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Emma Harvie – Customer Success Manager

INTERVIEW: DAVE SINYI

Emma Harvie is a Customer Success Manager at Achievers, based in Melbourne, Australia.  She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

Everything Emma speaks about is tinted with optimism, and the ability to look at the best possible positive outcome from a situation.  Speaking with Emma is an exercise in intense exposure to positivity, passion, and self-motivation. Emma does not make excuses, but refuses to accept things as they are. Challenges are where learning happens; setbacks are a great opportunity to reassess; and, it’ is always a good time to focus on self-improvement.Where change needs to be made, Emma is the first to roll up her sleeves, and lead the ‘we-can-do-it!’ way.

Emma’s approach : Get clear on your vision of what you want, and then get clear on what you need to do to get there and start ticking off those things one by one.

On education:

EH: “After secondary school, I wanted to do either graphic design or photography. I couldn’t decide – so I did both, because I am an overachiever.  I got an apprenticeship at a local newspaper doing design for ads and editorials and studied photography part time, but it was just a diploma.  I’ve done courses since, in design, web design – all sorts of different things – but no actual undergrad degree; so, at 36, I went to university.  I couldn’t get any credit for my work experiences – I had to start at the beginning.

On starting university at 36:

EH: I felt like I’d reached a point in my career where I couldn’t even get an interview for a job without ticking a box.  But I was also a conscious of studying something I was passionate about, and wanted to learn about. I’d gone from graphic design to studio management to account management, to retail for a while (which is where I got into the people development), and more of the HR stuff I do now, and was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with my life – what’s next?’  I’m always looking for the next thing. I always want to be working towards something. I decided I wanted to study, part time, because I couldn’t afford to not work full time. So, I did a business degree, with a major in marketing.

On career motivations:

EH: I’m mostly motivated by recognition. I was very clear I wanted to use my skills for good and not for evil. I didn’t want to work on marketing for a product I didn’t believe in.  Or for a company whose values weren’t aligned to mine. I needed some experience and was prepared to put in the hard yards to get where I needed to go, but I was really lucky I found Solterbeck (Achievers affiliate) early on in my degree and was able to use my skills for good.

I enjoy working in such a positive side of HR.  For me it’s about creating that employee experience and brightening someone’s day. And we just happen to have a tool that facilitates that.

On learning and working as a woman:

EH: I’ve been pretty lucky, in that I’ve worked with great people, and had opportunities regardless of my gender. I worked in the print industry for a long time, it felt very much like a boys’ club. There were client nights, for example, I didn’t go to, because it wasn’t appropriate for a woman to go. Yeah – very much a boy’s club, at times.  More recently, I see it still exists – you look at Australian politics as an example, where it’s massive. Part of me choosing who I work with, and the culture of an organisation, and doing a lot of that research before I actually accept a job, is to ensure I work for an organisation that shares the same values I do. I think there’s changes – I don’t think there’s enough change. We need to create more awareness.  Hire more women. Hire women into leadership roles. Develop women into leadership roles. Create flexible work environments, so that everyone can be a part of it.

On valuable life lessons:

EH: It’s probably to trust my gut: and I don’t always – as we don’t. But to know when something doesn’t feel right. Or to know that the butterflies excited kind of feeling can be good. That, if you’re taking a risk and things are a bit scary, that’s the opportunity for growth.  The other thing is being really clear on your values, and what’s important to you. I did some work to know what mine are, and it made decisions after that so much easier.

In a previous role, there was lots of feedback I received around having a voice: like going to a meeting and not saying a single thing, not voicing my opinion because I didn’t feel my opinion was valued, or that I had anything important to say, and now I probably take over meetings with my opinion. I feel much more confident and realise that I know my stuff and can voice an opinion. And it doesn’t have to be an opinion that everyone agrees with or that sits well with others and I’m OK with that, too.

On being confident:

EH: I am absolutely confident now. I believe very much in the power of language, and it comes from thinking about the impact your language has on other people.  When you think about bullying, and the effect it has on people, and how that stays with some people for life, or has tragic consequences: you should always be thinking about the power of language. Then there’s  the power of your language when you’re talking to yourself, or about your goals. Self-doubt is absolutely there.

On self-doubt:

EH: The self-doubt?  Absolutely! The conversation inside my head is sometimes very different to the conversation outside my head, and I wouldn’t want to hear anyone else speaking about themselves the way I sometimes speak about myself in my head. My goals are not ‘I want to…’, or ‘I’ll try…’ . They are ‘I will…’. I’m not going to ‘try’, or it’s not ‘kind of right’ – it’s either right or it’s not right, and ‘I will’ not ‘I’ll try’.

Part of overcoming self-doubt and accomplishing your goals is  surrounding yourself with the right people. You make choices about  who you hang out with, and who you spend time with, and in a sense who you surround yourself with at work, as well. You surround yourself with people who will lift you up. But also, I think having some coping mechanisms – so whether that’s going for a walk, or going to the gym, or buying yourself something nice – whatever that treat for yourself, or coping mechanism might be – be aware of that and use those when you need to.

On introvert versus extrovert:

EH: I’ve done personality tests throughout my career, and I always get the same results: INFJ. And if you Google that…that is me. I am social in small groups; I like time by myself; I can present to a client and look absolutely professional and nail it and say super intelligent things; and then I’ll go and spill my drink down my front.  It just is 100 percent who I am.

I absolutely have been in jobs where that ‘being social’ thing, and the massive amounts of client entertainment, and all of that was expected. I thought I needed to get over myself, or to change who I was, in order to fulfill that role, and then I realised that just wasn’t the culture I wanted to work in. I didn’t like being in that boozy, ad agency, kind of culture, because that wasn’t who I was. At the time, I was like, ‘I need to learn to like this, to be more like to be successful in my career’, and then as you get older you start to realise that life’s too short to work in a job that doesn’t fulfill you; doesn’t fill your cup.  We spend a lot of time at work, and we spend a lot of hours doing what we do. I think it’s important you enjoy it, and it energises you, motivates you, and inspires you

On challenges facing women in the workplace today:

EH: Working for a global company there are definitely challenges in working with people from different countries and different cultures, and that their view of women in the workforce might be different to ours.  There are challenges even down to the way you dress in the office. I don’t have kids, but there are a lot of challenges for women with kids in the workplace, and finding balance, and working flexibly, and all of that as well.  

We’ve come such a long way – women weren’t allowed to vote and weren’t allowed to work once they got married.  We have absolutely come a long way, but…

On how men can help:

EH: By being an advocate for women, and being a voice for women. Standing alongside women in the tech industry and helping to set them up.  Being an advocate, being able to call out when things aren’t right, or when there’s a case of discrimination, or inequality – being that voice alongside women’s voices, to stand beside them.  Stand up, speak up. Everyone needs to.

On best advice to others:

EH: Get clear on your vision of what you want, and then get clear on what you need to do to get there and start ticking off those things one by one. Make them small and achievable and make them measurable.  And don’t be afraid to ask for help. The people who’ve made the biggest impact on my career, and life in general, are the people who’ve acted as a coach and just asked me questions.

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Weixi Wu – Financial Analyst

INTERVIEW: CARRIE TANGUAY / PHOTOGRAPHS: SAMIRA HAFEZI

Weixi Wu is a Financial Analyst at Achievers. She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

Weixi is a quiet hustler! While she speaks softly and is a self-proclaimed introvert her accomplishments so early in her career do the talking for her. She’s been working since she was 13 and was the first in her peer group to get her CPA, CGA designation and definitely lives up to her LinkedIn moniker of “Accounting Superstar”. After spending an hour with Weixi I realize I’ve only begun to scratch the surface as she says there’s “work Weixi” and “outside work Weixi”.

Her story represents all the women who strike a balance between big goals and big dreams! Weixi’s intense work ethic is fed by her passion to travel and to be in a position to support her family. She works long, hard hours and the pay-off is travel, adventure and providing for her parents’ retirement.

CT: Tell me a bit about your background.

WW: I grew up in China, my family immigrated to Canada when I was 10. We spent the first few years in Canada in North York – I went to elementary and middle school there. It was a change from back home, different languages, different friends…it was challenging. I was eventually able to get used to it. When I was younger I was on my own a lot both my parents were working hard. My dad programs machines and my mom is also an accountant. I have one brother who’s 12 years younger than me. I used to pick him up from daycare everyday.

I’ve been working since I was 13. I started at Kumon by helping the instructors marking people’s homework and then I started tutoring. It got me through middle school, high school and university. I worked there until I started working at Achievers.

Everything I do right now I do to ensure when they retire they’ll be okay. That sense of responsibility towards my parents – I think that’s an immigrant thing to be honest. Our parents took care of us when we were younger, there’s so many things they gave up for us, I just want to make sure they’re taken care of.

CT: How do you self-identify?

WW: I identify as an immigrant and a woman of colour. Growing up, I went to a few schools where there weren’t many kids of colour. I was made fun of for my accent and features. Eventually, I learned to be proud my heritage and it made me stronger. One thing about moving to Toronto is that there are so many immigrants it wasn’t an easy transition but when you look around you see a lot of people going through the same thing and that helps.

Within the accounting world it’s not an issue at all – it’s a very diverse field in terms of gender and backgrounds.

When I grew up I don’t think I experienced any gender inequalities from my family. I actually didn’t even know there were inequalities as everyone in my family worked and contributed fairly equally. My travels and studies educated me on the inequalities that women, especially women of colour, experience all around the world. And it is important to speak out against it, even if it’s just to those around you.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY: SAMIRA HAFEZI

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CT: Did you always want to pursue accounting? What about it appeals to you?

WW: My Mom suggested I pursue this. Numbers always came easily to me. It just came naturally. My parents moved closer to the University of Toronto so I would go there. I was lucky to be accepted into the accounting program. It’s really competitive.

If it wasn’t accounting, it would have been forensics but I didn’t have the science prerequisites. I watch so many detective shows and listen to so many true crime podcasts and I always wanted to be a detective (laughs). I took a forensic science course in university and I realized how much science is involved and decided I couldn’t do it. But if I can get paid to travel around the world, I would make the career change in a heartbeat.

CT: What do you like about being an “Accounting Superstar” at a software company?

WW: I really like the pace and the amount of different things I learn working in the tech space. Everyone wants to work in tech it’s the “it” industry right now. I work as a Financial Analyst and get to work with budgeting and forecasting for several departments at Achievers. I’ve been there for just over 5 years – I’ve had great managers that really helped me to start my career.

I started the CPA, CGA program as soon as I could upon graduation from university. I was the first to get the designation out of all of my friends. I finally accomplished the one thing I always wanted to do. In the accounting world once you have that designation you’re basically set and a lot of doors will open.

I’ve been working for over 5 years and I’m at a point where I want to figure out what I want to do next. Now I’m just trying to figure out how I can balance work and travel and unfortunately, accounting isn’t something I can do trekking through the rain forecast or diving in the Red Sea. I plan to drop everything and travel when I turn 30, I’m saving up for it now. I want to travel for as long as possible.

CT: You mentioned you love travelling! What was a pivotal moment for you when travelling?

