Women's Business Network celebrates Ottawa's Businesswoman of the Year Award winners

BYA gala organizers, sponsors drop by 12 finalists' homes to celebrate Ottawa businesswomen and their achievements
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Not even an obligatory mask could hide the smiles that shone on the faces of 12 business and professional women who were paid a visit Thursday by the Women's Business Network of the National Capital Region.

The volunteer-run organization came bearing lovely gift packages, hand-delivered to each one of finalists at their homes. While doing so, the group also announced the four winners, in their respective categories, of a 2019 Businesswoman of the Year Award. 

Jennifer Conley, chief advancement officer at Carleton University and president and CEO of the Carleton University Foundation, won in the Organization Category; Jennifer Reynolds, lawyer, mediator and founder of Fresh Legal, won in the Emerging Entrepreneur Category; Heather Desjardins, owner of The Open Door Educational Services, won in the Established Entrepreneur Category; and Anjali Dilawri, partner at chartered professional accounting firm Logan Katz LLP, won in the Professional Services Category.

It was imperative to gala committee chair Deborah Bard, head of quality at M. Sullivan & Son Ltd, that the WBN come up with a meaningful way to honour the finalists, after having postponed their planned awards dinner in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The black-tie gala typically draws hundreds of women and men from the local business community to celebrate the 12 finalists and to reveal the winners in the four categories.

“We just wanted them to feel special,” Bard explained at her Carp home, where she was seen loading her car with gift boxes before hitting the road to make 12 stops at homes located around the city.

Bard wasn’t the only one to put extra miles on her vehicle. So did Nancy Graham, portfolio manager of the gala’s presenting sponsor PWL Capital. She’s passionate about the work the WBN does in Ottawa to support and build the profile of Ottawa’s female business leaders.

“They need to be recognized, and they deserve to be recognized and supported by the community,” said Graham. “They’re amazing, they’re innovative, they’re creative.”

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From left, Nancy Graham, portfolio manager at PWL Capital in Ottawa, with Deborah Bard, chair of the Businesswoman of the Year Awards gala committee, at Bard's home in Carp on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, preparing to deliver gift packages to this year's 12 finalists. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

The pair was joined by a small entourage that included WBN executive director Soula Burrell and a category sponsor, so either Ottawa lawyer Danny Fernandes; GGFL LLP chief innovation officer and chief operating officer Margot Sunter; Andrew Phillips, director of business banking at CIBC; or Trevor Kennedy, managing partner at Logan Katz LLP.

All the finalists were ready for their visitors’ arrival, which meant none of them was caught off guard in ponytails and sweatpants. The winning finalists were told that they had won during the gift hand-off. Even with the masks and social distancing measures, the recipients were clearly excited, honoured and grateful.

“Oh, this is so hard, I’m such a hugger,” Conley said while reacting to her good news.

“I know, I’m a hugger, too,” Graham empathized.

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Award finalist Jennifer Conley, chief advancement officer at Carleton University and president and CEO of the Carleton University Foundation, welcomed organizers and sponsors of the Businesswoman of the Year Awards outside her home, while joined by her husband, Brent. Conley was named winner in the Organization Category. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Conley led Carleton University’s $300-million Collaborate Campaign, which was completed ahead of schedule in April 2019. It was the most ambitious, successfully completed campaign in Carleton’s – and Ottawa’s – history. In 2016, she won the Ottawa chapter of the AFP’s Fundraising Executive of the Year Award.

“This is incredible and I’m so grateful to all of you for uplifting women leaders, and for all of your passion and commitment,” she told the group with her husband, realtor Brent Conley, at her side.

Desjardins expressed her gratitude to the WBN for making the presentations possible, despite it having to change plans multiple times, for reasons well beyond its control.

“Being a part of this event as a finalist, let alone a winner, has been absolutely amazing,” said Desjardins, a 2019 Forty Under 40 recipient. “Being amongst such inspirational women has been such an honour.”

Her business offers a variety of services for struggling students, online and within the Ottawa area, with specialized tutoring and assessments.

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Heather Desjardins, owner of The Open Door Educational Services, welcomed organizers and sponsors of the Businesswoman of the Year Awards outside her home. She was named winner in the Established Entrepreneur Category. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Dilawri told her intimate audience what a “wonderful feeling” it was to belong to the group of 12 finalists.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Dilawri, who lauded WBN for the focus it puts on women. 

