ALL HANDS ON DECK
The powerful force that is women mentoring one another.
By Nickie Shobeiry
I didn’t realize I was moving to Canada when I moved to Canada from the UK. What started as a holiday to see family and celebrate Persian New Year quickly turned into an all-hands-on-deck effort to keep me in the country and build me a life.
I was incredibly lucky to have friends and family on my side to support this newfound mission—not just helping with the paperwork (although that’s always great, too!), but also bringing me into their personal networks. Thanks to all this, Ottawa became home at lightning speed.
A large part of this is due to mentorship—from my own cousin, Mariam Zohouri, and from the many incredible souls who she introduced me to along the way.
For young professionals, mentorship is an essential part of career advancement. A good mentor can provide unique insight into how a role functions, offer invaluable leadership guidance, and encourage their mentee to confidently seek out new opportunities.
It’s a two way street; organizations benefit from mentorship, too. By developing a “leadership pipeline”, or helping new hires to adjust to the company culture, employers can build trust by supporting young professionals with their career aspirations.
Undoubtedly, everyone benefits from a relationship like this—but perhaps the biggest beneficiaries today are young women. Mentors are leaders in their field, and women continue to be underrepresented in both professional and political leadership positions.
According to Canadian Women Foundation’s research, although 82 percent of women aged 25 to 54 now participate in Canada’s workforce, they are still underrepresented in leadership roles. Women hold only 25 percent of vice-president positions and 15 percent of CEO positions. Out of the top 500 companies and organizations in Canada, 109 do not have any women on their board of directors. And a 2018 study by McKinsey & Co shows that women aren't being promoted into management positions as quickly as their male colleagues.
Despite stats like this, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of having fantastic female mentors throughout my career, both at home in England, and in Canada. As mentioned, when I first arrived in Ottawa, my dear friend and cousin, Mariam Zohouri, supported me as I found my feet. Zohouri introduced me to her own mentor of many years, as well as a wonderful array of the city’s stakeholders she made met throughout her time as a community-builder in Ottawa.
Zohouri is a creative communications professional, artist and founder, who established global non-profit Mealshare's chapter in Ottawa, before moving to Toronto to do the same thing there. Now, she's working with Invest Ottawa, making sure the whole city knows about all the financial resources available to them.
I asked Zohouri what mentorship had meant to her in her career. “I've been engulfed by the support, passion and challenging motivation of female mentors my entire life,” Zohouri says. She also explained how, as a second-generation Iranian immigrant, she had always felt the love and support of her family pushing her towards the ‘Canadian dream’.
Having a mentor who understands your life experience is key. Growing up, it was invaluable to have someone like this cousin of mine—a woman who is intelligent, ambitious and kind-hearted—who not only downright encouraged my crazy whims (“Just stay in Canada!”)—but could also speak to shared experiences of being a second-generation immigrant, and of having Middle Eastern roots.
Recalling more recent mentors, Zohouri says, “A few years into my new life in Ottawa, I went for drinks with two women who were volunteering their public relations expertise to the social enterprise I was managing. As our conversation turned to our shared passion for politics, they began asking me questions: Where did I want to make a difference? What was my vision for Canada? When would I run? How could they help?
“That’s the magic of female mentorship—creating a space where women can be seen for who they are, and inspired and supported to be who they want to be.”
It was with this notion of female mentorship in mind that Zohouri helped me make Ottawa home. A part of that was connecting me with Manjit Basi, co-founder and former executive director of the Ottawa-based civic engagement group Synapcity.
Basi is a passionate entrepreneur and community builder. For 21 years, she owned four locations of The Body Shop in Ottawa, which would go on to be in the Top Five performers in Canada. Basi’s focus on open heartedness, and philontrophic nature led her work there—and led to employees staying with her for many years.
For her employees then, and for countless more later, Basi was a mentor. Today, she works as a leadership coach for women, turning that same talent for human connection into something that is certified: a service that can be rendered by women, whoever they may be.
Basi helps clients through her deep commitment to expanding human potential. “I like to think of myself as a shift-disturber,” she says. “When I work with a client, we create a sacred space for them to work out whatever they need to work out. Often you see they're looking for a shift. I'm not necessarily teaching—what I'm really doing is asking a lot of powerful questions which tend to be intuitive, because I’ve studied ontological coaching: the study of how we show up in the world, which is the alchemy between our emotions, what our body is doing and the language that we are speaking.”
I asked Basi who her own mentors had been. “My first mentor was definitely my mother,” Basi explained. “She taught me to love and to have an open heart. She was the most welcoming person that I have ever known in my entire life. I come from a blue collar working family, and my father was the only one who worked. My mother gave whatever we had with so much love—I saw her build community.”
Basi named more of her mentors: Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop International, and Margot Franson, who in turn brought The Body Shop to Canada.
“Anita had dinner at my house when I invited her,” Basi recalled. “She was doing a book tour, and everyone thought she wouldn’t [stop by]—but she came, she sat with all my staff, showed slides and told stories. I didn’t have a dining room table at that time, so most of us ate on the floor. It was that humility, for her to be sitting on the floor talking to my four year old at the time. I learned humility from her.”
Speaking of Franson, Basi says, “Margot took me on as a franchisee. I became the youngest franchisee, and I began with two shops, and that had never been done before. If I think about it now, it was pretty ludicrous, because the only job that I had ever had was being a host at McDonald's, when they still had hostesses.”
Basi also named Barbara McInnes, the former president of the Community Foundation of Ottawa, and Grete Hale, a philanthropist who founded the Community Foundation of Ottawa, the Beechwood Cemetery Foundation, CANHAVE Children’s Centre, and more.
“These women were the ones who opened up connections and doors for me,” Basi says. “They brought me into the world of philanthropy when they saw what I was doing at the grassroots level.”
We all benefit from seeing women in leadership positions, and we all benefit from women coaching women—and no matter where we are, or who we are, we all benefit from our mentors. My own have taken several different forms: from a well-dressed editor throwing me in the deep end on my first day as a journalist, to empowering words shared over coffee by women like Basi, to wisdom being shared in a structured mentorship circle.
As I write this, it’s been very nearly two years since I first moved to Canada—since being welcomed into the community-spirit and generosity of this city. I’m honoured to be able to list mentors on both hands who have supported me to get to where I am today.
To all of you I say: thank you.
Nickie Shobeiry is a journalist and author, focusing on immigrant identities as expressed through art, culture and politics. Today, Nickie continues to develop pioneering film and TV projects, and collaborates with community initiatives across the UK and North America.