Progress is slow but women making headway


Seven years ago, Kay Blair stood alone as the only African-Canadian and Caribbean-born woman among the Women’s Executive Network’s (WXN) Top 100 Canada’s Most Powerful Women list.

While overwhelmed by the honour, she felt lonely. Blair had company earlier this month when she was again named to the prestigious list that included Guyanese-born entrepreneur, Gloria Rajkumar.

“The progress is slow, but it’s encouraging to see the representation of Caribbean-born women grow to two,” said Blair, who migrated from Jamaica in 1976 and is pursuing her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at the University of Toronto. “One of the things we have to do is find ways to localize the information within our community and begin to identify and put forward deserving candidates for these honours. That’s something I am going to be doing.”

The WXN launched Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Awards nine years ago to honour the unique contributions women make to the world of business, science, law, the non-profit sector and academia.

“Every leader is an individual but, in general, I have observed that female leaders are flexible, connected, intuitive, great delegators and the chief executive officers of everything,” said WXN founder, Pamela Jeffrey.

“Despite these unique leadership attributes, many women in corporate Canada still feel they have to fit into the dominant male business culture, suppressing their soft skills or emotional intelligence. This doesn’t make sense to me. Is clinging to old norms ever good for business? If we want organizations to change, we have to be ourselves in order to help change them. Business success is driven by partnerships, collaborations and new ways of approaching problems. The time for women to lead is now.”

Blair has made a profound impact on the community in the last two decades and her dynamic leadership and entrepreneurial and innovative acumen are making a lasting impression in the Greater Toronto Area.

When she assumed the role of executive director of the Community MicroSkills Development Centre in 1988, the organization – which at the time served primarily immigrant women – operated out of a small space with just four employees, two desks, four computers and an annual budget of about $400,000.

The organization now employs 120 full-time staff and serves approximately 29,000 immigrants, low-income women and youth annually from seven locations in the city with a budget of nearly $11 million.

Last June, Blair was named chair of the William Osler Health System’s board of directors.

The tireless advocate has been recognized with many awards, including the 2006 YWCA Women of Distinction Award for Community Leadership; the 2007 Premier’s Award and the 2011 Jamaica Canadian Association Outstanding Achievement Award.

The seventh of eighth children, Rajkumar used her on-the-job experience and the skills she picked up in an 18-year insurance industry career along with her $26,000 life savings to launch Superior Independent Medical Assessment Centres (SIMAC) 10 years ago. The company provides the insurance industry, employers and legal representatives with credible, unbiased and evidence-based independent medical and assessment reports.

The company has grown from one employee – her niece – to a 22-member, full-time staff operating in three locations and offering access to a network of close to 450 certified practicing physicians and licensed health-care professionals.

At a time when many businesses are struggling during the global economic downturn, SIMAC is thriving. The company netted $11.8 million in the last fiscal year.

Earlier this month, the single mother of a teenage son became the first Caribbean national to win an RBC Woman Entrepreneur Award since the program started in 1992.

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