INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: CARRIE TANGUAY
Bianca West is an Enterprise Implementation Manager and President of AWN. She was interviewed as part of the 12 month Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) series. The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.
Bianca gets comfortable on my couch with pillows propped behind her and legs outstretched. I start the interview as I typically would but fully appreciate this is anything but normal. I know Bianca is in-the-midst-of a difficult personal journey but sitting across from her you couldn’t tell. She’s such a composed, strong, wise woman whose humour flows in and out as we interview. Every sentence she delivers has a purpose and comes from a place of extreme introspection.
Bianca talks about her experience as a first-generation Canadian, reflects warmly on diving into her parent’s bed as a child to tell them about her dreams and thoughtfully provides insights into her imposed identity of “other”.
As much as she wants to stay focused on her experiences as a woman, on diversity in her space and the goals of AWN, the loss of her dad is weaved throughout her responses as she refers to him in the present tense in one sentence and the past tense in the next. And while we both agree we don’t want her dad’s passing to be the focal point of the article, it’s a recurring theme throughout and to ignore that or pretend it’s less than life changing would be to gloss over something profound, raw and emotional. This is life. This is real. This is her story.
Her Back Story
PHOTOGRAPHS BY: KENNETH BOVILLE
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned to date?
I recently lost my dad and I think what that’s in the process of teaching me is that I don’t have to have everything figured out right away. You can just take things day by day. For me personally, the stage of grieving that I’m in right now… is just showing up and being present. And letting the people that love me, see that I’m okay or that I’m striving towards that.
I think about my dad’s life and his journey and it just makes me that much more dedicated to making very strategic decisions professionally and personally that are going to result in a happily lived life.
Tell me a bit about growing up as a first-generation Canadian.
As a kid I feel like I very much lived in a happy, fantasy world in my brain. Things became a lot more real and my perception of how others saw me versus how I saw myself in the world became a lot more obvious to me when I entered university. It could have been me coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t around a lot of people like me. I had never noticed that before as much as I did when I got to Laurier.
It wasn’t until I went to University that I started feeling like a first-generation Canadian and a young woman who needed to carve out her own path. There were a lot of things I needed to figure out for the first time. While my family supported me 150%, this was a first time for them as well. I had to be resourceful and identify people around me that I respected, admired or were doing what I needed to do and just ask questions. I feel like I was always very people oriented for that reason alone and it became more of a survival skill in university.
As an example, when people were applying for schools and doing research, I very much took the lead and would go back to my parents with that information. I would tell them when we were going to orientation. In no way is that a negative thing but it really did shape the way I approach my life today. It’s not that I couldn’t go to my family but my efficiency side thought “I might as well just learn this and share the info with them”.
How did your family dynamics influence you and shape who you are today?
Ahhh. Oh my gosh, in every way shape and form…I am my mother’s daughter as much as I am my father’s daughter as much as I am a first generation trying to figure it out in this world. My mom and I have spent countless hours talking about everything you can talk about.
Growing up, when I woke up I would run into my parents’ room and jump in between them and talked to them about every thought I could possibly have and they aren’t naysayers. They are such supporters. They are just so fascinated by the way their kids think, as immigrants to Canada, things as simple as innovative thinking were like magic to them. It was everything they could have wanted their kids to inherit from them, the seed of possibility, but we had more tools then they had to succeed. So from the sense of how that shapes who I am today, I’m very optimistic. I’m curious about people. I want to understand their journeys, where they came from and how that shaped the lens they have on the world, of me, of others and of a situation. I really do consider my entire sensory system when I’m making decisions like: “is this person upset, are they prepared, are they comfortable?” There are so many things on a human level that go into my decision-making, whether it be professional or otherwise. I think I get that from my parents.
I mentioned I talked with my mom but I also talked a lot with my dad. He had long conversations with me about the world and would ask me my perspective and we’d wildly disagree sometimes. But from a man’s perspective in my life, he was a combination of strength and affection and just a mixture of what I think a whole being is. It shaped men for me and how I interact with men because there was nothing off topic, there was nothing I couldn’t do. He was a very affectionate father as well, so I think from a feminist point of view and considering gender roles, I never really saw them in a black and white way, it’s all grey area – which is good.
