Women of the Year 2022: Canada’s Most Incredible Women Leaders
It’s back! Our second annual celebration of Canada’s most inspiring women is here. From tech startup founders and social impact heroes to entrepreneurial leaders and transformational pioneers, meet 25 incredible individuals who are changing the game and leading Canada forward.
Domee Shi (Filmmaker, Pixar)
Domee Shi used to hate pitching her stories. She wanted her drawings to stand for themselves, to tell the story themselves. But storytelling is meant to be engaging, to connect with an audience in an effort to both show and tell. Storytelling is meant to provide the audience with opportunities to reflect and broaden perspectives. Domee Shi knew she needed to learn to champion herself in order to advocate the stories that she wanted to tell.
So began Shi’s professional transformation from story artist to an Oscar-winning director. Read the full cover story here.
Sylvia Ng (CEO, ReturnBear)
In 2020, it is estimated that approximately $60 billion worth of inventory was returned in Canadian retail trades. Furthermore, a 2019 Canadian Online Shopper Study found that approximately 80 percent of consumers will stop shopping with a retailer after a bad return experience. Suffice to say, how a retail business manages its returns can make a significant impact on its operation and profitability. Recognizing a need to streamline the process, Sylvia Ng leads ReturnBear, an omnichannel reverse logistics network. In other words, they help make the overall return experience more efficient for businesses and pleasant for customers by harnessing their own network of package-free drop-off points, mail-in-return process, and item quality assurance handling. With over 18 years of experience working in the tech industry, Ng is no stranger to solving big problems. Her professional pedigree includes stints at some of Canada’s most recognizeable brands, including leadership roles at eBay, Google, and Shopify, where she worked as General Manager to help early-stage e-commerce merchants grow their businesses. It is this experience that Ng has wielded to catalyze the expansion of her business across the country and with partners like Cadillac Fairview and Mint Green Group, and investors like Koru. With 46 percent of Canadian Millennials and Gen Z reporting keeping unwanted items they didn’t want to return (with some losing up to $500 to avoid the hassle of the experience), Ng and her team are shining a light on an often overlooked but essential part of the shopping experience.
Shadi McIsaac (Co-founder and CEO, Ownr)
An entrepreneur helping other entrepreneurs find independence and financial freedom, her startup Ownr offers a platform with all the resources and tools needed for anyone looking to build the next big thing. It’s all part of a bigger picture—when barriers to entrepreneurship are lowered, communities and economies are boosted. Since 2017, Ownr has empowered more than 75,000 Canadians with everything from registration to incorporation to legal as part of their overall mission to democratize entrepreneurship.
Joanna Griffiths (President, Knix)
She’s built an empire rooted in helping women feel seen and supported through an array of intimates, period products, loungewear, and activewear, as well as community impact endeavours. Earlier in 2022, Griffiths led Knix into its next phase of growth, merging with health and hygiene company Essity for an 80 percent stake of its equity valued at USD $320 million. Recently, the global brand announced the launch of the Knix Fund, their first giving program aimed at supporting like-minded grassroots organizations, community initiatives, and storytellers with an annual commitment of $200,000. Their first area of focus? Period poverty equity and period poverty.
Noura Sakkijha (Co-founder and CEO, Mejuri)
Of Canada’s entrepreneurial sector, only a select group of lifestyle companies have attained a level of growth, respect, and vision to warrant international recognition—Canada Goose, lululemon, Aritzia, and now, Mejuri. Built on the foundational principles of empowerment, innovation, transparency, and inclusivity, Sakkijha built her Toronto-based startup to give agency to women in the fine jewellery purchasing process (which has typically been led, and marketed to, men). Wanting to dispel the narrative that these purchases had to be relegated to special occasions, Sakkijha and her team have built a brand that encourages its clientele to find celebration in the everyday—to “buy the damn diamond for yourself.” As a result, they’ve built up a cult following of fans that include everyone from A-list celebrities and fashion trendsetters to entrepreneurial leaders and jewellery enthusiasts. Through their chosen medium, Mejuri has been able to parlay their influence as a brand towards progressive community impact via organizations like the Jeannette Rankin Foundation (which provides unrestricted grants to students who identify as women or nonbinary) and their very own Empowerment Fund for women and non-binary low-income communities. In addition, Mejuri has pledged $50,000 in scholarships through their partnership with the Black Business Professionals Association.
