Gwen Madiba: Welcome to uOttaKnow, a podcast that illuminates, inspires and entertains produced by the University of Ottawa.
Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and a proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Science. I am also the President of the Equal Chance Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers women and Black communities across Canada.
uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa alumni and researchers around the globe at the cutting edge of their fields. Listen in for thought-provoking conversations on today’s trending topics.
Welcome to the fourth season of uOttaKnow. This season, our theme is creativity and inspiration. We'll be talking to alumni from all different professional backgrounds, law, business, science, and the arts who have excelled in their careers. They'll be joining us from Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, and beyond for conversations on the role of inspiration and creative spark in shaping their lives.
Today's guest, uOttawa Telfer School of Management alumna Sylvie Légère is a social entrepreneur, impact investor, philanthropist, and author. Her passion for women's empowerment and inclusion inspired her co-founding of The Policy Circle, a nonprofit organization that has grown to help women engage civically, develop solutions for and take ownership of community issues, and engage in public dialogue. This organization is now a community of 13,500 members, supporters, and circle leaders across 44 states.
Sylvie has also held roles at fortune 500 companies, such as Accenture, J.P. Morgan Chase, and TD Ameritrade. Through her book Trust Your Voice: A Roadmap to Focus and Influence and her Trust Your Voice podcast, Sylvie is empowering people to ignite the potential in themselves and others. Sylvie, thanks for joining us from Chicago today.
Sylvie Légère: Thank you, and it's really my pleasure to be here Gwen, bonjour.
Gwen Madiba: Bonjour. Well, I want to start off with a question that we are asking all of our guests this season on creativity and inspiration. What sparks you creatively, and could you share a pivotal aha moment you had in your life where creative inspiration took hold?
Sylvie Légère: Well, thank you for this question Gwen. To just start maybe by defining what creativity is because sometimes it's narrowly applied to just a visual space. And people say, "Oh, well, I can't draw, I'm not creative." And I think that everyone has the opportunity to be creative because really being creative is being in the state of mind that's always seeking to enhance what we do and how we do it. And I like to think of creativity as about finding solution, filling a gap in really small and big ways.
Sometimes also we only think of creativity as something really big, but I want to give a really small example of my aha moment.
So I co-founded an organization called The Policy Circle. And the whole point of the organization is to equip women to engage in public policy dialogue, to become leaders in their community. One of our flagship program is a round table discussion that's based on briefs that we publish. And as you probably know, that's a big challenge for people to do facilitation. How do you keep the conversation going among the participants? How do you keep the really vocal one a little more silent?
So we came up with this idea of using a hour glass to facilitate the round table. So we give people a beautiful hourglass that we actually get at Ikea, and it's a two-minute hour glass. And it's super simple, but it gives the space and the time and the respect for the quiet ones to have a chance to express their views, their perspective.
And then the one who are really outspoken, well, they have a visual time limit to reign themselves in. And I'm using this example because I think it's a creative and simple solution to a very complex problem.
Gwen Madiba: That's pretty awesome, and I'd actually like to learn more about your creative mindset when you were at Ottawa U. Now, circling back to your days as a student at Ottawa U taking a BCom in management information systems. Reflecting back on that time, how did it impact you and shape your path? And I'd hate not to be thematic. Do you think creativity played a role during your studies?
Sylvie Légère: Well, yeah, definitely. First of all, you know, I came to Ottawa U, and I really did not speak English very well. So it was amazing to be part of a bilingual university that allowed me to take classes in English, to interact with English Canadians as well. So that changed the course of my life.
Also, the program in management information system was a joint program with the Department of Computer Science. So it pushed me into science and engineering in taking those classes. And I went on to actually pursue a master's in computer science, in artificial intelligence. Applied to learning at Northwestern University here in the states. And that context, we created online learning environments that simulate work situation and developed soft skills. So that's extremely creative. I think computer science is a creative endeavor.