Is there a specific mantra or philosophy that influences you?
A mantra, I say every morning and usually have to say again by 10AM [laughs] is…”you need to be patient today. You need to listen when people are speaking to you. Really listen. Don’t just react. Be present”. It’s really important to me. A lot of the leaders I respect give themselves and their undivided attention to the people they’re around. It attests to the information they can absorb and do useful things with.
Who inspires you and why?
There’s a collection of people who inspire me. I have pictures printed out on my desk at work.
One is of my mother. She is sensationally optimistic and strong. She lets challenges and obstacles slide off her (seemingly) easily. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized it takes a lot of control and strength to do what I’ve seen her do.
Oprah. What has always inspired me about her was that you wanted to hear what she had to say even if there was an expert sitting beside her. You are curious about her perspective. You care about what she’s thinking because she was able to garner that much respect amongst her fans.
Beyoncé . No one who knows me will be shocked by this. I think she’s just a lovely combination of energy, sexuality and an embodiment of a part of black culture. As a fan, I’ve seen her grow, reinvent and get better and better over time. I always have gravitated towards her energy.
The Obamas. Barack and Michelle are also at my desk. I could say 100 million things about why they’re fantastic. I just think they bring such an air of class, grace and focus that when I look up and I see their picture I think, “Barack Obama would handle this better than how I want to handle it” [laughs]. I need to be mindful of how a graceful, classy person would go into a situation. It’s a young picture of them. I like that they had no idea where their journey would lead them.
Her Career Path
Tell me about your role as an Enterprise Implementation Manager.
The role is a mixture of project management and consulting. As an Implementation Manager it is our job to understand our client’s objectives in-depth, provide best practices, translate client needs into functional requirements and tailor the design of the product to meet their business requirements. From initial concept, to build and change management while working with multiple internal teams and large client teams to hit a target launch date.
Every client is different, every circumstance is different. In project work you always have to gain trust from the people you’re working with. You have to treat it like a new experience. It’s not ‘one-size-fits-all’. I love that I can’t be repetitive. I have to go into each implementation with the mentality of learning. I feel like I grow all the time. It’s also the exact thing I find most challenging. I think it’s really easy when you’ve done the same thing a couple of times to want to put things in a box and remembering that I can’t do that is a welcomed challenge.
Tell me about a risk you’ve taken in your career and did it ‘pay-off’?
Last December I had an opportunity to potentially move abroad for an internal role. When I first heard of the opportunity my stomach dropped. I was just immediately thinking about all the things I could be missing out on in Toronto. And I knew because of that visceral reaction I had, it was exactly why I needed to go in that direction. I said yes.
I called my mom, as I do [laughs]. I let her know I had the opportunity. She was sensationally supportive which I wasn’t expecting. I just kept saying yes and feeling nauseous in my private time. Being prepared in conversations, feeling incredibly capable, ready and excited. All those initial fears turned into this momentous journey of not really knowing how my life was going to unfold. It was uncomfortable for me as someone who likes to have a plan. It was also really beautiful because I knew it was me, taking a chance on myself.
Did I get the job? I did not get the job.
Did it pay off? Yes, it paid off. I said yes to everything that would’ve felt like a “no” a couple of years ago. I was prepared for a completely unknown challenge. I think it paid off because I feel even more capable now and even more prepared for opportunities like that in the future. And I’m prepared to fail again. When I was younger, failure was never an option for me.
What challenges have you encountered in your career because of your identity? And how have you navigated those moments?
When you talk about identity, it’s a pyramid for people of colour or visible minorities. Whether it be sexuality, gender, race, religion, etc. At the top of my pyramid, I identify with being Canadian. But when I think about how people see me, I think they see a black woman first. So when I think about intersectionality, I think about how it changes depending on my surroundings. It’s always in motion.