WW: I love travelling. It started right after I obtained my CPA, CGA designation – I went to Europe as one of my first trips. I went by myself and it was a really great experience. Any time you take yourself out of your comfort zone that’s when you learn the most. It was an eye opening experience – different cultures and different languages – meeting people from all over the world. I would recommend everyone travel alone at least once in their life. I always tell people, you will never regret travelling, but you will regret not travelling.

It was during the refugee crisis due to the unrest in Syria, when I crossed into France from the Port of Dover, our bus drove past one of the camps that housed thousands of Syrian refugees. Even though it was mere moments that I witnessed this refugee camp from afar, I will never forget its sights and size. I have always known I am fortunate, but that was when I realized that most of us are too complacent with our ways of life. I realized there are many things I have that I had taken for granted, like having the means to travel and a job, home, and family to go back to once the trip is completed. I have since learned to truly appreciate the things and opportunities I have and any day to day issues I encounter are just minor inconveniences that will pass.

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CT: What advice would you give to your younger self or someone interested in pursuing accounting?

WW: There are so many people graduating in accounting every year from the CPA program. Try to find yourself in that – it’s so easy to lose yourself in the process. When I first started working I would work at Achievers all day, grab my books, go to Starbucks and I would spend the night there studying for my CPA, CGA exams until 5-6AM. I would go home shower and then start my workday again. Those were two long years and I felt like I completely lost myself.

Accounting has strict deadlines, if a report isn’t finished or doesn’t reconcile you have to stay and finish it. I’m fortunate that my manager is very supportive and will be there to help me but in general in my field it’s very common for people to stay overnight in the office. It’s part of the work. You have to work around the company’s month end and busy periods.

CT: What do you find most rewarding about being an accountant?

WW: All accountants will relate to this…when your reports reconcile (laughs). As long as I’m constantly learning, that is success basically. I’d never want to be stuck doing the same thing over and over again.

CT: Do you think you’ve faced any challenges in your career because of your gender?

WW: Thankfully I haven’t yet. At the same time, I don’t really let people walk over me. When I look at my manager and my manager’s manager they’re all men. It’s kinda hard because society expects something different out of women. Just by looking around me, there’s a standard that there is something off with you if you don’t want to get married and have kids. I do want to have kids, but if I had a child now that would put my career on pause until I go back to work and even when I go back what does that look like? The tech industry does require a lot more hours than your typical 9-5, that’s one difficulty you’d have to work around as a mother.

I’ve been lucky to be honest with my manager. And again I feel like a lot of things I’ve encountered in life is luck.

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CT: How do you strike a balance between who you have to be at work and who you are outside of work?

WW: There’s the professional Weixi and then there’s the outside of work Weixi (laughs). At work you have to be professional at all times, if I do get emotional at work I just hold it in and don’t show it at work at all. Outside of work growing up I loved different music – hip hop, soca, reggae-ton – I just like that side of life where you’re having fun and dancing. I go to the Caribbean once or twice a year because I love the culture, it’s very friendly and I love the music.

I spend so much time at work and that’s why vacations are so important to me. I don’t have that much time to myself otherwise.

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Kelly Lawrance; Customer Success Manager

INTERVIEW: SARAH CLAYTON / PHOTOGRAPHS: BHAV PATEL

Kelly Lawrance is Customer Success Manager at Achievers. She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

At the time of our interview Kelly is negotiating a major contract renewal, settling into a new home and planning the final details of her wedding. She’s fitting 48 hours of to-dos into every 24-hour period but remains collected and generous with her time. I have her total focus during our interview: her ability to be present through chaos demonstrates why she’s so good at what she does. It’s not about what you want out of life, it’s what you’re willing to put in to get it. There’s a reason 2018 has been a big year for Kelly.

SC: Can you tell me a about your family, background, where you came from?

KL: I grew up in Markham Ontario and have a sister who’s four years older. My parents are very, very different and I feel like I have a bit of both of them in me. My dad is a free spirited, go with the flow, sleep-in kind of guy who works freelance as a camera operator. I grew up going on set with him all the time and was an extra on TV shows like Goosebumps and Degrassi. Take your kid to work day was always super interesting and I was so proud of what he did. My mom is a type-A, organized and driven hard worker who worked at her family business. She lived at home until she married at 29 and saved every penny – I am not kidding you. She did not buy a single article of clothing or go out for dinner. That’s how she could buy her and my dad’s first house in full. I remember seeing her growing up and thinking ‘how are you always so busy’ – now I see myself doing the exact same thing.
I was really involved in sports growing up. There was practice 4 nights a week with tournaments on weekends and my dad never missed a single game. The day his dad passed away was the first time my volleyball team made it to OFSAA finals, which was so important to me. He drove up to Collingwood to be with his family, then drove all the way back just to see our final game. I was lucky to grow up with a lot of support and love, and that’s still there today.

SC: How did you get to where you are today?

KL: I’ve always had a sense of adventure – fun is my number one priority. Throughout university, I worked as a waterski instructor in the summers. During my second year of university I went on a mission trip to Romania to work at orphanages. That really opened my eyes to how different the world was. My mom was always like get a real job, don’t spend all your money on travel, but I knew that was to come. I’m a very motivated person, but I wanted to take advantage of being able to live a more adventurous life.
Much to my mother’s chagrin, I took two years to travel after school. I spent a year in Whistler as a server where I met people from all over the world. It was hard, hard work, but I was so motivated to save so I could book a one-way ticket and travel the world after. Working at a restaurant and travelling were two invaluable experiences for me. In a restaurant you have the stress of time management and dealing with difficult customers. It’s difficult, but you learn so much. Travel makes you more open-minded, shows you a different world of how people live and gives you perspective. I now commit to one big travel adventure every two years, the most recent one being India.

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SC: Once you landed from your travels, how did your career take shape? What guidance would you give others?

KL: After travelling I came home and felt a little behind. I would look at my friends who had experience in the corporate world and I felt a little defeated at that point. I initially started applying for jobs in the film industry, taking after my dad, and then my best friend reached out to me and told me about Achievers. I leveraged my network, which I think is a huge part of finding a job these days, and that’s how I got my start at Achievers as a Member Experience Coordinator.
In Member Experience, you see a completely different side of things. A valuable trait I gained was resiliency because I was on the phone all day dealing with people who were mostly unhappy – plus tech was a whole new world to me. I didn’t think that I would ever work at a technology company, but now that I work in tech I can’t imagine working anywhere else. A few months into my role I started thinking what’s next. I work best when I know what I’m working towards. I have an analytical mind and had my eye on the Professional Services team, so I enrolled In a Project Management course at the University of Toronto. With my limited corporate work experience at the time, I figured anything could help. I made it very clear to my leaders that I was looking for that next step, networked internally to find out what I needed to make the transition and worked my way into a new role on the Professional Services team. Make it clear that you’re willing to invest in your professional growth, even outside of work, and people will respond.
I realized what I loved the most about my time in Professional Services was building a rapport with customers. I liked the idea of building relationships over time, investing in their long-term success and really being able to own my accounts. I’m motivated by pace, change and ownership – and that brought me to my current place on the Customer Success Team. I think it’s easy to hold yourself back by wondering what if I put myself out there and I don’t get the position? But if you do nothing, nothing will change. Being clear about what you want is important, even if you’re not ready today but want to be there in 8 months. Be vocal.

SC: Tech has traditionally been considered a male dominated industry, how do you perceive the landscape?

KL: I recently learned that one of my customers in a more male-dominated industry includes a note about the growth of women in leadership roles when they send out their monthly HR update to the organization. This is an example of a company who realizes that they’re behind and is actively trying to fix it. Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve been held back by my gender in tech. I think I’ve been given all the opportunity I deserve. I think the tech space is actually ahead of a lot of industries in terms of gender equality. I’ve received a lot of mentorship and guidance from women in my career and they’ve served as a huge source of inspiration and motivation for what I can work towards. Women building other women up really helps to progress things forward. I’ll never forget an old mentor giving me the book Lean In, and the fact that it was her book and her copy, I knew: I have to read this. Those little things go a long way.

SC: How do you balance your mental and physical health in this digital, high performance work environment?

KL: Working out is so important to my physical and mental health, but I had a really hard time finding time to do it. About 3 years ago a spot in a boot camp class across the street opened up, which was a perfect opportunity. Set time, prepaid – I could commit to that. More of my colleagues joined as spaces opened up and we now have a group that works out twice a week. I put myself in a position where I’m forced to be held accountable to go and it’s completely changed my life. I’m at a place where my body craves it and I love it.
I also have ebbs and flows with my job. For every busy period, there is a counterbalance of a time that’s not as busy and I try to take advantage of those times. My job is also one where if I work really hard I see the fruits of my labour, so I don’t feel like I’m grinding it out for nothing. Every time I work long hours I really focus on what I’m working towards and why that gets me so excited. It’s important to love what you do: it helps when times get crazy.

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SC: As someone who works in the industry, what are your thoughts on technology addiction?

KL: It makes me nostalgic. I remember spending my childhood riding my bike and spending hours at the park. This is a childhood type that we’ll likely never see again (hopefully I’m wrong). I think the first step is recognizing how you spend your time: are there better things you can be doing with it than refreshing social media? I used to use technology as a way to kill time in transit, but I recently joined a book club, so I bring my book along for my commute and that’s had a really positive impact on me. Technology can be a huge value add, it’s just everything in moderation. It’s the new way to get information, but it’s not the only way to spend your time.

SC: Is there something now that you wish you could have told yourself ten years ago?

KL: Advice I would give others that has served well for me is to not be afraid to put yourself out there and go after the next opportunity. Just because the time isn’t right or you’re not ready right now doesn’t mean you can’t get there. One thing I’m really proud of with my career at Achievers is that I’m not afraid to vocalize what I want, and I’ve had incredible support along the way.

SC: Last pieces of advice?

KL: Never underestimate the power of mentorship and to concept of pay it forward. There’s been stages of my career where women have encouraged me to take the next step. Now I’m getting to the stage in my career where I have the opportunity to pay it forward to others.

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Karen Beatty – Senior Manager, Marketplace Operations

INTERVIEW: SARAH CLAYTON  / PHOTOGRAPHS: ALEX ROZAND

Karen Beatty is Sr. Manager, Marketplace Operations at Achievers.  She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN).  The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

Karen’s energy is palpable.  You can feel it when you’re in a room with her and you can feel it in her words – she is a woman who will get sh** done.  For example, she is currently balancing a demanding workload against the minor project of renovating her entire house.  It’s safe to say she is someone who sees challenges as opportunities to grow and innovate, a narrative that aligns to the success she has brought to her department and team.

SC: Can you tell me a little bit about your family, background, where you came from? 

