Women, Wine & Wisdom was like having that old friend back in your life that you missed so terribly.
The seventh edition of the event marked the first time the networking dinner and discussion was held in person since 2019. It drew a sold-out crowd of 150 attendees to the National Arts Centre on Thursday for an exceptional evening featuring a diverse group of panelists: Mimi Lam, co-founder and former CEO of Superette, an award-winning chain of cannabis retail stores in Ottawa and Toronto; Sasha Suda, director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada; and Harvard-educated scientist and inventor Sheema Khan, a patent agent at Kinaxis.
Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade (OBoT), welcomed the predominantly female guests as they took their seats in the NAC’s beautiful O’Born Room in downtown Ottawa. “I’m so pleased to be here together with you in real life,” said Ching as the crowd broke into cheers and applause following two pandemic years of countless virtual events.
It seems IRL (In Real Life) is the new buzzword. “I’m starting to see that everywhere,” Ching added lightheartedly.
Women, Wine & Wisdom is one of 25-plus events hosted each year for the local business community by the OBoT and Ottawa Business Journal, together with their business partners. The event's theme was You First.
OBoT board member and moderator Ruby Williams, a partner in the mergers and acquisitions advisory practice at Deloitte Canada, emphasized how important it was that women make themselves heard. “If and whenever you’re hesitant to speak, do it,” she said at the podium. “Your voice will help empower another woman around you.”
She also encouraged women to be “more deliberate” about creating opportunities for each other. “It’s very well known that women are the hardest critics of other women,” she said. “Women have been brought up to believe that there should only be one Queen Bee in the world. That is simply not true. In reality, I can tell you from my own experience it is pretty lonely at the leadership table when you’re the only one voice.”
There were several sightings of male attendees at Women, Wine & Wisdom, including OBJ publisher Michael Curran, Ottawa Tourism president and CEO Michael Crockatt and Colonnade BridgePort CEO Hugh Gorman.
After dinner, the panelists told their audience all about themselves. The room first heard how Lam left her career in investment banking to co-found Superette, with the goal of reducing the stigma surrounding marijuana shops and to make her mark in the industry. “I wanted to bring a community feeling and to bring beauty into cannabis retail,” said Lam, who’s seen a “roller coaster” of change as the number of privately owned cannabis retailers went from 25 stores in Ontario, under the former lottery system, to more than 1,400 stores in what is now an open market. She operated her brick-and-mortar business through the retail challenges of the pandemic.
“As an entrepreneur, you’re learning every single day, you’re making choices every single day, and I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to achieve,” said Lam, who grew up in the suburb of Orléans and is an alumna of Carleton University.
Lam recently made the decision to step away as CEO. “I realized I’ve been neglecting my personal life and my social relationships for many, many years and now it’s my time to come back to what’s important to me, and to not define myself by just one element,” said Lam, who remains a shareholder, board member and “the biggest cheerleader” of the Superette brand.
Suda has been shaking things up at the National Gallery since she took over as leader in 2019, working “to better serve the communities for whom we exist”. Her background includes being the granddaughter of political refugees from former Czechoslovakia, growing up in Toronto’s David Crombie Park mixed-income housing community, and studying art history at Princeton University, where she was also a captain in women's rowing. She got her career start in the art world through an internship at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York City.
She shared a great anecdote about applying for the top job at the National Gallery. Suda, who has her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts in NYC, was working at the Art Gallery of Ontario when she threw her name in there.
“I just figured there’s no way I’m going to get this job. The few people who had encouraged me to apply agreed with that. ‘You should do this. You’ll never get it, but you should do it’. I kind of took that to heart that I had nothing to lose.”
Suda said she went into her interview as her “authentic self” (the glass of wine she had beforehand to calm her nerves probably helped, too). “I sat down and I really spoke from the heart. I talked, honestly, about how I perceived the institution and what it meant to me. At that time, it wasn’t much. Yes, I respected and revered it, but it wasn’t part of my story yet and I wanted it to be part of many other people’s stories.”
Suda said she left the interview focusing on the bright side: at least her wardrobe had gained a new business suit from the experience.
No suspense here: she got the job, but not before first going through extensive reference checks often done with candidates, as well as extreme psychometric testing “where I learned I would also do well in the navy,” Suda told her amused audience.
Khan, who writes regularly in the Globe and Mail on the status of Muslim women in Canada, was born in India but grew up in Montreal. She spoke about her love for chemistry, math and physics in high school.
Khan got her Masters and PhD in physics at Harvard University on full scholarship and, as it turned out, also convinced her female colleagues to take up Canada’s favourite sport. “A teatotalling Canuck from Montreal started intramural hockey at Harvard,” she said with a smile.
Khan referenced two terrorism attacks in Montreal that have stayed with her always. The first was the FLQ Crisis in the fall of 1970, which took place when she was about eight years old. The second incident happened Dec. 6, 1989. That’s when an armed man entered an engineering classroom at the École Polytechnique, deliberately separated the male from the female students, asked the men to leave, and then opened fire on the women. He blamed women and feminism for ruining his life, believing female engineers had taken up space that rightfully belonged to him.
“For me, that was a transformative moment. I will fight for the dignity for each and every woman in this country, no matter who she is, no matter what she studies, no matter what her background. That will be my fight. That will be the hill I die on.”
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