Women in Business: Making it happen

Women in Business reached out to five women in different industries across B.C. to see how they got into their careers, advanced and challenges faced along the way

Clockwise from top left: Brenda Leong, Gwen Point, Meeru Dhalwala, Phoebe Yong, Charlene Ripley

Phoebe Yong, founder and president, Magnolia Marketing Communications ■ After completing an undergraduate degree in communications and an MBA in marketing, Yong got her start doing sales and marketing for a tech company before joining a nascent Sierra Wireless.

“It’s a huge company now but I was, I think, employee No. 51 or 56,” she says.

As head of marketing and communications, she was part of growing the telecom company into a publicly traded global enterprise. There she worked with huge global brands such as Microsoft and AT&T.

“The one lesson I always remember from there is that even though you’re small, you’ve got to act like you belong at the table with them,” she says. “That was a great experience.”

As the company grew, so did Yong’s job. As head of global marketing, she was travelling regularly to Asia and Europe. Then children came along.

“Once you have children you have to go all in … but I also love what I do,” she says. “It was part of my identity, such a huge part that if I didn’t have it I think I would feel something was missing from my life. I still wanted to carry on with it.”

She began working part time as a public relations consultant. Then, five years ago, Yong decided to establish a marketing agency. Today, Magnolia employs 10 people.

What has she learned along the way?

Choose the right customers. “It’s OK to say no.”

Make the right partnerships. You don’t have to do it all yourself.

Love what you do.

“It’s a lot of work starting your own business in this field and if you don’t love what you do, then there’s not even a starting gate.”

And don’t waste time pointing fingers – a lesson she learned planning a major corporate event.

“About 5:30 I went to the caterer to make sure all of the towels were perfect and the candles were lit, and the caterer said to me, ‘Where is the liquor licence?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? That’s not my job … Nobody told me.’”

Instead of yelling or crying, Yong asked what she needed to do. That meant finding the Vancouver police official responsible and getting authorization.

“I drove around like a madwoman looking for that police officer,” she says.

She found him. The papers were signed and the party went on.

“I was an hour late but I didn’t lose my job.”

Gwen Point, Chancellor, University of the Fraser Valley ■ Gwen Point had three young children, a job as a hairdresser and a husband in law school when her yearning for learning could no longer be ignored. She had to decide whether to continue in a stable job or return to school as she dreamed.

It doesn’t seem there was much choice in the matter.

“We starved,” she says with a laugh.

Point had her fourth child in her second year of undergraduate studies in education at the University of British Columbia. She went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Portland and a doctorate at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

“What I tell young people pursuing higher education is that every level of education opens doors,” but not without sacrifice, she says.

“The reality is it costs money to go to school and it ends up being a sacrifice. Don’t be afraid to go without because in the end, it’s worth it.”

A member of the Skowkale First Nation – one of the 24 communities of the Stó:lo- Nation – Point says she experienced discrimination, but it didn’t stop her.

“As a First Nations woman you face discrimination and racism. That’s our reality, even today,” she says. “It can hold you back … or you’re going to rise above.”

Inspired by her grandparents and aunts, she has aimed throughout her career to inspire other Aboriginal students to pursue their dreams. She joined the University of the Fraser Valley as a faculty member shortly after earning her degrees.

“I’ve watched many students walk across the floor and I’ve watched young people who I’ve encouraged to go to university cross the stage, and it does make your heart feel good,” she says.

Her journey to the chancellor’s office included stops as the co-ordinator of the early childhood education program at the First Nations Training and Development Centre in Prince Rupert, as a faculty associate in the education department of SFU, manager of the Stó:lo- education department, regional co-ordinator of Aboriginal services for the Ministry of Education, Skills and Training in the Fraser Valley and in the North.

She also had the high-profile position of the province’s chatelaine from 2007 to 2012, when her husband, Steven Point, served as B.C.’s lieutenant-governor.

“My grandmother said to me, ‘Don’t forget who you are,’ meaning you carry your traditions. Be proud of who you are and learn this but, more importantly, take what you’ve learned and use it to help people.”

Charlene Ripley, executive vice-president and general counsel, Goldcorp Inc. ■ Charlene Ripley was working as in-house counsel for the oil and gas company Anadarko Petroleum when she was offered the chance to relocate to headquarters in Houston and head the global legal team.

It was a “very scary” opportunity, she says.

“I thought I was far too young and inexperienced to do that. I didn’t know what they were thinking.”

But she said yes and moved to Houston in 2003, setting a pattern that has served her well in her career.

“The move to Houston was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Ripley, who admits she suffers from “impostor syndrome.”

“I always thought I was being promoted five years ahead of when I should be promoted.”

But she never let that lack of confidence rob her of opportunities.