KB: I was born into a very strongly opinionated, action-driven family.  I love them to death and they definitely made me who I am today.  I have one older sister and multiple parents – my parents are divorced, and I have a stepdad.  Growing up in two different neighbourhoods in Toronto fostered my independence and the ability to form relationships – I feel like that situation made me the person I am today.  When it came time for high school, I chose a very nontraditional route with a school that had self-directed learning instead of classes.  In grade 9 I struggled to teach myself time management and how to prioritize my work, but quickly learned that failing opens the door up to improvement.  This eased the transition to University where I attended Laurier for Business.  I graduated and shortly after entered the workforce.  I partially regret that as my friends were travelling or getting more education while I was working.  But I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t make that decision, and now I am here at Achievers.  It’s been quite a ride.

SC: Did you always know you wanted to get into Operations and Technology?

KB: It was definitely a series of events that brought me to where I am today.  I went to school for Business and chose to specialize in International Business in my fourth year.  I got the pleasure of going to India and seeing how Indian businesses operated, how they operated with Canadian businesses and how Canadian businesses operated there.  It was a really cool experience, but I’ve always had my mind on supply chain.  I loved those courses in University, but when I thought about them I always thought of a warehouse and I didn’t feel that work environment was for me.  When I graduated I got the first job I could, at an ad agency.  A couple months in I was told that I was going to be moving into a closet that they had transformed into a work-space and that just wasn’t my style. I knew a handful of people who worked at Achievers and was able to get a job there.  I didn’t foresee myself in tech, but I fell in love with the culture and the fast pace.  I landed myself in Operations, where I knew my heart was, and have enjoyed the multiple years of global growth and exciting changes that have brought me here.  I love tech and I love Operations.

SC: What makes you good at what you do?

KB: Thanks to how I was raised to voice my opinion, and thanks to Sheryl Sandberg for the book Lean In, I am where I am today.  I have developed the ability to speak up and fight for what I need for myself and for my team – I think that is something people struggle with in the workforce, especially women.  In Operations, we have a lot of back end, technical challenges and to fix them we really need to make other teams aware of what the biggest sticking points are.  Being able to use that outspoken skill in day-to-day interactions has aided in growing our business globally in a scalable manner. When change is required, your most important resource is speed.  You need to move fast.

SC: What was your biggest surprise when you started managing?

KB: It is very hard.  I think the biggest (and I don’t want to call this a surprise) thing is that humans are extremely adaptable, smart and have many, many skills.  When you’re hired into a role you have a defined job requiring a certain skill set, but most individuals have more skills than their job requires.  I think one of the biggest, and most exciting, challenges as a manager is figuring out how to create an environment where employees can use all of their incredible skills outside of what their exact job requires.  I think it’s a huge benefit to employees, it’s a huge benefit to companies and it’s when people are going to be their happiest.

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SC: Tech has traditionally been considered a male dominated industry, how do you perceive the current industry landscape and where do you think it’s going?

KB: I almost want to call tech the modern industry of our era – meaning it’s open to modern practices like women in leadership and flex hours, for example.  The landscape is in a good place because I think the tech industry is open to change in a way that other industries aren’t.  The industry’s openness to flex hours assists in getting women back into the workplace after having a child. I foresee that over the years we will continue fighting for women’s rights and getting women in leadership positions.  I think tech will be one of the industries that has the most women in leadership in the future because of how modern the thinking is.

SC: Between burnout and setting boundaries, how do you focus on your mental and physical health in this digital, high performance work environment?

KB: I think the best thing you can do is prioritize and understand that unless you are physically, emotionally and mentally in a stable position you won’t be able to perform at your highest capacity.  For me, health has always been a priority.  Whether that’s waking up earlier than I would like to in the morning to work-out or working out at lunch – I make time.  There doesn’t necessarily have to be a boundary, you can leave work early and then work later in the evening, but there needs to be time to do what you need to do for you to be healthy

SC: What are your thoughts on the shift from being full-time at one company to the agile remote or freelancer work lifestyle

KB: I am 100% on board with it.  I think this new style of work is improving creativity and performance within individuals, which then translates into benefits for companies.  I think that the typical 9 – 5 jobs in a cubical do not breed that creativity and I think individuals place greater value on travel as it’s become a more affordable thing.  It’s going to increase the innovation that companies are experiencing as people are at their best minds when they’re working in an environment that they can cope best with.  We have all the tools we need today, from a logistical standpoint, to function that way so why not use them? 

SC: We’re seeing engagement going from being a nice to have to must have, how do you think this is going to disrupt various industries?

KB: We are already experiencing this as you see talent jump from company to company at a fast pace. The challenge that exists is how do we fix this and the companies that solve for engagement will be the ones that succeed.  At the end of the day every manager has the ability to engage an employee, but there’s a gap in the tools and the knowledge of how to do it.  It really comes down to companies putting the tools in place to help managers engage their employees.

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SC: A lot of career trajectories culminate with being a manager, but that’s not for everyone.  What is your advice to people as they define their career roadmap?

KB: You know yourself best.  You don’t need to be a people manager to be extremely successful.  You will be the most successful when you’re the happiest, and you’ll be the happiest when you’re utilizing the skills that you enjoy the most.  You need to follow your heart, and you need to go to the job that is going to interest you the most.  Another important component of success is taking risks and being open to unexpected turns in your career. I never thought I would be a people manager, but the opportunity presented itself and I enjoy relationship management – so why wouldn’t I give it a try?

SC: Did you have any “you didn’t know till you knew” experiences in your career?

KB: When I started at Achievers my focus was on North America, and that is where my comfort zone was.  I quickly realized that in order to understand the entire business, I needed to understand the global aspect of it.  Our global suppliers and our global members are a huge part of our business and its success.  I had studied operating globally, but never put it into practice: I didn’t know what products would be popular in a different country, or how members shopped.  After getting into the space I was presented with interesting challenges and realized how much I loved it.  I’m so happy that I took the risk of operating in a global landscape because I wouldn’t be as challenged and happy as I am today if I stayed in my safe zone.

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Maral Hamedani; Senior Software Developer

INTERVIEW: CARRIE TANGUAY / PHOTOGRAPHS: BHAV PATEL

Maral Hamedani is a Senior Software Developer at Achievers. She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

Maral’s take on software development is refreshingly honest and one might be looked down upon, at times, in the industry. She isn’t in software for the “love of the craft” instead what drives her, is her reputation. She wants to be great at what she does. To her, that measure of greatness comes from her colleagues trusting her to do her work well and recognizing what she uniquely has to offer her team.

Her story is for the woman who lives by the motto, “let your work speak for itself”. And for those who take pride in their work and reputation – who strive to be the best at whatever they do no matter the task at hand.

CT: Tell me about how your interest in technology started and your early life in Iran.

MH: I was born in Tehran, Iran, which is where my interest for tech and computers started from an early age. I was the type that if the TV or VCR was broken I would pick it apart and learn how it works. Around age seven my parents bought me a computer and sent me to computer classes. All of the students were university students and I was the only one at that age and I got the top grade in the class. They had this special ceremony for me – they gave a gift. I think it started from there, liking technology and computers. It’s the only thing I liked and if I didn’t study computers [software] I don’t know what else I would do. I always wanted to own a laptop, it was my dream.

Nothing was different back home except there, women are separated from guys. I would say through elementary and high-school you don’t feel you are different or you’re being looked at as if you’re a girl or woman because you’re separated. During high-school I went to a private school we had teachers who were men. That’s the only time you feel like we’re girls and there are guys. Other than that everything else felt normal.

CT: What was your parent’s motivation for coming to Canada?

MH: My parents decided to come here mostly for their kids. Because my sister and I are both girls my parents knew Canada would be better for us. We could study and be whatever we wanted to be. You can have a life back home but what we have here is more potential. Back home with a bachelor of Software Engineer it’s not guaranteed you can work in your field. It’s harder for women back home. When I compare myself to my friends still back home they studied the same thing as me and they don’t get paid as well, they don’t like their work environment or they don’t move up in there. Definitely being a woman makes it hard.

CT: Do you consider software development to be your passion?

MH: I went to university back home for Software Engineering so when I came here I re-took the courses I already completed but in English. The reason I picked Waterloo was because it was famous for being a great university for Computer Science. I had to pass English courses first.

I don’t have passion for anything, what I mean is I’m not crazy about any one thing in my life. I am crazy for my life itself and enjoying it. I like my job and this is what I’m good at but I don’t go home and spend my spare time study the latest technology, no.

Being good at what I do is what motivates me. When I came here I had a year until university so I worked in retail in the mall. When I started there, I knew English enough to communicate, however I didn’t know the difference between some words like pants or trousers or I didn’t know a lot of the slangs that people use in their daily conversations. But I started working and after a while I became the best salesperson at Tommy Hilfiger. Even the head office knew me.  Being in any position – I like to be good. That makes me feel happy.

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What keeps me going is my goal to be known as good at what I do. I try to make sure I don’t make the same mistake again. I never want anyone to think I’m not good at what I do.

CT: Tell me about your current role as a Senior Software Developer? What are the rewards and challenges?

MH: Besides coding, developing features and fixing bugs, when you become a senior developer you need to do more problem solving. You have to come up with ideas for that problem and help others who are more junior than you. You need to lead others towards better solutions.

I love it when I fix bugs or when I develop something and I see it being used. I want to code something that does something good for someone and Achievers does that for people – it makes them feel appreciated.

Learning a new technology is a challenge but I want that kind of work because it makes your day more interesting. I’m finding it challenging to be more innovative. I’m really great at executing what I’ve been asked to do. If I have to do something I’ll do it as expected but others will look at how they can make it better or easier. I need to get better at that.

CT: Are there any pivotal moments (or experiences) that shaped who you are today?

MH: When I was in grade seven, I had this math teacher and she had a positive impact on me. She helped me love math. I loved that teacher and I was so good at math, even throughout university. She was very understanding of kids and respected kids in the way she talked to us and the way she taught us. She was more like a friend than a teacher.

The other pivotal moments was those computer courses I took early on. I was so good at them and they gave me the assurance that I was good at this regardless of my age. And because of that I thought, I’m good at this ‘so why not take the next step?’”

 CT: What drives and motivates you?

MH: What keeps me going is my goal to be known as good at what I do. For example, if I break something on production it makes me feel so bad for a few days even though it’s something that happens to everyone. I try to make sure I don’t make the same mistake again. I never want anyone to think I’m not good at what I do. My passion is to be good, to try to move up.

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Look at women as another human being. It’s not about gender… it’s about their skills and their attitudes.

CT: Do you find yourself doubting your own capabilities?  

MH: Yes I do. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything. Like I’m not good, like maybe what I’m doing anyone else can do too. Maybe it’s normal to have that doubt but then the next day you find a reason to reassure yourself that you are good at what you. I do think about that quite a bit. When I’m thinking like that I also think about the things I do that I know are good and what others have told me I’m great at.

Being a woman and an immigrant doesn’t impact me – my English is actually what brings me down sometimes. I speak English almost fluently but depending on who I’m speaking to, saying specific words or expressing thoughts becomes difficult sometimes. For example, I was asked to take the lead for a team activity and I thought others must think I’m not the person that should person leading this because of maybe English slangs that I don’t know or very Canadian things that I haven’t experienced but we came in second place. I have to remind myself it’s okay to ask questions and I have other skills I can offer.

