International Women’s Forum

Canadian members of the International Women’s Forum celebrated when headquarters announced Toronto would host the 2019 Global conference. An opportunity to welcome over 1500 female leaders and influencers from around the world and offer them a taste of Canadian culture and hospitality. It was like winning an Olympic bid….which comes with a price tag…the obligation to raise US$650,000. Reality set in when each Canadian chapter was asked to raise $60,000, inconceivable in the province of Alberta, where the economy had been shattered by oil prices and an economic downturn.  With a bit of imagination and our finger on the pulse of our community, we raised triple the target while introducing an Indigenous component to the programming, leveraging the conference’s theme “Open Minds”. 


Eighteen months before the global conference, at an Executive Committee meeting of the Calgary chapter, the touchy topic came up. We need to raise $60,000 for this conference. Being the only one at the table who had any experience in fundraising, I was voluntold to be part of a committee of three to come up with a strategy. Phone calls ensued as we grappled with our options. The conversations went something like this:

“Our economy has tanked. The energy sector is on fumes. Maybe we try the diversity angle? Women in leadership is a priority – but who is going to sponsor a conference of elite women taking place in Toronto? It’s going to be hard to make the link.”

“What if we go for twelve sponsorships at $5,000 each? And maybe see if headquarters will create a $2500 level? Do we have enough members who can pull that lever in their companies?”

“That’s so much work…”

Enter Kara Flynn

Later that month, I happened to be the Calgary member, by default, on one of the national sponsorship committee calls. Every chapter was struggling. And Alberta had historically and consistently out-raised almost every other province. The pressure was on. My colleague Kara Flynn from Edmonton, Alberta, whom I had never met, but knew of as the VP of Government Relations at Syncrude, mentioned en passant that she would be in Calgary later that week. I said little in that meeting other than to ask her if she might be interested in having a visit while in my town. No idea what propelled me to do that at that moment but I followed my instincts. It was there that we hatched our “big idea”.

Kara’s background is a collage of accolades in the corporate and non-profit sector. She is a pro at raising money and giving it away. But where we connected was around her childhood. I was sharing with her my work with Indigenous people and her eyes lit up as she reminisced about growing up with First Nations children as a result of her father’s work. I don’ recall how we got there but one of us leapt onto the idea that each Conference sponsorship included two delegate registrations, or three, depending on the sponsorship level. We both knew that every energy company in Alberta was focused on “indigenization”. They were in part responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report and Calls to Action. They were also intent on building relationships with Indigenous tribes and Band Councils that had were impacted by their projects. From the perspective of IWF, we had a long way to go to diversify our membership, particularly with the “I” in BIPOC.

What if

What if….we asked our colleagues in the energy and mining sector to consider a sponsorship  and consider dedicating one of the delegate spots to an Indigenous female leader or influencer? It could be an employee, a woman from a band they were working with, or someone they would like to recognize. She would in turn meet women from around the world, take part in all the conference activities, and be profiled at a breakfast the Calgary Chapter was planning to host.

Over our second glass, Kara confirmed Syncrude’s support, made two calls to industry colleagues and we reached our target. Over the next eight weeks, we raised another $120,000,  guaranteeing a strong presence of Indigenous female leaders and influencers from across Canada. How could we make their experience memorable and leverage their presence to advance the greater project of reconciliation and open the minds and hearts of our colleagues here in Canada and around the world?

The original idea had been to host a full-on Calgary Stampede style western breakfast, complete with hay bales, country music, cowboy hats and flapjacks – celebrate the spirit of the City and profile the Greatest Outdoor Western Show on Earth. Giddy-up! Informal conversations had taken place and by then my colleague and friend Mary Rozsa was on board to help strategize the Calgary Stampede’s contribution to the international conference. Over the years, she and I had worked on numerous campaigns to bring awareness to the arts as a necessary part of our culture and a public good. Again, over a drink, we asked ourselves: Is this really the image of Calgary we want to portray? 

(For Part 2 of this article, go HERE)


Photos from the Event

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