U of T alumni discuss entrepreneurship at Female Founders panel

Leila Keshavjee, Saara Punjani, Pooja Viswanathan on challenges, failures, and future successes

U of T alumni discuss entrepreneurship at Female Founders panel

Founders, innovative thought leaders, pioneers, role models: these were just some of the terms lavished upon U of T alumni-cum-entrepreneurs Leila Keshavjee, Saara Punjani, and Pooja Viswanathan at a panel event at ONRamp on the eve of International Women’s Day. Dubbed “Female Founders,” this event was the first in an annual speaker series that leverages both the celebration of International Women’s Day and U of T’s thriving entrepreneurship culture to discuss the triumphs and challenges of being a female founder.

Christine Allen, the Interim Dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, moderated the panel. She is also the co-founder of tech startup Nanovista.

Overcoming structural challenges

Punjani cited credibility as one of the main hurdles on the path to success. Punjani is the Chief Operations Officer of Structura Biotechnology, a startup founded by her brother Ali and also Marcus Brubaker. The business develops machine learning technology for structural biologists.

“We have a product that’s based on a completely new technology. The market is something that we are actively trying to create as we go along,” she said. Part of building this market is finding ways to establish credibility within existing markets, which is why Structura Biotechnology has offered its software to academic institutions for free — results published using the software are their “foot in the door,” according to Punjani.

Keshavjee, the founder of healthy, all-natural fruit ice popsicle startup Happy Pops, said that earning credibility as a young female entrepreneur has been a recurring challenge. “People often don’t trust young female entrepreneurs… but I think hopefully we’re changing that,” she said. Keshavjee said that preconceived notions of what an entrepreneur looks like can be a strong inhibitor for women. Her appearance and subsequent $150,000 offer on Dragons’ Den, she said, has allowed her to partially overcome this issue when dealing with clients, despite nothing about her product having changed.

For Viswanathan — co-founder of Braze Mobility, a startup that develops sensors that improve accessibility for wheelchair users — perception can be turned to her advantage. “I think a lot of the [problems are] just how you perceive [them],” she said. “So when you walk in thinking you’ve got a competitive edge because you’re a woman, then it actually turns out that way.”

Failure can be healthy

Failure has been a recurring motif for the three entrepreneurs, and each has their own approach on how to fail and how to come back stronger. “You’ve gotta fail fast,” Keshavjee said. “You’re gonna fail so many times as an entrepreneur… there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this.”

Viswanathan said that failure prevents complacency and pushes her to pursue alternative solutions to problems. “One thing that I actually love about failure is there’s nothing [like it to] get you moving,” she said. The lack of wheelchair standardization made it difficult for her startup to create universal sensors, especially without enough expertise in mechanical engineering and design. Her solution was to assemble a team capable of complementing each other’s expertise.

As for Punjani, overcoming failure depends on “changing the definition of what it actually means to fail.” She added that “having had more life experience and more of an entrepreneurial experience, you start to see that it’s not really about what you accomplish at the end of the day or what you expected, but… that you keep going.”

Sensing a bright future

Keshavjee, Viswanathan, and Punjani’s brother all relied on U of T’s Impact Centre to help launch their startups. The Impact Centre is one of the university’s nine accelerators; it provides resources and commercialization aid for aspiring entrepreneurs. Punjani had also relied on support from the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab and UTEST, two other U of T accelerators.

Changes are on the horizon for all three startups, owing to the continued success they’ve been able to achieve thus far. Keshavjee’s Happy Pops is projecting 500,000 sales in 2019, in what is only its fourth year of operation. Keshavjee hopes to distribute her product across Canada and the US within the next five years.

Punjani and Structura Biotechnology are likely to shift from developing software to becoming involved in the field of drug discovery as they continue to expand their reach into their market.

Finally, Viswanathan’s startup is aiming to be “the intelligence behind the entire wheelchair manufacturing industry.” She said that the “industry is very mechanical heavy,” meaning that it has not significantly invested into software and intelligence data, which in turn limits wheelchairs’ mobility and ability to overcome certain accessibility concerns.

Impact Centre founder and U of T Entrepreneurship academic director Cynthia Goh described each of the entrepreneurs best at the start of the evening as “changing not only the conversation, but the very landscape of their fields.”

