Women of the Year 2021: Jacqueline Ryan is Inspiring Canadians to Be Olympic
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
Chief Brand and Commercial Officer, Canadian Olympic Committee
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Jacqueline Ryan: Team Canada inspires us all to Be Olympic—to find the very best within ourselves [and] pursue the possibility so that together we will transform Canada through the power of sport.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Jacqueline Ryan: I am most excited about the breadth and scale of the impact that Team Canada can have. The achievements and journeys of Olympians inspire all Canadians to Be Olympic. This creates important dialogue and action that has a transformational effect not just on sport, but on Canada, long after the Games end.
To Be Olympic is to lean into the values that make us so distinctly Canadian—values of respect, bravery, and determination. Looking back on the Tokyo 2020 Games after such a challenging year where these athletes needed to demonstrate resilience and courage all day long every day, the way Team Canada athletes showed up at the games inspired all Canadians. They not only performed at their best despite the circumstances, but they also inspired the next generation of Canadians.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Jacqueline Ryan: I’ve made the most impact by building great teams with people who share a common purpose to drive meaningful impact and leave a legacy.
What kind of problems are you trying to solve?
Jacqueline Ryan: The Canadian Olympic Committee is a purpose-driven organization that exists to transform Canada through the power of sport. And this isn’t just something that we say, it’s a belief that informs our decisions and actions.
And while this is something we’ve been living by for a long-time, the past 18 months have underscored how important this is within our business and our brand.
From when we elected to not send athletes to Tokyo in 2020 to protect public health, to many acts of support we participated in alongside our partners to help Canadians throughout the COVID pandemic, to how we’ve amplified athlete voices within our social channels in support of anti-racism, reconciliation, and inclusion.
Our commitment to purpose is also evident in the field of play. Seeing our women’s soccer team win gold in Tokyo is something that all Canadians will remember forever. This achievement is a reflection of the amazing strength of our women’s team and of our long-term commitment to gender equity.
Each of these moments signals how all of our actions and decisions are guided by our purpose to transform Canada through the power of sport.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Jacqueline Ryan: We are inspiring a nation to Be Olympic. Seeing Canadian Olympians—how they carry themselves and perform while the world is watching—is transformational for Canadians and our country. These moments inspire us to pursue the possibility.
We’re unique as a business in that we straddle the private sector and not-for-profit world of the sports system. We are 99 percent privately funded. Once our operations are accounted for, that money flows into the sport system to help Team Canada succeed and to make sport as safe and inclusive as possible. And our Partners, a very long list of Canada’s leading brands, are the largest contributors to our revenue, which I think speaks volumes in their commitment to helping transform Canada through the power of sport.
Why is your work important?
Jacqueline Ryan: Nothing else brings together communities as sport does.
Team Canada has incredible breadth and scale of impact. Olympians come from every community in our country and they inspire all generations to Be Olympic, whether that be through motivating kids to go outside and play or creating important dialogue on a global stage—these both have a transformational impact on our country.
Team Canada at the Games reminds us of the social economic power of having our values on display. It shows limitless potential Canada has on any international stage and it increases participation in sport while inspiring the next generation.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Jacqueline Ryan: Certainly, looking back at the past 18 months I would say COVID played a very large role in this. Looking back to March of 2020 when we made the very difficult decision to not send Team Canada to the games in Tokyo that summer, that had a very large impact on our business, the athletes, and the broader sport system. And so, while it was disappointing for the athletes to have the games postponed, they really felt the need to rally the nation and ensure the decision was not made in vain.
As a result, we launched the “We are all Team Canada” campaign—a rallying cry from athletes encouraging Canadians to stay indoors and help fight the spread of COVID-19. The result of the campaign was tremendous, as not only did 96 percent of Canadians agree that we had made the right decision to not send Team Canada to the games, but engagement with our brand reached unprecedented heights. Each of our partners remained committed to supporting Team Canada, while many new partners also joined us. I think as an organization we took great pride in seeing how our purpose came to life and inspired the nation to put health and safety first and fight through this.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve led your company?
Jacqueline Ryan: Believe in people, provide an opportunity, and then stand back and watch them flourish. It’s the biggest gift and responsibility as a leader.
What is it about sports that you think brings people together?
Jacqueline Ryan: Sport is a powerful unifier, giving people a shared experience to rally around. And more importantly, when we see Olympians competing, we see the possibility in our own lives.
It inspires us to break barriers. When we learn of their sacrifices, it teaches us what it takes to pursue the achievement of our goals—whether there’s a crowd of millions or no one is watching. And when they persevere, it inspires us to dig deeper in our own lives.
But sporting moments also create important dialogue that keeps bringing people together for important discussions long after the games end. We saw this most recently in Tokyo when our Canadian Women’s Soccer Team won the gold medal that ignited a conversation about professional equity in sports that is still bringing people together today.
What was the most difficult part of leading your organization through the pandemic?
Jacqueline Ryan: There were many pivots required in our business due to the pandemic, but I’d say the most difficult part of leading the organization was the lack of human connection as we were forced into a virtual world. I found it very difficult to determine how staff were doing at a very basic human level. We all needed to dig into newfound resilience, face insurmountable uncertainty, and a traumatic number of social issues that shook us to our very core. People deal with trauma and unrest differently. Knowing how to simply be there for someone how and when they need you is tough to determine. I often felt like I could be doing more or doing better. It certainly was very humbling.
What did you learn from the past two years that have prepared you for the upcoming 2022 Winter Games?
Jacqueline Ryan: The important balance of resilience and wellness, and knowing when to take a pause. I also experienced the incredible inspiration that Team Canada athletes gave the world, at a time when we were all searching for hope. I know we’ll see that same inspiration from Team Canada this winter at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building or leading a company?
Jacqueline Ryan: Are you committed to the purpose of the organization and do you have a vision that will get people excited to join you on that journey?
In your experience, what do you think is the quickest way to get people on board with your mission?
Jacqueline Ryan: I think that you have to start with getting people excited about the purpose in your work and then encourage them to join you in the journey. We all want to feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, to feel like we are making an impact. Leaders are advisors and guides, and the best outcomes come from motivating others to achieve their very best as part of that journey.
What is your mission? The bigger picture?
Jacqueline Ryan: When the games are on and the world is watching, when we watch our athletes compete, we see the possibility in people like us—proof that success can come from anywhere by leaning into our Canadian values. It is proof that we all have it in us to Be Olympic.
Canadian Olympians inspire our nation to pursue what we value, both during and long after the Games end. Throughout the Games, they inspire new generations and create an important dialogue on a global stage that has a transformational impact on our country.
How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Jacqueline Ryan: I think success is a process. It’s about having a goal while also ensuring that you appreciate the journey.
Looking back on the incredible challenges Team Canada athletes faced on the road to Tokyo 2020 (postponed games, challenging or non-existent training conditions, managing wellness, and requiring a new level of resilience) these experiences will always be part of their story. These athletes will always be remembered for not only their performance in Tokyo, but for their determination and ability to adapt under the most difficult of circumstances. I can’t think of a better definition of success.
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Jacqueline Ryan: Follow your passion, work hard, and always have an idea in your back pocket.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Jacqueline Ryan: Shannon Hosford, CMO at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. We have been friends and work colleagues since we were in school together. Shannon has a wonderful outlook on life, always makes you feel like you belong, all while being a wonderful mother and one of the most respected sports executives in North America. Our dog walks through COVID saved me on many occasions!