Ottawa communication experts Sally J M Douglas and Elizabeth Gray-Smith first met 15 years ago as neighbours, living and raising their children on the same street in the small and quaint district of New Edinburgh.
Not only did the women become close friends, supporting one another during life’s ups and downs, but they worked together, both in the community and professionally. Most notably, Gray-Smith was hired as a columnist at iPolitics by Douglas, when she was deputy publisher of the online political news publication.
The women, appreciating how well they gelled, turned their minds to possibly starting their own communications consultancy. The subject was top of mind during a trip they took together in mid-2019 to visit Douglas’s homeland of Scotland.
“We had the most amazing trip and, honestly, drove up and down the country lanes of Scotland dreaming of what our business might look like if we could pull it together,” said Douglas. “I think that was a turning point for us both, that we began to realize we could actually do this thing.”
Added Gray-Smith: “In every town and destination we stopped at we would meet up with someone from either Sally’s friends or family. Our dinner conversation would quickly be overtaken by our plans for this new business.”
By the end of their trip, joked Gray-Smith, “We made a commitment to everyone in Scotland that we were going to do it.”
Their big ideas could have deflated like a leaky bagpipe upon their return to Canadian soil but, instead, the women continued to strategize. The coronavirus pandemic brought new changes and challenges, further spurring them to move forward with their business plan.
Gray-Smith and Douglas have just launched GSD & Co. They offer internal communication strategies, such as media training or team audits, as well as external communications, such as government or public relations. Their target clientele are national associations with headquarters in Ottawa as well as small- to medium-sized businesses.
The acronym GSD not only stands for the co-founders’ combined surnames but also for "Get Shit Done."
“For us, it’s about cutting away all the pomp and ceremony and helping clients in a pragmatic way, with great, solid solutions,” said Douglas. “It’s about bringing our own experience to the table and tapping into all the networks that we’ve built in the community over the years. Honestly, it’s also about having a lot of fun while we’re doing it.”
GSD & Co. is working with clients who understand the gig economy, whereby organizations hire independent service providers to complete projects in a timely and cost-effective manner.
"You don’t need to be big to bring success. We’ve always just believed you need the right people."
“What we’ve done is we’ve removed the overhead, obliterated hierarchy and we’ve stripped down anything that isn’t necessary to get the job done,” said Gray-Smith. “You don’t need to be big to bring success. We’ve always just believed you need the right people.”
They are recruiting the talent to build teams of copywriters, graphic designers, social media experts and web designers.
“We know it takes a village to make shit happen and that’s what we’re all about,” said Douglas.
Gray-Smith said being a “gigger” appeals to her role as a mother of two children, ages 12 and 10. The hours are flexible and the work can often be done from home.
Make no mistake, these women are no shrinking violets. They’re communication powerhouses, each with their own rich tapestry of experience and skills. They also bring to their business a well-developed network of contacts and connections.
Gray-Smith sits on the board of RBC Bluesfest and co-chairs the Politics and Pen literary gala in support of The Writers’ Trust of Canada. She grew up surrounded by political figures. Her father, the late Herb Gray, was a former deputy prime minister. He was also Canada’s first Jewish federal cabinet minister and one of our country’s longest-serving members of Parliament. Her mother, Sharon Sholzberg-Gray, is well-respected as a lawyer and health policy advocate who led multiple national non-profit associations in the health and social policy sectors.
Douglas considers her extensive volunteer work as her way of giving back to Canada, a country that’s given her so much, including a health-care system that saved her husband’s life with a double-lung transplant in 2015. The mother of two is chair of the board at the Bruyère Research Institute, past board chair of the WCT (Women in Communications and Technology) NCR, and a director with the Ottawa Board of Trade. She also belongs to the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.
GSD & Co. is the women’s first foray into business but both feel they’re problem-solving, creative-thinking entrepreneurs at heart. Douglas’s late father, who owned a fleet of trucks back in Scotland, taught her about the value of community and of working with people, not against them.
“I have carried that with me everywhere I have gone,” she says.
For now, the women are working remotely and, being the social butterflies that they are, look forward to a return to face-to-face contact.
“We’re both absolutely chomping at the bit for the day when we can meet with clients in person,” said Douglas.
The proud Scot is also waiting for when she can safely visit her native country once again. It’s been almost 17 years since she immigrated here.
“I am counting the days until I can get a ticket and go back and see my hills.”
It looks like Douglas will be bringing along more from Canada than token gifts of maple syrup. Gray-Smith will be going, as well. She has follow-up work to do in Scotland.
“We have to go see every single person and tell them that we’ve done it, that we really got shit done.”