Empowered women, empower women. At WE, where 77 per cent of our staff are women and 84 per cent of our leadership positions are held by women, we know the value of what women have to say.
Though founded by two brothers, Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger, our growth has been led by incredible women. Oprah Winfrey’s support and mentorship helped build our first schools in the developing countries where WE works and Michelle Douglas has guided us as Board Chair of WE Charity for over a decade. All but three of our departments are headed by women and 16 of the top 20 salaries at WE are earned by women.
As we work to empower women and girls all over the world to speak out and transform their lives and their communities, we also strive to live the values we all want to see in the world. So, in honour of International Women’s Day, we asked eight of the women whose knowledge, passion and dedication make WE’s work possible to share their stories.
Board chair Michelle Douglas tells of hard-won victories, WE Charity Executive Director Dalal Al-Waheidi of displacement and rediscovery, ME to WE CEO Roxanne Joyal reflects on motherhood, and Prabha Packiam, a senior human resources leader, on adventure and loss. Each is a unique and extraordinary tale.
Here they are:
Name: Michelle Douglas Role: Chair, WE Charity Board of Directors Time with WE: 15 years
Michelle’s passion for service and advocacy has taken her far, including to senior leadership in the federal government, where she currently serves as the Director of International Relations for the Canadian Department of Justice. Her most fulfilling role, though, has been guiding WE from a 12-person staff who survived on pizzas and Kraft Dinner to a world-class organization.
I value service in many forms. My father was a public servant, and I was very impressed by his love for his work. My earliest family memories are of things like volunteering at a lemonade stand. So, public and volunteer service are at the heart of the identity that I’m most proud of. That’s reflected in my professional experience as a public servant for 30 years, and my identity as a military veteran and a volunteer in many different capacities.
I have had a long career that has taught me a lot about values and governance, and really ensuring the integrity of systems. I have also spent my whole adult life being a social justice activist. In 1989, I was honourably discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces under the military’s discriminatory purge of LGBT service personnel. I launched a legal challenge against those policies, leading to them ending in 1992. I think that those two experiences, both professionally and personally, are a beautiful fit for my position as chair of the board at WE Charity.
I’ve been chair for the WE Charity Board of Directors for more than 10 years, but I’ve been associated with the organization’s board of directors for almost 15 years. It’s been an extraordinary honour to be part of an organization that has grown as it has, and whose impact seems to grow with every passing year.
I connect deeply with the work of WE and I wanted to bring my skills to support its success. As Board of Directors, we make sure that the organization is complying with all government rules and legal requirements. We bring all our skills and experiences as volunteers to assuring the organization is run with integrity. I like to think of my experience as building a very big platform from which the organization can grow sustainably, responsibly and effectively.
This role has changed me. I’ve learned a lot about governance, and I think I’m an even more optimistic person than I was at the beginning. I am constantly inspired by the efforts, capacity and passion of young people to change their world for the better, even in the midst of many global and domestic challenges. If I didn’t see the impact that they’re having today, I would be very disheartened.
I think WE is a positive organization that is committed to excellence, has a high degree of integrity and is effective—and those are values that align closely to my own. We constantly challenge ourselves to strive to be and do better in all ways. So that’s the leadership that I try to bring to the organization. It’s, frankly, the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life.
Name: Roxanne Joyal Title: ME to WE Artisans founder, ME to WE CEO Started with WE: 1995
Roxanne’s belief in the transformative potential of social enterprise has taken her from rural villages in Asia and Africa to top boardrooms and design showrooms in New York and Los Angeles. As founder of ME to WE Artisans, Roxanne has created a global market for more than 1,500 artisans in Kenya and Ecuador, enabling them to lift their families out of poverty and establish themselves as leaders in their communities.
As a mother, one of the most important lessons I want to pass on to my daughters is to embrace opportunity. It’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from working with so many incredible women in Kenya and Ecuador. ME to WE Artisans began in 2010 with 20 women making beaded handicrafts and has grown to support more than 1,500 artisans in Kenya and Ecuador. When we started, so many of these women, each incredibly talented, had no market for their beautiful, intricate work. Today, they are not only sharing traditions that have been passed down for generations within their families, they’re also following their dreams as entrepreneurs and artists, working as leaders in their communities.
