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She Means Business

by Lindsay MacAdam

Twenty years before #girlboss was trending, former York University Board of Governors member Hana Zalzal (MBA ’92) left the corporate job she loathed to start Cargo Cosmetics, a company on a mission to make the beauty counter a more empowering place.

Canadian women today are following in Zalzal’s pioneering footsteps in record numbers, choosing to forgo traditional corporate ladder climbing to instead forge a professional path all their own. According to Statistics Canada’s annual labour force survey, approximately 1.1 million (37 per cent) of Canada’s business owners were female in 2018, up from 701,000 (33 per cent) in 1995 when Cargo launched. And the Government of Canada is determined to double the current tally by 2025 with the help of its $2-billion Women Entrepreneurship Strategy introduced in last year’s budget.

The three York graduates profiled here demonstrate just a few of the many ways millennial women are embracing an entrepreneurial future.

SHEREEN LADHA: Don’t call it a side hustle

IT WAS THE SPRING of 2016 when Schulich School of Business grad Shereen Ladha (MBA ’15) realized she had struck gold with her Bollywood YouTube channel, dancewithSL. After experimenting with the video sharing site for a mere eight months, her remix of the popular Justin Bieber song Sorry went viral, quickly generating hundreds of thousands of views and getting picked up by media outlets like Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, CBC and Teen Vogue, to name a few. “I felt like I’d conquered YouTube,” confesses Ladha, selected that same year as one of YouTube Canada’s NextUp Creators, which gave her access to exclusive resources and opportunities to help her channel thrive. “I wanted to bring Indian culture to Canada in a really relevant way, and I think with that video I did.”

Born and raised in Richmond Hill, Ont., to African immigrant parents of Indian descent, the now 30-year-old has been an over-achiever for as long as she can remember. As a child, she attended the academically elite University of Toronto Schools by day and spent her evenings in the dance studio. By 15, she was scouted for a professional Bollywood company called DK Dance Pak for which she performed every weekend until her early 20s, even while pursuing her business degree at McGill University in Montreal.

As a new grad, Ladha moved back to Toronto and worked briefly in PR and marketing analytics before embarking on her MBA at Schulich, an experience she credits for helping launch her YouTube channel and teaching her the strategic thinking she now relies on in her multipronged career. 

Today, the self-confessed workaholic happily juggles a demanding day job as a senior strategist at advertising agency McCann Canada and a rewarding dance career. If tempted to call it a side hustle, don’t. “It’s very much a business for me,” Ladha insists. “It’s my second full-time job.” 

Her two careers are inextricably linked. “McCann hired me because of my personal brand,” explains the winner of the 2019 Strategy Magazine New Establishment Innovator Award, recognized for her modern approach to career. “My boss will say, ‘Here’s a unicorn in the industry who has an MBA and is a YouTube star.’ He’ll give both things equal importance and that’s the reason I’m working there.”

To date, this unicorn has racked up over 100,000 YouTube subscribers – a big milestone, earned through four years of hard work and learnings as the platform evolved and the competition multiplied. “In 2015, I was one of the first Bollywood YouTube channels,” she says. Now there are thousands.

But growing her online fan base is about much more than just the numbers. “I always said I would use my channel to teach and inspire,” says Ladha, “but from a business perspective it’s to gain the popularity so I can perform around the world as myself.” 

And her plan is working, with a solo performance in Lisbon, Portugal, and two cross-Canada stage shows among her list of recent accomplishments, plus an installation she produced that’s running until July 28 at the TIFF Picture Palace exhibit in Toronto.

“YouTube is not an end goal for me,” she says, “but it’s absolutely a means to do the things I want to do.” 

SKY MCLEAN: Ski town takeover

SKY MCLEAN (iBBA ’06, MBA ’12) approaches her real estate business the same way she does her adventure sports: fearlessly.

The Richmond Hill native, who grew up mountain biking and downhill skiing, was summoned westward immediately after graduating from Schulich’s International Bachelor of Business Administration program in 2006, quickly landing a job in Calgary as a sales representative at confectionery company Cadbury. 

McLean spent five happy years enjoying the Alberta lifestyle before deciding to pursue her passion for real estate by enrolling in the MBA in Real Estate & Development at her alma mater.

