Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Women of Distinction in My Life

Last night, I was honoured to attend the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards.  This caused me to reflect on the Women of Distinction in my own life.  I will preface this blog by saying that it is NOT clear concise communications, but hopefully you think it's worth reading anyway.

Susan Doniz - Susan and I have known each other for over twenty years, since attending the University of Toronto.  As CIO of Aimia, she is one of the Top 100 Women in Canada at the age of 42.  

Susan has a thirst for knowledge and a desire to understand the world and all its marvels that is unparalleled.  She and her husband Dany have a map riddled with thumbtacks of UNESCO destinations (won't be the same in ten years) - I think they have been to almost all of them.  They do not have cable in their home - instead stacks of books and publications related to IT, statistics, business, travel, spirituality and yes - the occasional fashion mag. 

A first generation Spanish Canadian raised by an upholsterer and a stay-at-home mom, Susan lives humbly with a very old car, a top-notch wardrobe all purchased from outlet stores and thrift shops and nothing frivolous in her home.  For her, experiences are worth money above all else in life.  She has lived and traveled abroad while climbing the corporate ladder, all in the name of adventure - many times with her kids in tow.  How blessed her children are to have such a wide perspective on life.

Above all else, Susan's positive attitude and her ability to see things objectively make her a leader.  I was once offended by a business email I received, and she responded "it sounds like she was having a bad day."  Funny enough - this very instance was used to illustrate the difference between a positive and negative person on a talkshow I watched last week.  I don't consider myself a negative person, but Susie's ability to take in information, learn from it, execute on it and then move on is what makes her the C-suite stuff.

Marilyn Field - Marilyn Field is the President and Founder of DAREarts - a not for profit charity that enables thousands of at-risk youth to turn their lives around and become leaders through arts education.  I don't see or speak to Marilyn very much, but she has an ability to influence and become top-of-mind regardless.  She is a tiny woman who says very little but her legacy commands attention. 

At the age of 22, Marilyn was a young school teacher in an underpriveleged neighbourhood in Toronto.  A classically trained pianist with a passion for the arts, she saw children who had never been exposed to the arts before.  These kids were sometimes not making the best decisions (understatement), often late for class and showing up to school hungry.  After discovering that writing out lines of "I will not bring a knife to school" didn't work, Marilyn started conducting detentions (and providing food) while playing Mozart and comparing him to a rap artist.  

Soon, kids came, regardless of having a detention.  They showed up on time, eager to learn and give their very best.  Marilyn would say this was the power of the arts at work - she takes credit for nothing.  Neighbouring schools caught wind of the story and Marilyn's vision to empower at-risk youth through the arts became too big for one school teacher in the traditional classroom setting to facilitate. DAREarts was born.

Today, sixteen years later, DAREarts and its tiny team of five in Caledon collaborates with 125 vested artists as teachers across the country to facilitate out-of-school arts programs for at-risk youth in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and remote Northern Aboriginal Communities.  The dedication of this team of people, championed and led by example by Marilyn Field is truly empowering kids who have been dealt a rough hand in life to become leaders.

I cannot say enough about Marilyn and her team.  I wish I could hover above the earth and shout as loud as possible to tell the world her story.  I guess the Internet is the next best thing. 

Linda Lou Pinnington - I save the best for last.  Hopefully, those who matter are still hanging in.  

You guessed it - this is my mom - and I know that everyone says their mom is wonderful, but mine is exceptional.  A retired French school teacher, my mom has in my estimation, been re-born since her retirement.  

A tiny little thing, my Mom is a gifted speaker who can capture the attention of a  jam-packed room, which serves the organizations she represents well.  She and my father are head volunteers for Canadian Food for Children ( - a charity that solicits, collects, packs and ships food, clothing and learning supplies to third world countries.  She travels to neighbouring schools, community groups, and churches to tell their story and solicit donations.  They have somehow managed to convince all their friends that weeding through other peoples' things, packing, loading and delivering boxes is a fun way to spend an afternoon.  I think the entire CFFC volunteer list is actually Mom and Dad's friends.

My mom's vocation in life though, has been discovered through unhappy circumstances, as many of her friends and acquaintances have become ill and died over the past decade or so.  Mom could have been a nurse if she hadn't been a teacher.  I remember when my grandmother was dying and I was crying by her bedside.  She put her hand on my shoulder and said - "Shhh, you will frighten her."  When the ailing are experiencing things that other people can't bear to watch, my mom is unshaken and resolute in her goal to keep them comfortable and unafraid. She has a gift.

