Glass ceilings can seem ominous when they’re above you, but seeing the possibilities on the other side of the glass can make it easier to keep going. In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we asked six women leaders from Toronto to share their stories and advice from the other side of the glass.
Iris Serbanescu, Founder and CEO, wmnsWork
Her Work: wmnsWork is the industry's first tourism accelerator specifically for women and non-binary entrepreneurs who are in the early stages of entrepreneurship. The 12-week virtual, global program (currently in its third cohort) takes only 12 women at a time and provides each with access to business-building workshops and a supportive community to lean on as they grow.
Why She Does It: During the pandemic, Serbanescu realized that while women make up 60% of the tourism industry, they hold less than 8% of the executive positions. “I want to build a safe space for them to thrive and to grow those businesses, so that we can move the needle on gender equality and travel. Without more women in ownership and leadership we're going to keep having the same problem.”
How She Built It: She quit her day job and leaned on the network and skills she’d garnered from over a decade in the industry. She has successfully supported dozens of new businesses including Sororal, The Traveling Wakili, Kenya, Soulful Safaris, India and Outlier Journeys.
Her Advice: Build your networks.
“I don't think anything really prepared me for entrepreneurship, but I've really made a concerted effort to create deep relationships and partnerships with people in the industry and those connections are what have laid the foundation for wmnsWork to be successful.” She also recommends action over preparation. “Trust your intuition, and trust that first step and that's kind of all you need.”
Where to find her: email@example.com
“Trust your intuition, and trust that first step and that's kind of all you need.”
Rekha Khote, Mentor and Board Member, Destination Toronto
Her Work: As a little girl, Khote dreamed of a job in hospitality. With a career that included stints at Delta Hotels and Starwood Hotels, that dream came true. When she retired, she started MK2 Hospitality, a small business consultancy, to continue to offer her experience to companies who needed help. Today, she finds fulfillment in mentorship and Board work across the city.
Why She Does It:
“It is the kind of industry that gets in your blood,” says Khote. “And if you get bitten, it is such a fulfilling, engaging, vibrant and sexy industry to be in.” Too often companies are forgoing investments in junior employees’ well-being, instead shifting to an expectation that employees should just feel grateful to have a job, she says. It was a void she knew she could fill. “I mentor women in our industry. That is my undying passion.”
How She Built It: Khote mentors ten women at a time. Most of those are senior level women in the industry. It’s all voluntary. Consistent themes include having their voice heard in a male-dominated workplace, imposter syndrome, work life balance and dealing with difficult bosses. “I spend a lot of my time helping them develop strategies and approaches on how they can handle these situations.”
Her Advice: Find your own Mentor.
Khote suggests women be proactive and find both mentors (people who can advise you) and advocates (people who will speak up for you) in the industry. Start by asking people you know and who know you well. “They’re more likely to recommend someone who will be a good fit.”
Where to find Her: Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Be proactive and find both mentors (people who can advise you) and advocates (people who will speak up for you) in the industry.
Alicia Jenelle, Director of Experience Design, The Jenelle Group
Her Work: Jenelle’s event planning company works with companies from around the world including Vistaprint, TD Bank and The Globe and Mail.
Why She does It: “I really love bringing people's visions to life and bringing people together,” says Jenelle. “I can make adults feel like children again.” Intentional catering selections, playful centerpieces and creative branding have helped her “add a little bit of flavor and fun” to the work she does with major players.
How She Did It: Fresh out of college, Jenelle didn’t often see herself reflected in the places she was being interviewed for work. She realized that she would need to build the community she needed, and intentionally built a roster of collaborators who are best in business operators in their fields. “Initially, we were called Alicia Jenelle events and we’ve rebranded to The Jenelle Group.” The new name, she says, is a better reflection of the partnerships she leverages – from video production to content development. “I don't do it all myself,” she notes. “…now, we’re able to provide that whole cohesive experience.”
Her Advice: Be bold.
Early in the life of her business, mentors told her she’d need to advocate for herself if she wanted to survive. She took it to heart. “I leveraged the pandemic as an opportunity to provide value to potential clients,” she says. Instead of asking for work, she offered herself as a resource for planning and executing virtual events. Looking back, she would advise her younger self against self-censorship—worrying about things like whether she’d be judged for wearing her naturally curly hair. Today, she views her differences as an asset. “Don’t be afraid to express yourself in a way that aligns with your culture and who you are. If people don't like it, they're not the right client for you.”
Where to find Her: Across social media @thejenellegroup
“Don’t be afraid to express yourself in a way that aligns with your culture and who you are. If people don't like it, they're not the right client for you.”