Barbora Samieian (Co-founder, Sundays)
After a career working for the United Nations, Barbora Samieian started her own entrepreneurial journey that has culminated in a portfolio of companies built on culture and community—Field & Social, Ride Cycle Club, and her latest, Sundays. The lifestyle brand offers a streamlined solution to the cluttered, oversaturated furniture market with high-quality pieces that are beautifully designed and accessible. Since launching, the brand has successfully grown from e-commerce platform to brick-and-mortar, reaching $12 million in revenue in 2021 and a projected $30 million by the end of 2022. At her core, community has always remained an integral part of Samieian’s mission. For example: At Field & Social, she led her company to partner with Mealshare, providing over 30,000 meals to youth in need.
Nuria Madrenas (Founder, Tacit)
The disparity between men and women in the art industry is striking, where only a mere two percent of art sold is done by women artists. Madrenas created an online gallery and art consultation platform dedicated entirely to the cultivation, amplification, and support of female artists. With an offering that exists between entry-level and bluechip, Tacit operates as a contemporary art collective that celebrates diverse creators for the budding and seasoned collector.
Dr. Alaa Murabit (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)
A multi-hyphenate through-and-through, Dr. Alaa Murabit is an award-winning Libyan-Canadian physician, global security strategist, and women’s rights activist whose work has impacted millions through the policies that she has helped shape across 193 countries. Born in Saskatchewan, Murabit was accepted into medical school in Libya at the young age of 15, where she would eventually go on to found The Voice of Libyan Women (VLW), a youth-led NGO created during the Libyan civil war with a mission to empower those caught in conflict. Today, her experiences have culminated in her role at the Gates Foundation as Director of Health, where she oversees global health policy and advocacy. She is also a United Nations High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth, and one of 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary General. Along her professional journey, Murabit’s work has not gone unnoticed—she has received over 100 honours and awards, including the Nelson Mandela International Change-Maker Award by The Nelson Mandela Family and the Canadian Government’s 100 Most Influential Women in History. Across her various roles, she’s remained steadfast in her mission: to amplify the power and agency of women and girls, and to champion everyone’s right to a life of dignity.
Erin Bury (Co-founder and CEO, Willful)
A leader in Canada’s tech ecosystem, her startup helps people navigate an often confusing and stressful estate planning process with her online platform, Willful. Flipping an archaic industry on its head, she’s leading a new generation of ‘deathtech’ companies that are looking to transform how we prepare for, talk about, and process end-of-life planning. A quick browse through their site shows a directory of useful resources and an online will that users can create in less than 20 minutes without a notary or lawyer.
Related: How Tech is Breathing New Life Into the Business of Death
Fatima Zaidi (Founder and CEO, Quill Inc.)
As of 2022, podcast listeners have grown by 29.5 percent in the last three years, demonstrating an increasing interest for audio-driven content. Between her two platforms (Quill Inc., CoHost), brands and entrepreneurs are empowered with a full suite of podcasting tools that allow them to fully harness their voice, build (or expand) their audience, and develop new streams of revenue. From production assistance to a growth and analytics dashboard, Zaidi and her team offer a 360 solution for anyone looking to explore the space.
Shir Magen (CEO, HomeStars)
Chances are, there’s at least one person you’ve spoken to over the last few years that has embarked on the home renovation journey. But how do you know who to hire and trust? Shir Magen’s startup houses Canada’s largest network of verified and community-reviewed home service professionals, filling in a much-needed gap as the home improvement sector continues to grow. Homeowners can feel rest assured while professionals are empowered to build their businesses.
Mehrsa Raeiszadeh (Co-founder and COO, MintList)
Mehrsa Raeiszadeh created a marketplace for new and used vehicles with a mission to democratize the one-trillion-dollar industry. Using artificial intelligence, MintList taps into existing dealer inventory and infrastructure to give consumers more choice and bigger savings. It’s a big deal for an investment that is often the second biggest purchase of someone’s life. Bonus: she’s also built a diverse team comprised of 80 percent visible minority and 45 percent women employees.
Nicole Antoine (Co-founder, Four Brown Girls)
An entrepreneur with a background in law, Nicole Antoine co-founded her Montreal-based not-for-profit organization Four Brown Girls, aimed at creating safe spaces for Black Canadians. BLAXPO, their branch of lifestyle events, connects BIPOC individuals to equitable and diverse opportunities within the job market. They provide $1000 scholarships, networking sessions, master classes, complementary therapy, and more in an effort to connect candidates with employers with similar values that extend beyond professional qualifications.
