She/Ze Leads the World, A Summit for Women Leaders in the North

Updated: Apr 3

By Melia Hudgin

Introduce yourself and what you do:

I'm Selene Vakharia, owner of Smart Pop Ups and Smart Women and one of the organizers behind this event. At Smart Women, what we're really focused on is female entrepreneurs and increasing the number of female entrepreneurs, but also the support for existing female entrepreneurs in the North. We do programming, a lot of community building, but also a lot of skills development opportunities, as well as business accelerators and different things to help people who are starting their business or have a business they want to get to the next step.

How did this event start?

So Sofia Fortin, who is one of the organizers as well and also co-founder of Smart Women was dreaming about it for a long time. Then when we met and started our business, four years ago I think it is now, we talked about it a lot.

So we're really passionate about women leaders and female entrepreneurs. There's so many badass women and so many people are doing such awesome things but we really were noticing, ourselves included, that there's a lot of things holding us back as well.

We really wanted to get people to feel like they were getting traction in the things they wanted to get traction in and have the impact they wanted to have. And so we kind of dreamt about this event a few years ago and then got some funding from CanNor and were able to make it happen.

Why do you think this event is important?

There's a lot of reasons, there's a lot of research out there showing that women leaders really make a difference. Businesses that have women on board, organizations that have women on the boards, do better.

Their teams are better, their profits are better, everything's better. As well as for communities themselves, right?  Being able to have women able to. Have the jobs that they want, make the income they want, run the businesses they want. That just makes our whole community healthier.

So that was one of the big drivers behind the conference and why we want it to happen. Um, and we wanted to create a space for that currently happen. And even though there's all that research out there, we were finding that there's also a ton of research showing still women aren't able to get in leadership decisions.

Right? There's a lot of things still happening as well as there's a lot of those limiting beliefs that are holding that. Get in our way. Definitely.

Why do you think it is important for women to have leadership roles?

For a lot of reasons, women bring a really valuable voice to this gala, we're a huge part of the population therefore we should be involved in the decisions being made for our own future or the future of our children. So when women are not involved in those decisions, healthcare is often not a priority, there's still so much violence against women, that's never a priority. I work with a lot of organizations I work with Victoria Faulkner a lot, cause what they're doing is amazing, and it's crazy how hard is to get people to pay attention.

Do you think women are still being oppressed in the work and home life?

I think definitely there's a lot of barriers against women and there's a lot of pressure that's still happening. I think it's really interesting because there's overt stuff that's happening, right? We see the numbers, the violence against women is epidemic. The numbers are insane. If that was for any other thing that was happening, that thing would get much more attention. Women are still being subjected to violence. It's still happening. And that to me is a sure sign that something is not shifting that should, especially on the smaller level of things that aren't as obvious. The fact that it's the microaggressions that happen, stereotypes, the fact that women in the meeting room still get ignored. This has happened to me a lot where I've said something and no one's heard it, and I'm not a quiet person, and then a guy in the room says word for word the same thing. Then everyone's like, "Oh, great idea." The fact that that's still happening, there's something thats not shifting. Also the other thing that I really see happening is having heard women say that they feel that they cannot run for office, run their business because, "who would take care of the kids?" There is a cultural thing happening, a social construct saying it's still our job to do that.

So how are you changing that for yourself?

For myself I think one of the biggest things that I always try to work on, and it's really hard to work on, is just being aware of what's happening. You can't shift anything until you know about it. So how can I get more aware of what is happening that I'm not even seeing? How can I get more aware of the things that are happening within me that are impacting me, but also impacting others? How am I actually contributing to this system because I am, as much as I don't want to be, there are things that I do, how I act. It's really hard to reprogram yourself. That's really hard work. Because a lot of people are like "I don't wanna think about the things that I'm doing that make me not a great feminist." But that's really important. Then also, how do I help other people be aware, how to call it out when I see it.

How do you help other people change that for themselves?

So there's two levels on which I think that we can work on that. 1. I love working with other women around mindset, I love it. I love helping people recognize their own limiting beliefs and then shifting how they see those. It's not easy work. It's something that I love to support people in. It's something that is lifelong work. Then the other element is, so the way that I've approached trying to change on a more societal level, how we see things, I work with Victoria Faulkners and other organizations in smart popups, a lot of marketing work. A lot of that is around how do we shift how people think and the behaviors people have and the opinions people have. How do we do that in a way that's effective, which is normally not like hitting them over the head, not destructive. You really have to get people who are in a position to change thoughts, on your side with it. So how do we activate men to stand up? How do we show people what's happening in a way that doesn't get them to turn away because they don't like to look at it?

What does empowered women empower women mean to you?

I think the biggest thing, which is at the core of this summit is that we are stronger together and there is a shit ton of us. It's not one woman over another one. We have to be really aware across cultures, across races, across everything that we need to all come together. There can't be that type of competition. It's every community. So how do we support one another so that we're all rising up and that we're helping each other to rise up?

My last question is, what advice do you have for youth regarding women in leadership? Do you have any advice of where younger female youth should start?

I have to say I'm so impressed with young women today. I think a lot of young women throughout history are actually where a lot of the changes have happened. Even when I think about myself when I was younger, I think I was doing things, that had a really big impact that I'm too scared to do now. I was doing things because I didn't have that fear and because there was endless possibilities, I had optimism. I also had a bit more like time. I didn't have certain responsibilities. I had More freedom. I would say there's a few things, one of them is just to start because really the power is with you. Young women is where the power is at. you are able to do so many things and it's so amazing what you are capable of doing. I would say, support other women around you, it can be really hard. I think there'd be a lot of feelings of competition, someone else's better than you, but that's actually good for you too, when someone else's doing great. So try to find ways that you can rise them up, even if they're not your friend, even if you don't really like them. How can you still be that person is doing cool things. Also number three is, how can you find or try to find a way to find others who are doing what you want to be doing? Like I said, we're stronger together and It can feel really lonely when you're the only one trying to do something, but there's other people who want the same stuff. So find them, cultivate those relationships and see how you can, together, really make a difference.


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