It was really interesting to join Achievers and be one of maybe two black people in 2012. Now I’m one of five in the Toronto office and that’s five years later and it’s a growing company.
I think what’s important for me through AWN and through constructive dialogue is to explain how the “other” is implied onto visible minorities, unsolicited. I could very well, in an alternate universe be ignorant to what all my identities mean in different spaces and how people react to those identities, but it’s impossible. As an example, I recently had my hair in faux-dreadlocks and I questioned if I should take them out before visiting a client’s office. I was wondering if it was going to distract from what I brought to the table. It’s not an insecurity.
Last year there was a case in North America that ruled it legal to deny job offers based on traits in a person’s appearance that are tied to their culture but that are changeable. In professional spaces, things like “race–neutral grooming” policies exist and these are things I need to be aware of if I want to step into an impartial environment.
I am fully aware of my identity. I can’t ostracize myself from that struggle. I’m hyper aware of situations I could find myself in based on my own and others’ experiences. The only way to navigate them is to assume people have the best of intentions.
Growing up where black people were a very small percentage, going to university where that was the same, coming to an office where that’s the same…you can’t help but be aware. If a circumstance comes up that’s uncomfortable or that is blatantly disgraceful I need to choose in that moment to believe that’s not the intention of that person and depending on the circumstance it might be an opportunity to educate. Or an opportunity to reflect on how I can avoid that situation again. But that takes a lot of patience and listening and being present.
Her Lived Experience
What do you do for your own mental well being? How do you prioritize self-care?
I set reminders on my phone. Sometimes I’ll action them and other times they’re just a shame reminder of what I should be doing in that moment. I have a reminder that goes off before bed. For The Walking Dead fans, the question that goes off at 11pm nightly is, “if the world was ending in two weeks what would matter to you?” Sometimes I’ll be out and I’ll just see it and it will allow me to reflect. And the answer is not “get all the canned goods!!!” [laughs] That’s not the intention of the question. It helps with problems that seem big, to become quite small and digestible. The trend of that question is people matter.
I’ve also been practicing the 10-10-10 rule. Is this going to bother me in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years? It’s to show perspective. Very few things are going to bother you in 10 months….if so, you’ll be like “What?” and handle it.
If you could give your younger self advice what would it be?
Workout! [laughs heartily]
But on the real, with the side note of my dad passing from cancer, it’s been really, really, really, really, really top of mind for me. I’m hyper aware of what I’m consuming and how I’m treating my body because this body is not just for me. It’s for my family, one day for my kids, for my mom so I can help her when she’s older, so I have to be very aware of all that stuff.
What else would I have told my younger self? “You got this!”
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
This is a very important question, and it’s hard to say just one thing. I’ll answer based on this moment and everything we’ve been discussing. When I think about the awesome women that have been participating in this series and reservations that they had, when I think about you and about myself….I think we just need to stop asking for permission to share our story, our opinion.
It’s birthed from good intentions, but I think a lot of people are worried to disrupt male spaces. Even though what I’m saying, I have the full right to say; I’ve thought about it; I’ve researched it and I’ve spoken to other people to validate it but we still hold back. By not holding back, taking small steps that are in our control, we are elevating our voices and making us active participants in the bigger change related to the social and political issues that prevent women from achieving parity each day.
We’re afraid of having more than one powerful person in a space and finding ways to work together. I really do think when people feel starved for opportunity and starved to be heard it’s really hard to do that and I get that. But remembering, it doesn’t have to be one light, there can be many.
How can men be an active participant in advancing women in tech?
It’s not all men. I think some men understand, but I would say empathy. Are you seeing all opinions being heard? Being respected? Are you seeing a proper reflection of not only diversity but inclusion of thought? And when you’re having constructive conversation, ideally to help you understand a disconnect, are you leading with empathy?
I think it’s really, really easy for people to understand some but not others. It’s because we’re all leading with our own lived experiences. The advice I would give to a person that’s truly in conflict with a community’s struggle; ask yourself what your blockades are? What questions do I need to ask to get the answers that I need? It’s okay to not understand, it’s not okay to not want to understand.
The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.