Katherine Cooligan, regional managing partner of Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG), was celebrated Tuesday night for inspiring, mentoring and encouraging other women to rise to positions of leadership in their workplace and community, during United Way Ottawa’s 3rd Annual spark Ignite award ceremony.
The event was held in Westboro at Gezellig, one of three Ottawa restaurants owned by Stephen Beckta. He and a few other men — including some from BLG — got to experience that night what it’s like to be the minority gender in the room.
“I want to give a shout-out to my male colleagues who are here, at a woman-dominated event. Welcome to our world,” joked Cooligan, who is the first woman and the first family law lawyer to hold her senior leadership position in the Ottawa office of Canada’s largest law firm.
Spark is an all-women’s initiative facilitated by United Way Ottawa. It brings women together to empower other women, specifically those living with their families in vulnerable neighbourhoods in our city. The group hands out Community Action Grants of up to $3,000 for resident-led projects, whether it’s improving access to healthy food, increasing community safety, providing support for job training, new business skills or social enterprises, or helping to reduce social isolation.
Since 2014, spark has raised and invested $150,000-plus in more than 50 grassroots initiatives, with 10 more projects to be voted on in the next week. Success stories include the launch of community gardens, women's leadership workshops and cooking classes.
On hand for the award ceremony were Carole Gagnon, vice president of resource development with United Way Ottawa, and award presenter Nancy Cook Johnson, a lawyer with Mann Lawyers and the 2017 spark Ignite Award recipient.
The room also heard from spark chair and co-founder Joan Highet, vice president of marketing services at Design 1st. She expressed her deep admiration for Cooligan and her “leadership, focus and perseverance”.
In a profession dominated by male leadership, Cooligan has made it her goal to inspire female lawyers to stick around for the long haul. “We know, in the legal professional, young women don’t stay as they progress through their personal lives,” she said. “It’s such a tragedy, from my perspective.
“I stayed and I pursued [a career], and I want other women to do the same thing. I want us to be in a place where we don’t talk about women in leadership as a unique thing."
Cooligan spoke appreciatively about the support she’s received from BLG, including from its male partners, and of the extensive philanthropic work that the law firm is doing in the community.
While her career as a family law lawyer remains her greatest passion, the room also heard about her personal attachment to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). She is on the board of the CHEO Foundation, for her second time, and volunteers at its telethons every year with her three children.
Cooligan’s involvement with CHEO began after her first child, Jade, was born with spina bifida occulta. The birth defect, which affected the baby's spine, required medical care from the health professionals at CHEO.
CHEO didn’t have a MRI machine at that time and her child had to be transferred to the nearby General for her scans. Cooligan didn’t want other families to have to experience what her family did, so she joined the CHEO Foundation board in 1997 to help raise funds for a MRI. The young lawyer had been eight months' pregnant with her second child.
That child, Justin, was born with multiple heart defects. He remained in CHEO’s neonatal intensive care unit before passing away there, at age five months. “The care that we got was second to none,” said Cooligan, who continues to keep in touch with the social workers and nurses who were part of her family’s care team 21 years ago.
“I went to that foundation board wanting to be part of the fundraising, not expecting that, three weeks later, I would be there receiving the benefit. I think the importance of that is: we can all walk around and believe that we’re immune from some of the struggles that we see around us but here I am; I thought I had everything, and look what happened to me.”
Cooligan spoke about the importance of giving back to the community, and of the priceless return that one gets from helping a worthy cause. “Every time I do something for CHEO I’m honouring my son’s memory and I’m honouring all of the people who cared for us and for him while he was there."
Spotted in the crowd was spark's inaugural award recipient, Manjit Basi, co-founder of Synapcity, along with such businesswomen as Tag HR president and CEO Seema Aurora, McMillan Vantage Policy Group managing director Robyn Osgood; The Urban Element's CEO, Carley Schelck, Elizabeth Kilvert, owner of The Unrefined Olive, and BLG lawyer Jane Bachynski. She got a special mention by Cooligan, along with Highet. Attendees also included Valerie Newton and Jenny Black, who've just launched a new business, Elle Seven Inc. Interiors and Events.