U of T leaders, Consul-General of Japan on the processes of “Mentoring Women Leaders”

Rotman hosts panel discussion on women as leaders in the workplace

U of T leaders, Consul-General of Japan on the processes of “Mentoring Women Leaders”

On International Women’s Day, the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Rotman Faculty of Management co-hosted “Mentoring Women Leaders,” a symposium featuring discussions on leadership, the value of mentoring, and the importance of building inclusive spaces for gender minorities.

In Rotman’s Desautels Hall, the event commenced with a keynote speech delivered by U of T Chancellor Rose Patten, followed by a panel discussion with three speakers: Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s Vice-President Human Resources & Equity; Rachel Silvey, the Richard Charles Lee Director of the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy; and Takako Ito, the Consul-General of Japan in Toronto.

In her speech, Patten said that the century that we have celebrated International Women’s Day has been a century of “opportunity to celebrate the central role that women have played internationally and in countries around the world in the advancement of peace and justice.”

What does good leadership actually look like?

Before mentorship comes leadership. Mentorship can only exist if leaders allow it to; mentorship can only operate effectively and as intended if leaders allow it to. Throughout her career, Patten noticed the flaws resulting from assuming that leadership is timeless. Context and conditions, she said, need to be recognized, understood, and translated into what is important for the given moment.

“Leadership is not timeless,” she said. “It has shelf-life.”

Hannah-Moffat added that women in leadership introduce the necessary diversity of perspectives to address the increasing complexity of today’s problems.

“Here at the University of Toronto, we recognize this, and we embody this, and we have a deep commitment to both equity and diversity, and inclusion,” she said.

According to U of T’s Employment Equity Report 2016-2017, 47 per cent of faculty and librarians and 66 per cent of its staff self-identify as women. According to Hannah-Moffat, the university’s employment equity rates are 29 per cent higher than the global average for labour markets for public institutions. “But that’s not good enough because we recognize that even though we’re good with equity in employment, we have to ensure that we retain our talent. And to retain we mentor and promote that talent.”

Intersectionality, and when ‘good’ is not good enough  

Hannah-Moffat spoke critically of the nuanced nature of promoting gender minorities in work.

“To think about women as a homogeneous category is highly problematic,” she said. Women’s diversity functions along race, sexuality, and literacy lines. “To be as excellent as we strive to be at this university, if we are to embody the principles of International Women’s Day, then we need to look beyond just women and to the complexities and nuances of what [this means].” To simply make room for women is not enough.

Ito spoke to her experience as Consul-General in noting Japan’s commitment to Womenomics, the notion that women’s development and economic strength are inexorably connected in today’s world.

She said that if women are without barriers and allowed the same economic participation as men, Japan could expect a 30 per cent increase in GDP. Similarly, Silvey commented on her research on care work — typically associated with women — and work that is often misunderstood and therefore overlooked. “Care work is essential to making everything else possible. It connects the formal and informal economies,” she said.  

Hannah-Moffat stressed that these issues do not end at walls of institutions and corporations. “Gender parity, diversity, and inclusion are not just women’s issues, not just work issues, and not just university issues,” she said. “They’re also economic, political, and social issues that impact all of us.”

The importance of mentorship    

Patten referenced the opportunity to uncover both weaknesses and hidden strengths for both mentors and mentees. It is this self-awareness that paves way for better leadership with the ability to adjust and adapt.  

When asked about the most meaningful experiences of working with their respective mentors, the panelists spoke of gaining perspective, accepting and understanding one’s own mistakes, and the strength in battling the numerous challenges they faced while simultaneously accepting what is not within their own control.

Gender issues as we understand them today are confined within physical spaces. But as the panelists note, the impacts of good leadership and mentorship go beyond our university and our workplace.

Positive mentorship allows women to make a difference on a global scale.  


From Sid Smith to Parliament Hill

A reflection of the U of T Women in House Program

From Sid Smith to Parliament Hill

Last week, 49 other women and I went to Ottawa to shadow a parliamentarian as part of the winter 2018 instalment of the U of T Women in House program. Personally, I went into the experience as a non-partisan, and cynical of a career in politics.

