As part of my application to the International Women’s Forum for the 2011/12 Fellowship I was asked to answer a number of key questions. In many respects, the questions are valuable to anyone, because they ignite an inward reflection that is priceless. For me, although a short description, it triggered the start of a personal journal and launched my own journey to find my voice and know myself even better. I was awarded the Fellowship and it has become a life changing experience for me.
What and/or who have been the most significant influences on who you are today – personally and as a leader?
Who I am as a person, is the result of a breadth of experiences and relationships, but none more influential than my grandmother. Born Cynthia Eulalie Hing King, in 1911, she was the eldest of six and the mother to five, grandmother of nineteen and great-grandmother of thirteen by the time that she passed away six years ago at age 94. She was third generation Chinese born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and technically a visible minority before the term was even invented. My grandmother was raised to be proud, proper and elegant. The early death of her own mother pushed her into the maternal leadership role early on. She oversaw family celebrations, gatherings and ran every event like a military operation. No detail left unaddressed.
She was the pinnacle of “grace in adversity”. My grandmother always practiced that anything done should be done beautifully. She was the cross pollenization of British colonialism and island creativity. She placed the highest value on the family compact. She always put her children’s and grandchildren’s needs above her own. She made each one of her grandchildren feel special and we each silently competed for her love and attention.
I found out much later, in my late teens, that she had secretly eloped with my grandfather, because the family did not approve of the match. I found it so ironic that despite being rejected by her family for her choices, she continued to value the importance of family. As the eldest she always saw herself as responsible for the integrity of the family name. Second only to the family unit, my grandparents instilled in me as the eldest, the power of hard work and an education, even though neither were educated beyond high school. My grandmother equated higher learning as a stepping stone to success.
Everyday I try to exemplify her amazing ability to embrace that which she did not know, those who had turned away from her and all with such style. I strive to always be open to the unknown, to imagine the impossible, to value long standing institutions and to work like a beast because nothing good was gained without hard work. Together these values and strengths have been a strong compass for me. It is what continues to push me beyond what is comfortable and to be curious about things I know nothing about.
When my grandmother passed away, the world she left was dramatically different from the one she entered. She had witnessed so much change, but she was able to grow with the times without losing her own inherent values.
How I do my work was influenced at a significant turning point early in my career by a woman who was to go on to be a very important mentor for me – before I truly understood what it meant to have mentor, or that it was even important for me to have one. I had taken, what was supposed to be a brief pause, from my nascent career as a practicing architect, with some temporary work at the City of Toronto in the early 90’s. It was here that I met Susan Richardson, at that time the Director responsible for the City’s 1996 Olympic Bid and parks planner. Susan was an experienced city planner, and an apt navigator of the municipal decision-making process having started her career as the executive assistant to city alderman John Sewell, a civic reformer. I went on to work at the city for four years.
Susan was a patient mentor and I credit my own strong writing and editing capacity to her teachings. I was a weak writer then. Susan exposed me to her strategic thinking process through her numerous edits of my early clumsy writings. She was always able to craft a council or committee resolution that could power dramatic change in disarming language.
Susan gathered together young, passionate talent to deliver results. Having the best and brightest minds working collaboratively to solve difficult problems was a foundation for her success.
Having worked in a municipal constituency office she understood the importance of grassroots support to lever decisions. She taught me the essential importance of good process, civic engagement and the value in having champions and other voices making your case.
As a city builder, working behind the scenes, Susan was a leader. She foresaw the importance of establishing a large and connected network of public parks and open spaces at a time when others were mostly focused on more private development. Her vision and determination were inspirational to me. Susan built a team of advocates for public parks and open space that changed the urban landscape one park at a time. She remained an unsung hero putting city building ahead of any recognition. I continue to strive to emulate her qualities: seeking to be a source of inspiration for others; always taking the long view; and searching out creative minds to collaborate with.
Leslie Woo is the Vice President, Policy, Planning and Innovation at Metrolinx the regional transportation authority for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. An architect and planner, active board member with the YMCA – GTA and a single mother of two gorgeous young adults, Laurin and Evan.