Depending on the vibe you get from people, if I get nervous or am under stress my English becomes a bit poor. Maybe because when I get stressed, my brain automatically switches to Farsi and then translating becomes hard for me.

CT: If you could give men in your field one piece of advice what would it be?

MH: Look at women as another human being. It’s not about gender – it’s about the person and who they are. Even for us, for women, we look at each other like; “Can I trust or can I not trust you?” and then after you work with them you decide if this is a person you can work with. And we do the same towards men as well, it’s not about their gender, it’s about their skills and their attitudes.

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Diane Scheidler; Director, Human Resources

INTERVIEW: SARAH CLAYTON / PHOTOGRAPHS: BHAV PATEL & ALEX ROZAND

Diane Scheidler is Director of Human Resources at Achievers. She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

Within 5 minutes of meeting to conduct the interview, Diane offers me her ticket to an upcoming conference on Women in Leadership.  She wants to attend, but she needs to support her team through some changes and thinks the topic would be of interest to me.  A simple gesture, and one that accurately summarizes Diane and her genuine passion for people.  Balancing the needs of an organization against individual priorities to create an environment that has widespread appeal is a tricky path to navigate, and Diane commits to the effort.

SC: Can you tell me a little bit about your family and your background – what makes you you?

DS: I am one of four children, and there are particular challenges when you have many siblings.  You look for ways to stand out, so for me I’ve always been a very conscientious person.  As a child, I was the most studious of the family and I had great ambitions.  One of the earliest memories I have is an assignment in grade 6 where we were asked to clip magazine articles of who we wanted to be when we turned 30.  I was the only female in the class who found a clipping of a woman in a suit with a briefcase, that was the vision I had for myself.  I’ve always been really ambitious, but then I had a life changing event when I was 13 – my parents got divorced.  It was a big deal because my mother relocated to the UK and I had to make a choice, which was horrendous, about who I would live with.  I chose to go with my mom, but I’ve always had a very close bond with my dad.  It was a big cultural shock and hard, especially at that age, to leave my friends behind and start a new school.  After only 6 months I let my mom know that I was going to go back and live with my dad.  I feel strongly that my dad heavily influenced who I am today and how I was socialized as a female growing up with just my dad.  My father mentored me and told me to be strong.  He was my role model.

SC: Was Human Resources (HR) and software always part of the plan?

DS: I fell into it.  I started off my career in sciences, taking all the mathematics, biology, chemistry courses – but I’m a very social person and I had no life.  I had roommates who were always going out, but I was always studying and I wasn’t happy.  I felt I had to expand my horizons a little bit, so I started exploring social science and psychology courses.  I loved it.  They still had the mathematical components in the logical thinking, but it was more ‘social’ and seemed to fit me better.  Upon graduation, I started off in the oil and gas industry then segued into, what was at the time, Nortel and I’ve stuck with technology ever since.  The more I was exposed to working in technology the more I loved the innovative environment and the fresh thinking.

SC: How do you find being a woman leader in an industry traditionally dominated by men?

DS: One of my first HR jobs was working in an HR department that was predominantly men at a big oil company.  That was another life changing experience because when I was working in a department surrounded by a different gender, I felt like I had to act differently because men are socialized differently.  Thankfully my dad raised me in a way where I honestly felt confident dealing with male dominated departments.  I know how to navigate, advocate for other females and have my voice heard – even if I’m the only female at the table. 

SC: What advice would you give for other women working in a similar industry or department.  How do you make sure you get your voice heard?

DS: I feel it’s really important to get a mentor.  Networking is important – and it can be different depending on what environment you’re in.  For instance, in a male dominated situation networking might involve going to the pub and getting a beer or it could be something sports related.  Regardless of gender, you have to be flexible and willing to meet people where they are comfortable and be cognizant that people relate in different ways.  Don’t limit yourself – if people are going golfing one day or to the pub go with them. Relationships are all important, and build them wherever you sit regardless of gender.

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SC: How do you and your husband balance the demands of your jobs alongside parenthood?

DS: It can be challenging at times and I wholeheartedly believe in the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and I leverage that village to the nth degree.  My husband and I have an equal partnership, we contribute different things and we take turns focusing on our careers vs the family – sometimes it’s taking extended time off or doing what we have to do to support our son.  He spent a year acting at the Stratford Festival so I took some time off from my career to support him. There are times you think it will be impossible to balance it all, but we find a way to make it work and we always get through it.

SC: Women in Tech is a steadily increasing movement, what else do you think needs to be done to get more women into the industry?

DS: I’m finally starting to see that we’re getting a better balance across departments and seeing a more even ratio of men to women, but there’s still opportunities for progress.  While we’re hiring more females in pure engineering departments, it’s still a challenge and it comes back to needing more young girls to be passionate in mathematics and coding.  We need to start with our school systems and get more girls interested in math and science early on because those topics are harder to jump into later in life.  We need to tap into more female engineers and get more role models involved in attracting and inspiring young girls to take this path.

SC: Is there anything specifically you do to maintain a work/wellness balance?

DS: Being mindful to take time out, even if it’s related to working. Going to lunch with my team and not talking about work – talking about our personal lives and staying connected.  Having a ‘people first’ mindset, and just knowing about the people I work with every day.  We have a really good sense of humour within my own team, so we take time to share funny stories and we laugh a lot. Taking time out for social time is my release, connecting with people is really important and that’s what works for me at the office.  And then just trying to incorporate more physical fitness, so going for a walk or finding other opportunities to get away from my desk

SC: Considering the professional environment as a whole, why do you think there has been such an increase in the focus on employee engagement?

DS: As technology is evolving and work is becoming increasingly complex, people are spending more time working – and they don’t even need to be physically at the office.  I’m seeing increased stress leaves and more mental health issues because people put their work first every time.  If you want to get the most out of your employees, you need to figure out what’s best for them.  For instance, more companies are adopting flexible work times and incorporating wellness programs.  I think we need to be more creative and focus on the employee experience from the moment they get up in the morning or arrive at work or start as a new hire.  I think it’s important to focus on finding more ways to accommodate employees so they are happier and more productive at work.

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SC: According to a report by CBRE, Toronto has added more tech jobs in 2015-2016 then New York and San Francisco Bay area combined.  Why do you think we are succeeding as a growing tech hub and what do you think this means for the future of our city?

DS: I think the future for Toronto will be tremendous.  I think we’ve become such a tech hub because we are so diverse as a city – our doors are open when it comes to immigration.  We have a great pool of talent that feeds off each other and we’ve become known as a city where ideas are generated.  There’s a lot being done on the AI front in Toronto, there’s a lot involving blockchain technology, there’s a new startup coming from the Wind Mobile founder.  There’s a lot of hot things happening in technology at the moment in Toronto and my prediction is that we’re on track to become a globally known tech destination.

SC: Any last advice you want to leave the readers with?

DS: Pursue your passion.  To be truly successful at something you have to love what you do.  I’ve stayed in HR for a long time because I love it.  I love that I can help make the difference between a good company and a great company.  That’s why I love Achievers – I truly believe in what we do, and as a former customer I’ve seen how it’s impacted people and companies in such a positive way.  If I feel like I’m not making an influence that’s when I would stop – but I feel every day I get a chance to encourage people to do more and dream better.  You may have setbacks in your life but learn from it – success is built on failure so learn from your mistakes, but don’t give up on your passion. Don’t limit yourself.

 

 

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Kerry Walsh – Senior Manager of Professional Services

INTERVIEW: CARRIE TANGUAY / PHOTOGRAPHS: BHAV PATEL & ALEX ROZAND

Kerry Walsh is a Senior Manager of Professional Services at Achievers. She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

Kerry is the first to acknowledge her fortune – she grew up in a tight-knit and supportive family. From an early age she knew she was university bound and her parents instilled philosophies of hard-work, thoughtfulness and planning from a young-age: combine that with Kerry’s intrinsic motivation and she truly seems unstoppable.

What I admire most about Kerry’s story is how aware and conscientious she is of her privilege. She never uses it as a crutch to coast. Instead she leverages all she’s been given to drive herself further, push herself harder and holds herself personally accountable to help elevate those around her..

Her story is for the tenacious, driven woman who is always striving to do better, do more and inspire everyone around them to do the best they can.

CT: Tell us about where you grew up and your family.

KW: I was born and raised in Brockville, Ontario, a city of about 30,000 people. It’s very community oriented, and it’s very safe – people never lock their doors. There’s not a lot to do in the winter except maybe hit up hockey game, or drive a couple hours away to ski. This city is the best in the summer – you go out on the St. Lawrence River to boat, water-ski or jump off one of the 1000 islands. I was very fortunate to have a family cottage, and both sets of grandparents nearby growing up, so it was one of the best place to be raised, and it definitely has a small-town feel.

I have one younger brother and both my parents were very involved in my life. My dad owns his own business and my mom was the secretary at my high-school so I got to see them a lot growing up – we were always a very tight knit family. They were incredibly supportive of me and whatever I wanted to do, so I dabbled in a lot of things; I danced competitively, I sang, I acted, I curled (something I still do today), and I was part of committees at school. I was just really involved in the community – it’s something my parents instilled in me at a young age – the importance in being involved in things you can and taking every opportunity as it comes.

My mom is from Montreal originally so she had the “big city” background; she loved to travel, cook, paint and taught us the importance of diversity. She planned many family vacations abroad and introduced us to exotic foods, so my love of those things comes from her. My dad is a “meat and potatoes”, small-town guy with deep roots in the Brockville community, so I got the best of both worlds from them. I find opposites attract, and that was definitely the case for them. They had different approaches raising me, which helped shape who I am today. My focus on saving from an early age and being self-sufficient is because of my dad. So is my project management and my frugal side. My love for food, travel and my creative side comes from my mom.

CT:Where do you think your motivation comes from?

KW: I’ve always been intrinsically motivated. I have a high desire to succeed. I had such a great life and I was very fortunate growing up. My parents instilled in me to be grateful for everything I have, and they would remind me that others “weren’t born in Canada, don’t have free health care, can’t afford to travel or don’t come from families that love or support them.” I always felt fortunate for what I was given, so I wanted to make sure my life turned out well and I set myself up for success.

They instilled from a young age that each person is responsible for their own success. They didn’t have wealthy families growing up and they worked for everything they had. My dad would quote, “if it is to be, it’s up to me” – and it’s one of motto I live by. Internal motivation was something that was driven into me at a young age but it’s also just part of who I am.

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CT:  How did you get into the Tech space?

KW: I didn’t really have a career path in mind, so when I got into Commerce at Queens, I just thought that it would give me a great foundation. After your first two years in the program you choose a specialization, so I chose to go into Marketing, and as an elective I took Management Information Systems (MIS). It introduced us to technology and how systems and processes work together. I was really intrigued by it and was just fascinated by technology in general.

It was 2008, so social media platforms like Facebook were still on the rise, not to sound ancient [laughs]. I was intrigued because it was fast moving and things were changing a lot at the time. Computers and social media were really taking hold and I knew jobs in tech were going to be the next big-thing. I thought; “How can I set myself up for success? Technology, the internet, computers aren’t going anywhere so how can I dip my toe in the tech space?”