I was, however, interested in experiencing the everyday life of a federal politician: the work they do, the decisions they make, and how they make them. I did not go into the experience with the intention of considering how I could one day hold political office, despite that being part of the program’s purpose.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I came out of the experience with a little less cynicism and a little more inspiration, while still maintaining a critical lens of a colonial political system and its inequitable effects on the people in this country.

My day with Bardish

I credit a large part of my positive experience to the parliamentarian I was assigned to shadow: the Honourable Bardish Chagger. Bardish, like me, is Punjabi, assertive, and unapologetic. She is also the Minister of Small Business and Tourism and the first woman to hold the position of Leader of the Government in the House of Commons.

I met Bardish on the morning of March 1 and was struck by two things: first, she was about a head shorter than me; second, she was wearing large, comfortable, furry boots. Despite our height difference, she walked with double the speed and double the purpose.

Within the first few seconds of meeting her, she was leading me out of her office and into the House of Commons while the A/V crew was setting up for Question Period. She had me sit down in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s seat — while she sat in her seat beside — which allowed me to take a moment to consider the physical space where members of Parliament advocate on behalf of their constituency.

My cynicism for partisan politics must have showed when, in this moment, I asked Bardish if she and the Prime Minister would discuss political strategy while sitting beside each other in the House. She responded saying that she just tells him to breathe, relax, and stay focused. As I humbled myself in the realization of her humanness, she continued to tell me about the room. Then, she looked me in the eye and said: “I can see you here one day.”

While I realized that it was part of her job to advocate for the current Liberal Party Prime Minister, and while I don’t see a political path ahead of me anytime soon, I did appreciate her genuine effort to make me feel comfortable and ensure I got as much as I could from the experience.

Photo Courtesy of Bardish Chagger.

Meetings, Question Period, challenging the status quo

When I witnessed Question Period in the House at 2:00 pm later that day, I noticed that Bardish’s demeanour was demonstrably different than many of the other ministers: she was still wearing her boots while others were adorned in dress shoes or heels, she would comfortably sit in different positions, and she was calmly listening as the debate became heated.

The most notable realization I had during Question Period was that, no matter which side of the House spoke, the older men who made up a majority of the House would continually heckle their opposition — especially when women members were speaking. It’s hard to notice this when you’re watching Question Period on television because the voices of those speaking are amplified. But when you’re in the House, the reality is you can barely hear the member speaking over the cross-talk and heckling. The gender dynamics you suspect are at play are on wide display for us all to witness. Seeing Bardish defiantly be assertive in a space that was dominated by masculinity and whiteness made me appreciate her presence at Parliament even more.

For the rest of the day, Bardish continued to talk to me about her role and ensured we stop everytime we crossed paths with another parliamentarian or high-level staffer. She was genuinely interested in telling me about everyone’s position in a way I could not receive from simply watching the news.

I also saw her in action at a Board of Internal Economy meeting where sexual harassment at the workplace in Parliament was being discussed, sat in on her briefing with the Prime Minister’s Office about the day ahead, and was offered a sneak a peek at the Cabinet meeting before it began.

Through shadowing Bardish at these meetings, my appreciation for her work transcended to a deeper level. Bardish is not one to passively process anything that comes her way — in every interaction I saw her partake in, she always asked her colleagues questions and proposed her own well thought-out arguments. In moments like these, I witnessed how, even in federal politics, members from the same party can disagree about the specifics of their platforms or the phrasing of proposals. In each interaction, I witnessed her challenging the status quo and trying to make each issue more accessible and equitable.


Photo Courtesy of Bardish Chagger..

Within my community

I did not choose to write about my day on Parliament Hill to impart how great Bardish is — although she was a pleasure to meet and truly is a great person. Rather, I’m writing to discuss how she validates the kind of work and ideals I conduct myself with and wish to continue to embody as a student trying to improve my own community.

This past year in my role as the President of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), I saw many similarities between the kind of work I do in the world of student and faculty governance and Bardish’s work in state governance. I regularly attend various committee meetings on academic policies, curriculums, and appeals in my faculty, and I also run my own team of executives and staff with whom I plan events and release statements in response to events in our community.