Monika Wahba, Sous Chef, Maha’s Egyptian Brunch
Her Work: The Top Chef Canada contestant ditched a career in commercial photography to follow a family passion. Her family’s restaurant Maha’s Egyptian Brunch recently received Michelin Guide recognition.
Why she does it: Wahba’s family immigrated from Egypt to Toronto in 2000 but 13 years later, as she graduated York University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, she found herself unsure of her next steps. At the time, the rest of her family was at a crossroads too. Her younger brother was unsure about his business degree pursuits. Her father had been laid off a lifetime career. And her mom, Maha Barsoom, was an interpreter working two jobs to make ends meet. The lightbulb went off after an Egyptian casserole her mother made for an office Christmas party got rave reviews: Why not open a restaurant together? “It was just kind of serendipitous timing for our whole family,” she says. “Egypt was always in our hearts and at our dinner table.”
How She Does It: Wahba and her brother called on experiences they’d had helping their mother in the kitchen and working together at a café in the east end. The initial plan was that it would be Maha in the kitchen, but Wahba found herself drawn in to help. Now the restaurant’s sous chef, Wahba’s skills and talents are so good that she landed a spot on season 10 of Top Chef Canada. Those accolades are all gravy to her. “More than anything else, the safety and future of my family was at the forefront of the whole business plan.”
Her Advice: Consider the source of unsolicited advice.
While there were supporters in the early days, there were also vocal strangers who doubted the family’s dreams. Learning to tune them out took time, says Wahba. “As much as it is important to listen and hear what other people have to say…it’s as important to know who you trust,” she says. “My job gives me the absolute satisfaction that I need. It's important to remember why you do what you do, every day.”
How to find her: @Mahasbrunch on Instagram and Twitter.
“My job gives me the absolute satisfaction that I need. It's important to remember why you do what you do, every day.”
Karen Nakai, Global Sales Director Luxury, Lifestyle & Leisure, Hyatt Hotels
Her Work: Nakai works with Canada’s Travel Trade community to share the story of Hyatt Hotels around the world.
Why She Does It: “Because I really enjoy selling our different brands and learning about them, moving into a global sales role was something that I had always looked at as an opportunity,” she says. Her new role returns her to Toronto from New York, with a focus on the Canadian Travel Advisor community. “Now I get to work on learning about all of the opportunities around the world with our hotels. I really get to strategize, develop, and grow.”
How She Does It: Despite a family history in restaurant hospitality, Nakai never expected to be a part of it. She originally went to the University of Guelph to study human kinetics, but the hospitality school—and their mandatory wine class—caught her eye. “At the end of the day, I was like, You know what, I can have fun. It's mandatory to learn about all these wonderful things, but you finish with a Bachelor of Commerce.” Her first job at the Park Hyatt Toronto was in housekeeping (“the hardest job in my life”) and 18 years later she remains loyal to the hotel brand. “Every opportunity has always been challenging in different ways, but it's also been very rewarding.”
Her Advice: Follow your Passions.
A former HR director once advised Nakai to follow her passion. She’s used that as a gut check on every fork of the road in her career. “It's super important to do what you love to do and find ways to grow professionally and personally,” she says.
“It's super important to do what you love to do and find ways to grow professionally and personally."
Laura Purdy, General Manager, Exhibition Place and Co-founder, Women in Exhibitions
The Work: Purdy has worked for Exhibition Place for the last 25 years. In 2021, she co-founded Women in Exhibitions, North America—a networking club for women in the industry.
Why She Does it: “When I started in the industry all of my mentors were men. I had incredible mentors, but there weren't a lot of women and there certainly weren't a lot of women leaders in the industry,” she notes. “I think I would have benefited from seeing other women in senior positions.”
How she does it: “We wanted to create an informal network where women could speak with other women in the industry; where they could grow their network, and be empowered by other women,” she says. The Zoom format allows for people to chime in from across the continent and WIEN-time meetups at established industry events allow for in-person connections as well. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for younger women to interact with women who have been in the industry for a long time.”
Advice: Put your hand up.
“You need to keep yourself open to new opportunities,” she says. “The learnings in this industry happen organically, and your career path kind of happens in that way too.” By being open to trying new things, like participating on a cross functional team, for example. you create opportunities to build new muscles. “Put your hand up because the benefits that you'll achieve from that experience will pay off.”
How to find her: Reach her on Linked in
“Put your hand up because the benefits that you'll achieve from that experience will pay off.”