Dr. Sarah Saska (Co-founder and CEO, Feminuity)
An academic-turned-entrepreneur, Dr. Sarah Saska’s DE&I company focuses on redesigning the mindsets, technologies, and systems to promote more equitable tech and business ecosystems. Clients like Shopify, Google, and Knix have looked to Feminuity for guidance on everything from identifying biases and actionable organization-wide DEI strategies to workshops and more. As an academic, her contributions have been impactful. Her work as a research advisor at Tech for Women’s Justice has helped explore the intersection between violence against women, access to justice, and technology. In addition, Saska co-authored “Inclusion, Intention, Investment: A Playbook for Women Working in Tech” with #movethedial and has spearheaded flagship studies that examine gender equity for women in tech.
Melissa Allen (Executive Director, League of Innovators)
In the last few years, a larger spotlight has been shone on the tech community to highlight the disparities in diversity. While efforts and progress have certainly been made, the industry continues to be largely homogenous and undeniably dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual men. Witnessing the lack of diversity and representation amongst both investors and startup founders, Allen chose to make an impact herself by becoming an angel investor in 2019. In her perspective, manifesting progress started with making change through her own actions. Today, that has resulted in spearheading the direction at League of Innovators (LOI), a charity accelerator that delivers out-of-the-box experiences for youth to hone their entrepreneurial skills and shape the future of business and tech. Built on a mission to cultivate mental resilience, community collaboration, and build accessible and inclusive spaces, LOI aims to create purpose-driven leaders. This is primarily done through a combination of online academies, incubators, accelerators, and residencies to help budding entrepreneurs at any stage of their startup journey. Since 2017, the total enterprise value of startups that have gone through LOI has reached a staggering $1 billion. In addition to her executive director responsibilities, Allen’s own angel fund (Capital M) has already invested in startups led by diverse Canadians.
Dr. Cindy Blackstock (Executive Director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society)
Canada has a long and mired history with its Indigenous communities that has called for reparations and much-needed progress. At the forefront of these efforts is Dr. Cindy Blackstock, a community champion who has made it her life’s work to reform Indigenous child welfare. A member of the Gitxsan First Nation, she currently serves as the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, an organization that uses education, public policy campaigns, and quality resources to support the safety and well-being of First Nations youth and their families. To date, their efforts have been monumental in accomplishing key milestones for the community, including the distribution of over 691,000 services and products to First Nations children. Most notably, Blackstock is known for her 2016 litigation against Canada (initially filed under the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2007), addressing the country’s failure to provide equitable First Nations child welfare services. In 2022, Ottawa announced $20 billion in compensation to First Nations children harmed by its underfunding of child welfare, and $20 billion on reforming the system over five years. In addition to her leadership duties at the organization, Blackstock is also a professor of social work at McGill University, and has published over 75 articles on topics covering reconciliation, Indigenous theory, First Nations child welfare, and human rights. Her tireless and continued work in the community has resulted in praise at the highest levels, being recognized with awards like the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada and the Order of Canada.
Jessica Stevenson and Jayme Jenkins (Co-founders, Everist)
Summiting new peaks is the idea behind Everist, a Toronto-based sustainable beauty startup that asks the world how we can do better in the choices we make as consumers. Founded in 2021 by Jessica Stevenson and Jayme Jenkins, the working mom duo created the brand following over two decades of experience working for goliaths of the beauty industry (L’Oreal, P&G, Revlon, etc.) What they discovered along their professional journeys was the need for a brand that was more mindful of its impact. One that was zero-waste at its core. The result? An innovative waterless shampoo and conditioner that replaced the other products on the market that were loaded with synthetic chemicals, comprised of over 70 percent water, and packaged in single-use plastic. In contrast, their products are packaged in infinitely recyclable aluminum tubes and made of 3X concentrated, water-activated pastes made of biodegradable ingredients. Partnerships with organizations like Climate Neutral and 1 Percent for the Planet (which sees at least one percent of Everist’s annual sales donated to environmental causes) have added further to their mission and resulted in industry accolades like TIME’s 100 Best Inventions of 2021.
Sofi Khwaja (Co-founder and CEO, Thesus Outdoors)
Currently, the market for sustainable footwear is valued at over $10 billion and growing 5.8 percent year-over-year. BIPOC woman-owned and led, Sofi Khwaja’s footwear and accessories brand, Thesus Outdoors, is cruelty-free, design-forward, and has already diverted 20,000 kilograms of waste from oceans and landfills. Harnessing a team with diverse professional backgrounds in law, international development, design, data science, and social work has given Thesus a set of skills that uniquely positions them to solve complex problems. December 31, 2022 is a deadline they’ve given themselves to achieve their goals, including the use of 100 percent natural and recycled materials, while also being Climate Positive.