I saw myself in Bardish when she would question others during her meetings. I consistently question and discuss issues with people in committee meetings who are often male, white, and older than me in paid or tenured faculty positions. As a racialized woman student leader in a space still imbued with its own colonial and masculine structures of leadership, Bardish’s work provided me with confirmation that my own actions, assertiveness, and confidence are warranted and needed for the future of our country.

I saw how Bardish’s leadership had a trickle-down effect in her office. When I sat to talk with her at the end of the day, I told her I was most grateful for the kindness of her staff who accompanied me throughout the day. I commended her for surrounding herself with a staff made up of other extremely capable, assertive, and racialized women, recognizing that most parliamentary staff are often not diverse in this holistic way. Having myself previously worked in the corporate sector last summer, I was aware of how often diverse hiring can become extremely tokenistic and disingenuous, and so was aware and appreciative of when this wasn’t the case with Bardish’s team.

All in all, you could say that the U of T Women in House program was a great experience for me, one I hope more women — who are not just students at a high-level academic institution — are able to experience. The reality is that federal politicians hold significant political power in making decisions on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people. Their decisions affect many people from Indigenous, immigrant, and racialized communities.

The more representative Parliament becomes to truly reflect the community it is mandated to serve, the more inequitable processes and decisions will lose power and validity. Having more diverse women who hold political power is the first step to moving toward a future in which I see myself being genuinely interested to participate. Let’s reflect on that possible future on International Women’s Day and every other day.

International Women’s Day urges us to ‘press for progress’ on working conditions

Securing decent work bears positive ramifications for gender equity and women’s health

International Women’s Day urges us to ‘press for progress’ on working conditions

International Women’s Day (IWD) arrives yet again on March 8, presenting another opportunity to reflect on the status of gender equality in our society. This year has already been galvanized by powerful movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, which clearly demonstrate an amplified interest in progressing issues related to gender equality. Quite appropriately, the theme of IWD this year is #PressforProgress, calling on the community to advance efforts in all areas on gender-inclusive action worldwide.

Recalling that International Women’s Day was born out of women’s labour struggles at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and Europe, it is time to return to these roots. Despite many achievements in women’s equality in the labour sector, we must press for progress on remaining shortcomings, particularly in our own province.

Many women continue to face discrimination and unfair working conditions in Ontario. In fact, precarious employment overall has increased in Canada by nearly 50 per cent in the last 20 years, and women are overrepresented in the population that faces such conditions. Research shows that racialized immigrant women specifically experience a higher burden of precarious employment in the province. As children of working immigrant women, this is a reality we have seen first-hand.

Ontario is still far from where it needs to be when it comes to equity in the labour sector. As public health students, our work entails closely reviewing the evidence linking  working conditions to ramifications for health and wellbeing. Governed by provincial labour policy, employment and working conditions directly influence health by determining individuals’ income, which ultimately dictates the affordability of aspects of healthy living such as nutritious foods, stable housing, and  medication. Additionally, flexibility in working hours and access to paid leaves affect people’s ability to look after themselves in times of illness. Research shows that having insecure and precarious employment results in anxiety and greater social isolation.

Fortunately, some progress has been made in this area. In November 2017, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, or Bill 148, was passed in Ontario, with many of its measures implemented in January 2018. Some of the changes brought about by this bill include the increase in minimum wage, equal pay for equal work regardless of employee status, and an increase to a total of 10 days of emergency leave per year, two of which are paid at employee’s regular rate. It is also inclusive of new scheduling practices around shift changes and cancellations, ensuring that employees are given fair notice.   

The bill is definitely a step in the right direction — it is progress on labour rights for all in Ontario. But for women, who form the majority of those in precarious forms of work, there is more to be done. This is especially true in certain industries. For instance, the caregiving sector, primarily made up of women, is overwhelmingly susceptible to precarious working conditions. It is often low-wage with no flexibility in scheduling, not to mention that it is mentally and physically exhausting given the emotional toll that caregiving can take. This sector is also highly racialized, as immigrant and racialized women are often pushed into caregiving jobs.

