Businesses in the fields of technology and engineering—traditionally male-dominated— are seeing a shift, with more and more women taking the reins. Here, we introduce you to eight Canadians who are leading the charge.
If Donna Strickland, the University of Waterloo professor and scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, has shown us anything, it’s that Canadian women are killing it when it comes to forging new paths in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Still, when most of us think about the leaders in these fields, we think of men. A survey commissioned in March by Girls Who Code found that 52 percent of respondents couldn’t name a female scientist. And a report by a business consulting firm released in 2017 found that even though women make up 47 percent of the Canadian workforce, there are just 23 percent of us in STEM fields. There’s much more we can do when it comes to recognizing and investing in female movers and shakers, mainly because “gender diversity is critical if we are to create innovations that are useful and relevant to the entire population,” says Sherry Colbourne, president and CEO of Spark Centre, which helps technology and innovation entrepreneurs in the eastern Greater Toronto Area launch, develop and grow their business.
We caught up with eight leaders in business and STEM, each doing incredible things across the country. Here’s what they had to say about their work and being a boss in science and tech industries.
WHO: Luna Yu, 25, CEO, Genecis Bioindustries Inc.
MY HQ: Toronto
MY BUSINESS: Genecis helps lower the barrier for plastic manufacturers to create healthy and affordable products, such as compostable coffee pods, liners and containers. Our first product line is a high-quality plastic resin that is recyclable, home-compostable and marine-biodegradable. Our proprietary technology reduces the resin production costs by 40 percent by making them from organic waste.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: My team.
ON BEING A WOMAN IN STEM AND A LEADER IN BUSINESS: Science and technology thrive on objectivity, methodology and results. It doesn’t matter who the enabler is, so long as meaningful contributions are made. As a leader, it’s been humbling, challenging and fun. I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but the thrill of turning a disaster into an opportunity is the best part of the journey.
WHO: Shyra Barberstock, 39, president and CEO (North America) and global chairperson, Okwaho Equal Source
MY HQ: Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ont.
MY BUSINESS: The Okwaho Network is an Indigenous-inspired social network that connects Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to the greater global Indigenous community. On the Okwaho Network, you will find Indigenous and non-Indigenous members from Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: My support network.
ON BEING A WOMAN IN STEM AND A LEADER IN BUSINESS: I imagine the underrepresentation of women in STEM is even higher for Indigenous women. My business partner/husband is from a matrilineal society. In Mohawk tradition, Indigenous women are seen as having the “vision” and the traditional role of Mohawk men is to support Indigenous women in moving their vision forward. Since our social network and business launched, I have been pushed to the forefront as a leader, change-maker and influencer because of the support I've had around me.
WHO: Bonnie Foley-Wong, 45, CEO, Pique Ventures
MY HQ: Vancouver
MY BUSINESS: Pique Ventures is an impact investment firm. We create venture capital funds and invest in a diverse community of entrepreneurs building companies that care, connect and protect. We help people make more compassionate decisions by integrating analysis, emotion, body and intuition.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: Focus.
ON BEING A LEADER IN STEM: I love the opportunities available in the fields of science and technology. I did a math degree and I can’t help but notice the interesting and creative applications of math in the world. Working in STEM is richest when it’s collaborative rather than competitive and adversarial. I feel the most energized when I’m shining the spotlight on the CEOs that Pique has invested in.
WHO: Nadia Hamilton, 32, founder and president, Magnusmode
MY HQ: Toronto
MY BUSINESS: Magnusmode leverages mobile technology to help people with autism and other cognitive special needs live with greater independence. Companies use our app, MagnusCards, to provide step-by-step visual, text and audio how-tos for navigating their products and services. People with special needs download and follow along.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: A powerful vision and a mission to create a more accessible world.
ON BEING A LEADER IN STEM: Just today someone visiting our office thought I was the receptionist. I guess I stand out, as a black woman in STEM. I’ve learned (and I am still learning) that to be a great leader you have to be a skilled listener. Having strong mentors in my life—along with my willingness to engage and learn with humility and enthusiasm—has made all the difference.
WHO: Tara Akhavan, 34, founder and chief technology officer, IRYStec
MY HQ: Montreal
MY BUSINESS: IRYStec makes displays (screens, dashboards, etc.) smarter by using all environmental information such as lighting conditions and characteristics of the viewer to provide the best and healthiest viewing experience. IRYStec builds the first software technology for screen applications that considers the physiology of the eye.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: I never give up until I achieve a goal.
ON BEING A LEADER IN STEM: Working in a male-dominated field has its own challenges, but there are also benefits. For example, since there are fewer women in the automotive industry there are fewer women at the meetings, so I become more memorable for the attendees. I'm at the sweet spot of being young, an immigrant and a woman. The constant battle of proving myself has made me stronger.
WHO: Sana Virji, 27, co-founder, Ribitt
MY HQ: Toronto
MY BUSINESS: Ribitt rewards people for shopping local (think PC points or Air Miles for independent stores). Users download the app and get points on every purchase at neighbourhood shops. All points add up to cash value and can be redeemed at any shop on the platform.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: Riding the highs and the lows. I've finally figured out how to celebrate the value of both wins and failures.
ON BEING A LEADER IN STEM: When my co-founder and I walk into a room, the first assumption is that Ribat is the CEO and I’m working with him. I think if people stop assuming roles based on gender, it would save everyone embarrassment. At the same time, there's so much support for being a female founder, more people are making a conscious effort to have real conversations and providing resources for women to succeed.
WHO: Jill Green, 48, co-founder and CEO, Green Imaging Technologies Inc.
MY HQ: Fredericton
MY BUSINESS: Green Imaging Technologies is the global leader in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for oil and gas exploration. We write software that allows MRI instruments to perform measurements in the laboratory on rock cores extracted from the ground during the oil and gas exploration process. The software provides information that helps oil companies know how much oil and gas is in the ground and the best way to get it out.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: Incredible optimism; it’s my superpower.
ON BEING A WOMAN IN STEM AND A LEADER IN BUSINESS: You often hear people express negativity about women in male-dominated industries but I’ve had the exact opposite experience. I’ve been warmly accepted as a leader in my field. I remember working on one job site where an older pipe layer said, “You’re just like one of the guys, but you smell really good.” It was the best compliment.
WHO: Serese Selanders, founder and CEO, ORA and SolusGuard
MY HQ: Saskatoon
MY BUSINESS: At ORA, we make personal wearable safety alert devices. When help is needed, the wearer presses the button and an emergency notification and GPS location is instantly sent to contacts. If there’s no response from the wearer, our system instructs the wearer’s phone to call 911. SolusGuard provides safety solutions for employers to keep employees safe.
MY BIGGEST ASSET: Perseverance.
ON BEING A LEADER IN STEM: Although being a woman in STEM may seem daunting at times, there's momentum from people and organizations who genuinely want to see us succeed in this space. There's still a lot of work to be done, but we're heading in the right direction.