Influential Women in Business Awards: Carol Liao

Q&A: Director, Centre for Business Law, University of British Columbia

Carol Liao is one of three Canada Climate Law Initiative co-leads | Chung Chow

BIV is proud to recognize six B.C. leaders as 2021 Influential Women in Business Award recipients.

A Q&A with honouree Carol Liao follows.

What career highlight are you most proud of? 

Early in my academic career, I received a cross-faculty designation as the UBC Sauder Distinguished Scholar at the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics, and it was transformative for me. The Dhillon Centre gave me the platform to find my own scholarly voice in business, after years of practising corporate law in New York. I am proud to be in the position to educate senior executives on sustainable governance, while also helping women advance in their careers. It is rewarding to feel like I am making a difference.

Your toughest professional challenge as a woman in business? 

Numerous empirical studies have shown that women, particularly racialized and Indigenous women, face significant systemic barriers in attaining leadership roles. It can be frustrating to know that I need to work harder to establish my competence every time I walk into a new boardroom or classroom. Women also get many conflicting messages: be ambitious, but not too ambitious; be confident, but make sure you don’t come across as too aggressive or intimidating. This balancing act can be emotionally taxing, especially for women of colour.

Greatest advice ever received? 

Two valuable pieces of advice have resonated with me in my career. The first: do not self-select out of opportunities. You will not receive that job, that promotion, that grant, if you do not apply. Know your self-worth and let them reject you if need be. Their loss.

The second piece of advice came from my friend and colleague Lee Schmidt, who said: “Vulnerability is strength.” It really struck me. I think in business we greatly undervalue the importance of people speaking from the heart. Why do we regard these moments as a sign of weakness? They are often true moments of strength and trust.

What do you wish you knew when you were first starting out? 

I wish I knew that most people with power and authority are just regular people, winging it. And on the flip side, I wish I knew that so many superstars seem to struggle with impostor syndrome. It would have humanized things a bit more for me.

What does it take to be a leader in 2021? 

A leader must integrate environmental, social and economic sustainability within their organization, and meaningfully diversify power structures. Business leaders are putting their companies at risk if they do not consider the environmental and social impacts of their actions, and boards have a fiduciary obligation to put climate-related risks and opportunities on the board agenda. The Canada Climate Law Initiative (which I co-lead with professors Janis Sarra and Cynthia Williams) provides boards with free education on climate governance in the transition to a net-zero carbon economy.

Ensuring the diversification of boards and senior management goes hand-in-hand with integrating sustainable practices. The business, legal and ethical cases for sustainability and diversity are clear.

What is your best habit? 

My partner and I have three young children along with our professional responsibilities, so my best habit is borne out of necessity, which is my ability to multi-task.

A book you would recommend? 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is masterful, and everyone should read it.

One surprising or improbable fact about yourself? 

I climbed Mt. Meru in Tanzania on a whim with a friend while I was working at the United Nations in 2007. I bought hiking boots the day before and borrowed a jacket from someone at the base of the mountain because I did not know until then that we were climbing so high there was going to be snow. The last day we climbed for 16 hours and when we finally made it to the top, it was glorious.

A video of this year's virtual awards gala can be viewed at biv.com/iwib starting March 8.