Despite these struggles, however, workers in caregiving in private homes and in other sectors are banned from forming a union to collectively advocate for improved standards and working conditions. Currently, exemptions and regulations in other legislations like the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act exclude workers in certain sectors and of certain origins from the right to unionize.

Current efforts to improve working conditions through Bill 148 can only be successful if they are implemented well. This includes ensuring that employees are aware of new changes and that they are also well-equipped with support and information in the event that this legislation is not being adequately applied in their workplace. Migrant workers, for example, are specifically vulnerable, as they may be repatriated by exploitative employers if they complain.

With this year’s IWD theme being ‘pressing for progress,’ the time is right to insist on improving working conditions for women in Ontario. While there is much to celebrate in terms of labour rights in the province, we should be cognizant of the many changes that still need to be made.

It is also important to be critical and push for change not only on IWD, but all year round — especially in light of the provincial election in June and the potential implications its outcome may bring for Bill 148 and gender equality in women’s everyday lives. As young people, if we want a more progressive and equitable society, we should celebrate achievements in the labour sector for women on March 8, but continue to press our politicians on this cause going forward.


Sandani Hapuhennedige and Afnan Naeem are Master’s students at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and steering committee members of the Decent Work and Health Network.

U of T celebrates International Women’s Day

Series of events honours achievements, raises awareness of women’s struggles

U of T celebrates International Women’s Day

Last week, student groups came together in celebration of International Women’s Day, which took place on March 8. These events aimed to celebrate the historical achievements of women, whilst highlighting the struggles women still face.

The Women and Gender Studies Student Union held a lecture entitled Islands of Decolonial Love: Exploring Love on Occupied Land featuring Leanne Simpson.

Simpson is an Indigenous (Michi Saagiing Nishnaabeg) author and academic. In 2014, she was named the inaugural RBC Charles Taylor Emerging Writer by Thomas King and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her first book of short stories and poetry, Islands of Decolonial Love, was nominated for a ReLit Award in 2014.

In an interview with The Varsity, Simpson refuted the suggestion that gender equality has been reached in Canada. “It’s wrong,” she said. “While Canada as a society has made advances towards gender equality, particularly for upper and middle class heterosexual [cisgender], able bodied white women, but Canada still has a tremendously long way to go.”

Simpson pointed to the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as the fact that two-spirited and LGBTQ+people are targets of gendered violence under settler colonialism, as evidence against the claim.

“Heteropatriarchy is a force that still creates violence and inequality in wages, working conditions, and professional opportunities,” said Simpson, citing anti-blackness and a lack of support for midwifery and breastfeeding as continuing issues.

When asked if International Women’s Day was a gender-specific celebration, Simpson responded that everyone can celebrate International Women’s Day. “I think we have a collective responsibility to build societies where we take on white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, anti-Blackness and settler colonialism. If International Women’s Day can be part of those movements, then it’s a good thing.”

Amnesty International UofT is hosting an event entitled Intersectionality, Community and Solidarity on March 16 in collaboration with Because I’m a Girl U of T and Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.

According to the description on the event’s Facebook page, it will focus on  “intersectionality in which women come together from diverse backgrounds and speak of their personal experiences of women empowerment and feminism.”

Isabelle Maurice-Hammond, a master’s student at U of T’s Women and Gender Studies Institute at U of T, said that she would like to see more work done to promote a woman’s right to autonomy and self-determination.

“I’m personally very concerned about women’s rights to control their own bodies -— specifically reproduction, and the attacks on abortion rights that we are seeing across the border right now,” she said. 

Maurice-Hammond added that she would like to see the topic of sexual violence taken more seriously. According to Maurice-Hammond, this would involve beginning education on the issue early in a child’s academic career. “This is an inter-generational crises (that some communities bear more heavily than others) and something needs to be done about it,” she said.

Maurice-Hammond shares Simpson’s concern regarding violence towards Indigenous women, two-spirited, and LGBTQ+ people. She also hopes to see concrete changes arise from the enquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women that the federal government has promised. “[We] need to address the prevalence of racist misogynistic violence in this country,” she said. 

When asked if she had any advice for young women, Simpson responded that she did not, although she did have some for adults: “listen to girls,” she said. “Listen to children. They have fantastic ideas and visions for decolonial futures.”