And the third thing is the co-op program. So my grades were good enough that I was invited, and I was probably part of the first class or the second class of the co-op program. And it allowed me to experience various work environments from big enterprise, private sector to government. And growing up in Ottawa, you only know the government, and so many people want to pursue career in government. But my first co-op experience was at IBM. And that propelled me into the private sector. Another co-op experience was in consulting, and this really changed my life.I ended up getting a job with Accenture, a global systems and strategy consulting firm and literally changed the course of my life. And I'm really grateful to Ottawa U for providing me with these opportunities. I feel Ottawa U is a launching pad for careers and just a variety of topics and also developing a strong network.
Gwen Madiba: Wow. Sylvie, this is really amazing to see how much the co-op program has impacted you. Now this program is in the top five in the country and offered in 82 programs for students.
Sylvie Légère: Yeah, that's amazing.
Gwen Madiba: I loved how you talked about English as a second language and being able to learn that at the University of Ottawa, I would actually not know because you have a perfect accent. But it's the same for me French is my first language. And when I got to Ottawa U, I barely spoke English. And the university kind of forced me to develop my Anglo side, which has been pretty amazing and pretty useful as well. So that's great to hear that someone else went through this.
Sylvie Légère: Yeah. I mean, I had no choice because of the co-op program, I had to take classes in English. And also a lot of the interviews were in English for the job. All of a sudden it was like, okay, I really have to learn English, I have no choice.
Gwen Madiba: Now I'd like to talk a bit more about creative courage. In your book Trust Your Voice: A Roadmap to Focus and Influence, you write, "For many years, I kept waiting for confidence to somehow show up. Eventually, I realized that I needed to trust my own voice even when it was shaking."
Your podcast Trust Your Voice also takes up this mantra. How have you learned to trust your own voice, and what advice would you have for our students in learning to ignite their creative potential, especially when it means having to leave one's comfort zone?
So in my book and my podcast Trust Your Voice, I present a variety of ways to trust yourself and fuel your confidence. And I think one of the key elements of confidence is to first know yourself. What is a unique value that you add to a team?
So I recently interviewed on my podcast an executive coach Natalie Sabourin. And she leads a group that's called Co-Leadership Group in Montreal. And she recommends using a tool that's called the CliftonStrength questionnaire, the StrengthFinder. And that questionnaire, going through that exercise helps you identify and develop a language to describe your strengths.
And I think when you know that, when you know what you're strong at, then you can enter any situation to lean on your strength. And if you have to lean or operate in areas that require a little more of improvement, then you're aware of that. And you can take measures to mitigate the situation that you're in.
And I'll just give you an example. For me in the StrengthFinder, one of the strengths that I have is called individuation, which is a strange word. And it means to be able to identify the potential in others. And it's funny that that came out in the questionnaire because a lot of people have told me, they've described me as, you're like a little spark plug, you just ignite things. I realize, you know what, that's what I'm about, I'm a spark that ignites something bigger.
So when I enter a situation, when I'm interacting with people, I'm curious. And I'm always looking for how can I be a spark to just throw something in a little bit of a different direction and help people see the bigger picture.
And I think that's how you work towards being confident. Because as I said before, at the end of the day, confident comes when you know what is your unique gift. And I think it can take a very long time to discover it, but you need to take the effort to discover it.
And also the other piece with confidence is that you need to stop once in a while and look back at the successes that you've had. And I think especially the women that I've met, we don't take the time to go back and look at everything that we do or have done and celebrate that right and raise our gaze, see the forest through the trees, see the next, see everything as opportunities to grow and to have an impact. And I think it's really what fuels confidence.
Gwen Madiba: Thank you for sharing all of this. And it is true that sometimes we don't always take the time to look and celebrate our victories even the small victories, so that reminder is important. Thank you so much for that Sylvie.
I wanted to ask you a question about the creative spirit of entrepreneurs. As I know entrepreneurship has been part of your career path. At uOttawa, our entrepreneurship hub, the eHub as we refer to it shapes an entrepreneurial mindset across the university campus through supporting students startups, a diverse offering of activities and programs and fostering a strong mentorship network. So this topic truly is of interest to our community. Now, as an investor in tech startups and community based businesses, could you talk about your entrepreneurial experiences?
