Five UTSC alumnae share the impact of the pandemic on their work, life, and career
The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on women, extending from the personal to the professional and beyond. And, according to research, the effects are staggering.
“The scale of the crisis is unlike anything since the Great Depression,” says Alisha Haridasani Gupta in the New York Times, “And for the first time in decades, this crisis has a predominantly nonwhite, female face.”
In fact, Statistics Canada reported that one-sixth of jobs held by women disappeared between February and March last year. Many more women found their hours cut. And the impact extends far beyond work, with women taking on larger burdens of care at home, as well.
Yet, despite the grim statistics, the pandemic’s impacts haven’t all been negative. From life-changing pivots to intense inspiration and self-reflection, these five alumnae – Carla Crooks, Lynda Kosowan, Naomi Omar-Ali, Jaspreet Sohi and Nivethika Thambithurai – share how they are coping, helping others, and yes, blossoming despite the immense challenges of the time.
Carla Crooks (BA Hons. 1999)
Carla Crooks was hired by the Estée Lauder Companies as a 17-year old, starting in supply chain management, and was later promoted to Global Supply Chain planner for North America. Ten years after her first degree, Crooks decided to head back to the classroom, earning her MBA Graduate degree from Athabasca University in 2013. She continued her career climb at Estée Lauder, where she was promoted to Inventory Lead North America, and is now director, Global Risk Mitigation and Agility Projects.
But Crooks wanted to tap into more of her potential. “I realized the Estée Lauder Companies have 34,000 employees. Estée founded the company 75 years ago, died 17 years ago and yet, every day, her dream is still being fulfilled. When was I going to fulfill my dream?”
So, in October, 2019, the Markham entrepreneur launched a startup company with her mother. The resulting Silk Beauty Care creates one-of-a-kind, Canadian-made luxury silk beauty products, everything from head scarves to pillow cases to masks and bonnets, all from the highest quality charmeuse silk.
“It’s difficult to find good quality silk in Canada,” says Crooks, who launched the company to exceptional fanfare in 2018. Within months, their products were picked up by Walmart. Within their first year, sales had climbed by 1,000 per cent, and Crooks’ products were being mentioned on CTV News and Tracy Moore’s Instagram account.
Then, the pandemic hit. Crooks is no longer able to go to trade shows where she first promoted her products. Those, she says, were vital to meeting customers and making inroads with suppliers and outlets.
The company has pivoted to social media marketing which, Crooks says, is their “most valuable asset.” She launched a series of virtual “fireside chats” with other beauty product entrepreneurs via Instagram. The chats have drawn thousands of viewers, and brought a global market to her front door.
Crooks would like to expand her operations, and knows the company needs to plan for the future. She wants to hire a subcontractor to help her mother meet product demands, for instance. And she can’t wait to get back out to trade shows.
The biggest difficulty, she says, has been her inability to meet with silk suppliers in person. She works hard to ensure her products are ethically sourced, and prefers to see and touch the raw silk samples first hand. Right now, those samples come to her through the mail. Despite the challenges, Crooks maintains her positivity — growing the company while paving the way for made-in-Canada luxury brands.
Lynda Kosowan (BA 1976, MSW 1980)
From Scarborough and Toronto, Lynda Kosowan graduated from Scarborough College in 1976, which she followed with a Master’s in Social Work at St. George Campus. She spent five years with an organization that served young offenders before becoming executive director of the Scarborough Women’s Centre, a role she has held for the past 35 years.
Last year, the Scarborough Women’s Centre worked with 4,000 women. It provides resources and counselling to women who are dealing with a wide range of issues: legal problems, immigration, parenting, abusive partners, or employment issues.
Since last March, the Centre has temporarily shuttered its bricks and mortar location to walk-ins, and launched virtual services, including hosting webinars on secure platforms so participants’ privacy is protected, and providing professional counselling by phone and web conference.
“Things were already bad for a lot of women. This time has just made it more difficult,” Kosowan explains. Gender-based violence is on the rise, and many women are finding themselves in lockdown with abusive partners. “Eleven months in, those coping strategies [women have been using] are fraying.”
Then there is the economic impact, with the economy shedding jobs employing women more quickly than those with men. “Some women who had a nest egg last March don’t have one any longer,” says Kosowan, noting that women who are still employed are more likely to be found in riskier jobs, like grocery store clerks, “where they are more exposed and vulnerable.” Women of colour and immigrant women are more likely to be among these workers – and the consequences for this cohort are often doubled.
