Just as a woman gets better with age, so do the BYAs.
This year's Businesswoman of the Year Awards, hosted by the Women's Business Network, enjoyed a sold-out night Thursday as it drew a record-breaking crowd of 450 women and men to the Infinity Convention Centre to celebrate the career accomplishments and achievements of this year's 12 female finalists.
The presenting sponsor was wealth management boutique PWL Capital, represented by portfolio manager Nancy Graham.
The glitzy dinner was emceed by the strong and sassy Sandra Plagakis and Robbin Reay from Kiss FM. The evening was capped off with the presentation of awards to four of the finalists in their respective categories.
Ottawa chiropractor and gala committee chair Nicole Fournier and gala vice-chair Heidi Duchesne, commercial account manager at RBC, were tasked with tearing open the sealed envelopes on stage and announcing the winners. Without fail, there was an eruption of cheers and female-empowerment music as each recipient made her way up to the stage to graciously collect her award.
In their acceptance speeches, the women sincerely thanked everyone — from their husbands, parents, children, friends, colleagues and staff — for their support along the way.
“I grew up in a household where I was told I could be anything,” said Jennifer MacKinnon, founder and CEO of web technology company Fenix Solutions, in acknowledging her parents’ support.
MacKinnon was particularly pleased to accept her Established Entrepreneur award in person. The last time she won a similar honour — a Forty Under 40 — she had to miss the ceremony because she was giving birth to her first child. “So, I’m so happy that I’m here to receive the award,” she added, enthusiastically.
Professional Category award recipient Katherine Cooligan spoke of how becoming a family law lawyer has allowed her to make a difference in people’s lives. More recently, she’s also taken on a senior leadership role as regional managing partner of the Ottawa office of Borden Ladner Gervais, the country’s largest national law firm. Through that role, she’s discovered another professional passion: unleashing the full potential of women in leadership.
“It’s to use the platform that I have as a woman leader to encourage, champion and support women to find the courage to pursue leadership positions until we talk about leadership without gender attribution and until women have the same opportunities as men in their careers,” said Cooligan.
She dedicated her award to her late father — Milton Cooligan — who passed away two months ago. He had taught Cooligan about work ethic, integrity and wanting to help others, the room heard. “He always believed in me and encouraged me to believe in myself."
The award recipients expressed their admiration for the other finalists, all of whom were looking their glamorous best that night. “I’m so thrilled to be on this journey with all of you,” said Amy Friesen, owner of Tea & Toast Inc., after collecting her award for Emerging Entrepreneur. "You’re all wonderful and it’s been such a pleasure to get to know everybody.”
Friesen launched her company in 2014 to offer retirement living advice to seniors overwhelmed by the variety of options, services and fees.
“Someone once said that the greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say that you can’t do,” said Friesen. “When I pitched this idea, Tea & Toast, to some of my colleagues I was banking purely on my reputation and my experience.”
Many thought the company would fail, said Friesen. “In fact, years later, a colleague said to me, ‘I wasn’t sure that you could pull this off but I’m really happy you did’.”
Christina Hlusko, president and CEO of CAA North & East Ontario, was the winner in the Organization Category. “Wow,” she said in total surprise after accepting her award. “I didn’t expect it and it’s the most wonderful thing.
“No matter what happened this evening, I knew it was going to be amazing. I have family. I have friends. I have colleagues. I have suppliers. I have partners. Who could ask for anything more?”
The remaining finalists in the Organization Category were: Christyn Cianfarani, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, and seasoned tech executive Amy MacLeod from Mitel.
Stayci Keetch, CEO and creative director of On Brand by Stayci Keetch, was also a finalist in the Emerging Entrepreneur Category, as was Jennifer McGahan, owner of Jennifer McGahan Interiors.
The Professional Category included Lynn Ferron, principal practice leader and registered interior designer at HOK Inc., and cannabis lawyer Trina Fraser, a partner at Brazeau Seller Law.
Pierrette Raymond, owner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK and executive coach of Moving Forward Matters, was a finalist in the Established Entrepreneur Category, as was Allyson Chisnall, CFO of Mediastyle Inc.
The Women's Business Network started in 1981, when 20 women came together to create the volunteer-based organization. In order to be a member at that time, a woman had to risk her own money for her business. In the ’80s, most banks required business loans to female entrepreneurs to be co-signed by their husbands.
The original members wanted to share their challenges and successes with each other, with the hopes of learning from and helping others around the table. WBN filled a void in Ottawa during a time when opportunities for women to discuss the challenges of starting or growing a business were few and far between. Among the founders in attendance that night was Marion Balla, president of Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group. She's also a former award recipient.