“My parents would drag me around to open houses as a kid, and that really piqued my interest,” says the now 34-year-old CEO and owner of Big Moose Realty and Basecamp Resorts over the phone from her Canmore, Alta., home. “I found great frustration in watching them look at properties and never buy them.” 

The MBA program did for McLean exactly what she hoped it would: it allowed her to confidently change her career trajectory and eventually go into business for herself.

After finishing up at Schulich, she headed back out west and worked for three real estate developers over the next three years. But after her postgraduate studies, McLean felt she never really fit into an organization again. “It was clear to myself and my employers that I was an entrepreneur at heart,” she says.

McLean dreamed up her concept for Basecamp Resorts – 32 self-contained suites of various sizes, each having their own kitchen, washer and dryer – while working for a Calgary developer and managing two nightly rental condo units in Canmore on the side with much success.

As luck should have it, the perfect piece of land went up for sale shortly after. And without funding lined up or past experience to guide her, she went for it.

The biggest challenge in the beginning was the financing, especially as a young female with no track record in a male-dominated industry. “Getting my first deal off the ground was almost impossible,” admits McLean. But through perseverance and an unwavering belief in her vision, she eventually secured the investors and financing she needed.

Construction on the first Basecamp Resorts began in November 2016 and the business opened in August of the following year. Since then, McLean has been adding to her development portfolio at hyperspeed, first with the Residences at Basecamp, followed by Basecamp Lodge and the Lamphouse Hotel, all in Canmore. 

In progress are Basecamp Suites in Canmore and two new Basecamp Resorts in Revelstoke and Golden, B.C. Different investors are involved in each property, but they’re all part of the same hospitality brand that this humble hotelier is both building and managing.

“Our main criteria for expansion is year-round tourism,” explains McLean. “And I think the suites model is the way of the future.”

CAITLYN NGU: Reinventing the hiring process

YOU MAY HAVE SEEN Glendon grad Caitlyn Ngu (BA ’13) pitching her tech startup, HireUp, on CBC’s “Dragon’s Den” late last year and walking out with a $250,000 deal. But what you didn’t see is what it took to get there. 

The 30-year-old entrepreneur grew up in downtown Toronto in a middle-income family with a mother who was a district manager for a retail chain. “She was very business driven,” Ngu tells me between sips of iced coffee, in the financial district lobby we’ve settled into, “so I definitely learned a lot from her.” 

Thinking she wanted to be a French teacher, Ngu enrolled in the French Studies program at York University’s Glendon Campus. But needing to pay her own way, she strategically crammed all her courses into two days a week to allow for a full-time job. Talk about experiential education.

After graduating with more real-world experience under her belt than most, Ngu attended a professional development event at the MaRS Discovery District one evening and found herself wishing she could speak to the person presenting. “Something clicked, and I thought, there should be a way for me to pitch an employer on hiring me,” she remembers of the instant her startup idea was born. “I went home and registered a business that same night.”

Unlike most small business owners, she hadn’t dreamt about being her own boss. Instead, she was driven by what she saw as a broken hiring system. “Being an entrepreneur isn’t glamorous or fun,” Ngu insists. “I only do it because I fundamentally believe that we should hire differently.”

Her solution, HireUp, is the first centralized, searchable database of video resumés that can only be viewed by verified employers. It introduces hiring managers to suitable candidates on demand and gives job seekers the freedom to interview anywhere, anytime.

Once the business was registered, the eager Ngu began taking jobs at fast-growing tech startups where she could learn. She did endless research and took workshops on everything from legal and finance to UX and design – all outside of office hours. Then, once she felt she had prepared enough, she invested her hard-earned savings into hiring a development team to bring her vision to life.

Today, HireUp is officially up and running, albeit still in its early stages, and Ngu now has a five-person team to help her as needed. 

“I’m hoping HireUp will become the new hiring norm in the next three to five years,” says the optimistic founder, who plans to expand into the U.S. by 2021, followed potentially by Europe.

“My objective is to change the way we hire, which is a very big task,” she says. 

“But I figure it’ll keep me busy for the next 10 years.”    

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