The pandemic has created additional barriers for some women, including the “digital divide.” The Centre is working to minimize that barrier. “We’re advocating for phones and laptops and tablets with data for women,” says Kosowan, who works with community partners to help get technology into the hands of women who need it – and the resources to help women use it effectively.
If there are greater challenges associated with this time, Kosowan says she has also observed upsides. “Some women are thriving,” she says, “they are starting businesses – mask making, for instance. They have seen an opportunity and they have taken it.”
The shift to virtual technologies during the pandemic has also led to accelerated progress in one area. “We’re using this time as an opportunity to promote increasing accessibility,” Kosowan says, through a project that enables real-time captioning for the Centre’s online courses and workshops. For those who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, or those not as comfortable in English, the captioning is opening doors.
There has been remarkable efforts by community advocates to work together to solve some of the toughest problems, also. Kosowan is particularly heartened by successful collaborations between the City of Toronto and local groups across the city to help the hardest-hit regions of the GTA.
Naomi Omar-Ali (BA 2000, MEd 2012)
Naomi Omar-Ali is the program manager for learning and quality for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). She leads a team whose role is to enhance the quality of training for adjudicators who preside over immigration and refugee cases. Omar-Ali supports training right across the country, and ensures that the education meets the member learning needs.
“It’s amazing,” Omar-Ali says of her role. “I love that, at the end of the day, it has impact on people’s lives, that it supports those making the decision to help someone have a better life by coming to Canada. It’s a really important role.”
These days, Omar-Ali and her team are stretched. Thirteen members of her fourteen-person team are female. They are now accustomed to being Zoombombed by children doing schoolwork beside their parents.
“Being in a team where people understand your situation has been greatly impactful,” says Omar-Ali. Between her and her husband, the family has six children. Three – twin eight-year old boys and a ten-year old daughter – are being homeschooled. Her husband, an HVAC industry professional, is not always home, so Omar-Ali relies on the support her elderly mother can give.
“My mom is there but she has health issues. I try not to put the burden on her. She moved in so we could help her,” says Omar-Ali.
“Some days it’s a tricky balance,” admits Omar-Ali, who says she’s lucky to be working for the government, which has shown a large degree of sensitivity over the impossible work-life balance.
“There have been days I have needed off, or flexibility with work hours,” she says, where, “I’ll not work for part of the day but will go back at eight or nine o’clock at night.” The younger children still see her as the ‘go-to’ parent (or the home-tech support line), something that she doesn’t see changing.
Omar-Ali wonders about future job security. Through her role, she’s seen first-hand how many have been laid off or displaced due to the pandemic. “It’s very humbling,” says Omar-Ali.
Despite all that, she likes that employers have been forced into recognizing the necessity of work-life balance. “That’s been a bonus for me,” says Omar-Ali, who, pre-pandemic, commuted a total of three hours a day for her job. Now, that job is virtual, giving her more time for her family life. And while she expects that she and her learners will be headed back to the classroom at some point, she thinks that the shift in expectations may be permanent.
Sometimes, though, the boundaries between life and work-from-home are frayed. “When you’re working from home during COVID, even though commute time has gone, the day doesn’t stop until you hit the pillow. The computer is in the bedroom – the only door in the house with a lock other than the bathroom. You’re constantly thinking about work.”
Her job has changed, too. IRB hearings have moved online, impacting how Omar-Ali and her team support member education, and the shift can impact the outcome of those hearings. “As an example, a big part of the [refugee] case is showing up and expressing why you’re a refugee,” says Omar-Ali. But online, that ability to express oneself is deeply impacted. For others, accessing technology and getting online is a barrier. Those conducting the hearings also face technological challenges. The online learning curve has been a steep one to help member adjudicators navigate.
When she’s at the end of her rope and needs a break, Omar-Ali admits she hesitates to take that emergency COVID day-off she needs. “I feel an extra guilt because people are in far worse situations than me,” she says.
Jaspreet (Jessie) Sohi (BA Hons. 2000)
By the time Jessie Sohi completed her Bachelor’s degree in the Management Co-op program at UTSC, she had a full-time job offer from one of her placement companies, IBM.
“The earning opportunities [in tech sales] are endless. This career path is rewarding if you are creative – creativity breeds innovation, and innovation is the key to success,” says Sohi, who was often the only woman on the team. She worked for Oracle and Dell, but later joined Salesforce. As an account executive, she often travelled to the U.S. and across Canada, closing millions of dollars of business.