Sylvie Légère: I love how you mix entrepreneurship and creativity because I feel like entrepreneurship is the ultimate manifestation of creativity. So as an entrepreneur, you observe really the world around you, and then you identify a solution, a gap to fill.
So as you mentioned, I'm part of a lot of many enterprises sometimes as an angel investor or as an active manager. And I find it really helpful as I look back to categorize enterprises into like three types. Maybe it's over simplification, but to me it kind of helps the enterprise that I'm involved in and also the type of creativity that comes out in each enterprise. So there's one that's about like filling a void. So some companies realized we needed mask, we needed hand sanitizer, and they were able to creatively transform their business process to produce this, to produce what's needed out there.
There's also, I'm sure you're familiar with Cameo, this company that allows you to hire a has been celebrity to send a funny message to your friends. That's just being really a keen observer of what people like to do and what would be funny. So it's like a filling a void enterprise.
And then there's solution enterprises. So those are the ones that find a solution to a problem. For instance, I invested in a company that's called RiseKit. And it's a platform that connects businesses with people in distressed communities who needs job. And the platform also connects individuals with support services that they need to keep and get that job. So there's solution enterprise. That's also incredible creativity because you're solving a problem and maybe the solution is not as straightforward. But you're using your skills and bringing people together to build something new to address the situation.
And then there's what I like to think of community-based enterprise where you consciously create an enterprise that will add to the fabric of your neighborhood. We took over a bike shop in our area that was going bankrupt, and we kept the bike shop going for about 10 years in our community. And we also invest in restaurants in our neighborhood to create a vibrant downtown area. So those are the types of enterprises. And in all of these, you're very creative with the value that you're adding. The other piece I think with entrepreneurship is every entrepreneur is creative because you have limited resources. Creativity comes from having constraints, doesn't come from a blank page. So that's a key piece. And then finally, I want to add that creativity in entrepreneurship comes out of living your values.
Gwen Madiba: I would like to also hear about the spirit of creativity that leads your entrepreneurship journey. Is there a project that you're currently working on or one of your previous creative projects that you're very proud of and that you'd like to share?
Sylvie Légère: So right now, I'm working on a specific project to develop a platform to identify and develop candidates to run for office. So that's a completely different initiative, and that's modeled after how we develop people in sports. So, I think one piece of entrepreneurship and creativity is to mix worlds together. So, I'm developing this platform, this system that's modeled after how do we develop professional athletes? And then how do we use that approach? So that is one project that I'm working on right now. I'm also working on, I'm an investor in a startup that's called Poligage.com. And this is essentially a Upwork for people who are policy experts so that you have access to a database and a service to hire public policy experts.
So, if you need to know about trade between the US and Canada on dairy products and you don't know anything and you don't know where to turn and you can't read all these government papers, you can go and hire a policy expert in that area who could make recommendations and illuminate you on the regulatory environment. I like these enterprises that are solving a problem and that are fostering engagement of people and expansion of knowledge.
Gwen Madiba: Well, we have a special spotlight question for you today from alumna Meg Beretta who's the director of digital strategy for the Nova Scotia Digital Service. Meg holds a social sciences degree in political sciences and communication, and like yourself. Sylvie, she completed the uOttawa co-op program. She then went on to obtain her masters in the social sciences of the internet from the University of Oxford. Meg, thanks for joining us from Dartmouth today.
Meg Beretta: Hello Sylvie, Hello Gwen. Sylvie, it's so great to meet you, I find the work you've been doing with The Policy Circle to be so inspiring and important. It's incredible you've grown this network to over 13,000 members across 44 states dedicated to civic engagement and being leaders in their communities. So my question to you is related to this notion of the importance of active citizenship in democracies. So how do you think that COVID-19 has changed our paradigms of civic engagement, and how might we leverage the changes of the pandemic to engage people in civic life?