"We have had to work harder, jump higher, speak louder just to be taken more seriously."

“I always say, we need a bigger stage, we need to celebrate more women,” she said, with her husband Vinay and daughter Anisha beside her. “We have had to work harder, jump higher, speak louder just to be taken more seriously.

“So, when we shine, when we take the stage, it’s so noteworthy, it’s so important and so deeply meaningful.”

Logan Katz LLP has offices in Ottawa and Toronto. It’s been serving the region for more than 25 years and is a team of 60 strong.

“Our founding partners are still here and they show up to work every day,” Dilawri said while thanking her firm.

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Anjali Dilawri, partner at chartered professional accounting firm Logan Katz LLP, seen with her husband Vinay and daughter Anisha, outside her home after being told by organizers of the Businesswoman of the Year Awards that she'd won in the Professional Services Category. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Reynolds was recognized for her work at Fresh Legal as founder, family lawyer and mediator. She and her team help clients who are going through marital separation or divorce. She spoke about the valuable support she’s received from the Women’s Business Network and its Businesswoman of the Year Awards.

They’ve become, she said, “another group of women who have played a part in my story, from my mom and my sister to the woman (Sheena Laird) who gave me my first job as a lawyer, and took a chance on me, to my business coach who I met through the WBN,” said Reynolds. “I wouldn’t be here without the support of such incredible women.”

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Businesswoman of the Year Award finalist Jennifer Reynolds, lawyer, mediator and founder of Fresh Legal and winner in the Emerging Entrepreneur Category, is joined outside her home by category sponsor Trevor Kennedy, managing partner of Logan Katz LLP, and Nancy Graham, right, portfolio manager of presenting sponsor PWL Capital. Photo by Caroline Phillips

If anything, the WBN has grown stronger during the pandemic. Its nearly 300 members have turned to each other for support while facing uncertain and challenging economic times.

BYA finalist Tonya Bruin told the organization how she considered calling it quits after having to lay off her entire staff last March. She’s the CEO of To Do Done, a local renovations and handyman service. Her husband reminded her that she was a BYA finalist, as a way of offering her encouragement. Bruin not only bounced back, she also started a side-business in commercial painting and is currently doing better than ever. Being a BYA finalist, she stated, "has meant so much to me."

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Soula Burrell, executive director of the Women's Business Network of the National Capital Region, was part of the small group of organizers and sponsors of the Businesswoman of the Year Awards presenting special gift packages to the 12 finalists at their homes, on Thursday, February 18, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Ottawa lawyer Danny Fernandes was the sponsor of the BYA's Organization Category, won by Carleton University chief advancement officer Jennifer Conley, seen with her husband, Brent Conley, outside their Ottawa home. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Margot Sunter from category sponsor GGFL LLP was on scene to present some gifts to Heather Desjardins, winner of Established Entrepreneur at the Businesswoman of the Year Awards.  Photo by Caroline Phillips
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From left, Nancy Graham from the Businesswoman of the Year Awards' presenting sponsor, PWL Capital, with BYA finalist Anjali Dilawri, who won in the Professional Services Category, and category sponsor, Andrew Phillips, director of business banking at CIBC. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The WBN will start accepting applications for 2021 BYA nominations next month. The gala committee plans to hold a cocktail reception for the finalists in March 2022, followed by an awards gala in May 2022. All the 2019 recipients will be invited to attend and to come on stage to receive their actual award.

The 2019 finalists also included: Meghan Dagenais, president of Restoration Co., Roxanne Whiting, owner and director of Sign Language Interpreting Associates Ottawa Inc., Jennifer Stewart, president and CEO of Syntax Strategic, Karen Brownrigg, founder and CEO of iHR Advisory Services, Sabrina Fitzgerald, regional managing partner of PwC, Jacqueline Belsito, vice-president of philanthropy and community engagement at the CHEO Foundation, and Vanessa Kanu, chief financial officer at TELUS International and the former chief financial officer at Mitel.

Bard is remaining on as gala chair. It's a volunteer leadership role she first agreed to tackle while still a newcomer to Ottawa.

"I'm proud to say that I met a wonderful woman, Soula Burrell, who introduced me to the Women's Business Network. It's given me this wonderful opportunity to rub shoulders, break bread and share wine with some of the most elite of the elite of the National Capital Region.

"I'm very honoured, I'm very proud and I want to say congratulations to all the women – they're all winners."

— caroline@obj.ca