Because of this gift, my mom is the one people call to sit by a loved one's bedside when they are sick or dying, or when they themselves just need a good night's rest.  Some who call are close friends; some are friends who had fallen out of touch but know they can still ask; others are acquaintances who call because my mom's reputation as a caregiver precedes her.  In every circumstance where a friend passes, she remains on the scene after the fact, seeing the family through their difficult time.  

It must be said that my mother's ability to deal with illness and accept death is directly linked to her faith and the knowledge that after this world, we will all go to a better place.   Throughout my life, I have seen my Mother's faith in God and loyalty to the Roman Catholic church trickle down and take the shape of good deeds for her family, neighbours, friends, community, and perfect strangers.  For all of the arguments against organized religion and in particular, the Roman Catholic Church - my Mom is living proof that it enables miraculous things.

This blog is dedicated to my mom - a week late - for Mother's Day.  So proud to be your kid.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Everything Takes a Village

Yesterday, I was on my way to a meeting related to healthcare for seniors, which coincided with a CBC radio program talking about suicide amidst the older demographic  A young woman was talking about her 68-year-old father who committed suicide because of personal issues and because he was over $100,000 in debt.

The past couple of weeks have been filled with "happenstances" such as this that have really caused me to think about the state of our society.  The universal message being sent my way is clear - it's time to stop thinking about ourselves and to start thinking about others.

We are living in a time that will make history on so many fronts -
  • the second great recession that puts huge demands on all of us personally and professionally,
  • the conscious decision to engage in single parenthood (40% of children in the U.S. are born to unmarried women),
  • a shift in the balance of power in the household, as women begin to have as much or greater earning potential than their male partners,
  • an increasing aging population that either wants or needs to find work beyond the age of 65, and needs to be looked after as it ages and ails.  

The crux of the matter is this - if we focus only on ourselves and our personal situations, we are bound to all suffer personally, professionally and as a society. 

Latch-key kids, single parents, older people and entire families need to know that there is a support system outside of their own home that they can rely on - a neighbour, a school secretary, a fellow parent, a colleague.

Companies need to shift their focus from the bottom line to attracting, keeping and nurturing their best employees who will help them grow the business, or lose to the competition that does. 

It's up to all of us to figure out what we can do to make the situation better for everyone - not just the individual - but our organizations, our people, our society.  Only when we step out of ourselves and put ourselves in someone else's shoes can all of our futures be improved. 

Monday, 2 April 2012

Cahoots PR for Charitable Events

Cahoots and Vince Ciarlo of Ciarlo Communications recently implemented the PR behind the University of the West Indies Gala that raised $300,000 for UWI and Haitian students who need financial help to complete their degrees.  The dress, food, decore, entertainment, all facilitated by event planner, Carole Adriaans made for a vibrant, exciting evening that celebrated Canada's rich diversity, as almost every nationality was represented in that room.  The honourees - Malcolm Gladwell, Zanana Akande and Artis Lane, as well as six extraordinary individuals who are leaders in their sectors - are amazing people who set great examples for all of us.

So enough about the gala - what I want to talk about in this blog is the PR lessons learned during its planning and execution.

1. Dig deep for the story.  Each of the honourees at the UWI Gala are incredibly accomplished, but seeing their resume and bio wasn't enough.  You had to talk to them and really do the research to uncover the nuggets worth sharing with the media.  Dig deep for the stories that move you.  If you're moved or inspired by a story, others will be too.
2. Let the interview take its course.  Have a set of predefined questions, but let the interview take its natural course.  If your event ambassador wants to talk about one thing in particular during an interview, they are passionate about that subject matter - and passion always leads to a great story.
3. Tell two friends.  When you have a story to share or an event to promote, tell as many people as possible.  Ask them to pass along the information to their press contacts, colleagues and professional affiliates.  We asked all of the UWI Gala honourees and committee members to pass along the word through the press materials and they did.  It made a big difference to say the least. 
4. Open your mind.  Every event has multiple angles to pitch to the media - the hype and glam of the event, the honourees and their individual stories, the business partners who make it happen.  Open your mind to all of the stories behind the event, and then craft each phone pitch to the media by telling them about the stories their audiences need to hear.
5. Remember the cause.  Amidst all of the story telling and PR behind charitable events, the most important thing to remember is those who benefit from the charity.  All of us would like to have the opportunity to make someone else's life better.  In your toolkit of stories to tell when promoting a charitable event, that's the best one you have.