Queens School of Business has a fantastic career centre that matches you with a councillor to help you prepare your resume, interview, and connects you with alumni to help you get a job after graduation. In fourth year, I did informational interviews with a number of Queens’ alumni who worked at various tech companies. I was also looking at Great Places to Work. I knew I wanted to work somewhere that supported work-life balance and SAS institute is one of the places that came up in my research. Fortunately, the informational call I had with them in February of my final year turned into a contract role with their Marketing department right out of school.

CT: What do you love most about working in the Tech industry?

KW: I love the pace of change, to see how quickly technology can completely eliminate or transform an existing industry. Look at a company like Uber that completely reinvented the taxi industry within a few years, or applications like Foodora that allow you to order food to your door without hardly interacting with another human being, it can fundamentally change industries.

I’ve always been a fast-paced individual. I like to see the results of my efforts quickly, and working at a SaaS company allows me to do that. We can change the end-user experience daily if we wanted to, or if we get important feedback from a customer, and that’s so awesome to see. I would feel very constrained working at a company where it took months or years to see any movement.

CT: Tell me about your current role as Senior Manager of Professional Services?

KW: I lead a team of Implementation Managers that project manage, consult, design and deploy employee recognition and engagement software across organizations. The team works closely with a group of Technical Consultants who configure and test the solution, and many other internal stakeholders to get our programs live. They share best practices with our clients around program set up, budgeting, communications and rollout to their employees. We work with customers that range in size from 800 to 250,000+ employees. Another big part of my job is working with Sales and educating prospects about the implementation process.

I find it rewarding when I see people succeed, learn from their mistakes and grow in their role. Prior to leading the team, I was an Implementation Manager myself, and worked with some of them as a peer, so it was tricky at first to make that jump. I’ve learned to stop, reflect and appreciate your teams’ accomplishments. It’s extremely rewarding when you have a coaching conversation and then get to see them apply your feedback in action.

The most challenging part of the role is being pulled into a million different directions at the same time and trying to find the best way to prioritize your day…and then re-prioritize it. You could be in the middle of a sincere one-on-one conversation and the next minute you’re involved in a client escalation and need to get an issue resolved.

CT: What have you learned since taking on this role?

KW: What I’ve learned the most is that there is not always one ‘right answer’ and everyone is just trying to do the best they can. You need to use common sense, business judgement and prioritize very quickly because you can’t be everywhere at once.

I would like more time to focus on being a leader. When you have great manager you appreciate them but I don’t think you appreciate the extent that they’re “spinning plates” until you’re in the role yourself. When you have 6 or 7 direct reports plus your day job, it’s a lot. Because I’m internally motivated I want to accomplish everything I set my mind to and being a leader, you realize you can’t be in one-hundred places at once and you need to prioritize the things that will make you most effective, make your team most successful and that allow you to stay sane. Because there’s always work – finding that level of work where you can say “okay, I’ve done what I can for the day” go home and be at peace with that is what I’m working on.

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CT: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in tech today?

KW: I’ve been extremely fortunate – I’ve never had a work experience where I felt disadvantaged or ostracized, but I’ve also been fortunate to have a lot of strong women leaders. We need more women in tech, so we can have strong women tech leaders and they can influence women to remain in tech. I think I’m in the position I’m in because I’ve had strong women vouch for me, give me the opportunity to shine and that’s what I would like to continue to do for other women in the space – to be that role model and example.

CT: Is there a woman in your career you attribute your success to?

KW: My peer, leader and eventual VP at Achievers, Debbie Lillitos. She was one of the most influential people in my life to get me to where I am today. She gave me the opportunity to be the Operations Manager of Professional Services and then she encouraged me to apply for the Senior Manager position. There was a Director who left and she asked, “have you ever thought of leading a team” and I said I wasn’t sure . Her reply was “ I think you should go home and talk to Alex (my husband) about that”. When I did, he told me I’d be crazy not to take this opportunity, and really had nothing to lose. So even though I was scared sh*tless, I decided to go for it.

She was such a hard-worker, always advocated for her people, and cared deeply about the team and its success. She’s an incredibly powerful force and someone who’s extremely bright and resilient. She was hugely influential in boosting my confidence early in my career and solidified for me that you can do anything you set your mind to.

CT: What are the key takeaways you want readers to get out of your story?

KW: Take every opportunity that’s presented to you, even if it’s a lateral move. If you’re learning, then it means you’re growing and at the end of the day that means more than a title. So if you have the opportunity to expand your knowledge and skill set, that’s what matters. When I entered business school, I didn’t even know that the job of an implementation manager existed. There are probably jobs or career paths out there you won’t even know exist until you take an opportunity to learn.

One of the benefits of seizing opportunity is meeting people and creating personal connections. Remember, people still do business with people and all “networking” means is building healthy, strong relationships with your colleagues and peers. For as large as a city Toronto is, the tech space is very small, so make sure you continue to foster those relationships because they might open doors to your next career path.

Another quote drilled into my mind as a child was: “Life is like a path of new fallen snow, be careful how you step in it, for every step will show.” What I take from that is, if you are purposely mean or disingenuous with other people, or you’re not accountable to what you commit to, people will remember. If you try to get a job somewhere but have burned bridges in the past, it could hurt future career opportunities. I firmly believe that if you do the best you can, live morally, and try to do the right thing with the information you have at the time, that will set you up for success.

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Keshila Vallot Shannon – Head of Marketing

INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: SARAH CLAYTON

Keshila Vallot Shannon is the Head of Marketing. She was interviewed as part of an ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

From her grandfather unleashing crawdads on her as a child to present, where she started a Girl Scouts’ Troop for 12 kindergartners, Keshila, or Kesh, peppers her answers with personal anecdotes.  And they’re funny! We laugh our way through the interview and take brief detours to discuss life philosophies.  We discover common Southern mentalities of not fighting what you can’t change and a shared love of shrimp and grits.  She’s somehow everything you would expect from a woman in her position and yet completely unexpected.  Tenacious to the point where you wonder how she fits it all in, (her secret, it turns out, is multiple calendars) she’s a taskmaster who has earned every single opportunity that came her way.

Her Back Story

Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood, what was your life like?

I was born in San Francisco, California and grew up in the East Bay.  My parents are from the South, Dad’s from Louisiana, Mom’s from Arkansas, and they came from very big families (mom from a family of 15 and dad from a family of 6).  I grew up thinking everybody had as many cousins and aunts and uncles as I did, so when I came across somebody who had one aunt or one uncle; I didn’t know how to process that – I would be like but what happened to everybody else?  I do remember saying that to my friends, and they were just looking at me like well what’s going on with your familyWhy are there so many cousins?

I’m really big into Ancestry.com, understanding my heritage and my lineage and just where people come from.  Having parents from the South, there’s a mixture of culture and how they raised their children.  My dad was in the Navy, he grew up in a very strict household and had all sisters – so he wanted boys.  He got two girls.  He was very strict with me and my sister, we very much grew up with the expression children are meant to be seen and not heard.  We would go to other people’s houses and would have to be very well mannered – it was yes”. Not yeah”yeah would get you in trouble.  It was very much Southern traditions.  All the cooking, all the food and my grandmother visiting every summer or us going to them. Very, family first.  I consider myself a California girl by way of the South.  I still do all the Southern traditions: Black-eye peas are reserved for New Year’s (it brings good luck), when you do gumbo, how you clean and cook greens, and peach cobbler is a way of life – you could smell it coming. I very much cling to the food, and I cling to the tradition of the South, but at the same time, I’m very much a California girl.  I’m teaching that to my kids. Work hard, was what my parents instilled, have a plan, save money, know how to cook and eat, and be independent. 

Apart from the South, were there any other major influences you think shaped who you are now?

The other interesting thing about my childhood is while African American is my ethnicity, I grew up in a very non-diverse area.  You could count the minorities on one hand, and it didn’t change until I reached high school.  That was a challenge: knowing that there weren’t very many people that looked or talked like you.  That every time you did something that people did not understand you would continuously be fielding questions.  Like why does your hair look like that or feel like that? Why do you look like that?  Why do you eat that?  I was answering questions every day, all day by everyone, constantly. 

I don’t know how else to say this and be politically correct, but it teaches you to blend.  You either blend or you don’t blend – and some people who decide to blend will either blend and lose who they are, or they’ll blend and they’ll have “on time” and “off time”.  For me and my sister, we would blend. During the day we would dress, talk, and behave one way to fit in and when we got home or around family we would relax and be more natural. We always felt like there were two sides to our personalities and lives.  Some people say I come across very guarded or like there’s a wall.  I think the wall is from growing up and trying to limit the focus and attention where I didn’t want it.  To always get questions about who you are because you’re different is frustrating, and growing up that way you just get tired. 

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Her Career Path

Can you tell me about your career path, how did you get to be where you are today?

I initially wanted to be a fashion designer, but my dad was like you cannot live at home forever”, so I went to school for Business Admin and took some Psychology classes which I enjoyed.  I discovered there was a different program where I could meld the two together, so I went and started studying Industrial Organizational Psychology.  I had this fascination with people in the workplace. I signed up for all these different programs and participated in volunteer studies, research, etc.  My dad had the mentality that if you wanted something, you should pay for it.  I could live at home, but I had to pay for everything else.  So, I worked full-time, sometimes two jobs, and I paid for my school from beginning to end. Nothing was free.  It made me very strong and independent. 

One of the jobs I had through college was working in the gift and craft industry at a company called Rubber Stampede.  We made rubber stamps and I had cool clients like MTV and Disney.  I started to do more marketing, including trade shows, and I was good at it – but at the time I was still going to school and pursuing this other interest in Psychology and HR.  At some point, however, I had to finish school, which I took the scenic route to do, and I needed to make more money.  I couldn’t live off peanuts forever. I remember trying to get a ‘real job’ at Bank of the West as an HR Coordinator.  They brought me in, interviewed me and said you’d be good for this Marketing Coordinator role.”  

I ended up taking this Marketing gig and the Executive Vice President of my division said to me what are you doing with yourself?”  I took a moment and asked myself: am I working in HR, or am I doing Marketing?” That’s when I decided to go back to school and pursue a Master’s degree in Marketing.  I decided to find Marketing opportunities which allowed me to pursue the psychology aspects, which is all of marketing technically.  I haven’t always worked in tech but I enjoy tech because there’s a creative side to it and people are passionate.  I tend to like the products I’ve worked on, even though they’ve all been very different.  I like that every day is a new opportunity or puzzle or challenge for me to focus on. 

How do you deal with the challenges you are currently facing in your role?

My department is at a point of transformation which is key to the success of the organization. It’s a good time to be in the Marketing department. Our goals are big and achievable, and we are passionate and motivated.  One of my main goals is to support my team and give them the tools they need to succeed. I genuinely believe that we succeed and fail together.  We all have our pet projects, and those are different but we are first and foremost a team. My every day should be strategy and planning but because we are changing and growing, I dig-in. I roll-up my sleeves and I execute too.