Sylvie Légère: Thank you Megan for joining, and thank you for that question. I think that first that the pandemic made us really keenly aware of the power of the people that we elect and the institution that governed us. In the US, the US constitution grants the state a lot of power, which is why here each state implemented very different responses to the pandemic. And in addition, the US is built on local power. So in some states, the power even goes further down to the county level and also to the school districts, and they have the power to establish the rules of engagement with this citizenship. So it's a uniquely decentralized form of government. And I think that in the pandemic we saw how each government around the world functioned. And the pandemic created this awareness of how local government functions, the power of those that we put in office.
And I think that it really sparked a desire for all citizens to really participate in policy making and start paying attention. So I think that first piece is great awareness. And then the other interest to participation, the other piece is that the pandemic also propelled our world into embracing video conferencing. It's been around for a really long time. Zoom, my team were zooming before Zoom. And honestly, I never thought that my mother would be comfortable with Messenger, Zoom, FaceTime.
It pushed everybody to embrace this new virtual world that we're experiencing today. And it also pushed our government towards being much more transparent and to leverage technology to reach out to citizens. So today town hall meetings are broadcasted on Zoom, their recordings are available online. And there's a lot of tools, a lot of platform that allow our government, our representatives to reach out to citizens to get their opinions on policy making. So I think in a way it's a silver lining of the pandemic, it's a renewed civic life and engagement. And I think it will just only expand. I'm sure it's the same in Canada, right?
Meg Beretta: Yeah, I think we're seeing great opportunities to really expand more civic engagement to different communities who ... Being in such a rural place like Nova Scotia, we've seen a lot of issues around digital connectivity. It's also a place that's much more connected through the community fibers due to it being a rural and much more linked communities in a lot of ways. So I think we have opportunity here with greater digitalization to have people connect in ways they haven't outside of their community in Nova Scotia. But also we have a great need and desire to link together folks digitally who still haven't been able to be connected in the pandemic. I think the next step for many governments across Canada, and especially those who have large rural populations is to really focus policy and engagement on that last mile of internet connectivity and leveraging that through the next few years to make sure that everyone can feel the impacts of greater civic engagement equally.
Sylvie Légère: I think that's a great point because you're right, it really shed the light on the fact that several communities in every single state and across the country don't have access to the internet. And we took it for granted and we've ignored that problem. And now it really brought light to it as a priority to solve. So that's a really excellent point Meg.
Gwen Madiba: Well, thanks Sylvie for taking that question from Meg.
Because this season is also about the power of inspiration, I'd like to delve into an area that many of us take inspiration from in our communities, and that is sports. Our uOttawa community is inspired by our incredible Gee-Gees, our student athletes who are leaders on campus representing the university and achieving high levels of success in their sport, in the classrooms, and community. Now, Chicago comes to mind as a sports city with the iconic Wrigley Field that brings people together. As part of Rickett's family that owns the Chicago Cubs, I'd like to hear about your work with the Cubs. How has this connected you in a deeper way with Chicago?
Sylvie Légère: Well, thank you. I came to the US as a hockey fan, I'm a fan of the Canadiens, and now I have to say the Black Hawkes. And now I really fully embrace baseball and its power to bring people together.
That's, what's amazing about the sport and being part of the Cubs. I think also what's been interesting to me is that there's so many facets of being part of a Major League Baseball team. We think about the team first, winning the games. I was there during the World Series when the Cubs won in 2016, I followed the team to all the games, I was part of the parade. And it was amazing, amazing to see so much joy in the city and how it brought people together. And Cubs fans are really passionate fans. Baseball brings people together, and it's incredible to see how grandparents forge bonds with their grandkids at baseball games. Weddings are celebrated at baseball games, engagements happen.
Wrigley Field is a bubble of happiness. Time stops, worries go away for nine innings. And the pace of the game, that's what I love about it, really allows everyone to enjoy the people that they're with, the people sitting around you, the hotdog vendor. It’s a really special place, and it's such an honor to touch the lives of people that way.