As we break into the consumables industry with ME to WE Coffee and Chocolate That Changes LivesTM, I have had the privilege of seeing women farmers in Ecuador take on this same entrepreneurial spirit. I am continuously inspired by their constant strength and resolve, and their ability to create opportunity and act as makers of their futures.
What I love most is seeing the women we work with in Kenya and Ecuador blossom as leaders in their own right. I see their innate skill, talent, motivation and ambition every day. A dollar earned by a woman is a dollar that goes straight to her household, her children and her community, and I have been so fortunate to watch these women become financially integral members of their households as they support their families and send their children to school. The gender dynamics in these rural parts of the world are transforming before my eyes, and it’s been sincerely moving to see these women rise to the occasion! Getting to work alongside so many exceptional female leaders at WE, who are dedicated to supporting women around the world, is truly a privilege that makes my job and the impacts we create even more meaningful to me.
One of my favourite moments working with ME to WE Artisans happened one day when I was at the Atelier in Kenya, along with a number of mamas. My daughter Lily-Rose, who was quite young at the time, was there—she’s had constant exposure to these women and when anyone says “beads,” she says “mamas!” I was sandwiched between a group of mamas and they had put necklaces on me as a symbol of our connection. As Lily-Rose climbed onto my lap, she was warmly welcomed by the mamas in the traditional way. They put their hands on her head and necklaces around her neck. It was a deeply touching moment to have my daughter connect with the mamas in this way, and it was then that I realized how important it is for women and girls around the world to connect with, learn from and support one another.
Name: Dalal Al-Waheidi Title: Executive Director, Executive Leadership, WE Charity Started with WE: 2002
By any unit of measurement, Dalal Al-Waheidi has come a long way. A childhood split between refugee status in Kuwait and Palestine eventually led to a high school scholarship in Norway. A passion for international development and female empowerment brought her to Trent University in Canada before sending her off to Ecuador to monitor projects on the ground. And an internship with WE in 2002—back in the days of Free The Children—started a 17-year journey to a seat at the head table, steering the WE movement.
Dalal’s exemplary leadership at WE has been recognized by the Women’s Executive Network with Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women Award in the “Future Leaders” category, and she was selected as one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award winners.
Khalil Gibran wrote, “It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” That message is at the heart of what I do—and it’s at the heart of WE Charity. It fills my heart to see this come to life, whether it’s through students, educators or companies giving back to their communities, seeing parents get involved in raising young people who care or seeing communities around the world working together to create a bright future for the next generation. We’ve also had the pleasure of partnering with businesses looking to do good, helping them make a difference on an issue they feel passionate about.
I can’t talk about my job without talking about the incredible team of people I get to work with every day, and the young women I’ve seen grow into strong and confident leaders. But it’s also the smaller moments that I take pride in. In my role, I meet people around the world who truly live WE, seeking out ways both big and small to make a difference every single day. I have been with WE since 2002 and I have watched this movement grow and gain momentum, from thousands of students to a global force of millions of young people, families and teachers. Seeing the impact they make is the best part of my job.
If I had a motto it would be, “Challenge equals opportunity.” Going overseas by myself, not speaking the language … being in Canada by myself, where I didn’t have family or a support network. These things were challenges but also opportunities to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. That’s a big part of who I am and a big part of what I want to teach my daughters—there will be challenges, but you have a choice. You can say, “I’m not going to do anything about it” or “I’m going to do my best.”
I am passionate about diversity at WE and if you look at the number of women in senior leadership positions in the organization, we’re doing very well. But it’s not something we take for granted. I try to consciously make space for people to share and grow, to foster voices from different backgrounds who’ve had different experiences. It’s not enough to want to change the world—we need to make sure that change is representative. And that’s why diversity matters.
Name: Carly Bedini Title: Head of Operations Management, WE Day Started with WE: 2011
Carly’s first role at WE was outreach manager for WE Schools. After eight months, she moved over to WE Day—and she’s never looked back. Today, she is recognized as a logistics whiz and heads up the team of more than 60 people working behind the scenes at WE Day to make the magic of the event happen.
