked what advice she had for young women, her answer was simple: “Don’t be afraid of failure.”
“I think women are told that they need to perfect,” she says. “Trying to be perfect gets in the way of what you’re trying to achieve.” - TB