Former governor general Michaëlle Jean immediately picked up on the enthusiasm and energy in the room as she arrived Monday night to deliver the keynote speech at the 22nd Annual ELLE Gala, organized by The Entrepreneurs’ Club of the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.
It was the largest turnout yet for the event, with more than 200 attendees at the Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen & Bar in the ByWard Market. The lively chatter and laughter made for a pretty noisy environment.
“It was so loud that I panicked,” the Canadian stateswoman said light-heartedly as she described her first reaction upon arriving. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I have to speak to this crowd!’ ”
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Yet, everyone hushed up to listen when it came time for Jean to deliver her remarks and, afterward, many waited patiently for the chance to meet the former chancellor for the University of Ottawa. Jean’s distinguished resumé also includes working with the United Nations as a special envoy to Haiti and serving as the former secretary general of La Francophonie, a group of governments that share French as a common language.
The ELLE (Excellence in Leadership, Legacy in Entrepreneurship) Gala is about recognizing the work of women entrepreneurs and leaders who are fighting to break the glass ceiling. Students got an opportunity that night to meet with 11 Ottawa female mentors from a variety of professional backgrounds.
Representing The Entrepreneurs’ Club were its president, Priya Aduvala, and ELLE Gala project manager, Rosalie Lévesque-Giguère, both of whom are fourth-year students in the Telfer School of Management program.
Attendees included Telfer’s dean, François Julien, and vice-dean, Julie Beauchamp, as well as Stephen Daze, the Dom Herrick Entrepreneur in Residence.
The ELLE Gala had Accenture on its side as the presenting sponsor, along with the backing of the Telfer School of Management, CLV Group and InterRent REIT, CéTSC and Linebox Studio.
Jean touched on the history of female entrepreneurs, whose roots stretch back to brewing beer in ancient times. She focused on the unique success story of African-American entrepreneur C.J. Walker, who made a fortune selling a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women in the early 20th Century. Walker became the wealthiest self-made woman in America at the time – predating Oprah by 100 years, she noted.
In less-developed countries, as much as 40- to 50-percent of small businesses are owned by women, said Jean. “They carry on their shoulders the economy of their country.”
She recalled how her own grandmother, a widow, worked endless hours on her sewing machine in order to raise her five children and send them to school.
Jean — who is a warm and engaging bilingual speaker — was there that night having just returned from her birth country of Haiti, where she’s been helping cocoa farmers. She shared with the room inspiring stories and wisdom from her time there.
Jean tackled the subject of stalled gender parity. So few women hold the positions of CEOs and top executive in Canada. Even when they do, they’re earning less money than their male counterparts, she said while citing statistics from a recent study released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
It’s difficult for women to be seen and recognized as entrepreneurs, she emphasized.
“Girls, have you ever expressed an idea quite clearly in a group, only to see it fall flat with no reaction?” she asked the women in the crowd. “Then, a man says exactly the same thing and he gets instant approval and kudos. Have you experienced that? I have, I have.”
But, Jean also reached out to the men in the room, asking them to be their allies.
“We need you to stand with us,” said Jean. “When you see mostly men in a boardroom, we need you to ask the question: Why are there so few women in here? We want you to do that. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t say, ‘Oh, well, it’s normal’. No. Ask the question. It’s a deficit when you don’t have women in the room. It’s a deficit of participation, of energy, of perspectives, of ideas.”