I have done 102 WE Days and counting! My first day at the organization was actually WE Day Toronto load-in day two in 2011, when I was 23. I showed up three hours early because I had misread the email. Luckily I was greeted by some lovely folks who really took care of me when I was looking lost. Eventually, I met my team lead from the booths team and spent the day setting up the educator lounge. I just remember there being a million people, a million printed materials and a lot of talk about how much coffee we needed for the teachers who would come into that space at WE Day a couple days later. It was definitely daunting for a first day, but it was really exciting!
There have been so many incredible moments over the years. I remember our first WE Day in the UK in 2014, when we had never done an event in the UK before. We didn’t know what the differences would be culturally or with the UK staff or the schools. It ended up being one of the most incredibly relaxing experiences, because of British culture being so fun-loving. Also, we learned that we needed to always have tea available for anyone at any time. It was like, “OK, got it, great. Tea everywhere!”
WE Day Canada in 2017, which celebrated Canada’s 150th, was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, just being able to lead my amazing team. We figured out how to turn our typical arena show into a massive event on Parliament Hill. We always talk about how challenging it was, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I love working with such a great team, and seeing how we’re always able to pivot together, whether it’s deliveries being delayed, our stuff not arriving, gift bags not showing up—honestly, behind-the-scenes is where the WE Day magic happens in pulling everything together for such an incredible cause. Working at WE, I have met some of the most incredible, brilliant and successful women, who have helped to not only bring me through my success in all my roles at WE, but also just helped me become a more confident woman in business and personally.
Name: Prabha Packiam Title: Director, Human Resource Business Partners Started with WE: 2017
Prabha came to WE so she could use her Three E’s—enthusiasm, energy and expertise—to positively influence its young workers. Born in a small town in Southern India, she moved to Canada when she was two years old and lived in six different cities in North America before she was 18. She continued being a nomad, logging 25 years as a human resources expert for top-tier firms in finance, technology, communications and insurance. At WE, she’s found a place where she can be flexible and creative, and put people ahead of bureaucracy.
My parents were very adventurous. They wanted to come to what they thought was America, so they just picked up and came. There wasn’t really any rhyme or reason. Moving around, being a child of immigrant parents, opened me up to unique experiences and gave me an appreciation for constant change. That said, I’ve had a lot of challenges. I grew up very poor. I lost my father when I was 18—on the first day of university. It was unexpected and very abrupt, and it would change the course of my life.
I think I picked the right profession for me because I’ve been able to move around quite a bit in my career in human resources and I’ve learned about so many industries. I feel like I always have a suitcase and I’m just putting different skill sets and different adventures into it. It just makes me better at my job.
I came to WE because I was very attracted to the fact that WE’s demographic is so young, and I really wanted to be part of an organization where I can have an influence on future workers. A lot of my job is being a bridge between management and employees. Both sides have their desires and their goals, and sometimes they’re speaking two different languages. HR can help both sides understand the other’s point of view. In large corporations, you’re usually working within very set, confined boundaries, but at WE there is a lot of ability to be innovative and bring some new thinking to HR. Also, at WE, we operate with gratitude, and people are very expressive. Whenever I do something—whether that’s a training session or one-on-one work—when people have felt the impact, they come back and tell me. Those comments obviously make my job worthwhile.
Knowing that the work I do at WE helps the organization to do good in the world gives me a sense of purpose and drive. Thinking about the things we’re doing around the world does add to the meaning of the work I do.
Name: Heather Harkness Role: Head, Evolution and Planning/Executive Business Partner Started with WE: 2016
Heather’s 20-year career in project management, process improvement and transformation spans positions at some of Canada’s biggest brands, including Cadbury, Loblaws and Indigo Books and Music. At WE, she works behind the scenes to execute some of our biggest transformations—but her proudest accomplishment is her 10-year-old son, Riley, who’s awesome.
I got to see a very different side of the world from a very early age. Both my parents were in international development, so we travelled and lived in a lot of places when I was growing up—India, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa. I have very fond memories of going back and forth between Canada and Africa. I grew up in an upper middle-class neighbourhood in Ottawa, but when I was in Ghana we’d drive through to these little villages where my parents knew people. I saw that the world was so much bigger than what was in front of us. It certainly shaped who I was.