After building a much-admired cart prop for her daughter’s birthday party, she launched Soho Sweet Carts. It wasn’t long before JLo (yes, THAT JLo) was vlogging her love of Soho Sweet Carts during TIFF.
The pandemic has all but decimated the events industry, from wedding planners to photographers to prop rental companies. And there has been an additional moral weight to marketing celebrations during a pandemic, too. “Although my business relies on celebrations, I simply cannot promote behaviours that put people’s health at risk,” says the dynamic entrepreneur.
She pivoted the business, positioning her sweet carts as the perfect outdoor, all-weather ‘drive-by’ party prop. During the lockdown she also closed up her rental storage space, stocking her fleet of carts in her basement to save money.
The pandemic gave Sohi time to perfect her social media marketing skills. The carts “photograph beautifully,” says Sohi, who has over 20,000 followers (and climbing) on Instagram. That social media success has kept her business afloat during the pandemic, a shift that Sohi calls “profound,” and has allowed her to spotlight other local vendors who don’t have the same kind of presence.
“People are spending more time on the internet,” Sohi explains. “They find us on blogs, online magazine publications and on various social networks,” she adds. Inundated with queries, Sohi has bookings through October, 2022.
She has also been helping other “momtrepreneurs” develop their own sweet cart businesses. She began holding online classes, especially for women outside the GTA, and even in the U.S., who couldn’t access her services.
“It’s amazing that I can help change the trajectory for women who are in search of something new. Imparting my knowledge and advice builds confidence and pushes my students to succeed, which is indescribably fulfilling,” says Sohi.
And while her business may have momentarily slowed, Sohi is taking time for reflection: “The pandemic has enabled me to deeply contemplate the direction of my business. How do I direct my time and energy to make a meaningful difference? How do I run my business with maximum heart, soul and substance?”
Once the pandemic eases, Sohi foresees a time when all those stalled and postponed celebrations – weddings, milestone birthday parties, bridal and baby showers – will finally be held. “These events are going to epic because people will be eager to celebrate,” says Sohi. “We’re armed and ready for them.”
Nivethika (Nive) Thambithurai (BA Hons. 2010)
“Our creative team is primarily in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as in Central and South America,” says Nive Thambithurai, director of communications for startup company Kimp.io. “Part of my job involved travelling. Every few months I would be in India for a span of three to four months, and then I’d be back in Toronto.”
The global aspect of the job is part of what attracted her to the position. Growing up in Scarborough and finishing her BA in English at UTSC, Thambithurai wanted to see the world. She taught English in China as part of her UTSC coop program experience, and leaned into a career opportunity that could give her that kind of global perspective.
But the role that once gave her an incredible degree of global mobility is now fixed in her parent’s Scarborough home.
Through the pandemic, Kimp.io has been able to expand its graphic and video design subscription services, restructuring to accommodate an at-home workforce located across three continents. Clients can submit requests digitally while the team is scattered across the globe.
Thambithurai now negotiates meetings with team members in a variety of time zones. That affects her ability to put firm boundaries on her working day. “There hasn’t been any fear around job security, thankfully,” she says, “just anxiety around how to juggle the new norms, and support team members through them, as well.”
Like almost everyone else these days, Thambithurai is reinventing her position on the fly. That has intensified a sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ for her – experienced by many high-performing women in the workforce. (In fact, according to this article on Big Think, up to 75 per cent of women executives experience this phenomenon, with higher levels reported among women of colour).
Thambithurai has been using this difficult time to check in with herself about what is most important to her: mental health; work-life balance; and what she needs from her career, including co-working spaces that allows her to bounce ideas off of other creatively-minded professionals. Though lockdowns have made accessing the latter difficult, she’s also reaching out to past mentors – particularly women in leadership roles – and using them as important sounding boards for her goals.
“Even though a lot has changed, I realized I’ve been looking at my own goals or aspirations through a pre-pandemic lens. That’s had to shift, especially when burnout has come into play,” says Thambithurai.
She’s using this time to reorient herself in positive directions. “If the pandemic hadn’t pushed me to the limits, I wouldn’t have had this internal dialogue. It’s making me ask for help more often, and celebrate each step I’m taking because, even if I can’t quite see it yet, it is eventually going to lead to something bigger.”
Image: (from left to right) Carla Crooks, Lynda Kosowan, Naomi Omar-Ali, Jessie Sohi, Nive Thambithurai