“I didn’t have a plan but what I did do was when an opportunity presented itself, no matter how scary and frightening it was, I took a calculated risk.”

Later in Houston, looking for a new challenge, she took another risk and left Anadarko to join a startup company. When, a few years later, she and her husband wanted to return to Canada, she was recruited by Goldcorp to head its legal team in Vancouver.

In 2013, Ripley was named executive vice-president and general counsel, a role that involves dealing with legal issues, global human resources, internal audit functions, insurance, ethics and compliance and enterprise risk management.

Her advice, not surprisingly, is to take a chance on opportunities presented.

“Especially as you’re starting out in your career, that’s the time to really go for it,” she says.

“There is a way to manage your confidence issues. It doesn’t happen overnight but it comes in little baby steps – like speaking up in a meeting, putting your hand up for opportunities and succeeding when you’re delivering a presentation.

“You have to embrace these things.”

Mistakes are unavoidable and she’s made a few.

“In making all the mistakes I’ve made, it somehow builds confidence because this did not kill me and I learned this. Now I know, this worked and this didn’t. It gives you courage to take more risks.”

Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner and chef, Vij’s, Rangoli and My Shanti restaurants, cookbook author ■ Meeru Dhalwala calls the wildly successful restaurant and cuisine business she owns with husband Vikram Vij her “accidental career.”

Born in India and raised in Washington, D.C., Dhalwala moved to Vancouver to join her new husband in 1995 without a work permit. Vij – from whom she is separated but who remains a business partner, co-parent and very close friend – had just opened a small, 14-seat restaurant.

“I was just hanging around because I couldn’t work,” she says.

In need of both money and something to do, and in possession of a master’s degree in Third World economic development that she could not put to use in Canada, Dhalwala began making chai tea for customers. Then she made a ginger-lemon drink.

“I taught myself how to cut an onion, I taught myself how to cut garlic, and then I went back to my childhood and said Mom used to do this, she used to roast all the spices. I really taught myself how to make Indian food based on what I ate growing up,” she says.

“I discovered something that I loved.”

Her first bit of advice: don’t overlook Plan B. Or Plan C.

“We’ve been raised by our parents and our society to follow our passion. We focus so much on passion that if we don’t get that passion we feel like ‘Oh my God, I don’t have the right career.’ But sometimes there’s nothing wrong with No. 2 or No. 3,” she says.

She and Vij quickly discovered they had a strong business relationship. While they were both excellent chefs, Dhalwala gravitated to the kitchen, while he excelled at the front of the house.

Their restaurant became the toast of the town. A second restaurant opened. Then a third. There are cookbooks, a line of take-home curries, television appearances.

But it wasn’t easy.

Her next piece of advice: have courage.

“Anybody who’s thinking about opening up their own business, they’re going to have to be brave,” says Dhalwala, speaking days after she returned from a learn-to-surf vacation in Nicaragua. At age 53.

More advice: be honest and learn to take feedback.

Despite the success, Dhalwala never feels they’ve “made it.” The restaurant business is a tough one and she and Vij take nothing for granted. They are always striving to do better.

“I pinch myself all the time,” she says.

Brenda Leong, chair and chief executive officer, BC Securities Commission ■ Brenda Leong had a finance degree, a law degree and no clear idea of the career path she wanted to follow.

Her father was an entrepreneur and businessman and she liked business. She was looking for a purposeful career, something inspiring, working alongside people she enjoyed.

“I found that at the commission. When you find something inspiring or a place where you’re inspired – wherever that is – it makes it easy to like what you’re doing and it makes it easy to do great work there,” Leong says.

It will be 25 years this year since she joined the BC Securities Commission. She’s held a half-dozen different positions and she is still inspired.

“It is still very, very male dominated in the corporate finance world. I can be in a meeting where I may be one of three women in a group of 20. Sometimes I’m the only woman in the entire room. It’s not lost on me but at the same time I never look at it as a barrier,” she says.

“I look at people in the room and I treat them all as my equals and when I go into a room thinking that, I never feel intimidated by it.”

Education was very important in Leong’s family home growing up in Calgary.

“I have a daughter who is in university now and I tell her that being top of the class is not the key to success. Having the right attitude, I always say to her, is more than half of the equation.”

Leong is a champion of a thoughtful workplace, and looks for that attribute in others and opportunities to help those with it move up. She has had several such supporters herself, including a former vice-chair of the commission.

“He was somebody actually I was afraid of, which made it all the more rewarding when he acknowledged some of the great work that I did here,” she says. “It made all the difference.”

Her advice to other career women is to follow your instincts.

“Sometimes that means taking risks and feeling uncomfortable,” she says. “I find that challenges, the kind that make you feel a bit scared, are the ones that help you grow personally and professionally.” ç