Prior to WE I actually had a 20-year career in the corporate world. I loved my career, but I always thought I was going to do something that would give back and have more meaning. When the opportunity at WE came up, I saw that I could take these incredible skills that I had built up in strategy, process, project management and transformation and use them where they would have greater impact in the world. Also, I get to work with great people—from the co-founders to the annual planning teams—who are smart, passionate and want to make a difference, and they bring that energy to work every day. Between the skills, the great work, the impact and the people, that’s what keeps me motivated and excited.
In my first year here, I planned a trip with my family to Kenya because I wanted to show my son and my husband a part of Africa that felt like home to me. But before that happened, I got invited on a trip to Kenya with Craig Kielburger. It was very moving because I got to actually see how all the work that everyone is doing comes to life on the ground. It also had a very personal meaning because I had grown up in Africa. It really closed the loop for me.
For me, it feels like there’s an unlimited opportunity at WE to use your skills and your passion to drive social impact. I’ve never been stopped in anything I want to do. In other organizations you may be restricted to your role, but here I feel like the sky is the limit.
Name: Tania Gomes Role: Sr. Coordinator of Trip Product Development at ME to WE Started with WE: 2017
Tania is a first generation Portuguese-Canadian, and the first in her family to graduate—with honours—from university. An alumnus of Carleton University in Ottawa, she graduated with a Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management, specializing in international law. This passionate policy nerd brings her perseverance and disciplined work ethic to making sure every trip she’s on is a life-changing experience for all her guests.
I call myself a “WE Baby” because I learned about WE for the first time when I was 13—I actually attended the first Toronto WE Day at the Ricoh Coliseum in 2007. When I think back to the moment that got me to where I am today, I definitely go back to that day. I come from a very traditional family. My parents were born in rural Portugal and they emigrated here in their adulthood. They were quite surprised to have an outspoken daughter, so growing up I felt very silenced.
WE taught me that as a youth I have a voice, even though there might be figures in my family or network telling me otherwise. That really resonated with me and pushed me into leadership spaces in high school and university. I became really passionate about things like environmental sustainability and international development, and I started a WE Club at my elementary and my high schools. I even joined the WE group in university.
When I graduated it just seemed like the inevitable next step to come on board with the organization and give back, because it had done so much for me growing up. When you’re a participant in the programming, you understand that you’re doing something good, but you don’t really get to see it in full. Working on the back-end put the kinds of things I was doing as a volunteer—raising money for Kenya or doing something for my classroom or WE club—into perspective.
I never had the opportunity to travel with WE, but this past August I went to Kenya and facilitated two back-to-back trips for families. Honestly, that’s my favourite memory at WE. It felt like I’d finally come full circle from when I was 13 years old. It’s a wild ride to go from participant of WE programming to being a volunteer, and now an employee, but it’s really cool.
Name: Ellen Donnelly Title: Senior Manager, Partner Relations Started with WE: 2016
Ellen’s positive spirit and energy are contagious: it’s no wonder her first role at WE was with WE Day, helping lead and inspire the many volunteers who help make each event possible. Recently, she took on the role of supporting WE’s corporate partners, leveraging past experiences in her career to help these partners achieve the same meaningful impacts she saw in her first two years at WE.
There are so many memories I have from working on WE Day. I got to see the biggest WE Days, the smallest WE Days and everything in between. I can just remember standing in the bowl at my first WE Day in 2016 and feeling the energy of the crowd; there’s nothing else like it. We’ve also gotten to have some incredible people on stage. I’ve always been a big Tragically Hip fan, so when we had Gord Downie on stage that was just incredible for me.
In my current role, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the WE Day Connect internal planning committee that came together to plan an interactive online celebration for schools around the world. On the committee are some of the most brilliant, strategic and creative minds from all different departments. Coming in new to the group and trying to add value—let alone keep up!—seemed terrifying at first. But I’ve learned so much in the process of watching everyone work together to create something awesome.
One of the things that keeps me at WE is the amazing humans I get to call my colleagues. There are some brilliant minds here—honestly, there has hardly been a time where I could have crossed the finish line on a project or initiative without the support of others. I’m so grateful for that and feel so lucky to work at an organization with so many strong, hardworking, powerhouse women—there are so many incredible female leaders who have helped to guide both my personal and professional journey so far, and who truly inspire me to continue striving to define and achieve my own successes as a woman. I know it’s corny to say “teamwork makes the dream work,” but it’s true.