And also what I didn't know is that baseball teams are part of the communities where they play and also practice. So the Cubs have an academy in the Dominican Republic, and we also have a ballpark, full-on ballpark and a training facility in Mesa, Arizona, which is in the Phoenix area where there's a lot of Canadians actually from out West. And then there's Wrigleyville where is located Wrigley Field, our ballpark.
Following the World Series, we worked at developing the area around Wrigley field. So there's now a hotel, restaurant, there's a plaza where we host concerts, movie nights, yoga, running sessions on non-game days. So it's really a ballpark, and a team is part of the community in which it operates. But not just locally, it's really globally.
Also finally what's really interesting is one of the core values of the Cubs organization is to be a good neighbor. We value, respect the neighborhood we're in, but we're also connected to about 77 neighborhoods of Chicago. And I'm on the board of Cubs Charity, and our mission is to harness the power of sports for kids and families to achieve their potential and communities to achieve their potentials. We do that, we restore ballparks, we have a scholarship program. There's also coaching and development of little leagues.
So really harnessing sport to impact life, to change lives. So it's an honor to be part of the Cubs organization and to get to know fans across this wonderful country. It's been a ride, and I never could have imagined that coming from Gatineau I'd be a baseball fan and calling Wrigley Field home.
Gwen Madiba: That's such an awesome story. And now continuing on the subject of inspiration, I'd like to end today's conversation with something we'll be asking all of our guests this season. Who are you inspired by right now in your life, and why? And honestly, it can be someone very close to you or someone you've never met but inspires you.
Sylvie Légère: I like that you said right now because I think we all go through different seasons in our life and different moments. And I have to say that my cousin Natalie Sabourin, she's my cousin, and she's the founder of the enterprise I mentioned before, Coleadershipgroup.com. And she inspired me at two level.
One is, throughout the pandemic, it was really hard. I was locked out of Canada. I couldn't cross the border to see my family and my parents, my brother couldn't leave Montreal to see my parents in Ottawa. And when you're an expat, that's really hard. And my cousin was amazing at just keeping the family in touch and together, and she was so creative about it.
And on a professional level, I think, you know what I mentioned earlier, team effectiveness and bringing together people, helping leaders lift everyone around them, helping people achieve their potential is something that's really important to me right now, especially in the environment that we are in.
And Natalie has a unique ability to not only see the value in a person but also how everybody can complement each other to be creative and deliver excellence. And the world is challenging. We live in hybrid environments, we're operating virtually, physically. And we need to have the tools to really work together effectively. And that's where my mind is at, and I think that the work that she does has really been inspiring in the last quarter to improve the way I function with the teams that I work with. And I'm discovering that being a great team player and enhancing the power of a team is another way to be a life enhancer. So that's where I'm at.
Gwen Madiba: Thank you for sharing Sylvie. I can definitely relate when it comes to family and the importance of staying together and finding innovative ways to stay connected especially during the pandemic. My cousins, my sisters, my family was really my rock through it all, and so I'm happy that it was the same for many others including yourself.
It's just amazing to learn from you and to hear from you. And I'm sure that there are many, many more people that are listening that would want to know where they can find you. So Sylvie, could you let our listeners know where they can find you online?
Sylvie Légère: Yeah, you can find me online. First, you can subscribe or listen to my podcast Trust Your Voice podcast. You can also find me on Instagram at Sylvie Légère, and of course on LinkedIn. You can look me up on LinkedIn, and I do a regular post on LinkedIn as well. So it's been a pleasure to be here.
Gwen Madiba: That's great. There are so many ways to stay connected with you and your work, I'll definitely use all of them. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today Sylvie.
Sylvie Légère: Thank you, thank you so much, Gwen, it's been a pleasure. And thank you for putting together this podcast, it's great to promote University of Ottawa.
Gwen Madiba: uOttaKnow is brought to you by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. It is produced by Rhea Laube (“lau” like pow…”bay”) with theme music by alumnus Idris Lawal (“la” “wall”). This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French or to find out more about uOttaKnow please refer to the description of this episode.