My team is my family, and I want to take care of them.  I am tempted to say it’s the Southerner in me, but I think it’s the human in me (perhaps in many of us).  There will always be challenges in any given role both professionally and personally. Right now, I am under-resourced doing multiple jobs myself, and I am trying to hire quickly without sacrificing quality.  How I deal is to try and stay centred so I can always put my best self forward and to have patience with myself and with others and to achieve a reasonable work-life balance.  Not every day is 50/50 with balance. Some days are 70/30, 90/10, but if I normalize out my week, month, or even year it should feel balanced, and I should feel at peace. After all, if you love what you do that too has rewards and provides a balance.

I am also a religious person, so I go to church every Sunday.  If you’re not religious that’s fine, find your church (religion) in whatever or wherever it may be.  I have a friend who goes to the beach every Sunday.  Whatever it is, find your quiet space and be protective of yourself as much as you can.  Know your limits and don’t be afraid to say no.  It has taken me awhile to learn to say no and to know when you don’t fit – and it’s ok not to fit.  It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or that you failed.  It just means that this isn’t the right role, job, product, company or department, for you and it’s ok to move on. I have had to make those decisions in my past, and all those decisions have led me to where I am today.

Speaking of moving on, have you ever had an instance where something didn’t work out, and you’ve realized that you’re better off for it?

My senior year of high school, I was someone who was in everything.  I did sports, clubs, student council; I was senior class president – I did everything.  I applied to colleges; I did everything you’re supposed to do: take your PSATs, take your SATs, get your score – you know we were all headed off into the future.  I was accepted into university when my bubble was popped. I had not had the conversation with my parents about school, and costs.  I didn’t know.  My dad has an associates Arts degree, and I have an aunt who has a Bachelor’s Degree, but apart from that, no one else in my family had a degree. My parents weren’t aware of costs; there was no internet, no email, none of this stuff. My dad was completely unprepared. His goal for me was to go to college, get a job, find a husband and go get married!” But at the same time be smart, be independent, and learn a lot.  It was mixed messages.

My parents told me that they were not going to pay for College and they thought my next steps were to attend a junior college; it broke my heart.  I had done all this work through high school and, at that time, I thought “what a waste”.  I could have just done nothing; I could have sat at home and watched 90210. After it was all said and done, I went to junior college.  It hadn’t even occurred to me to go: why would I?  I had good grades, I had all the activities, and I checked all the boxes.  But, it worked out great because in that plan B, I went from being a Business Major to an Industrial Organizational Psychology Major and I ended up graduating with a degree in Psychology from a four-year institution that I transferred to.  If I had started in a four-year school, it would have cost a whole lot more money and it would have taken me even longer to get there.  It was better for me to have the opportunity to make my own choices because I was paying for it, so I could do what I wanted to do.  That part backfired on my parents by the way, because they lost the ability to have a ‘say’ in my choices. I was likeyou raised me to be independent, so welcome to independent Kesh.

You do the best you can; it’s important to not always be pessimistic and understand every experience is there for a reason and just embrace it as much as you can. 

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Her Lived Experience

How do you find balancing being the Head of Marketing and a mother?

Me and my husband have to partner, so we divide and conquer – we don’t have family nearby.  If we want to go on a date night, I need to find a babysitter.  It gets hard and we sometimes have to say no to things.  I’ve been planning summer since November – I need to pick the camps I’ll send my kids to, when I am visiting family. For me planning, having calendars – both virtual and printed – is very key to my existence.  I would say that I have to just make myself be present with my kids.  Every so often we have an emergency happen with work and I need to stay later or I’m home and I’m trying to finish something – and that’s ok, because those things happen.  But I’ve had jobs where this would happen every single night. I would be at work until one in the morning, come home to sleep for a few hours and then be back in my car again at six in the morning, drive three hours to get to work, do a long day, drive home three or four hours, cook dinner, get someone where they needed to be and then do it all again.  That’s not sustainable, but that’s what happens to a lot of working mothers and there’s a stigma.

This is kind of what I mean when I say I go to Church on Sunday.  I’m like I need to go into this week with these things coming at me, both professionally and at home, how do I centre myself so that I don’t lose my mind?  The last thing I want is to be sick and miss this time with my kids because I’ve worked my way into an illness.  I want to do everything health wise to be present.

I live in a community, where 50% are working moms and 50% are not.  And non-working moms place a lot of judgement on the working moms. It’s hard when you know you are going to miss many of your kid’s activities. Mom guilt is real.  Sometimes I’ve taken a role backward so I can have more time with my family. But my kids know that mommy (and daddy) works. And they know why I work and what it provides. They understand that we are blessed. At the end of the day, I brought these people into the world.  My promise to them is to give them a solid childhood that they can build their adult lives off of, because they are going to be adult’s way longer then they will be children and by setting the example of hard work (just like my parents did for me) is a lasting example that teaches ten-fold responsibility.

The digital age is an interesting time to be a parent, how do you navigate raising your kids amongst all the noise?

I pull from all parenting approaches. I make sure that we do crafts and we’ll make sure to have chill Saturdays or Sundays when we can.  My kids are both in boy/girl scouts because I want them to have that balance of surviving in the wilderness, which is different for them.  I blend – I have handed my kids an iPad, they know how to turn on the TV and that Disney Junior is channel 123.  There’s a mix of technology, and I don’t fault any mom that leans on it.  I remember answering the pediatrician questions like how often does your kid watch television and thinking What’s the answer verses the answer I should say?”  I’m doing the best for them, and every dynamic household is different.  At the end of the day if my kids are healthy, happy, adjusted and play well – then that’s what matters. 

You have the floor – any words of wisdom you want to leave readers with?

You have a lot of your life to work.  Don’t rush through college.  If you have the means, use that money wisely to enjoy college.  Study abroad, do internships because at the end when you graduate, you don’t get that time back, so really should enjoy it.  That was a different experience for me, I worked all through college and I felt like I didn’t really get the college experience, so I’m very sensitive to that.  That’s something I have in mind for my kids to make sure they do get the college experience.  Then you graduate college and you wonder if you should get a Masters or join the workforce – don’t go get a Masters, join the workforce. 

When I was pursuing my Masters, I had some peers who graduated from four years of university, took a semester off and then jumped right into a Masters’ program.  You have no work experience at that point, so you’re asking questions that the rest of us are looking at you like “if you had just worked for one year, in one corporate job you would not ask these questions.”  You want to get the balance of book smart and work smart to help get you through (successfully), and I think you would get a lot more out of an advanced degree with this approach rather than going to school one right after another.  Unless you want to be a Doctor, then go get all that knowledge ASAP.  But if you’re studying business, or something in that realm, stop, work and then go back.  It’s harder, it is, but you will get more out of it.

Network.  I know that everyone says that, but there’s so much value in reaching out to people who inspire you. My suggestion is find people who inspire you, connect with them, build a sincere relationship that is two-way. it’s not about buying them coffee, just be genuine to what it is you want to accomplish and who you are.

Give yourself a break off social media.  Stop looking at what the Jones’s are doing – it will drive you insane.  Social Media is great and it has its perks, but it has so many cons – in my opinion it isn’t life.  It’s a degradation of that emotional skill where people have a hard time relating to each other in person.  From a Marketing standpoint, it has its value but from a personal standpoint, limit your exposure so you don’t forget how to relate to each other. It’s in those 1:1 relationships that we forge the bonds and we grow. We don’t want to forget nor lose that.

There is saying that my grandmother would always say and I live by it daily (and my kids know it all too well): A closed mouth does not get fed. Use your voice – be heard.

The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.

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Shanan Walsh – Director of Supply Chain

INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: SARAH CLAYTON

Shanan Walsh is the Director of Supply Chain. She was interviewed as part of a 12 month Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) series. The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

Throughout the course of our interview, Shanan broke down my traditional views of failure and built them back up into this incredibly innovative way of thinking.  I don’t think it was her intention to create a new normal for me, but when a belief has been so deeply engrained since childhood, and has proven its worth, you can be quite convincing. 

When Shanan is not realizing innovation through failure, she is looking for her own next personal challenge – and then supersizing it.  She’s the kind of person who decides to run a marathon, then elevates it to a Disney Goofy Challenge where you run a half marathon then a full marathon back-to-back.  In her words, “if something scares the absolute life out of me, I’m going to do it.”  Exploring beyond your comfort zone can be intimidating, but some of the best experiences and opportunities come when you need to divert from your original plan. 

Her Back Story

PHOTOGRAPHS BY: NITI RANDHAWA
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I was encouraged to explore, discover and try different things because it was ok to fail…You can’t go into a first attempt of anything and expect perfection because that’s just not realistic.

Tell me a bit about your childhood and family?

I was a big explorer.  My parents were great at encouraging me to discover new things – my dad especially so.  He was an entrepreneur in his own right, still is today, and he was big about encouraging me to build, to explore, to ferociously practice constant curiosity.  He built the first house I ever lived in, that was the sort of environment I grew up in – literally build the walls you imagine for yourself.  In junior kindergarten, I was the kid that couldn’t be pulled away from playing with these big wooden blocks, immersed in building the stories of my imagination. Through the years I was always encouraged to explore the boundaries of what I wanted to learn and read equal part science books, equal parts fantasy books and everything in between. 

That subconscious exposure to seeing the practice of taking an idea and bringing it to through to fruition had a big influence on me.  All the intensity, hard work and perseverance required to see an idea through, and the failure that comes with it.  It gave me a very practical understanding that whatever it was I wanted to be when I grew up. I just had to put in the work to build my own toolbox, and use it.  That’s really what it came down to right from the very beginning.

Did you always want to get into technology and operations or was it because of a series of experiences?

Definitely a series of experiences.  I had subjects I was interested in: I liked science, I liked physics, I liked math.  I genuinely enjoyed all those fields but I had yet to find an application that wound them all together.  In twelfth grade, a friend in school approached me with a program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program where schools around the world build robots to compete against a set of challenges.  Coming from an all-girls school, building robots wasn’t even on the radar.  Yet it was just so evident that we had to do it, so we made a pitch to the Principal and pieced our team together.

We were one of only two all-girls teams in Canada. We started to experience the revelations of “ok this concept from physics comes into play here” and “to figure this variable out we need to put calculus to the test” and intertwined it with, sheer creativity. I think we placed in the semifinals that year, far better than any of us ever imagined. And that lit a fire in me, in the team, in the school. In my graduating year we had the highest number of women move on to pursue engineering in the school’s history, and they were all members of that robotics team. It catalysed something special that was previously missing there, I think; innovation.

How do you stay motivated?  How do you pick yourself back up when things don’t work out the way you thought they would?

I suppose it comes down to the only variable I can effectively control is how I react. I can be faced with a really negative situation and from that choose to wallow in self-pity for a day, two days, three days and that will get me nowhere OR I can take it as an opportunity to say to myself “it didn’t work out, let me understand why.” I can’t control how something might be perceived, I can’t control whether or not an event will happen in a positive or negative way, but I can learn from it and I can take it as an opportunity. 