Jenn Harper (Founder, Cheekbone Beauty)
Founded on the principles of her Anishinaabe roots, Jenn Harper launched Cheekbone Beauty, her brand of high-quality, cruelty-free beauty products designed for low environmental impact and maximum utility. With signature products like the SUSTAIN line of lipsticks and eye pencils, and Warrior Women liquid lipsticks, Harper is contributing to a larger dialogue around sustainability, conscious consumption, and Indigenous empowerment. To date, $150,000 in donations have gone towards various causes like the Navajo Water Project, Shannen’s Dream, and One Tree Planted.
RELATED: 6 Canadian BIPOC-Led Brands That Are Diversifying the Beauty Counter
Shahrzad Rafati (Founder and CEO, BBTV)
The art of storytelling has transformed, evolved, and innovated in tandem with the progress of technology over the years. As the medium has changed, so too has the creator. With the proliferation of digital media platforms and the influencer economy, virtually anyone or any brand can be a media creator today, opening up a universe of possibilities in telling broader stories and generating business. Shahrzad Rafati understands this all too well as CEO, founder, and chairperson of BBTV, a company that exists at the intersection of technology, commerce, and media. Under her leadership, BBTV has become a pioneer in its sector on a global scale, becoming the second largest video property behind Google with tens of billions of impressions generated each month. In 2020, Rafati and her team broke records when BBTV made its debut on the Toronto Stock Exchange, making history as one of the top ten tech listings of all time, as well as the largest across all sectors with a sole female founder and CEO. In building BBTV, careful consideration has also been made in cultivating internal culture. While success will always be measured by financial performance (of which she has built a quadruple bottom line business), it is also defined by other KPIs. BBTV has zero percent pay gap, 40 percent BIPOC representation at the board level, and approximately 40 to 45 percent of its employees and board members identifying as female.
Sarah Wilkinson (CEO, Dr. Bill)
The strain on the healthcare sector has been a growing concern, especially since the onset of the pandemic. Between all of the responsibilities that physicians have on their plate at any given time, how can patient care be prioritized? With a background in financial technology, Sarah Wilkinson joined Dr. Bill in 2020 as Chief Operating Officer, eventually being elevated to the role of CEO, making her the youngest in the position within the RBC Ventures portfolio of companies. The healthcare startup aims to ease the burden of administrative tasks on physicians by streamlining the medical billing process to maximize earnings, submit claims, and minimize burnout.
Inara Lalani (Co-founder and COO, Fem Therapeutics)
Merging healthcare innovation with an entrepreneurial mindset, Inara Lalani’s startup, Fem Therapeutics, addresses the gender gap in the sector by using personalized therapeutic solutions for women. While pursuing her BCom at McGill University and being accepted into the McGill Surgical Innovation Program, Lalani discovered that one in four women are diagnosed with a degree of Pelvic Organ Prolapse (POP) at some stage in their lives. Currently, only two treatment methods are available, both of which have a high failure rate, leaving the removal of the reproductive organs as the safest course of action to prevent further prolapse. Lalani created Fem Therapeutics to explore new ways to treat Pelvic Floor Disorders by harnessing artificial intelligence and 3D printing for a more customized experience. It’s part of a larger conversation that addresses the healthcare sector’s gender gap.
Swati Matta (Founder and CEO, Koble)
Swati Matta’s digital health-based startup, Koble, helps expecting and new parents with personalized access to postpartum and pediatric care. Utilizing over 16 years of healthcare experience, with stints at League and TELUS (where she helped launch and scale digital health solutions for healthcare providers, employers, and pharmacy retailers), Koble was created to address a gap in the healthtech market. Multidisciplinary expertise from OBGYNs, pelvic floor PTs, and sleep coaches, as well as over 500 videos covering various topics make Koble the FamTech destination parents have been waiting for.
Elizabeth Caley (Co-founder and co-CEO, Poppy Health)
Elizabeth Caley’s startup, Poppy Health, utilizes indoor health data via real-time sensors and software systems to aid in building performance intelligence and infection safety. Using her leadership experience as COO at Meta and other leading global tech companies (like Microsoft, Hummingbird, and Firmex,) Caley is at the forefront of harnessing machine learning to optimize the trajectory of science and technology. She’s also helping to usher in the next generation of innovators and big thinkers. Caley has mentored over 150 science-based startups through leading organizations like Creative Destruction Lab, TechStars, and AI for Good.