International Women’s Day – keynote speaker says people are frustrated and want change

On Thursday, March 7th (2019), the Women’s House Serving Bruce and Grey celebrated International Women’s Day a day early at the Lakeshore Recreation Centre in Port Elgin (Saugeen Shores).

Keynote speaker this year was Andi Sharma, an internationally recognized social researcher and human rights advocate based in Manitoba. The recipient of numerous awards, Sharma actively volunteers to promote collaboration and social entrepreneurship.

Sharma is a Senior Analyst with the Government of Manitoba’s Northern Healthy Food Initiative and is internationally recognized in the field of social enterprise, poverty and world food systems.

The results of her research have been published in a variety of scholarly journals and she has been invited to present her work in international venues across the United States, Barbados, Switzerland and has also participated in TED talks and National Geographic.  She has also co-authored a book on Systems Change with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

With a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a Masters in Public Administration, she recently earned her pilot’s licence to provide mentorship for young women in the industry and to fly healthy food to the North.

Sharma has also been honoured for her volunteerism and leadership in her field and was chosen as the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient by the University of Winnipeg.  She was also selected as one of CBC’s ‘a Future 40 under 40’ and one of Manitoba’s Future leaders and was chosen as one of the faces of the Bell Canada Let’s Talk Campaign and as one of Canada 150 leaders for mental health as part of the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health Awareness Campaign.  In 2018, she as awarded the Manitoba Lt. Governor’s Medal for Making a Difference in Her Community.

Sharma came to the local celebration through her university relationship with Tori Matichuk, Business Development Co-ordinator with Business to Bruce of Bruce County.  “We went to the University of Winnipeg together,” said Matichuk, “and became best friends.”

She said her career path was a meandering circuitous route that did not hit the usual milestones in life.  “I found that milestones are more of a moving target and are elastic and dynamic things.  The don’t often offer a consistent measure and are fluid and come in all shapes and sizes.  Each one is no more or no less significant than the other.”

The milestones that marked her path changed dramatically over the years.  Before 2005, they were easy and included getting good grades and plans to go to university but then her father unexpectedly died.

Despite growing up in a privileged family, Sharma talked openly, and at times emotionally, of her troubled life following the death of her father.

It was then the milestones changed from achieving to simply surviving.

To ease the pain, she began self-medicating with drugs and ended up losing several jobs and being expelled from University and found herself homeless and “locked in a downward spiral”.

Eventually, she began therapy and rehabilitation and she began the long road to healing with milestones piling up.  She began to believe in herself and was again admitted to university where she obtained her degree and then her Masters.

“It’s amazing how your horizons change when you have a different vantage point,” said Sharma.  “Rock bottom looks a lot different than when you’re on the way up.  What I’ve learned is that life is filled with unexpected challenges that will push you to be braver and stronger than you ever thought you could be and these moments help shape the person that you are.  So, respect them, honour them and always keep going.”

In the face of life’s uncertainty, there is one thing you can always rely on, added Sharma.  “My dad called it a sense of self, an intimate knowing of who you are and where you come from.  Only from that foundation, are you really able to explore the depths of life’s uncertainties from a place of confidence and conviction.  It really is the strength of knowing who you are that will allow you to walk right up to the edge of your fears, find your wings and take flight.”

“My singular purpose came to be to seek out that singular purpose in life and quite literally hold on to it for dear life.  Luckily, I didn’t have to look far.  I was labelled with many names – addict, drop-out, junkie, failure and I was surrounded by the injustice that surrounds many.”

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Balance for Better’ and, according to Sharma, it is a business issue.  “The race is on for gender balance in boardrooms, government, media coverage, for employees, wealth, sports coverage and the list goes on.  Gender parity is fundamental and it’s how economies survive and thrive.  We should honour the matriarchs who came before us and blazed a path.  But we still have a long way to go.”

Globally, over 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choices as men. Labour force participation is 63 per cent for women compared to men’s 94 per cent.  The gender wage gap is 23 per cent and only 5 per cent of the Fortune 500 are women.

Sharma pointed out that consumerism is changing and that young people have an awareness of the impact of their purchasing. Consumer decision making continues to rise and there is a similar shift in corporate behavior in response to the consumer demands. Consumers are evolving into consideration for the environmental, social and economic impact of their buying power and companies are having to take a look at their ethical practices.

The charge of conscious consumerism is being lead by millenials, according to Sharma.  In a study cited b Sharma, 73 per cent of millenials are willing to pay more for goods that have an ethical impact. “This tells us that the companies that will succeed tomorrow are rooting themselves in the shared values of the conscious consumer of today.

She also says the workforce is changing.  By 2025, millenials will account for 73 per cent of the workforce and that there is a quiet revolution taking place across the North American workforce.  It’s not about pay or hours or contracts, it’s a coup d’etat lead by the nation’s young politically engaged job seekers who are demanding that their employers enshrine the values and ethics in their business models.  For millenials, they are willing to take a 50 per cent pay cut if companies align themselves with social justice goals.

As corporate leaders, and especially as women, we are uniquely positioned to advance the fight against inequality or any other social or environmental justice movement that moves you.  You can do that while furthering your own missions to create lasting change in the world around you,” Sharma said.  “This goes against all the corporate models where unchecked resource extraction coupled with a singular focus of profit, has largely driven  inequality and environmental degradation.  What the people are calling for is nothing short of a complete re-orientation of the corporate paradigm.  One of the best ways is social entrepreneurship.  Social enterprise is a combination of public, private and philanthropic sectors.

People are frustrated by what they seem around them and they want to make change.  Social entrepreneurs have the uncanny ability to see the potential in everything.  They see the ‘upside of down’. They recognize when a system is broken but, for them, that’s the crack that lets the light in. They see opportunity when others see challenges.”

Today, the highly driven and successful young woman in her chosen field, Sharma is a visionary whose ambition, industrious and hard-working nature, and passion for social enterprise has already made an indelible impact on the city of Winnipeg, the province of Manitoba, and the international community.

“A small group of people or even an individual can change the course of history.”