I suppose that ties back to growing up in a household where I was encouraged to explore, discover and try different things because it was ok to fail.  You get better from each iteration.  You can’t go into a first attempt of anything and expect perfection because that’s just not realistic. They say it takes ten thousand hours to perfect a craft. Maybe it’ll take ten thousand attempts for me to hit a goal, but I’ll learn a hell of a lot more with each failure along the way. I have a love-hate relationship with failure in that way! It doesn’t feel good, but you come out better for it in the end.

Her Career Path

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Clothes won’t pitch an idea, you do. Share your passions, your insights, your experiences, your ideas, and in doing so you are pulling the threads of your brand together.

What do you love about working in tech and software?

It is ever changing.  I always, always say I am never, ever bored because each day brings a new technology, a new integration or a new software frontier that helps the business continually evolve.  Looking at Achievers as an example: the Achievers that I started with is far from the form it takes today.  That sort of evolution is phenomenal, and that the technology exists within reach of my phone or my computer – in ten years’ time it could be Star Trek hologram recognition, who knows? It’s a far cry from building with blocks in JK, but the sentiment is the same; dream it up, and build it. Someone figured out how to create fire. Someone invented the wheel. Someone will go to Mars. We go where we choose, if we’re brave enough to pursue it. I love that about tech.

What is your current role at Achievers?  What do you find rewarding about it and what are the barriers you face?

I support a team I can only describe as superheroes. They are responsible for supporting and maintaining strong and healthy vendor relations around the world. In parallel, they support our members who reward themselves with locally meaningful products, experiences, you name it. The world is their oyster, and we support how they wish to celebrate it. There are benefits that come from learning about expanding globally and interacting with partners who aren’t necessarily used to the existing business model we have.   Seeing the team grow with our expansion and using their own perspective to take actions that add value is rewarding. 

A barrier experienced within my role also touches that same global scale.  When you’re talking about global delivery or product standards, you’re tackling a large-scale operation. It can be difficult to maintain such a high standard of service when you’re located in one little pocket of Toronto, Canada and you need to stretch that same experience and consistency over to Sydney, Australia.  It’s a pretty long reach, and one that needs its share of input and support from members within the team or other departments.  It necessitates a cross-functional effort to share insights and expertise, and collectively build refinements to make the experience better.  Or we collectively look at a failure, learn from it, revise it and put out another product or process. It may take ‘ten thousand’ iterations, but we’ll get there.

Can you share your thoughts on being a woman leader in an industry that is predominantly men?

Being in a male dominated industry, I think it’s very important to set an example and maintain your voice.  You can’t shy away from stating your opinion or facts.  There’s always going to be an audience wanting you to succeed and they will be cognizant of how you share yourself or react.  It’s very important to have women leaders and to infuse that positive presence throughout many industries, but especially in tech.  As women, the knee jerk reaction may often be to step aside, however we need to have sense of presence and confidence in our voices. 

Otherwise, what if our best idea yet passes us by? Why let that happen? All perspectives matter, it does nothing for nobody to keep yours tucked away. All of the leaders in my department are women.  We’re a very unique case as tech teams go, but I think it speaks volumes as to how successful that team is under that leadership. In time, I hope it doesn’t matter what your gender is, but instead what matters is what you can bring to the table and the ideas you have.

What are your thoughts on how the tech industry is challenging the traditional norms for personal branding and etiquette?

The concept of a personal brand is an interesting subject even just by the meaning behind the word. You say the word “brand” and what may come to mind are the big, bold logos of the world. Apple, Google, Amazon. Saying each of those triggers some form of a vision of those companies in your mind’s eye. Each of their products carry the theme of their respective brands. Maybe right away there’s a company in that mix that you trust over the others. The same applies to you or I.

Your “brand” is that generalized intellectual, emotional, visual representation of “you”. I think sometimes there’s confusion in that your brand goes no further than the brands you wear or carry, but that’s where Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg serve as great examples to counter that mentality. Clothes won’t pitch an idea, you do. Share your passions, your insights, your experiences, your ideas, and in doing so you are pulling the threads of your brand together like little data points to your story. Kind of like the adult version of connect-the-dots! Be authentically you. There’s no replica for that! Where the tech industry has shaken things up somewhat is in the very social manner we can share ourselves today. We are much, much more public with our lives and the content that’s meaningful to us. That can stir up some trouble if you’re not careful. Whether it’s social media or an idea, whatever you put out into the world is a reflection of you, and your brand.

Her Lived Experience

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Fail.  Fail hard.  Fail often.  Accept the failure and move on from it.  If it scares you, do it….then it’s all the more reason that that you need to look in the mirror and say “let’s do this”

Shifting gears from career, how do you enjoy spending your spare time?

It can vary so broadly.  There’s a creative side of me, I love to draw, do any sort of sketch work and sometimes I’ll play with different kinds of paints.  It’s freeing that part of the mind that I don’t always engage in any other day of the week. I love reading. It’s important for me to always be learning, and I find that exposing yourself to different subjects helps you gain different perspectives.

I’m also still volunteering with FIRST today.  I’m really focused on helping the other girl teams, who are still few in numbers.  It’s nice to go by and see them and have that chance to say “I was in your shoes, it’s daunting. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities and push through.” 

Sometimes I just like to explore.  You don’t want to look back on your time and say “you know what it would have been really cool to try x or y or z”, your opportunity is now: the only thing that’s going to hold you back is yourself.

How do you find time to balance all the demands you have professionally, but still make your personal interests a priority? 

It doesn’t always work out, to be honest.  It’s looking at everything that you want to do, everything that you want to accomplish and deciding what makes the cut. An analogy I use is “it’s all laundry”.  You have your clothes sitting in a pile, and it’s not organized, so you need to consciously look at it and decide what’s most important: what do I need today, what do I need tomorrow, what do I need a week from now and you start to group that laundry.  It comes down to prioritizing and managing your time.  It doesn’t always work out – it’s sort of like those questions like “how do you do it all” and really you just decide how, or what, you’re going to do first. The key is to not lose sight of those personal interests or needs, when the weight of other parts of your life weigh heavy. It’s tough, and I need to get better at it myself, but it’s important.

Any other advice you want to share while you have the floor?

Fail.  Fail hard.  Fail often.  Accept the failure and move on from it.  If it scares you, do it.  If it’s something that starts to instil any level of self-doubt, then it’s all the more reason that that you need to look in the mirror and say “let’s do this”, because what’s the worst that could happen?  You fail – you take that and learn from it and move on and do it again. So fail, listen and put yourself out there, because you don’t know what you don’t know. 

I always say keep an open ear and an open mind.  Very often I tend to think that we don’t know the story of any one person and we don’t know what they could bring to the table. Put yourself out there and speak to people and talk to people and learn from them.

I think people, and women especially, tend to count themselves out before they’re even in.  They’ll see that they’re in an interview room with 15 other guys and be like “oh, no chance, I don’t have a shot”.  You don’t know what any of their backgrounds are, if they have as much experience as you.  You have absolutely no idea, so look at them as a person and someone you can learn from, maybe, and have that value in yourself. 

Are there any personal or professional goals you want to achieve in the future and how are you going to work towards them?

Every fork in the road has led me somewhere I could not have forecasted so in some ways it’s hard to say. If I was asked this question when I graduated university, I probably would have said I would be in the pharmaceutical industry because of the pipeline of my program.  However, I graduated during a recession and no one was hiring, so I went to Disney and had this amazing experience.  I saw first-hand their amazing customer service and then had a totally different perspective on sitting isolated in a lab staring down a microscope.  

Had you asked me at the end of Disney what I would end up in, I probably would have said something more to the tune of going back to engineering.  I don’t necessarily think of things in terms of a deadline and I don’t think in things in terms of “six months’ time I want to be here”.  It’s more I look at what’s in front of me and say “I want to figure out a way to fix this or accomplish this” and if that takes three weeks, six months or ten years, that becomes my focus. Sometimes if you have your eyes so fixed on a target, you put blinders on to everything else.

The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.

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Larissa Dawe – Software Developer

INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: CARRIE TANGUAY

Larissa Dawe is a Software Developer. She was interviewed as part of a 12 month Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) series. The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.

As we settle in at a high-top table I notice Larissa’s posture. She projects confidence without even realizing it. While there’s a soft-spoken, endearing innocence and politeness in her tone of voice her words are powerful. I’m immediately blown away by how someone so young has already learned so much. She’s an amazing woman and a talented developer, brimming with optimism, positivity and potential.

But Larissa’s life has been full of adversity and she doesn’t shy away from it. She’s candid about how her parents struggled to make ends meet, her constant self-doubt and how her first job was so toxic she almost left the industry before her career even began. She coyly smiles as she mentions her “quiet defiance” and how she used that to turn every challenge into an opportunity to better herself, her career and those around her.

Larissa’s face lights up and she smiles broadly when she talks about being a developer, seeing her work come to life and the problems she tackles. It’s heartbreaking to know she was one bad experience away from giving up her passion. And I can’t help but wonder how many women like Larissa are out there that have dropped out before anyone knew their story.

Her Back Story

PHOTOGRAPHS BY: NITI RANDHAWA
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“I’m pretty motivated by people doubting me….I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else that I could be a woman in STEM.”

Tell me about your family and growing up in Florida.

I grew up in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida with not much to do. Being in Toronto now is pretty different for me. My parents are both very loving parents. They are both missionaries. We didn’t always have much money, but my parents always worked super hard to make ends meet. My dad especially. He’s a really smart man and he’s always worked so hard balancing our finances to give us a normal life. They always pushed my sister, brother and I to do really well in school. I grew up with straight As being the expectation which is good because that led me to a successful life. We all ended up getting big scholarships which is great because we may not have been able to afford to go to college without them.

There are a lot of things that made me who I am. When I was in elementary school I was bullied. Having that be a prominent part of my childhood years helped make me somebody who is kind and empathetic towards other people. I’m someone who tries to see things from multiple perspectives which is something I really like about myself.

Throughout high school and the early portion of my career I had low self-esteem.  I wasn’t good at standing up for myself. ‘A’s I’ve grown up, those experiences have made me stronger. Its given me more of a voice and I’m more willing to speak up and stand up for myself and for other people.

Why did you pursue a degree in Computer Science?

I intended to go to school to study theatre and environmental studies but I had a friend (he’s no longer a friend) that told me I could never handle Calculus and I was very offended.

I can be quietly defiant. So once he said that I thought, well, I’m taking Calculus! And I signed up for a course in college. Thinking back on it I’ve always been good in math and I’ve gotten straight A’s in it since the fourth grade. I did really well. My teacher, who really took a liking to me, was one of the biggest influences on me staying in the math field. She asked me what I was going to do after this course and she gave me all these courses she wanted me to take. Seeing her believe in me like that got me thinking;  “hmm, I guess I’m pretty good at this, maybe I should stick with it!” So I changed my major to math after that semester. Eventually I got to thinking what do I want to do with math? I’m not really interested in accounting or being an actuary or anything like that. I was required to take a Programming One course for a math major and after that I thought “this is it!” It’s creativity meets logic and that’s where I feel like my brain excels. I’m a huge problem solver but I’m also so creative and in mathematics there’s one way to solve a problem but in computer science there are many ways and there’s not best way just better ways. So I stuck with computer science after that.

Given your relatively recent move to Canada, what does your support system look like?

My number one supporter is my husband. We’ve been married for a year and half and he’s always there for me. He’s a motivated and determined guy who dreams big. If I’m struggling with something at work I’ll send him a message and he’s always like ”I know you can get it you’re so smart”.  And when I do solve that problem, he’ll say “I didn’t doubt you for a second”.

I struggle with believing in myself and he always believes in me 100%! I can doubt my intelligence but he thinks I’m super intelligent. He’ll always tell me that which helps me feel more confident and capable and I go for things I may not have gone for otherwise.

What is your approach or philosophy to overcoming challenges? 

Personally what drives me in almost every stage of my life has been overcoming things people put on you, like oppressive tendencies. I’m pretty motivated by people doubting me. If people think I can’t do something my first instinct is to go out and do it. I don’t know if I’d be in my career today if it weren’t for people along the way that made me feel like I couldn’t.

I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else that I could be a woman in STEM.

What inspires you to make a difference? Where does that sense of responsibility come from?

Growing up female I’ve faced a lot of hardship and a lot of trauma as a lot of women have. I know how hard that was for me and so I want my life to be dedicated towards making sure that future women don’t have to go through similar things. I know that gender, being a minority, things like that makes a person a little less privileged and it can make life really hard.

That’s why I’m inspired by just everyday people who try to do what they can to promote diversity, inclusion and social justice. Things like the leaders in AWN or writing this blog – that kind of stuff inspires me quite a bit. I hope to be one of those individuals who spends their life trying to make a difference and make it an easier place for other people to live in. Hopefully a world where we can all be on the same level.

Her Career Path

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“My next job in this industry was going to be my final straw…I wanted to get out because I didn’t have a good experience in my past jobs at all, I didn’t think I was going to stay in it.”

Tell me about your current role as Software Developer. What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your role?

In general, I get assigned a problem and I figure out a way to solve it. Right now specifically we’re working on reporting for the “Check-Ins” application. I’m working on a table showing all of the responses we’ve gotten from the check-in and being able to filter by specific fields.

It’s a lot of problem solving, figuring things out, learning on the spot. It’s definitely something I love about the job. I’m never comfortable and I feel like I thrive in that sort of an environment even though sometimes it can make me feel like I have imposter syndrome. I think “I don’t know enough, I’m never going to be as good as everyone because they understand this and I don’t” but at the same time once you do get something there’s this adrenaline rush! When you finally see it work and you see the fruition of your effort it’s really exciting to know you put in all this work, you learned so much and now there’s this application you can use.

The most challenging thing is the same thing I like about it. You constantly have to be learning and that’s great. Sometimes the learning will be quick, you’ll spend a half-hour and you’ll get it but there might be times where you’re working on something a lot more challenging. You have no idea what you’re doing and you have to learn a whole new language or you have problems that take you days to figure out. It can make me feel like “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this” and it weighs on you sometimes. You learn, you implement and it’s this quick high and low but if you’re in the low for an extended period of time that can feel uncomfortable.

I love how fast the space changes. There’s so much that you can achieve with technology and especially now we’re at this interesting point where I think we’re about to go through a lot of crazy shifts, on the brink of things like BitCoin, Artificial Intelligence becoming integrated into our everyday lives and I just find it all very fascinating and very exciting. I really enjoy being a part of it.

What do you consider to be your biggest success to date?

My first job was with a company where I was very unhappy with the work environment. I stayed at the company for one year and it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal but quitting that job was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for my personal and mental health. It took a lot of guts to leave. It was my first job out of college and it was so scary because I didn’t know how good I was. It was a big-name company that looked good on a resume and I didn’t know if I would ever get another opportunity like that again. I’m really proud of myself for being able to quit that job and keep moving forward.

Of course, looking back, I was a software developer and everyone is looking for them so I was able to find another job. It was a big leap of faith for me to make that decision. I’m really proud of myself for doing it because in a way it was me putting my foot down and standing up for myself and doing something for myself which, as a more passive person, I usually find intimidating.

What advice would you give to your younger yourself or other women who want to follow your career path?

Being a female in the software engineering world – it’s hard! It depends on what company you work for but at my first job I was the only female on my entire floor for a month and a half. It wasn’t a good environment to work in and I wish that I had quit that job sooner. My advice would be if you’re trying to be a software engineer there’s jobs out there for you and there’s companies that you’re going to love. If you’re at a job where adversity is this huge deal, I don’t think it’s necessary for you to stay there. You can find a place that’s going to appreciate you and a place where you won’t face those same challenges.

I would love for more females to enter this industry. One of my biggest passions is getting more women into STEM fields because we have so much to offer. The problem is that once you’re in the STEM field it can be hard if you’re not in the right company.

I thought “my next job in this industry was going to be my final straw”. I had also applied to a bunch of positions outside of Software Development. I wanted to get out because I didn’t have a good experience in my past jobs at all, I didn’t think I was going to stay in it. And when I got this position at Achievers I thought “well if this doesn’t go well I don’t want to do this any more.” Fortunately, it has gone well and I want other girls and women to know there are companies like this out there. You don’t have to settle for companies where conditions are hostile or you’re not being listened to.

How have you navigated the challenges you face in your career because of your gender?

When I first got into the field, I was 21 and I don’t think I was ready for it. I think I was caught unaware and I wish I could go back in time and handle things differently. Sometimes when I tell people about my first job people’s reaction is “you should have done this or you should have done that” and the thing to keep in mind is that I was so young. At the time, I did face adversity and I don’t think I did the right thing.  I would try to laugh things off or act like nothing had happened. There were so many guys, so many young guys at the company and it turned into a boys’ locker room. There was a lot of sexual harassment type stuff that occurred like inappropriate nicknames, calling me “baby”, comments about how I looked everyday, it got to be a lot. But I never really did anything about it. There was one guy at the company that was pretty nice and we were friends but then the other guys started saying inappropriate things about our friendship and it just made me feel so alone. I remember crying in the bathroom and I called my husband and said “I can’t take this any more, I have to quit”. And that’s what I did to stand up for myself.

I wish I could go back and say “I need to talk to HR about what is happening.”  If I had another chance I think I would. I would’ve done something else. Other than that all you can do is move on and not give up. Don’t stop doing things because you’re facing adversity. Things aren’t going to get better if you drop-out. I had that thought for a second there and I’m so thankful I found Achievers because now I’m so happy I didn’t. I don’t want other women to drop-out because if they do it’s letting other people who are creating these conditions for us win. Keep going, don’t stop, don’t give up.

Have you started to establish a personal brand? Or do you know what you want it to be?

I’m still so young, I’m still figuring that out. I guess I’d like to be seen as someone in the development world that can take on anything, front-end or back-end and as someone who can just get it done.

What I bring to the table that’s unique is definitely hyper positivity and optimism. That’s something that’s been consistent in every job review I’ve had:  it’s always “positivity, positivity, positivity!” I think I have a real can-do attitude. If someone presents me with a challenge my approach is “just say yes” and go for it because you’re never sure if you can do something until you try. You’ll be surprised by what you can do. I can take on challenges and stress while being able to smile about it and be somebody who’s an uplifting presence in the office. I think that’s my real unique contribution.

Her Lived Experience

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“I don’t want other women to drop-out because if they do it’s letting other people who are creating these conditions for us win. Keep going, don’t stop, don’t give up.”

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in tech today? 

Every woman faces different challenges based on their circumstance but I definitely think there’s power in numbers and we don’t have a lot of numbers [laughs]. You can feel very alone. I sometimes felt so alone in my jobs. Even if you try to fit in, try to make friends, you’re still so hyper aware of your gender in certain situations. So I think the more numbers we get the more power we’ll have. I think women face challenges across all fields but the challenges increase for women who are in fields where we’re so underrepresented. Sometimes I think women struggle to be heard. We have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves. Things like the “Google Memo” that came out about women not naturally being better software developers and similar articles that try to present “facts” that women are less qualified or less naturally prone to be good at these kinds of subjects…..it just sucks! I think women in the industry are tired of having to prove themselves and having to make a name for themselves and having a fair chance would be nice and not having people try to knock you down or act like “oh maybe there are some women out there who are good but this is actually a man’s field” would also be nice.

Historically, the original computers were all women. So when you really think about it computer programming and software engineering was a women’s field that was taken over by men [laughs loudly]. I think people are equally qualified for it.

When you have moments of self-doubt or lack confidence, what do you do to successfully move forward?

You have to think a bit objectively about yourself sometimes because you can really get in your own head. Taking a step back and looking at yourself through an objective lens can really help you get perspective on your abilities. You think “I’m stupid, I can’t do this, what if I fail? Other people are better than me” and all of this stuff. But you need to take a step back and think about all you’ve accomplished, where you came from and what you know. Sometimes I’ll be working on a problem and think “I’m never going to get this or other developers are more competent than me”.  Then when I look back, I can see “wow, I’ve come a long way and I’m so much better than I was and it’s amazing I’ve grown so much”. Every step of the way there have been challenges and every time I’ve conquered it and I’ve learned and I’ve been able to come out of it having that new skill set.

What role do you think women play in our advancement?

Huge! A huge role. I think women can create a hostile environment for each other sometimes. I’ve met a number of women who aren’t for other women. I’ve also met so many women who are truly 100% for other women and I think that’s a beautiful thing. Being the kind of woman that’s excited about the success of other women and the things they are doing: those are the kind of women that push other girls and women to be their best self. Sometimes it can be hard to believe in yourself but if you have other women that are there saying “listen, you can do this!  You’re smart! Capable!” that sometimes can be what you need to take that leap of faith. Having that kind of support system can make all the difference.

If you could give men in your field one piece of advice what would it be?

First, do whatever it takes to become aware of what happens to women and how often it happens. Sometimes I talk to my guy friends who are nice guys, and they say, “how could anyone do that?” The problem is there are people that would and do act like that. It’s something I want men to understand, that you may be a nice guy but not everybody is and just because you wouldn’t do this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and having that awareness that this does happen is so important.

Second, I would really encourage men if they want to do something it’s as easy as: if they see something happening, say something. Don’t just laugh, don’t have a “boys will be boys mentality.” If you care, don’t accept that kind of behaviour.

Thinking back on my first experience working in the industry, I wish anyone would’ve said something. I remember this time I was in my cubicle with my cube mate and this other guy came in and unbuttoned his shirt and said you like that don’t you”. It freaked me out and I just kept saying “stop it!” and finally the guy left. My cube-mate just said “that was weird” afterwards. In that moment, I wish he had done something to help. It’s not necessarily that men have to do it but women shouldn’t have to either!  And everyday we’re forced to.

Women are forced to put their foot down and they’re forced to have to stand up for themselves. I wish there were more men out there who would put their foot down with us because it can mean so much to a person who is going through something hard like that. So they don’t feel alone.

The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.